Clarissa Harlowe LETTER XXXVIII

MR. BELFORD, TO ROBERT LOVELACE, ESQ. SATURDAY, MAY 20.

Not one word will I reply to such an abandoned wretch, as thou hast shewn thyself to be in thine of last night. I will leave the lady to the protection of that Power who only can work miracles; and to her own merits. Still I have hopes that these will save her.

I will proceed, as thou desirest, to poor Belton’s case; and the rather, as it has thrown me into such a train of thinking upon our past lives, our present courses, and our future views, as may be of service to us both, if I can give due weight to the reflections that arise from it.

The poor man made me a visit on Thursday, in this my melancholy attendance. He began with complaints of his ill health and spirits, his hectic cough, and his increased malady of spitting blood; and then led to his story.

A confounded one it is; and which highly aggravates his other maladies: for it has come out, that his Thomasine, (who, truly, would be new christened, you know, that her name might be nearer in sound to the christian name of the man whom she pretended to doat upon) has for many years carried on an intrigue with a fellow who had been hostler to her father (an innkeeper at Darking); of whom, at the expense of poor Belton, she has made a gentleman; and managed it so, that having the art to make herself his cashier, she has been unable to account for large sums, which he thought forthcoming at demand, and had trusted to her custody, in order to pay off a mortgage upon his parental estate in Kent, which his heart has run upon leaving clear, but which now cannot be done, and will soon be foreclosed. And yet she has so long passed for his wife, that he knows not what to resolve upon about her; nor about the two boys he was so fond of, supposing them to be his; whereas now he begins to doubt his share in them.

So KEEPING don’t do, Lovelace. ’Tis not the eligible wife. ’A man must keep a woman, said the poor fellow to me, but not his estate!—Two interests!—Then, my tottering fabric!’ pointing to his emaciated carcass.

We do well to value ourselves upon our liberty, or to speak more properly, upon the liberties we take. We had need to run down matrimony as we do, and to make that state the subject of our frothy jests; when we frequently render ourselves (for this of Tom’s is not a singular case) the dupes and tools of women who generally govern us (by arts our wise heads penetrate not) more absolutely than a wife would attempt to do.

Let us consider this point a little; and that upon our own principles, as libertines, setting aside what is exacted from us by the laws of our country, and its customs; which, nevertheless, we cannot get over, till we have got over almost all moral obligations, as members of society.

In the first place, let us consider (we, who are in possession of estates by legal descent) how we should have liked to have been such naked destitute varlets, as we must have been, had our fathers been as wise as ourselves; and despised matrimony as we do—and then let us ask ourselves, If we ought not to have the same regard for our posterity, as we are glad our fathers had for theirs?

But this, perhaps, is too moral a consideration.—To proceed therefore to those considerations which will be more striking to us: How can we reasonably expect economy or frugality (or anything indeed but riot and waste) from creatures who have an interest, and must therefore have views, different from our own?

They know the uncertain tenure (our fickle humours) by which they hold: And is it to be wondered at, supposing them to be provident harlots, that they should endeavour, if they have the power, to lay up against a rainy day? or, if they have not the power, that they should squander all they can come at, when they are sure of nothing but the present hour; and when the life they live, and the sacrifices they have made, put conscience and honour out of the question?

Whereas a wife, having the same family-interest with her husband, lies not under either the same apprehensions or temptations; and has not broken through (of necessity, at least, has not) those restraints which education has fastened upon her: and if she makes a private purse, which we are told by anti-matrimonialists, all wives love to do, and has children, it goes all into the same family at the long-run.

Then as to the great article of fidelity to your bed—Are not women of family, who are well-educated, under greater restraints, than creatures, who, if they ever had reputation, sacrifice it to sordid interest, or to more sordid appetite, the moment they give it up to you? Does not the example you furnish, of having succeeded with her, give encouragement for others to attempt her likewise? For with all her blandishments, can any man be so credulous, or so vain, as to believe, that the woman he could persuade, another may not prevail upon?

Adultery is so capital a guilt, that even rakes and libertines, if not wholly abandoned, and as I may say, invited by a woman’s levity, disavow and condemn it: but here, in a state of KEEPING, a woman is in no danger of incurring (legally, at least) that guilt; and you yourself have broken through and overthrown in her all the fences and boundaries of moral honesty, and the modesty and reserves of her sex: And what tie shall hold her against inclination, or interest? And what shall deter an attempter?

