Clarissa Harlowe LETTER XLI


I should think myself utterly unworthy of your friendship did not my own concerns, heavy as they are, so engross me, that I could not find leisure for a few lines to declare to my beloved friend my sincere disapprobation of her conduct, in an instance where she is so generously faulty, that the consciousness of that very generosity may hide from her the fault, which I, more than any other, have reason to deplore, as being the unhappy occasion of it.

You know, you say, that your account of the contentions between your mother and you will trouble me; and so you bid me spare myself the pains to tell you that they do.

You did not use, my dear, to forbid me thus beforehand. You were wont to say, you loved me the better for my expostulations with you on that acknowledged warmth and quickness of your temper which your own good sense taught you to be apprehensive of. What though I have so miserably fallen, and am unhappy, if ever I had any judgment worth regarding, it is now as much worth as ever, because I can give it as freely against myself as against any body else. And shall I not, when there seems to be an infection in my fault, and that it leads you likewise to resolve to carry on a correspondence against prohibition, expostulate with you upon it; when whatever consequences flow from your disobedience, they but widen my error, which is as the evil root, from which such sad branches spring?

The mind that can glory in being capable of so noble, so firm, so unshaken friendship, as that of my dear Miss Howe; a friendship which no casualty or distress can lessen, but which increases with the misfortunes of its friend—such a mind must be above taking amiss the well-meant admonitions of that distinguished friend. I will not therefore apologize for my freedom on this subject: and the less need I, when that freedom is the result of an affection, in the very instance, so absolutely disinterested, that it tends to deprive myself of the only comfort left me.

Your acknowledged sullens; your tearing from your mother’s hands the letter she thought she had a right to see, and burning it, as you own, before her face; your refusal to see the man, who is so willing to obey you for the sake of your unhappy friend, and this purely to vex your mother; can you think, my dear, upon this brief recapitulation of hardly one half of the faulty particulars you give, that these faults are excusable in one who so well knows her duty?

Your mother had a good opinion of me once: is not that a reason why she should be more regarded now, when I have, as she believes, so deservedly forfeited it? A prejudice in favour is as hard to be totally overcome as a prejudice in disfavour. In what a strong light, then, must that error appear to her, that should so totally turn her heart against me, herself not a principal in the case?

There are other duties, you say, besides the filial duty: but that, my dear, must be a duty prior to all other duties; a duty anterior, as I may say, to your very birth: and what duty ought not to give way to that, when they come in competition?

You are persuaded, that the duty to your friend, and the filial duty, may be performed without derogating from either. Your mother thinks otherwise. What is the conclusion to be drawn from these premises?

When your mother sees, how much I suffer in my reputation from the step I have taken, from whom she and all the world expected better things, how much reason has she to be watchful over you! One evil draws on another after it; and how knows she, or any body, where it may stop?

Does not the person who will vindicate, or seek to extenuate, a faulty step in another [in this light must your mother look upon the matter in question between her and you] give an indication either of a culpable will, or a weak judgment; and may not she apprehend, that the censorious will think, that such a one might probably have equally failed under the same inducements and provocations, to use your own words, as applied to me in a former letter?

Can there be a stronger instance in human lie than mine has so early furnished, within a few months past, (not to mention the uncommon provocations to it, which I have met with,) of the necessity of the continuance of a watchful parent’s care over a daughter: let that daughter have obtained ever so great a reputation for her prudence?

Is not the space from sixteen to twenty-one that which requires this care, more than at any time of a young woman’s life? For in that period do we not generally attract the eyes of the other sex, and become the subject of their addresses, and not seldom of their attempts? And is not that the period in which our conduct or misconduct gives us a reputation or disreputation, that almost inseparably accompanies us throughout our whole future lives?

Are we not likewise then most in danger from ourselves, because of the distinction with which we are apt to behold particulars of that sex.

And when our dangers multiply, both from within and without, do not our parents know, that their vigilance ought to be doubled? And shall that necessary increase of care sit uneasy upon us, because we are grown up to stature and womanhood?

Will you tell me, if so, what is the precise stature and age at which a good child shall conclude herself absolved from the duty she owes to a parent?—And at which a parent, after the example of the dams of the brute creation, is to lay aside all care and tenderness for her offspring?

Is it so hard for you, my dear, to be treated like a child? And can you not think it is hard for a good parent to imagine herself under the unhappy necessity of so treating her woman-grown daughter?

Do you think, if your mother had been you, and you your mother, and your daughter had struggled with you, as you did with her, that you would not have been as apt as your mother was to have slapped your daughter’s hands, to have made her quit her hold, and give up the prohibited letter?

Your mother told you, with great truth, that you provoked her to this harshness; and it was a great condescension in her (and not taken notice of by you as it deserved) to say that she was sorry for it.

At every age on this side matrimony (for then we come under another sort of protection, though that is far from abrogating the filial duty) it will be found, that the wings of our parents are our most necessary and most effectual safeguard from the vultures, the hawks, the kites, and other villainous birds of prey, that hover over us with a view to seize and destroy us the first time we are caught wandering out of the eye or care of our watchful and natural guardians and protectors.

Hard as you may suppose it, to be denied to continuance of a correspondence once so much approved, even by the venerable denier; yet, if your mother think my fault to be of such a nature, as that a correspondence with me will cast a shade upon your reputation, all my own friends having given me up—that hardship is to be submitted to. And must it not make her the more strenuous to support her own opinion, when she sees the first fruits of this tenaciousness on your side is to be gloriously in the sullens, as you call it, and in a disobedient opposition?

I know that you have a humourous meaning in that expression, and that this turn, in most cases, gives a delightful poignancy both to your conversation and correspondence; but indeed, my dear, this case will not bear humour.

Will you give me leave to add to this tedious expostulation, that I by no means approve of some of the things you write, in relation to the manner in which your father and mother lived—at times lived—only at times, I dare say, though perhaps too often.

Your mother is answerable to any body, rather than to her child, for whatever was wrong in her conduct, if any thing was wrong, towards Mr. Howe: a gentleman, of whose memory I will only say, that it ought to be revered by you—But yet, should you not examine yourself, whether your displeasure at your mother had no part in your revived reverence for your father at the time you wrote?

No one is perfect: and although your mother may not be right to remember disagreeableness against the departed, yet should you not want to be reminded on whose account, and on what occasion, she remembered them. You cannot judge, nor ought you to attempt to judge, of what might have passed between both, to embitter and keep awake disagreeable remembrances in the survivor.