Clarissa Explains It All: Adam Smith and the Eighteenth-Century Novel in Letters

essay arts & culture propriety theory of moral sentiments impartial spectator epistolary novels

Shannon Chamberlain for AdamSmithWorks

December 4, 2019
About halfway through his discussion in The Theory of Moral Sentiments about the obligations that parents and children owe each other, Adam Smith makes an astonishing claim: 
The poets and romance writers, who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship, and of all other private and domestic affections, Racine and Voltaire; Richardson, Marivaux, and Riccoboni are…much better instructors than Zeno, Chryssipus, or Epictetus. [TMS III.3.15]

Or at least it would have seemed astonishing in his own time. As residents of the twenty-first century, we’ve grown used to the argument that literature is good for us. The merits of reading “serious books” are often contrasted with, for instance, the less morally edifying YouTube cat riding the Roomba video, or a round of CandyCrush, or any of the variety of other things that we do on our phones while waiting for doctor’s appointments or standing in the checkout line at the supermarket. A whole host of academics have recently turned their attention to what reading fiction does for our ethical frameworks and our cognitive faculties, and they find nothing but positive benefits.

But in Smith’s day—as you can tell by the number of defenses offered on their behalf—this connection between morality and literature, and novels in particular, wasn’t fully fledged. Ironically, Racine and Voltaire would have been the less controversial figures to mention in the same breath as the moral sentiments: Voltaire, despite his deism and general Frenchness, was regarded even in the eighteenth-century United Kingdom as a serious philosopher. It was instead the mention of Samuel Richardson (author of Clarissa and Pamela), Pierre de Marivaux (La Vie de Marianne), and Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (Fanni Butlerd) that might have raised the eyebrows of at least a few of his readers.

All three were writers in the epistolary form, or the novel in letters. And all three advanced and effectively defended the view that young women writing letters to each other could provide a moral education as deep and profound as any available in a standard book of philosophy written by important and well-known men—and perhaps, as Smith contends, an even better and more immediately useful one. 

The history of the epistolary novel in Smith’s century provides some insight into why he was inclined to include them in his ethical curriculum, despite potential objections. These novels were born around the middle of the eighteenth century—just before Smith delivered his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres—when several different genres collided and combined. The first genre was what Smith refers to in the LRBL as the “Wild and extravagant Romances which were the first performances of our ancestors in Europe,” which  were followed by “Novells which unfold the tender emotions or more violent passions in the characters they bring before us.”  [LRBL XX.ii.61] These are the kinds of texts that Don Quixote reads and tries unsuccessfully to emulate in his own (early) modern times, full of coincidences, abandoned aristocratic children, and adventure. At the beginning of the century, novelists like Aphra Behn and even Daniel Defoe tried to adapt parts of these novels to their own era. Around the same time, les chroniques et les nouvelles scandaleuses—stories of thinly disguised society figures told in letters—also became immensely popular with a newly majority literate public. But the letter form, as a result, became somewhat associated in the public imagination with moral reprobates and sexual libertines, using persuasive rhetoric to bad ends.

It was Richardson who played the most visible role in transforming their reputation. He began his career as a printer of another very popular eighteenth-century genre: the letter writing manual. These perennially bestselling volumes provided an abundance of different kinds of model letters that readers might adapt to their own circumstances. They were specifically targeted at the God-fearing middle and lower middle class, who were entering the professions and leaving their families behind in the country, necessitating a greater ability to write well. Readers might find models for how to write to an old friend requesting that he take on a child as an apprentice, or from a young woman entering service in a grand house writing to assure her mother that she had arrived safely and was behaving prudently in her new position. Letter writers and recipients often recurred over the course of the sample letters as they advanced through their lives and encountered new and noteworthy subjects to write home about. Readers were not expected to simply copy these letters, but to adapt their favorite parts for their own situations.

