Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady is just a diffacult thing to write about, it’s one of the longest novels in the English language, for one, but the plot is remarkably simple. How I managed to get through it I’m not even sure, I read 150 pages a week (they’re double pages, mind you) for 10 weeks and every week I was amazed that I had done it again. At some points I hated it, at some points I hated Richardson, but at some points I loved it, perhaps I fell prey to a sort of literary Stockholm Syndrome. The huge book came with me everywhere I went, including New York, and it suffered a heavy beating in the process. Needless to say, had I not taken an 18th century novel class with a particularly optimistic professor I doubt I would have ever read the thing, but having done it, I have no regrets, since that’s not my bag.
One of the most interesting things about the novel is that there are no chapters – it’s an epistolary novel, meaning that it’s a compilation of many (many) dozens of personal letters. The vast majority of the letters are sent from the eponymous heroine and her antagonist, Lovelace (pronounced Loveless). As easy as it is to be completely oblivious to this novel, even within the world of English literary studies, it was apparently of tremendous importance. In fact, I am told that the main character of Mrs. Dalloway, one of my favorite novels, was named after this Clarissa. When ever I summarize the plot people are fascinated, there’s something quite compelling about it, even after two hundred and fifty years, but be warned: massive spoilers follow!
Before I begin, it’s set in England and America is brand-spanking new, I hope that helps contextualize it somewhat. The novel takes place during the final year of Clarissa Harlowe’s life, she turns eighteen before the text ends, and by all measures is an exlemplary young lady. Lovely and loved she is the darling of her family, who want nothing more than their estates to grow, with the hope of landing a title. In other words: they’re no good! Clarissa has been willed, quite unconventionally, a very large estate by her grandfather, and the Harlowes are foaming at the mouth for a chance to keep in in the family. (At the time a woman’s property, unless specified otherwise in the marriage articles, permanently and completely became property of her husband, period.) Lovelace, the heir to Lord Montague’s estate, courts Clarissa’s sister, Arabella, only to be frightfully and quite purposefully rude (by 18th century standards) which results in Arabella dropping him (he is interested in Clarissa) and James Jr. (Clarissa’s brother) dueling him. James, a hothead and poor sword smith, nearly looses his life, but Lovelace spares him and merely wounds him in the arm. Now hated by the family, Lovelace, that handsome devil, returns to court Clarissa, but the family shuns him as best they can (he is titled aristocracy, mind you).
The Harlowes are worried that Lovelace won’t leave them alone until Clarissa is married off, so they introduce Mr. Solmes as a suitor, who is odious, and Clarissa refuses him. The hope is that, in marrying Clarissa to Solmes (who is beneath her) they’ll be able to keep the estate in the family through some convenient arrangement. Arabella and James Jr., who resent Clarissa horribly, push their family to force Clarissa to marry Solmes, which she would rather die than do. Finally, after being confined to her room, spied on, and isolated (even from the clergy, gasp) Clarissa has a moment of weakness and agrees to run away with Lovelace, who promises her the protection of his honorable family. Clarissa changes her mind at the last minute but Lovelace tricks her into leaving anyway, and then we realize: Lovelace is really bad news. A notorious rake, he then takes her to London where she is isolated again, he enacts elaborate ruses to attempt to get to her admit that she loves him, but she is too modest. Finally, after he tricks her into letting him into her room at night and nearly robs her of her honor, she begins to discover his plots and attempts to run away. Lovelace finds her shortly after and, since they have been pretending to be married, no one helps her when she begs for protection. Lovelace then tricks Clarissa into returning to the boarding house, which we learn is a brothel, and upon their arrival she is drugged and raped.
Clarissa is half out of her mind for several days and, realizing her honor has been stolen, she longs to die. The brothel’s residents convince Lovelace that, in order to break Clarissa’s will, she must be raped a second time, and this time with her senses intact. An even more elaborate scene is concocted to lure Clarissa out of her locked room, but she sees through their ruse and appears, penknife in hand, threatening suicide if anyone takes a step toward her. She invokes the vengeance of her family, who forsook her when she lived, but who will avenge her dead, and frighten her would-be attackers into submission.
Days later Clarissa is able to escape a second time and writes to her best friend for comfort. Soon thereafter she disappears and we learn that the madam of the brothel has had her falsely imprisoned for nonpayment of boarding fees. Lovelace, who is away on family matters, is shocked when he hears this, declaring (as he has all along) that he truly loves Clarissa, and he sends his closest friend, Belford, to free Clarissa from jail. Belford, who has advocated just treatment for Clarissa ever since he first met her, comes and has her freed, returning her to safe lodgings. Lovelace, his family, and Clarissa’s family lobby for her to accept Lovelace’s marriage proposal, however, Clarissa now wants only to die in peace. She wastes away quickly as she begins to prepare for death, Belford helps keep Lovelace at arm’s length as he (Belford) is slowly reformed by Clarissa’s example. Clarissa sells her clothing to buy an elaborate coffin and spends all of her time writing her will and composing letters that are to be sent after she passes away.
Clarissa lingers for about a month before finally passing away. When Belford informs Lovelace he is incoherent for days, though he eventually returns to his old ways, and decides to travel. Clarissa’s cousin Morden, who arrived at her side a few days before her death, was the only family member present when she died, and he brings her body home to Harlowe Place. The family, aside from the unrepentant James Jr., is inconsolable; Clarissa’s parents are unable to view the body. After the funeral Lovelace writes to Morden, who had been privately threatening a challenge, and they meet. In the duel that follows Lovelace is badly wounded and Morden suggests that he repent; Lovelace dies that night. The epilogue, written by Belford, informs the reader that horrible punishment has befallen all of those who caused Clarissa misery and happiness has been the reward for all who helped her. The end!
I will now say this: the text is complicated. Jerry Beasley called it “the most authoritative and doctrinaire affirmation of patriarchal ideology … in all of eighteenth-century fiction.” I completely agree; the text clearly expresses a belief that Clarissa is culpable in her own rape (she ran off with a known libertine), but also that, having been raped, she must die. Further, the reason she is “allowed” to go to heaven (and the text makes it undeniable that she does) is because she takes all of the blame onto herself, repents, and forgives everyone who wronged her. Clarissa might be a Christian heroine, but the novel is anti-feminist. That being said, the 18th century was anti-feminist, and to expect the novel to be otherwise is unrealistic. Women of the time identified with Clarissa and women of this time can appreciate how much progress has been made.
If you want to read Clarissa, which I can only assume you do, the text is available online several places, including Google Books (incomplete) as well as Project Gutenberg. However, at 1500 large pages I cannot stress enough that this book is not for the casual reader. If you don’t have an interest in historical fiction, actually old fiction, or are able to devour books like some kind of book-devouring monster, I don’t suggest you attempt it. However, if you are able to read it, there is something very impressive about Richardson’s character construction and ability to write, first person, in many distinct voices. Despite Clarissa consuming twelve weeks of my life, I’m absolutely happy that I read it (and quite proud of myself, thank you very much).