Belford to Lovelace:
But here is Miss [Clarissa] Harlowe, virtuous, noble, wise, pious, unhappily ensnared by the vows and oaths of a vile rake, whom she believes to be a man of honour: and being ill used by her friends for his sake is in a manner forced to throw herself upon his protection; who, in order to obtain her confidence, never scruples the deepest and most solemn protestation of honour. After a series of plots and contrivances, all baffled by her virtue and vigilance, he basely has recourse to the vilest of arts, and to rob her of her honour is forced first to rob her of her senses. Unable to bring her notwithstanding to his ungenerous views of cohabitation, she awes him in the very act of a fresh act of premediated guilt, in presence of the most abandoned of women assembled to assist his cursed purpose; triumphs over them all by virtue only of her innocence; and escapes from the vile hands he had put her into: nobly, not franticly, resents: refuses to see, or to marry the wretch; who, repenting his usage of so divine a creature, would fain move her to forgive his baseness and make him her husband: and, though persecuted by all her friends and abandoned to the deepest distress, obliged from ample fortunes to make away with her apparel for subsistence, surrounded by strangers, and forced (in want of others) to make a friend of the friend of her seducer. Though longing for death, and making all the proper preparatives for it, convinced that grief and ill usage have broken her noble heart, she abhors the impious thought of shortening her allotted period; and, as much a stranger to revenge as despair, is able to forgive the author of her ruin; wishes his repentance, and that she may be the last victim to his barbarous perfidy: and is solicitous for nothing so much in this life as to prevent vindictive mischief to and from the man who has used her so basely.
This is penitence! This is piety! And hence a distress naturally arises that must worthily affect every heart.
Courtesy of Belford, we have the entire plot of Clarissa, reduced for 1500 pages to two dozen lines. Clarissa, the most magnificent imagining of virtue in distress in sentimental literature, extends "virtue" beyond chastity to something larger--a nobleness of soul that both dooms the heroine (in her innocence) and sporadically protects her (through the awe she inspires). Her virtue is equated with Lovelace's claimed "honor," which in this passage suggests that the male equivalent of that nobleness of soul would show itself in the hero's eagerness to protect female virtue. The final paragraph gives us the sentimental novel's ambition in a sentence: to inspire a distress that worthily affects the heart.