Richardson initially set out to write one of these manuals, but what flowed from his printer’s press instead was Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded. He borrows a storyline common to the letter writing manual—the young woman placed in service penning pious letters home—and added a master of the house intent on seducing her. The plot was so popular that it became a cliché, and in the midst of reading prose that can appear a distinct shade of purple to modern eyes, it’s easy to forget that this would have been a real situation of moral terror for a sixteen-year-old girl who had seen little of the world and whose religion and upbringing placed an absurdly high value on her sexual continence, or at least the appearance of it. As a cackling Mr B is quick to assure her, he’ll be perfectly happy to ruin her reputation if she doesn’t give into him, so unless her relatively powerless parents find a way to come and rescue her, she really has no choice but to give into him.

Except for one other: get him to relent, and marry her. This she does, and the happy ending comes about because Mr B—thinking to intercept her letters to make sure that they never reach her parents or anyone else who might spirit her off—reads them, and falls in love. Or at least in sympathy, acknowledging that the servant girl he had previously viewed as mere object for his potential sexual pleasure actually had subjectivity, feelings, and thoughts of her own all along.  She had a lot of them, in fact, and some were not very flattering to his own conception of his character. As Smith’s fellow Scot Robert Burns would put it in his poem “To A Louse” (1786) : “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” Mr B looks at himself as Pamela looks at him, and doesn’t like what he sees. He reforms, and after they are married, he circulates Pamela’s letters to aristocratic ladies who might find themselves educated by the moral rhetoric of this former ladies’ maid.

But the philosophy of rhetoric Richardson merely hinted at in Pamela he made very explicit in 1750, when he finally sat down to write that long-awaited letter manual. Excerpting actual correspondence from his own friends, he informs the reader in his preface that Letters to and From Particular Friends On the Most Important Occasions Directing Not Only the Requisite Style and Forms to be Observed in Writing Familiar Letters; But How to Act Justly and Prudently in the Common Concerns of Human Life really will somehow marry all of these virtues and seemingly disparate things as good writing and good moral activity together. His concern, he tells us, is Instruction in “Nature, Propriety of Character, Plain Sense, and General Use”: an idiosyncratic list that freely blends the rhetorical with the ethical, and writing with self-understanding.

And this is why the letter form interested Smith, too. Smith, as Stephen J. McKenna describes him in an article on the rhetorical “art of character,” was trying to find a way to describe how rhetoric—an art that had been held in suspicion by moralists since at least Plato for its potential to be misused for self-interested ends—was actually just a sign that the skilled user of it had a good “understanding of mutual human characteristics and shared social interests.” It did not strike Richardson or Smith as very odd that you could learn about propriety or your own character by writing letters to other people. By thinking about the way that they might regard your letters, you could learn a great deal about yourself. 

But Richardson met with a great deal of mockery when he published Pamela in 1740. His most prominent and prolific critic was fellow novelist Henry Fielding, who relentlessly attacked the book in his parodies Shamela and Joseph Andrews. In Fielding’s traditionalist view, it was shocking that one could learn anything at all from a self-interested rhetorical performance, particularly one offered up by an autodidactic servant girl with no fine grounding in the ethical classics such as the one that he had received. In Shamela, he creates an alternative set of letters that posit that the real seducer is Pamela herself, who planned the discovery of her “vartuous” set of letters all along to trick the naïve Mr B. Rhetoric that skillfully anticipates an audience reverts to a purely self-interested act, and one that has little to do with the moral understanding of the self that Richardson and Smith advance in their works. Joseph Andrews rejects the epistolary form altogether in favor of a highly didactic narrator, whose communication with the reader is decidedly one-way.

