This book is really surprising me in what it reveals about women’s rights in 18th century England. On the one hand, I was surprised that Clarissa, as a female minor, could inherit property. Apparently, she can legally hold this property, even against the wishes of her family. (In contrast, property held by women in New York legally belonged to their husbands until 1848.) However, Richardson makes a point of showing how this legal right has little practical value when a woman is pressured by her family, who has complete control over her daily circumstances. I was amazed that Clarissa could be held against her will by her family with the seeming consent of the community and the law.
Yet it was the situation of Clarissa’s sister, Bella, that has really held my attention, so far. First of all, as the oldest sister, Bella is expected to marry before Clarissa. And Bella wants to marry, while Clarissa does not. And finally, Bella is in love with Lovelace. Yet Clarissa is the one who gets multiple suitors and ultimately attracts Lovelace’s attention… even without wanting to!
Initially, Bella believes that she in a situation to gain Lovelace’s affection. Officially, he is visiting the house as her suitor. Bella wants to encourage Lovelace, but can’t be open about this since a woman’s attractiveness as a wife seems to be based on her modesty, which is judged by how difficult it is to get her to consent to marriage. Thus, women who are forced into marriage against their will would seem more attractive than a woman who wants to marry. Which is probably why Lovelace falls for Clarissa. So Bella, desiring Lovelace, is forced to watch her suitor grow increasingly bored while she sits quietly and plays the part of the modest, disinterested maiden. Incredibly, etiquette seems to force Lovelace to propose against his own wishes and Bella to reject him, against her own desires! Eventually, she tries to be openly disdainful of him, hoping that this will make her seem more interesting and desirable. But the one thing she can not do is to show her true feelings.
After Lovelace turns his attentions to Clarissa, Aunt Hervey asks if Bella minds if Clarissa and Lovelace become a couple. Bella can’t say no, since expressing her interest in a man would hurt her reputation. Not only is Bella forced to condone Lovelace’s interest in her sister, but she would have been further embarrassed by the chronology of the match. Bella, as the older sister, would have been expected to marry first, yet Lovelace’s union with her sister would create the impression that Bella is so undesirable that she was unable to find a suitor before her sister became old enough to necessitate a marriage out of turn. This image would have been further reinforced by the fact that Lovelace was originally Bella’s suitor, but rejected her and went after her more desirable sister. Bella loses the object of her affection in the most embarrassing way I can imagine. This entire time, Bella is forbidden by social etiquette to speak on her own behalf.
However, this novel also reveals that women did generally have a say in who they chose to marry. After all, Bella refuses Lovelace’s proposal because he has broken custom and disrespected her, due to his proposal “being rather made to her mother than to herself, as if he was sure of her consent at any time” (p 11). This shows that it was expected, at that time, that the woman would decide whether or not to accept a marriage proposal, rather than the parents. In addition, Clarissa’s parents do not argue that Clarissa must marry because they demand it. Instead, they claim that she has forfeited her right to choose by turning down too many suitors. It seems that upper class women in 18th century England had a say in who they married, provided they followed a few strict rules:
1) A woman may never openly show interest in any man who is not her husband.
2) A woman may never be alone with a man unless the situation has been arranged by her family.
3) When a suitor’s visit is condoned by her family, a woman may not refuse it.
3) A woman must choose a husband from the suitors presented to her by her family, within a relatively short period after “coming of age.”
So, the question of women’s rights in 18th Century England seems far more complicated than merely what is dictated by law. I think Richardson has done an amazing job of illustrating some of these issues.