Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, a Reading Journal

I have the extremely odd habit of saving drafts in the most random places, and so, I just stumbled upon this Clarissa reading journal that I wrote way back in 2007. I have to published it because it’s just so odd (it was, it seem, an assignment for school that I took really seriously), it’s in the same epistolary style, and because I’m so amused that I wrote it an forgot about it again. It seems to function as a sort of diary of my Clarissa reading experience, and if you have ever read the novel, I’m sure you understand why such a step is necessary. I hope you enjoy.

Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlowe, by Francis Hayman
Week 1

Letter 1: Miss Pamela Coovert to Self at Future Date
4 September 2007

I’ve read through the Introduction to Clarissa and I can’t help but be a little worried, the Introduction is, theoretically, written by someone very fond of the book, but even their glowing terms can’t seem to mask what appears to be a staggering behemoth of a novel. I have unofficially assigned it tome status, which I like to give books more than 100 pages larger than a nice, round thousand. Apparently, every time Samuel Richardson went to edit it down he – in an act that makes it obvious that he was his own publisher – added to the book. Happily it seems that we are dealing with the first edition, which, it seems, is the smallest version. Also, the Introduction amusingly notes all of the far better known writers to slam the book (and Richardson in general) as time goes by, specifically, S. T. Coleridge. Still, Dr. Runge assures us that we are lucky to be among the few classes of graduate students who will ever get through the authentic version of this book; perhaps my pride would be more awakened at this thought were we reading James Joyce, at least then, at the end of the novel, I’d feel cool.

Letter 2: Miss Pamela Coovert to Mr. M– P–
5 September 2007

As you know I’m trying to read 30 pages of the novel each week day, so 150 per week, leaving the weekend free for supplemental reading and the group post. Even though I took Monday (Labor Day) off I’m happy to say that last night, as you watched the US Open Semi-Finals (or was it Quarter Finals?) I finished reading through page 60. I distinctly remember you sitting on the porch Sunday with Clarissa on your lap, you read as diligently as you could for all of perhaps a half an hour, and then came inside, and coolly announced that there was no way you would be able to continue in your efforts to read the novel with me (an original move of support, which I still appreciate, even in the light of your announcement). You said that the language was impossible to read and you disliked it in total. This worried me greatly, for obvious reasons. Then, as I was reading yesterday, I began to wonder what the issue was, the language was actually less flowery than expected, a relief. Sadly, however, I feel like this novel will be a poorly executed Pride and Prejudice without a satisfactory ending, as well as an anti-feminist tour de force (the Introduction indicates that Richardson though quite little of women as anything other than door stops). Still, I’m happy to say that, despite your warning, the novel isn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be, though it would probably be 2-3 times better had Dr. Runge and the Introduction not given away the entire plot and ending. Here’s a shocker: the execution isn’t good enough to make up for knowing the plot ahead of time, maybe don’t ruin it for everyone who doesn’t love fake letters from the 18C.

Letter 3: Miss Pamela Coovert to Miss Clarissa Harlowe
6 September 2007

Clary, I feel that it is my obligation to warn you, having made by way through the first 120 pgs. of your correspondence, that someone you do not know intends you the gravest ill. His name, unfamiliar to you I am sure, is Mr. Samuel Richardson, and though you would not know him in sight or mention, he has more power over you than your Lord and Master, you own father. You suffer greatly, it is plain to see, and yet your suffering has only just begun, for it is this Mr. Richardson’s intention to do the un-think-able to you before your day has come and you are given to that higher purpose for which you are more suited. Saucy, they call you, a warm statue, and yet you only have the severe misfortune of being born the right person at the wrong time, the day for you kind has not come yet, nor will you live to see it. I can only say that, were you fate not sealed in blackest ink, I would appeal to you to forgive that which is about to befall you and make due with one whose lot is cast along with yours, for a force more powerful than that of the Fates themselves is at work in your too unhappy life. You have my greatest sympathies.

All my care,
Your humble panopticatrix, &c.

