Last week we had a nice discussion about Richard Armitage’s narration of The Chimes, and the topic of his performance in the BBC Radio adaptation of Clarissa came up in the comments section. For as long as I’ve been a fan of his narrations, I’ve been wanting to hear this production for myself, so I delved in 3 days later after finishing the audiobook I was listening to, and I have to say, if it weren’t for the Super Bowl, I’d likely have finished it in one sitting. Spoilers (and maybe triggers) below.
Since I haven’t read the 18th century novel, I can’t really judge how well it was adapted, or how well it captured the source material. I can say that I was riveted. Every performance, I thought, was outstanding. I guess I hadn’t really realized that it wasn’t actually a narration, but a collaborative dramatization with an entire cast. Tops was Richard Armitage as the villain Robert Lovelace. More on him later.
Some of the other standouts, for me, were:
Clarissa Harlow, portrayed by Zoe Waites. She managed to make the heroine sympathetic, which at least in my opinion, was a bit of a challenge. Not that I didn’t like Clarissa, because she was one of those people full of grace and kindness. However, she was so very virtuous, so naïve and often ineffectual, that she ran the risk of becoming ridiculous at times, especially to my modern sensibilities. There is a phrase for that in critiquing circles for the heroines of romance novels: TSTL (Too Stupid To Live)… and Clarissa was, literally, TSTL. Yes of course it was a different era, and perhaps there were circumstances explained in the novel that were not fully explained in the dramatization… but it seems to me that once she was well and truly “ruined”, even if her family had disowned her, she could have done something, anything, other than what she did do, which was essentially lay down and die. Yes, she fell into despondency, and who wouldn’t, after the despicable way her family treated her and the even more reprehensible actions of her tormentor, Lovelace? But damn it, Clarissa, there were other options! With her rigid morals, she had, if nothing else, a perfect temperament for entering a convent. She was educated. Perhaps her lovely friend might have helped her to create a new identity for herself and find work as a governess. I thought she had an inheritance… why not go to her property, take the reins, and live out her life as a modestly wealthy spinster? If all else failed, she might even have found it within herself to attempt to forgive the one who despoiled her, marry him, and make the best of things. I find it hard to believe that the tiger would have ever changed his stripes, but many men can, theoretically, be “managed” if nothing else. Instead, she essentially stopped eating and became weaker and weaker, then ill, then died.
Dorcas, the servant in the house of ill repute, portrayed by Lisa Hammond. Her performance was amazing leading up to the rape scene, when she was the one who gave Clarissa the milk laced with some type of tranquilizer. She clearly knew Lovelace’s dishonorable intentions, yet despite her obvious sympathy for the girl, she carried out her duties for fear of losing her situation or facing Lovelace’s wrath. Her voice during this scene, so detached and yet so shamed, really built the suspense for what was about to happen to Clarissa. Later, Dorcas was overcome with self-loathing for her part in Clarissa’s downfall, and made another outstanding performance of the moments leading up to Dorcas’ own suicide.
Allison Steadman, who played both Lady Harlow, Clarissa’s mother, and Mrs. Rawlings, who lived in the same boarding house as Clarissa where she’d fled to escape Lovelace’s clutches. As Lady Harlow, the performance was laugh-out-loud funny as she kept mispronouncing and confusing the word “libertine” as it applied to her daughter’s suitor. As Mrs. Rawlings, the performance was once again humorous as she first fell prey to Lovelace’s laughable explanations as to how he came to arrive at the boarding house wearing a false beard in the guise of a doddering old man, and why it was that Clarissa, his “wife”, was so dead set against seeing him! And later, when the cold-hearted snake convinced the heavy-set older woman to do her best to impersonate the young and beautiful Clarissa in order to intercept a letter that was supposed to be delivered only into Clarissa’s hands…
Mr. Solmes, portrayed by Steven Critchlow. As the middle-aged, gluttonous gobbler of cookies whose marriage settlements Clarissa’s family found so desirable as to force her into marriage despite her disgust of him, Solmes was quite convincingly loathsome, and most certainly made Robert Lovelace’s “gallantry” seem infinitely more desirable in episode 1.
And last, but never least… Richard Armitage as Robert Lovelace. I’m definitely biased, but wow! He was really quite amazing. Oh, his silky tones and the yearning in his voice as he pleaded with Clarissa to allow him to protect her! A rake, a scoundrel, a libertine… not necessarily the worst thing in the world when he looks and sounds like a fallen angel. I was well on my way to falling in love with him myself… even after he rather viciously engaged her impudent brother on the doorstep at swordpoint… right up until his snide and conniving tones were first revealed in his letter to his friend Jack.
That was like a bucket of ice water on my emerging lustful fantasies for Robert Lovelace. Even as he boasted of his deceptions, and repeatedly exposed his total lack of honor in his letters and in the conversations he would have with his confederates, refusing to ever say for sure whether he actually intended to follow through with his ardently professed desire to marry her, there would then be moments of such convincing and loving words and attentions that I would slip back into favor with him, only to smack myself moments later when he was again outside of Clarissa’s hearing.
The bastard’s motivations were very slippery for me to grasp. At times I thought Clarissa was nothing more than a game, a challenge to his ego, but there were other times when I’d wonder if he was truly searching for that elusive quality of virtue that he believed was lacking in the feminine soul. It was almost as if it was some twisted crucible of misfortune that part of him wanted to put her through, hoping that she would emerge untarnished and incorruptible, to reverse his misogynistic worldview, and somehow then love him. The other part of him, I think, wanted nothing less than to systematically dismantle that virtue, to make her turn to him, fallen and broken, so that he could then be the one to turn away in disgust, and destroy her.
He lied. He refused to listen to her. He spoke soulfully to her one minute, then intimidated her the next. He cut her off from all communication and created elaborate subterfuges to lead her along his path, he forced his amorous attentions upon her, and then relentlessly pursued her when she ran from him. He was an 18th century stalker and charming sociopath, easily convincing even well-intentioned bystanders that she was a flighty and mentally unstable wife rather than his helpless quarry. And then he drugged her, and raped her.
Whew. As much as my psyche recoiled from Lovelace during the totally nonconsensual intercourse, if I’m honest, his voice still managed to turn me on. And that was almost as alarming as anything I heard. I thought the scene was written well, and oh man, Armitage delivered it masterfully. From the malevolent tones in which he addressed Dorcas before she left the room, to the tender words and shushes spoken to a drugged yet weeping Clarissa, swiftly transitioning into that low, sharp insistence that she tell him she is willing. Then low, guttural tones, as he repeats the word “Mine!” and penetrates her. I was tremendously disturbed and emotional after this scene, and had to take a break. There is a prevailing theory that rape is not so much about sex and lust as it is about power, control and dominance. And this was the essence of the performance delivered with hot and cold precision by Armitage.
I liked the ending, but would have greatly preferred it if Lovelace had sought his death while Clarissa found both peace and the strength to move on. She did remain true to herself, but I would have rather seen her create a “new” self. As to Robert Lovelace, I’m still not sure that even in seeking his own destruction, Robert Lovelace showed true repentance. Did he really seek redemption, and offer his life as atonement… or did his disastrous obsession merely compel him to pursue Clarissa beyond the grave?
Still thinking about that two days later… and that’s the proof of a moving performance.