Remarks on Clarissa
Summary by Kate J. Warne

Sarah Fielding's extended letter to Samuel Richardson, Remarks on Clarissa (1749), is a layered critical work that recounts a series of conversations among fictional readers and critics about RichardsonŐs then-recent novel. The company Fielding describes includes men and women, Miss Gibson and Bellario are its principle members, who meet several times to participate in a "Scene of Criticism (if I may so call it)." Fielding purports to have participated in the discussions she recounts and interweaves a narrative of events with transcriptions of conversations about Clarissa. Fielding offers a substantial critique of the novel through this mechanism of a fictional debate, acknowledging from the first lines of her text that "an Address of this Nature may appear very unaccountable, and whimsical," but claiming that the unusual approach is necessary in order "fairly to lay before you all the Criticisms . . . that I have heard on your History of Clarissa."

Remarks on Clarissa is a complicated piece of criticism, which even includes its own series of personal letters between Miss Gibson and Bellario, the latter admired for his "known Taste and Impartiality" and skeptical of Clarissa's ability to love as an exemplary female character should. Miss Gibson defends Richardson's heroine in a passionate but carefully reasoned argument, finally winning Bellario over to her own position of sincere admiration for Richardson and his artistry. Throughout the Remarks, Fielding refers to an understanding common among eighteenth-century critics that authors were expected to offer didactic fictions with characters whom readers might emulate. Richardson, Fielding notes, succeeds in representing a morally exemplary woman so successfully that real women readers read her as a role model. Indeed, the tenor of the entire text is one of extravagant praise of Richardson and his most virtuous heroine.

Fielding seems acutely aware of her relationship to her readers and of her own position as author; the variety of voices in her Remarks suggests a deep engagement not only with Richardson's novel, but with the art and method of literary criticism itself.