LETTER 161: MISS CLARISSA HARLOWE TO MISS HOWE

Monday night, May 1.

I have just escaped from the very disagreeable company I was obliged, so much against my will, to be in. As a very particular relation of this evening’s conversation would be painful to me, you must content yourself with what you shall be able to collect from the outlines, as I may call them, of the characters of the persons, assisted by the little histories Mr. Lovelace gave me of each yesterday.

The names of the gentlemen are Belton, Mowbray, Tourville, and Belford. These four, with Mrs. Sinclair, Miss Partington, the great heiress mentioned in my last, Mr. Lovelace, and myself, made up the company.

I gave you before the favourable side of Miss Partington’s character, such as it was given me by Mrs. Sinclair, and her nieces. I will now add a few words from my own observations upon her behaviour in this company.

In better company, perhaps, she would have appeared to less disadvantage: But, notwithstanding her innocent looks, which Mr. Lovelace also highly praised, he is the last person whose judgment I would take upon real modesty. For I observed, that, upon some talk from the gentlemen, not free enough to be openly censured, yet too indecent in its implication to come from well-bred persons, in the company of virtuous people, this young lady was very ready to apprehend; and yet, by smiles and simperings, to encourage, rather than discourage, the culpable freedoms of persons, who, in what they went out of their way to say, must either be guilty of absurdity, meaning nothing ; or, meaning something, of rudeness.

But indeed I have seen ladies, of whom I have had a better opinion, than I can say I have of Mrs. Sinclair, who have allowed gentlemen, and themselves too, in greater liberties of this sort, than I have thought consistent with that purity of manners which ought to be the distinguishing characteristic of our sex: For what are words, but the body and dress of thought ? And is not the mind indicated strongly by its outward dress?

But to the gentlemen, as they must be called in right of their ancestors, it seems; for no other do they appear to have.

Mr. Belton has had university-education, and was designed for the gown; but that not suiting with the gaiety of his temper, and an uncle dying, who bequeathed to him a good estate, he quitted the college, came up to town, and commenced fine gentleman. He is said to be a man of sense. He dresses gaily, but not quite foppishly; drinks hard; keeps all hours, and glories in doing so; games, and has been hurt by that pernicious diversion: He is about thirty years of age: His face is of a fiery red, somewhat bloated and pimply; and his irregularities threaten a brief duration to the sensual dream he is in; for he has a short consumptive cough, which seems to indicate bad lungs; yet makes himself and his friends merry, by his stupid and inconsiderate jests upon very threatening symptoms, which ought to make him more serious.

Mr. Mowbray has been a great traveller; speaks as many languages as Mr. Lovelace himself, but not so fluently: Is of a good family: Seems to be about thirty-three or thirty-four: Tall and comely in his person: Bold and daring in his look: Is a large-boned strong man: Has a great scar in his forehead, with a dent, as if his skull had been beaten in there; and a seamed scar in his right cheek. He dresses likewise very gaily: Has his servants always about him, whom he is continually calling upon, and sending on the most trifling messages; half a dozen instances of which we had in the little time I was among them; while they seem to watch the turn of his fierce eye, to be ready to run, before they have half his message, and serve him with fear and trembling. Yet to his equals the man seems tolerable: Talks not amiss upon public entertainments and diversions, especially upon those abroad: Yet has a romancing air; and averrs things strongly, which seem quite improbable. Indeed, he doubts nothing, but what he ought to believe : For he jests upon sacred things; and professes to hate the clergy of all religions: Has high notions of honour, a word hardly ever out of his mouth; but seems to have no great regard to morals .

Mr. Tourville occasionally told his age; just turn’d of thirty-one. He also is of an antient family; but, in his person and manners, more of what I call the coxcomb, than any of his companions: He dresses richly; would be thought elegant in the choice and fashion of what he wears; yet, after all, appears rather tawdry than fine. One sees, by the care he takes of his outside, and the notice he bespeaks from every one, by his own notice of himself, that the inside takes up the least of his attention. He dances finely, Mr. Lovelace says: Is a master of music; and singing is one of his principal excellencies. They prevailed upon him to sing; and he obliged them both in Italian and French; and, to do him justice, his songs in both were decent. They were all highly delighted with his performance; but his greatest admirers were Mrs. Sinclair, Miss Partington, and himself . To me he appeared to have a great deal of affectation.

Mr. Tourville’s conversation and address are insufferably full of those really gross affronts upon the understandings of our sex, which the moderns call compliments, and are intended to pass for so many instances of good breeding, tho’ the most hyperbolical, unnatural stuff that can be conceived, and which can only serve to shew the insincerity of the complimenter ; and the ridiculous light in which the complimented appears in his eyes, if he supposes a woman capable of relishing the romantic absurdities of his speeches.

He affects to introduce into his common talk Italian and French words; and often answers an English question in French, which language he greatly prefers to the barbarously hissing English. But then he never fails to translate, into this his odious native tongue, the words, and the sentences, he speaks in the other two—Lest, perhaps, it should be questioned, whether he understands what he says.

He loves to tell stories: Always calls them merry, facetious, good, or excellent, before he begins, in order to bespeak the attention of the hearers but never gives himself concern, in the progress or conclusion of them, to make good what he promises in his preface . Indeed he seldom brings any of them to a conclusion; for, if his company have patience to hear him out, he breaks in upon himself by so many parenthetical intrusions, as one may call them, and has so many incidents springing in upon him, that he frequently drops his own thread, and sometimes fits down satisfied halfway; or, if at other times he would resume it, he applies to his company to help him in again, with a Devil fetch him if he remembers what he was driving at. But enough, and too much, of Mr. Tourville.