When Richardson again took up his pen to complete Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady in 1748—the same year that Smith delivered in his lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres—he anticipated Fielding. In the preface to the book, he tells his readers that, against the urging of his friends, he is not going to throw the book into the “narrative way,” by which he means summarizing the letters as a third-person narrator, as Fielding did in Joseph Andrews. Smith would argue that same year that the primary purpose of history was to “show us the feelings and agitation of Mind in the Actors previous to and during the Event.” [LRBL ii.28] Indeed,
no action, however affecting in itself, can be represented in such a manner as to be very interesting to those who had not been present at it, by a bare narration where it is described directly without taking notice of any of the effects it had on those who were either actors or spectators of the whole affair. [LRBL ii.5]

Richardson seems to heartily agree.
Story or amusement should be considered as little more than the vehicle to the more necessary instruction: that any of the scenes would be rendered languid were they to be made less busy: and that the whole would be thereby deprived of that variety which is deemed the soul of a feast, whether mensal or mental.

But it was not just Richardson’s apologia for his own work that contained a response to the argument that rhetoric could not be moral, even where it advocated for some private end. He embeds it in the story itself. Clarissa Harlowe finds her life upended when she inherits a fortune from her grandfather, he having intuited that she was the only member of her family that cared for him despite his wealth and not because of it. Her first letters, to her friend Anna Howe, describe nothing but the misery of this unexpected windfall:. Her family is now urging her in the strongest possible terms to marry the odious Roger Solmes, a weak-minded man whom they think they can control, and who would allow them to control Clarissa’s newfound fortune through him. Solmes is characterized by his poor command of both written English and rhetoric, which Clarissa and Anna correctly take as evidence of his poor moral character; Clarissa, on the other hand, is feared by the family members to whom she writes pleading her case specifically for what one of them disparagingly calls her “rhetorical Knack.” Eventually, afraid of her powers and knowing on some level that she understands them too well, they forbid her from writing to them at all. Anna suspects on the other hand that Clarissa’s ability to address herself to disinterested spectators who know little about the situation will prove crucial in the end, admonishing Clarissa to write to her in great detail: “Your account of all things previous to it will be your justification,”  when Anna presumably circulates the letters publicly. Eighteenth-century letters were often assumed to be public property, meant to be read out loud at family gatherings, and correspondents were advised to write to the interests of this broader group. In this case, however, it is not Clarissa’s family who prove the sympathetic interlocutors who form her moral character, but people who are completely unconnected to Clarissa. Time and time again in the novel, it is people who have no particular reason to sympathize with Clarissa who are most deeply moved by her rhetoric, from the busy Londoners among whom she hides later in the novel to, most surprisingly of all, the rakish Robert Lovelace, who persuades Clarissa to throw herself into his power to avoid marrying Solmes. He imprisons her in a brothel and rapes her, but when he reads her letters after her death, he feels such profound sympathy for her that he feels his only recourse is to commit suicide by duel. “Let this expiate!” he cries with his dying breath.

And this is why I believe Richardson particularly comes to mind for Smith in his passage on the proper relationship between parents and children. The perpetual outrage of Clarissa is that the very people who should feel the most for Clarissa fail in their duties as profoundly as any stoic philosopher, at least in the eyes of the impartial spectator:
The sense of propriety, so far from requiring us to eradicate altogether that extraordinary sensibility, which we naturally feel for the misfortunes of our nearest connections, is always much more offended by the defect, than it ever is by the excess of that sensibility. [TMS III.3.15]

One expects parents in particular to be a little bit partial to their children, Smith says. They should try to rein this in, but if they don’t, we spectators understand. On the other hand, a parent who is cold and cruel to a child, as if that child belonged to someone else, horrifies our sensibilities. It is harder to think of a family who more perfectly embodies this particular description than the Harlowes. At the end of the novel (and the end of Clarissa’s life), people she meets in shops and Lovelace and his entire circle of libertine friends are more inclined to sympathize with Clarissa than her own family members. Richardson lays the offensiveness of this lack of sympathy out for the reader at a length of 1494 pages (in my Penguin edition), while advancing the argument that the young woman at the center of this kerfuffle has thought more deeply about ethics than her Eton-educated brother because she effectively advocates on her own behalf to people who have no particular reason to sympathize with her. Smith’s recommendation of Richardson’s epistolary novels specifically helps us understand how important this connection between rhetoric and morality was in his work. It may also be where he got the idea in the first place.