The theme of female powerlessness which is woven throughout Clarissa also come into play in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit hip-hop musical Hamilton, which is based on the life and loves of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Hamilton’s demure and virtuous wife, and Angelica Schuyler Church, her feisty and self-confident sister, best-friend, and confident, bare a number of similarities with Clarissa Harlowe and Anna Howe. They start off as young women whose beauty, wealth, and social position attract a lot of suitors. The musical number A Winter’s Ball shows how the ambitious young officers of the Continental Army are all smitten with the Schuyler sisters and wish to marry into the influential Schuyler clan. Angelica, Eliza, and their younger sister Peggy have their pick of eligible gentlemen and who they choose defines them as characters.
Eliza’s first solo number, Helpless, initially paints her as a passive figure. Whereas Angelica’s first solo number, Satisfied, is an emotionally, lyrically, and musically complex look into her psyche and moral dilemma (Angelica helps bring Hamilton and Eliza together, despite having feelings for him, herself, and doubts that she made the right decision), Helpless is an upbeat R&B love ballad which follows the progression of an apparently straightforward boy-meets-girl romance. Eliza waits on the sidelines for Hamilton to notice her and relies on Angelica to introduce her to him. Her own timidity and the confines of eighteenth-century etiquette prevent her from making the first move; for Eliza to approach Hamilton or for Hamilton to approach Eliza without someone to make the necessary introductions would have been a breach of propriety. The historical Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler were engaged within less than a month of meeting, so Helpless feels like a countdown to the inevitable wedding. The main hurdle to their union is gaining the approval of Eliza’s father. As an eighteenth-century woman without a legal identity of her own, marriage for Eliza would have been essentially being passed from her father to her husband.
A closer look at Helpless shows that Eliza is more than simply a bashful wallflower. Upon first seeing Hamilton, she tells Angelica “this one’s mine” and frequent sings “that boy is mine” and in a sense singles out Hamilton as her future life mate rather than the other way around. Her choice of Hamilton (an attractive and dashing but penniless upstart with a questionable background) is based on love rather than ambition or social obligation. Despite spouting a number of proto-feminist catchphrases, Angelica follows the more conventional path by marrying the wealthy but dull John Barker Church, the Mr. Hickman to Hamilton’s Lovelace.
The word “helpless” defines Eliza as a character throughout most of the story and takes on several different connotations. It first describes her overwhelming love for Hamilton and then her unhappiness at being constantly neglected by him. “Helpless” is later appropriated by Maria Reynolds, Hamilton’s mistress, who uses it to lead him astray. Taking Eliza’s signature word highlights this betrayal. The Reynolds Affair causes Eliza to re-examine her relationship with Hamilton and her decision to marry him. An eighteenth-century wife was expected to grin-and-bare and turn a blind eye to any affairs their husband might have, which were not considered insufficient grounds for a divorce. Obtaining a divorce would have been winning the battle but losing the war, since as a divorcée, Eliza would have forfeited custody of her children and been ostracized from polite society. Stuck with a selfish and reckless man who never really loved her who then dies in a duel, leaving her with substantial debts and a large family to support, Eliza truly is helpless. But she shakes off this passive attitude and forges an identity, independent from her husband, as a philanthropist and proto social worker. She outlives Hamilton by half a century and dies a well loved and respected figure.
It is unclear whether it was Eliza or Angelica who made the better choice. Eliza marries for love but is stuck with a man who betrays and humiliates her. Angelica marries a rich man due to social obligations and is whisked away to live a glamorous life in London. But in the cut song Congratulations, Angelica describes her marriage as “loveless” and we are given a sense that she is unsatisfied despite her glittering lifestyle. The experiences of both women show how women in the eighteenth century were vulnerable to the whims of whatever man they were attached to. It is only after she is widowed that Eliza is able to live a fulfilling life, free from the man mistreated her.