Mr. Belford is the fourth gentleman, and one of whom Mr. Lovelace seems more fond than any of the rest—Being a man of try’d bravery, it seems; for this pair of friends came acquainted upon occasion of a quarrel (possibly about a lady), which a rencounter at Kensington gravelpits ended, by the mediation of three gentlemen strangers.

Mr. Belford is about seven or eight and-twenty, it seems; the youngest of the five, except Mr. Lovelace: And these are, perhaps, the wickedest; for they seem capable of leading the other three as they please. Mr. Belford, as the others, dresses gaily: But has not those advantages of person, nor from his dress, which Mr. Lovelace is too proud of. He has, however, the appearance of gentleman. He is well read in classical authors, and in the best English poets and writers: And, by his means, the conversation took now-and-then a more agreeable turn: And I, who endeavoured to put the best face I could upon my situation, as I passed for Mrs. Lovelace with them, made shift to join in it, at such times; and received abundance of compliments from all the company, on the observations I made.

Mr. Belford seems good-natured and obliging; and, altho’ very complaisant, not so fulsomely so, as Mr. Tourville; and has a polite and easy manner of expressing his sentiments on all occasions. He seems to delight in a logical way of argumentation, as also does Mr. Belton; these two attacking each other in this way; and both looking at us women, as if to observe whether we did not admire their learning, or their wit, when they had said a smart thing. But Mr. Belford had visibly the advantage of the other, having quicker parts, and, by taking the worst side of the argument, seemed tothink he had: All together, he put me in mind of that character in Milton:

—His tongue
Dropt manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest counsels; for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious: But to nobler deeds
Tim’rous and slothful:—Yet he pleas’d the ear.

How little soever matters in general may be to our liking, we are apt to endeavour, when hope is strong enough to permit it, to make the best we can of the lot we have drawn; and I could not but observe often, how much Mr. Lovelace excelled all his four friends in every thing they seemed desirous to excel in. But, as to wit and vivacity, he had no equal present. All the others gave up to him, when his lips began to open. The haughty Mowbray would call upon the prating Tourville for silence, and with his elbow would punch the supercilious Belton into attention, when Lovelace was going to speak. And when he had spoken, the words, Charming fellow! with a free word of admiration or envy, fell from every mouth. He has indeed so many advantages in his person and manner, that what would be inexcusable in another, if one took not great care to watch over one’s self, and to distinguish what is the essence of right and wrong, would look becoming in him.

‘See him among twenty men,’ said Mr. Belford; who, to my no small vexation and confusion, with the forwardness of a favoured and intrusted friend, singled me out, on Mr. Lovelace’s being sent for down, to make me congratulatory compliments on my supposed nuptials; which he did with a caution, not to insist too long on the rigorous vow I had imposed upon a man so universally admired—

‘See him among twenty men,’ said he, ‘all of distinction, and nobody is regarded but Mr. Lovelace.’

It must, indeed, be confessed, that there is in his whole deportment a natural dignity, which renders all insolent or imperative demeanour as unnecessary as inexcusable. Then that deceiving sweetness which appears in his smiles, in his accent, in his whole aspect and address, when he thinks it worth his while to oblige, or endeavour to attract, how does this shew, that he was born innocent, as I may say; that he was not naturallythe cruel, the boisterous, the impetuous creature, which the wicked company he may have fallen into have made him! For he has, besides, an open, and, I think, an honest countenance. Don’t you think so too? —On all these specious appearances, have I founded my hopes of seeing him a reformed man.

But ’tis amazing to me, I own, that with so much of the gentleman, such a general knowlege of books and men, such a skill in the learned as well as modern languages, he can take so much delight as he does in the company of such persons as I have described, and in subjects of frothy impertinence, unworthy of his talents, and natural and acquired advantages. I can think of but one reason for it, and that must argue a very low mind; his Vanity ; which makes him desirous of being considered as the head of the people he consorts with. A man to love praise; yet to be content to draw it from such contaminated springs!

One compliment passed from Mr. Belford to Mr. Lovelace, which hastened my quitting the shocking company—‘You are a happy man, Mr. Lovelace,’ said he, upon some fine speeches made him by Mrs. Sinclair, and assented to by Miss Partington: ‘You have so much courage, and so much wit, that neither man nor woman can stand before you.’

Mr. Belford looked at me, when he spoke: Yes, my dear, he smilingly looked at me: And he looked upon his complimented friend: And all theirassenting, and therefore affronting eyes, both mens and womens, were turned upon your Clarissa: At least, my self-reproaching heart made me think so; for that would hardly permit my eye to look up.

Oh! my dear, were but a woman, who is thought to be in love with a man (and this must be believed to be my case; or to what can my supposedvoluntary going off with Mr. Lovelace be imputed to?) to reflect one moment on the exaltation she gives him, and the disgrace she brings uponherself, the low pity, the silent contempt, the insolent sneers and whispers, to which she makes herself obnoxious from a censuring world of both sexes, how would she despise herself! And how much more eligible would she think death itself to such a discovered debasement!

What I have thus in general touched upon, will account to you, why I could not more particularly relate what passed in the evening’s conversation: Which, as may be gathered from what I have written, abounded with approbatory accusations, and supposed witty retorts.

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One Response to LETTER 161: MISS CLARISSA HARLOWE TO MISS HOWE

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