While a husband has this security from legal sanctions, that if his wife be detected in a criminal conversation with a man of fortune, (the most likely by bribes to seduce her,) he may recover very great damages, and procure a divorce besides: which, to say nothing of the ignominy, is a consideration that must have some force upon both parties. And a wife must be vicious indeed, and a reflection upon a man’s own choice, who, for the sake of change, and where there are no qualities to seduce, nor affluence to corrupt, will run so many hazards to injure her husband in the tenderest of all points.

But there are difficulties in procuring a divorce—[and so there ought]— and none, says the rake, in parting with a mistress whenever you suspect her; or whenever you are weary of her, and have a mind to change her for another.

But must not the man be a brute indeed, who can cast off a woman whom he has seduced, [if he take her from the town, that’s another thing,] without some flagrant reason; something that will better justify him to himself, as well as to her, and to the world, than mere power and novelty?

But I don’t see, if we judge by fact, and by the practice of all we have been acquainted with of the keeping-class, that we know how to part with them when we have them.

That we know we can if we will, is all we have for it: and this leads us to bear many things from a mistress, which we would not from a wife. But, if we are good-natured and humane: if the woman has art: [and what woman wants it, who has fallen by art? and to whose precarious situation art is so necessary?] if you have given her the credit of being called by your name: if you have a settled place of abode, and have received and paid visits in her company, as your wife: if she has brought you children —you will allow that these are strong obligations upon you in the world’s eye, as well as to your own heart, against tearing yourself from such close connections. She will stick to you as your skin: and it will be next to flaying yourself to cast her off.

Even if there be cause for it, by infidelity, she will have managed ill, if she have not her defenders. Nor did I ever know a cause or a person so bad, as to want advocates, either from ill-will to the one, or pity to the other: and you will then be thought a hard-hearted miscreant: and even were she to go off without credit to herself, she will leave you as little; especially with all those whose good opinion a man would wish to cultivate.

Well, then, shall this poor privilege, that we may part with a woman if we will, be deemed a balance for the other inconveniencies? Shall it be thought by us, who are men of family and fortune, an equivalent for giving up equality of degree; and taking for the partner of our bed, and very probably more than the partner in our estates, (to the breach of all family-rule and order,) a low-born, a low-educated creature, who has not brought any thing into the common stock; and can possibly make no returns for the solid benefits she receives, but those libidinous ones, which a man cannot boast of, but to his disgrace, nor think of, but to the shame of both?

Moreover, as the man advances in years, the fury of his libertinism will go off. He will have different aims and pursuits, which will diminish his appetite to ranging, and make such a regular life as the matrimonial and family life, palatable to him, and every day more palatable.

If he has children, and has reason to think them his, and if his lewd courses have left him any estate, he will have cause to regret the restraint his boasted liberty has laid him under, and the valuable privilege it has deprived him of; when he finds that it must descend to some relation, for whom, whether near or distant, he cares not one farthing; and who perhaps (if a man of virtue) has held him in the utmost contempt for his dissolute life.

And were we to suppose his estate in his power to bequeath as he pleases; why should a man resolve, for the gratifying of his foolish humour only, to bastardize his race? Why should he wish to expose his children to the scorn and insults of the rest of the world? Why should he, whether they are sons or daughters, lay them under the necessity of complying with proposals of marriage, either inferior as to fortune, or unequal as to age? Why should he deprive the children he loves, who themselves may be guilty of no fault, of the respect they would wish to have, and to deserve; and of the opportunity of associating themselves with proper, that is to say, with reputable company? and why should he make them think themselves under obligation to every person of character, who will vouchsafe to visit them? What little reason, in a word, would such children have to bless their father’s obstinate defiance of the laws and customs of his country; and for giving them a mother, of whom they could not think with honour; to whose crime it was that they owed their very beings, and whose example it was their duty to shun?

If the education and morals of these children are left to chance, as too generally they are, (for the man who has humanity and a feeling heart, and who is capable of fondness for his offspring, I take it for granted will marry,) the case is still worse; his crime is perpetuated, as I may say, by his children: and the sea, the army, perhaps the highway, for the boys; the common for the girls; too often point out the way to a worse catastrophe.

