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.