Samuel Richardson and the theory of tragedy

Clarissa’s caesuras

Author: J. A. Smith

Clarissa's scope may be vast in addressing a 'great variety of subjects' and in being an epistolary 'collection' of different writers' letters and viewpoints, but it can nonetheless claim to be reducible to two main points of argument. Parental tyranny in the sphere of love is likely to bring misfortune, and young women shouldn't be fooled by the apparently attractive prospect of the 'reformed rake'. This book is a bold new interpretation of one of the greatest European novels, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. It argues that this text needs to be rethought as a dangerous exploration of the ethics of tragedy, on the scale of the great arguments of post-Romantic tragic theory, from Hölderlin to Nietzsche, to Benjamin, Lacan and beyond. It concerns Richardson's representation of the dynamics of the 'received notion', the constituting mechanism of public knowledge that he says he wrote the novel to contest. The book takes up the novel on the other side of its major caesural moment , Lovelace's rape of Clarissa, and investigates the remarkable set of fragmentary texts, or 'mad papers'. It discusses Terry Castle's insights that the first instalment of Clarissa is dominated by the linguistic persecutions imposed on Clarissa by the Harlowes in a manner that anticipates the violence that is done to her by Lovelace. The broken and the mournful landscape of Clarissa after the rape shares the ambivalent impulses that Walter Benjamin associates with the tragic drama of the German seventeenth century.

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‘An exemplary engagement with theories of tragedy and quite a marvel of psychoanalytic excavation. Few explanations of the infamous statement, 'there is no sexual relationship', made by Lacan (the application of which to the case of Clarissa brings it to its most stinging realisation), will leave a reader much clearer on its meaning.'
Hong Kong Review of Books

‘Mr. Smith's study is refreshingly untimely, insightful and sometimes brilliant. A welcome testament to the ongoing power of Clarissa as literature, and an intelligent articulation of Richardson's achievement in transforming a simple moral into an aesthetic and affective masterpiece.'
The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats

‘Smith's book breathes new life into scholarship on Richardson by introducing links to theories of tragedy from the philosophical (Friedrich Nietzsche) to the psychoanalytic (Melanie Klein) … This reading gives it a fresh perspective that will be of interest to literary and book historians … Smith's forgiving prose style acknowledges the constraints of 'space and readerly patience' that many other first monographs are apparently unfettered by. This book would integrate well into teaching on Richardson or the eighteenth-century novel, and would perhaps even be a good primer for the bewildered on how to apply theory to text.'
LSE Review of Books

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