What therefore, upon the whole, do we get by treading in these crooked paths, but danger, disgrace, and a too-late repentance?

And after all, do we not frequently become the cullies of our own libertinism; sliding into the very state with those half-worn-out doxies, which perhaps we might have entered into with their ladies; at least with their superiors both in degree and fortune? and all the time lived handsomely like ourselves; not sneaking into holes and corners; and, when we crept abroad with our women, looking about us, and at ever one that passed us, as if we were confessedly accountable to the censures of all honest people.

My cousin Tony Jenyns, thou knewest. He had not the actively mischievous spirit, that thou, Belton, Mowbray, Tourville, and myself, have: but he imbibed the same notions we do, and carried them into practice.

How did he prate against wedlock! how did he strut about as a wit and a smart! and what a wit and a smart did all the boys and girls of our family (myself among the rest, then an urchin) think him, for the airs he gave himself?—Marry! No, not for the world; what man of sense would bear the insolences, the petulances, the expensiveness of a wife! He could not for the heart of him think it tolerable, that a woman of equal rank and fortune, and, as it might happen, superior talents to his own, should look upon herself to have a right to share the benefit of that fortune which she brought him.

So, after he had fluttered about the town for two or three years, in all which time he had a better opinion of himself than any body else had, what does he do, but enter upon an affair with his fencing-master’s daughter?

He succeeds; takes private lodgings for her at Hackney; visits her by stealth; both of them tender of reputations that were extremely tender, but which neither had quite given up; for rakes of either sex are always the last to condemn or cry down themselves: visited by nobody, nor visiting: the life of a thief, or of a man bested by creditors, afraid to look out of his own house, or to be seen abroad with her. And thus went on for twelve years, and, though he had a good estate, hardly making both ends meet; for though no glare, there was no economy; and, beside, he had ever year a child, and very fond of his children was he. But none of them lived above three years. And being now, on the death of the dozenth, grown as dully sober, as if he had been a real husband, his good Mrs. Thomas (for he had not permitted her to take his own name) prevailed upon him to think the loss of their children a judgment upon the parents for their wicked way of life; [a time will come, Lovelace, if we live to advanced years, in which reflection will take hold of the enfeebled mind;] and then it was not difficult for his woman to induce him, by way of compounding with Heaven, to marry her. When this was done, he had leisure to sit down, and contemplate; an to recollect the many offers of persons of family and fortune to which he had declined in the prime of life: his expenses equal at least: his reputation not only less, but lost: his enjoyments stolen: his partnership unequal, and such as he had always been ashamed of. But the woman said, that after twelve or thirteen years’ cohabitation, Tony did an honest thing by her. And that was all my poor cousin got by making his old mistress his new wife—not a drum, not a trumpet, not a fife, not a tabret, nor the expectation of a new joy, to animate him on!

What Belton will do with his Thomasine I know not! nor care I to advise him: for I see the poor fellow does not like that any body should curse her but himself. This he does very heartily. And so low is he reduced, that he blubbers over the reflection upon his past fondness for her cubs, and upon his present doubts of their being his: ’What a damn’d thing is it, Belford, if Tom and Hal should be the hostler dog’s puppies and not mine!’

Very true! and I think the strong health of the chubby-faced muscular whelps confirms the too great probability.

But I say not so to him.

You, he says, are such a gay, lively mortal, that this sad tale would make no impression upon you: especially now, that your whole heart is engaged as it is. Mowbray would be too violent upon it: he has not, he says, a feeling heart. Tourville has no discretion: and, a pretty jest! although he and his Thomasine lived without reputation in the world, (people guessing that they were not married, notwithstanding she went by his name,) yet ’he would not too much discredit the cursed ingrate neither!’

Could a man act a weaker part, had he been really married; and were he sure he was going to separate from the mother of his own children?

I leave this as a lesson upon thy heart, without making any application: only with this remark, ’That after we libertines have indulged our licentious appetites, reflecting, (in the conceit of our vain hearts,) both with our lips and by our lives, upon our ancestors and the good old ways, we find out, when we come to years of discretion, if we live till then (what all who knew us found out before, that is to say, we found out), our own despicable folly; that those good old ways would have been best for us, as well as for the rest of the world; and that in every step we have deviated from them we have only exposed our vanity and our ignorance at the same time.’

J. BELFORD.