Week 2

Letter 4: Miss Pamela Coovert to Ms. Mary Patricia Martin
11 September 2007

I have just finished reading your essay “Reading Reform in Richardson’s Clarissa,” which I found searching for feminist criticism of the work, which ironically enough, your article in no way contains. Regardless, your essay does contain interesting comments on the good vs. bad reader of Clarissa, which I’d like to comment on. First I am reminded of the philosophy of the “resisting reader” which, I believe, states that on a second reading of a work one must not allow oneself to get caught up in the narrative, but, rather resist the text in order to analyze it intelligently. I think this will be the most common defense for what you would deem a misinterpretation of the work by the audience, namely, the general dislike of Clarissa on the part of some and the pre-emptive dislike of Lovelace by nearly all. The problem with our class is thus: everyone already knows the ending and, it seems, almost no one is interested in abandoning themselves to the narrative. I hope they enjoy the next 1000 pages between now and their vindication! I have always believed that an intelligent first reading always requires the abandonment of oneself to the narrative, be it what it may, and to allow oneself, as much as possible, to read as if the ending had not been revealed ad nauseum (again, thank you all). Because of this revelation only one person in class has been bold enough to dare to like, against our professors obvious prejudices, a Mr. Lovelace, and I was happy to back her up by admitting that, had I been in Clarissa’s position, I would have almost certainly found myself running away with the handsome, charming rake. Why lie? Are we not all taken in by bone structure, dress, and flattery? Am I the only human left in the classroom? Richardson laments women’s love of the rake but he fails to acknowledge that it springs from the same well as the rake’s desire to corrupt: the power to seek out someone of a nature opposite yours and convert them to your side. For women, Richardson alleges, the rake is so stupidly attractive, and why not? To make a kind man like Hickman better is no challenge, but to reform Lovelace, now that can occupy and entertain! This is one of Lovelace’s attractions to Clarissa, it seems that he is taken in by the prospect that, during his game, he might be the one tricked at day’s end. I doubt, of course, that Richardson acknowledged this longing for power and entertainment in a sex so frivolous, but between boredom and romance novels who could resist the opportunity to turn a sinner to saint, especially an attractive one? Not I!

That people dislike Clarissa, I think, is petty, that she is a brat, which she perhaps is, is not reason enough alone to dislike her. People seem to think that her age excuses her not from her whining, perhaps it’s just too different a world for people to realize how one could be disobedient enough not to marry, but not disobedient enough to really assert oneself. Perhaps it would do them well to remember the intense self-importance that they themselves felt at that age, not to mention the obvious sense of self-importance that one must feel now to be so bold as to hate the methodically virtuous heroine of a morality novel. Enough of this, please wish me luck in presenting your material next week, it will give me ample opportunity to step on toes, even if it was not written on the topic I preferred.

Your humble servant &c.

Letter 5: Miss Pamela Coovert to Miss Clarissa Harlowe
12 September 2007

What has struck me so forcibly upon my most recent week of reading your correspondence is that you seem to already know enough of Mr. Lovelace’s nature not to go off with him, yet go off with him you will. How will you reconcile this to us, your readers? How will you make us believe that, even though you know you shouldn’t go, you will, and even though Lovelace should not be trusted, you will. How will you do this in a way that allows us to maintain our faith in your character? I’m curious to see. Best wishes from

Your captive audience

Week 3

Letter 6: Miss Pamela Coovert to Miss Clarissa Harlowe
19 September 2007

I feel for you, I really do, and were I in your situation I think I would have run away too. You haven’t gone just yet, of course, but tomorrow you will, and with Lovelace! You seem to me to have more fire than I thought you would, perhaps more than I thought young women of your time did, so I’m proud of you, really. It’s a hard lot though, yours, and a hard situation, and so I join Anna Howe in sympathizing with out, absolutely. Your brother really does seem to be a rake and you sister obviously detests you, it’s a testament to how little power women had in your time, the way your mother, aunt, cousin, and other female friends are easily beaten down by your bother, father, and two uncles. It is utterly horrid that Lovelace threatens violence against your family, I think it’s this alone that should keep you from trusting him, but of course who would feel different in your position? Would, could see clearly? Even I know the ending and I can’t help but want to you run away, even though I know tomorrow marks the beginning of the end for you. Anna is right though, if you and she switched places, both of you would probably be much happier people than you are. Good luck to you, poor Clary!

