Fulton, Gordon D. Styles of Meaning and Meanings of Style in Richardson’s Clarissa. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999.
Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000
Gordon D. Fulton offers a consistently insightful and fresh reading of Clarissa through the issue of how Richardson’s various styles – most especially the style with which characters write and speak – mean, both within the novel and for readers of the novel. Fulton argues that Richardson encourages his reader to discover the limitations of the facile proverbial speech used by Lovelace and others, and explore the psychological and social implications of moral sentiments—a style of meaning associated with the heroine, Clarissa. Fulton makes a very strong case for seeing the moral sentiment as a medium for psychological analysis, rather than the way most modern critics view it, as evidence of a narrow didacticism. In the second part of the book, Fulton brings his historically sensitive understanding of style to bear upon the problem of love and desire in Clarissa. Fulton argues that Richardson revises the styles of love made popular by novelists like Eliza Haywood, so as to teach female readers the power asymmetries built into the libertine discourses of love. While this idea will not surprise those who are familiar with the archive of recent Clarissa criticism, Fulton’s discussions of Clarissa’s involuntary styles of love, the libertine practice of physical description, and Richardson’s elaboration of a reformed style of sentimental libertinism are consistently illuminating. This book not only offers a new set of terms with which to grasp the remarkable achievement that is Clarissa, it is also a wise and thoughtful intervention within a well-developed area of scholarship. However, some will find the book limited by its attempt to stay faithful to Samuel Richardson’s moral program as Richardson himself might state it, if he could participate in our critical styles of meaning.