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Journal Article

Sexual Assault in the Shadow of the Law: Character and Proof in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa

Ann K. Wagner
Law and Literature
Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 311-326
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Cardozo School of Law
DOI: 10.1525/lal.2013.25.2.311
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Page Count: 16
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Sexual Assault in the Shadow of the Law
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Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa has often been read as a rejection of law in favor of morality, thanks to Clarissa’s decision not to bring her rapist Lovelace to court and the heavy religious symbolism that pervades the novel’s final volume. The author critiques this reading as ahistorical while observing that it also tends to alienate the modern reader. The article suggests an alternative reading, rooted in the historical legal context that informs Clarissa’s decision, including eighteenth-century evidence law and pre-modern forms of legal proof. The article further shows that law and its instruments are essential to the public vindication that Clarissa finds in the closing pages of the novel. It has become too easy to assume that Richardson rejects the utility of law just because his heroine refuses one form of legal process. A closer examination of the role that law plays in Clarissa demonstrates that Richardson reveres an idealized form of law even as he questions contemporary legal practices.

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