Letter 7: Miss Pamela Coovert to Mr. Robert Lovelace

No offence, sir, but thou art a bastage of the highest order! How can you glory in triumphing over such a creature as Clarissa, so green in life, and only stronger than you in pride. She wins, you know, in the end because of one important difference between you and she. Would you like to know what it is? It is this: she is willing to do what you are not, she is willing to hurt herself to keep you from winning. Self-sacrifice, we already clearly see from your character, is not something your vanity will allow, and so, at the end of the day, Clarissa will not give you the mental submission you want because you will not give her the spiritual submission that she wants. In the end, she is a stronger and sadder character, and she doesn’t even die to spite you, but because she thinks that it is what is right for her. Sad, really, coming from my day and age, not nearly as disadvantageous as yours to women, which makes it even more disgusting that you try to dominate her when, in your own time (and it is your own), women lose all power after marriage. As Shakespeare wrote, and Cressida spoke, “Women are angels wooing, things won are done,” and so it is in your day, and you should be ashamed for wanting utter domination when you are already given, legally, total power. Only one person though, to hold it over, eh? Not enough for you, it seems, and so you want to dominate as many people (women preferred) as you can; no past wound to your ego justifies all that you’ve done and will do, and your delusions won’t protect you from Morden’s sword, and in that I must take comfort. With that in mind

Adieu

Week 4

Letter 8: Miss Pamela Coovert to Clarissa
27 September 2007

Perhaps it strikes you as odd that I am writing to you, seeing as that you are a novel, however, you are an epistolary novel, so there’s a certain logic to writing to you, is there not? Regardless, I must say, you’re a bit overweight, I think you need to trim down, 1500 pages is entirely too much, I think Richardson fed you far too much cheese and potatoes and not enough fresh vegetables. Does it make you unhappy that you contain the unhappy lives of unhappy people within your body? Who would want to be filled with such gall and bile? Does it make you miserable? There you are, too, spreading your misery, standing (perhaps not proudly) and declaring, “I am an unhappy novel about a miserable girl, all she wanted in life was to be happy, but in her innocence she was taken advantage of by horrible people, and in the end, dies, but not before she suffers terribly. Oh and I’m 1500 pages long, suckers.” You have a sister, too, with a happy ending, the first born, are you jealous of your order sibling? People never understood you, you know, people never accepted your ending, were never satisfied with you, and your father really laid the guilt on thick, that you were supposed to teach people a lesson, you have a hard life. Perhaps there’s a temptation to end it all and go out of print like your younger brother – I understand.

Yet part of me wonders if maybe there isn’t a bit of pride about you, you’re one of the longest novels ever written in English, after all. Maybe you feel that only the most worthy understand and appreciate you in all of your complexity; perhaps you feel that your length is indicative of accuracy and a credit to your father’s abilities as a writer. As for myself I find you dull and repetitious, your ending is obvious and I am only 480 pages in, it’s very clear that Clarissa will end badly, chalk that up to your father’s lack of timing, “Oh I’m building the suspense!” he cries, patting himself on the back. Well here’s a shocker, old man: modern audiences are used to something that flows, with timing, people now have little time and less patience, we don’t gather ’round the candle after sunset and read long, boring novels to each other anymore.

As for a historical document you may be important, but you’re boring, I believe a synopsis and a few example letters would suffice nicely. Not to mention that there are all kinds of interesting, real life letters from your day and age that are, unlike your contents, engaging and not contrived, for example, the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Perhaps I’ve gone on too long, I shouldn’t resent you, you are, after all, inanimate, but for these ten weeks we are shackled together, so how could I not tell you how I feel about you? Perhaps you will change my mind, best of luck to you, if you even care, and I’m not sure that you do, but perhaps you do, and perhaps you will redeem yourself to me yet.

