Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (1747), pp. 399-400

Thou shalt judge of her dress as at the moment she appeared to me, and as, upon a nearer observation, she really was. I am a critic, thou knowest, in women's dresses-- Many a one have I taught to dress, and helped to undress. But there is such a native elegance in this lady that she surpasses all that I could imagine surpassing. But then her person adorns what she wears, more than dress can adorn her; and that's her excellence.

Expect therefore a faint sketch of her admirable person with her dress.

Her wax-like flesh (for, after all, flesh and blood I think she is!) by its delicacy and firmness, answers for the soundness of her health. Thou hast often heard me launch out in praise of her complexion. I never in my life beheld a skin so illustriously fair. The lily and the driven snow it is nonsense to talk of: her lawn and her laces one might, indeed, compare to those; but what a whited wall would a woman appear to be, who had a complexion which would justify such unnatural comparisons? But this lady is all alive, all glowing, all charming flesh and blood, yet so clear that every meandering vein is to be seen in all the lovely parts of her which custom permits to be visible.

Thou hast heard me also describe the wavy ringlets of her shining hair, needing neither art nor powder; of itself an ornament, defying all other ornaments; wantoning in and about a neck that is beautiful beyond description.

Her head-dress was a Brussels lace mob, peculiarly adapted to the charming air and turn of her features. A sky-blue riband illustrated that-- But although the weather was somewhat sharp, she had not on either hat or hood; for, besides that she loves to use herself hardily (by which means, and by a temperance truly exemplary, she is allowed to have given high health and vigour to an originally tender constitution), she seems to have intended to show me that she was determined not to stand her appointment. Oh Jack! that such a sweet girl should be a rogue!

Her morning gown was a pale primrose-coloured paduasoy: the cuffs and robings curiously embroidered by the fingers of this ever charming Arachne in a running pattern of violets and their leaves; the light in the flowers silver; gold in the leaves. A pair of diamond snaps in her ears. A white handkerchief, wrought by the same inimitable fingers, concealed-- Oh Belford! what still more inimitable beauties did it not conceal!-- And I saw, all the way we rode, the bounding heart; by its throbbing motions I saw it! dancing beneath the charming umbrage.

Her ruffles were the same as her mob. Her apron a flowered lawn. Her coat white satin, quilted: blue satin her shoes, braided with the same colour, without lace; for what need has the prettiest foot in the world of ornament? Neat buckles in them: and on her charming arms a pair of black velvet glove-like muffs, of her own invention; for she makes and gives fashions as she pleases. Her hands, velvet of themselves, thus uncovered, the freer to be grasped by those of her adorer.

I have told thee what were my transports, when the undrawn bolt presented to me my long-expected goddess-- Her emotions were more sweetly feminine, after the first moments; for then the fire of her starry eyes began to sink into a less dazzling languor. She trembled: not knew she how to support the agitations of a heart she had never found so ungovernable. She was even fainting, when I clasped her in my supporting arms. What a precious moment that! How near, how sweetly near, the throbbing partners!

In Lovelace's meditation on the body and dress of Clarissa, we observe the vocabulary of sensibility collapsing into the discourse of the feminine. John Mullan notes that in Richardson's work-- as in many other novels of the eighteenth century-- the investment in sensibility is "an investment in a particular version of the feminine-- tearful, palpitating, embodying virtue whilst susceptible to all the vicissitudes of 'feeling'" (218). This version of the feminine takes the female body as a primary text, the interpretation of which, via physiology and physiognomy, provides insight into the soul of woman. Individual female bodies in eighteenth century literature, say, Clarissa's, stand in for the ideological body of women in general: that is, female subjectivity is, in part, constructed by these literary characterizations. I agree with Terry Eagleton, who warns that this feminization of discourse is politically ambiguous: "The 'exaltation' of women, while undoubtedly a partial advance in itself, also serves to shore up the very system which oppresses them" (14). Lovelace's "sketch" is so ideologically dense, it's hard to know where to begin unpacking it. He opens with a preamble on physiognomic interpretation, asserting that in the case of Clarissa, appearance and reality are one and the same: her body and dress are not mere external trappings, but are her person, her soul, made manifest. Lovelace's sexual imagination is in evidence throughout, and it complicates his vision of Clarissa as it at once makes her a transcendent, almost more than human, being and a mere object of desire, there for his pleasure alone, her looks and behavior designed only for their effect on him: she is "of [herself] an ornament, defying all other ornaments." Further, he projects his own rakishness on to her when he exclaims "Oh Jack! that such a sweet girl should be a rogue!" echoing Pope's sentiment in Of the Characters of Women that "...every woman is at heart a Rake." Lovelace simultaneously values Clarissa's modesty and thinks of it as slyness, an act undertaken to attract impudent men, like himself. In his physiological descriptions, Lovelace contrasts Clarissa's delicacy to her hardiness-- the constitutional weakness that leads her to sink into a faint is at the same time the source of her virtue. Even her skin reflects this precarious balance-- it is firm and glowing, but at the same time so delicate as to be translucent, allowing the observer to witness the pulsing of blood through her veins. Physiological delicacy is a sign of Clarissa's heightened sensibility, which is both her virtue and, ultimately, her defeat: her physical and emotional sensitivity, her ability to feel, and her "more sweetly feminine" transports, are what evidence her refinement, but they are also what put her in danger of disturbances and disorders of the kind which lead to her death.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography