Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
Robert Lovelace, a young Englishman of a noble family, is introduced into the Harlowe household by Clarissa’s uncle, who wishes Lovelace to marry Clarissa’s older sister, Arabella. The young man instead falls deeply in love with Clarissa, but he quickly learns that his suit is balked by Clarissa’s brother and sister. James has disliked Lovelace since they were together at Oxford, and Arabella is offended because he spurns her in favor of Clarissa. Both are jealous of Clarissa because she was left a fortune by their grandfather.
Having convinced his mother and father that Lovelace is a profligate, James proposes that Clarissa marry Mr. Solmes, a rich, elderly man of little taste and no sensibility. When Solmes finds no favor in the eyes of Clarissa, her family assumes she is in love with Lovelace, despite her protestations to the contrary. Clarissa refuses to allow Solmes to visit with her in the parlor or to sit next to her when the family is together. Her father, outraged by her conduct, orders her to be more civil to the man he chose to be her husband. When she refuses, saying she would never marry any man against her will, not even Lovelace, her father confines her to her room.
Lovelace, partly out of love for her and partly in vengeance for the insults heaped upon him by the Harlowe family, resolves to abduct Clarissa from her family. He is greatly aided in this scheme by the domineering personalities of Mr. Harlowe and his son, who took away Clarissa’s trusted maid and replaced her with a young woman who is impertinent and insolent to her mistress. They also refuse to let her see any of the family, even her mother. Clarissa’s only trusted adviser is Miss Howe, a friend and correspondent who advises her to escape the house if she can, even if it means accepting Lovelace’s aid and his proposal of marriage.
One evening, Lovelace slips into the garden where Clarissa is walking and entreats her to elope with him. After some protest, she agrees to go with him so as to escape her domineering father. Lovelace tells her she will be taken to the home of Lord ——, a kinsman of Lovelace, who will protect her until her cousin, Colonel Morden, can return to England and arrange for a reconciliation between Clarissa and her family. Lovelace does not keep his word, however, and takes her instead to a house of ill repute, where he introduces her to a woman he calls Mrs. Sinclair. Inventing reasons why he cannot take her to Lord M——’s house, he persuades the bewildered girl to pose temporarily as his wife. He tells Mrs. Sinclair that Clarissa is his wife with whom he cannot live until certain marriage settlements are arranged. Clarissa permits him to tell the lie, believing that it will prevent her father and her brother from discovering her whereabouts.
In Mrs. Sinclair’s house, she is almost as much a prisoner as she was in her father’s home. Meanwhile, her family disowns her and refuses to send her either money or clothes. Her father further declares that she is no longer his daughter and that he hopes she will have a miserable existence in both this world and the next. This state of affairs is distressing to Clarissa, who is now dependent upon Lovelace for her very existence. He takes advantage of the circumstances to press his love upon her without mentioning his earlier promises of marriage. Clarissa escapes and gets as far as Hampstead before Lovelace overtakes her. There, he has two women impersonate his cousins to convince Clarissa that she should return to her lodgings with them. Upon her return to Mrs. Sinclair’s house, they fill her with drugs, after which Lovelace rapes her. A few days later, Clarissa receives a letter from Miss Howe in which she learns that she is in a house in which no woman of her station would be seen. Again, Clarissa tries to escape by calling for aid from a window. Lovelace finally promises to leave her unmolested until she can get aid from her cousin or from Miss Howe.
Lovelace leaves London for a few days to visit Lord ——, who is ill. While he is gone, Clarissa contrives to steal the clothes of a serving girl and escape from the house, but within a day or two, Mrs. Sinclair discovers Clarissa’s whereabouts and has her arrested and imprisoned for debt. When John Belford, a friend of Lovelace, hears of the girl’s plight, he rescues her by proving the debt a fraud. He finds shelter for Clarissa with a kindly glovemaker and his wife. Clarissa is worn out by her experiences, and her health declines, in spite of all that the apothecary and doctor secured by Belford do for her. She spends her time writing letters in an effort to secure a reconciliation with her family and to acquaint her friends with the true story of her plight. She refuses to have anything to do with Lovelace, who is by that time convinced that he loves her dearly. He wishes to marry her to make amends for the treatment she suffered at his hands, but she refuses his offer with gentle firmness.
Clarissa’s friends do what they can to reunite her with her family. When her father and brother refuse to receive her, she goes to an undertaking establishment and brings a coffin that she fits as she wishes, including a plaque that gives the date of her birth as the day on which she left her father’s house.
On his return to England, Colonel Morden tries to raise her spirits, but his efforts fail because he, too, is unable to effect any change in the attitude of the Harlowe family. He also has an interview with Lovelace and Lord ——. The nobleman and Lovelace assure him that their family thinks very highly of Clarissa. They wish her to marry Lovelace, and Lovelace wishes to marry her, but even her cousin is unable to persuade Clarissa to accept Lovelace as a husband.
When the Harlowe family finally realizes that Clarissa is determined to die, her father and brother lift their ban. Her sister is sorry she was cruel to Clarissa, and her mother is convinced that she failed in her duty toward her daughter. They all write to Clarissa, begging the girl’s forgiveness and expressing their hope that she will recover quickly and be reunited with her family. Their letters arrive too late, for Clarissa died.
Clarissa’s body is returned to her father’s house, and she is interred in the family vault at the feet of the grandfather whose fortune had been one of the sources of her troubles. Lovelace, quite distracted by grief, is persuaded by Lord —— to go to the Continent. There he meets Colonel Morden in France, and early one winter morning, Clarissa’s cousin fights a duel with her betrayer. Lovelace is mortally wounded by a thrust through his body. As he dies, he expresses the hope that his death will expiate his crimes.
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