Regards

Week 5

Letter 9: Miss Pamela Coovert to Mr. M– P–
3 October 2007

I have to admit, by the time I finished reading last night I was ready to throw the book across the room – the problem was that I was sitting on the couch and the darn thing is so huge it probably would have gone through the sliding glass window. It looks like Lovelace will be doing the majority of the talking from now on, and he isn’t so awesome. A really deceptive and awful person, it’s hard to hear him getting all excited about doing horrible things to this poor girl. Plus he’s completely deluded, like he interprets things in amazing ways, even when Clarissa is being direct about wanting to leave he’s like, “I can win her over yet!”

The worst part I think though is the “nymphs” (eyeroll) – see Clarissa is, unbeknownst to her, staying at a brothel, and the prostitutes there are obviously attempting to get Lovelace to “do violence” against Clarissa. I’m amazed that these women, who were “ruined” by Lovelace themselves, are so fiercely loyal to the person who betrayed them. Are they happy that they became prostitutes? What is wrong with these women? It reminds me of, I think it’s Helene Cixous, who said that (paraphrasing) “women have been taught to turn their immense power against themselves” – this meaning that women have been deceived, in society, into hurting each other rather than turning on their oppressors.

Letter 10: Miss Pamela Coovert to Mr. Robert Lovelace
5 October 2007

Mr. Lovelace I am, in short, amazed at how much you are like my ex-boyfriend. Your love of deception, in particular, is what most reminds me of him. It’s almost like you would rather keep your absurd machinations in progress than be actually happy, in fact, I believe that is exactly the case. What I realize about you is what I never realized about him, which is that you cannot and will not allow yourself to be happy. The thing that brings you the most enjoyment in life is the power that comes from deceiving as many people as possible, even at times, yourself. You feel control and you associate that with happiness, or what you consider happiness which, by the way, is not real happiness. Real happiness comes from those foreign emotions that cause a tickle in your throat, that you turn away to conceal, happiness is an emotion that comes from an honest place, and those who do not know it can find something else to disguise as it, but happiness you do not really know. To have dated a sociopath and come out the other side, while amazing, it is nothing I am proud of, and so I sympathize all the more with Clarissa as I read. The kindness of her soul obliges her to find goodness in you, where there is next to none, and where you work actively to crush what is there. Without it I suppose you would be bored and, more than that, you would not have daily proof of your superiority, which is all you’re really after anyway. In the end though, it will turn in on itself, and consume you, for it is the fate of your kind, the snakes that eat their own tails.

Week 6

Letter 11: Miss Pamela Coovert to Herself
11 October 2007

So first of all I think we should be really proud of ourselves for keeping up on the reading, and, as we figure it, now that we’ve made it halfway through the minefield we can surely make our way out the other side. Correct? So that’s good and good for us, kudos! Now that that’s out of the way, I have to comment on this week’s scholarship reading, “Abuse and Atonement: The Passion of Clarissa Harlowe” by Peggy Thompson. I was considering it for my final paper, but I don’t think it will work for me, I don’t want to focus on the religious aspect of the novel unless, perhaps, it’s a comparison between Clarissa and Lil’ Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, now that’s a novel! Anyway, Thompson notes that a lot of scholarship on the novel doesn’t focus on the heinousness of the physical rape, but rather the rape as a symbolic act. I think that’s el bunk, if you will, not on Thompson’s part, but on the part of the critical community. I think it’s wretched to dismiss the physical trauma for the sake of symbolic interpretation, it feels like a continuation of the diminishing of women’s suffering through rape and sexual crimes in general. People focus on the power and general psychological/symbolic aspects of rape so frequently, in society as well as in literature, and I think it goes a long way towards belittling a crime with a strong physical component. We have to keep in mind that Clarissa is overly virtuous, religious, conservative, a virgin, and a virgin in a society that values young women only by her virgin status. This is such a colossal deal to Clarissa on so many real-world levels, it’s criminal to remove that from the reading.

Also, I’d like to note that in the “missing letter” from Lovelace to Belford (included only in the third edition of the novel) he mentions that he’s sure he’d be acquitted for any rape he actually did commit, if a woman dared to ruin her reputation further by prosecuting (and thus broadcasting “her” shame). Why? Because he’s handsome and charming and, the eternal argument, people would believe that she was “asking for it” on some level. Isn’t that what happens today? So why, I’m asking, has the Women’s Movement (raises fist) done so little to change this attitude, because it seems to me, that when it comes to rape, we’re still in the 18th century, and that’s just disturbing.

Week 7

Letter 12: Miss Pamela Coovert to Herself
23 October 2007

In New York last week I was unable to write about the events that unfolded in the text, plus I read ahead, so now I’m just confused. Also, in class last night, I realized that the time for us to “do something” with these journals is fast approaching, and I’m nervous (to say the least). Regardless, what can I say about pages 900-1050? Yay Clary, first and foremost, for sticking it to Lovelace the only way she knew how to – by threatening herself. Women’s Movement, anyone? Lovelace is pretty unhinged, Clarissa gets her pen (and penknife) back, Anna misunderstands yet remains vehement (does she do anything in a non-vehement way?), and Clary associates with low-lives (cough, Ms. Hodges, cough*). Me? I was too busy watching opera contemporary to the novel to be bothered to think about the novel, aside from how it relates to opera, or theater, and according to Dad he knows of a good parallel, which I’ve forgotten, but which I’m sure he’ll help me remember. I guess self-starvation is the main link between the two, I guess it was a pretty common theme. I was thinking of doing intertextual analysis between the play Dad suggests that Clarissa for my final paper, which is looming over me constantly. I’m having a really hard time trying to hash out a topic for the paper, especially considering that I have to link my paper to beauty and violence. Arg!

Even though I felt like the narrative was really propelled forward during this section of reading, the majority of what I want to comment on is on next week’s (this week, erm, week 8) reading. You can see, however, Clarissa undeniably getting her agency back in this section, writing to Lovelace’s family, which is quite bold, and endeavoring to get her father’s curse lifted.

* An aside: The only time I’ve actually laughed out loud while reading was during this letter, phonetic spelling by the lower classes? Hell yes!

Week 8

Letter 13: Miss Pamela Coovert to Mr. M– P–
26 October 2007

I thought it was a while since I wrote to you about our favorite tome, and this week’s reading was actually pretty interesting, so I thought I’d fill you in. Everyone’s all in a twist because they think Clary might be with child, if it’s so then I think I have a lot less respect for Richardson, since this problematizes her suicide not a little. People are debating the “suicide” thing in class, and it will probably pick up, but it is a suicide, those who disagree with me have their heads filled with fluffy romantic notions and are, quite simply, wrong. They need to go read romance novels with smarmy paintings of Fabio on the cover and leave the literature to the realists. Here’s a news flash, “broken heart” is an emotional state, not a medical condition! I can go into it more later, and almost certainly shall. Anyhoo, if Clarissa is knocked up with Lovelace IV or so (how many bastards did this guy father anyway? It’s left open in the novel) then it opens up the possibility that she’s killing herself so she won’t have to bear the fruit of Satan’s right hand mortal (as she sees Lovelace). Admittedly, he’s a bastage of the highest degree, but she’s an uber-Christian, you know, the impossible type, and isn’t killing unborn babies against their party line in a huge way? She strikes me as a real hard-liner, too, so Richardson slapping on pregnancy 1) Casts Clarissa’s morals into doubt and 2) Is a cheap 5th Act sympathy grab if there ever way one. Worse yet, since there’s no way a baby could live in a dying body, much like cancer to chemo, it would absolutely not make it to term … so is Clarissa trying to miscarry? I’m beginning to think that maybe Richardson is half great writer and half bumbling idiot like my article referenced (though it didn’t agree). Hopefully this will be put out of everyone’s minds, though Lovelace and the Family Hawlowe have both out and out wondered, so Richardson crammed in into the reader’s heads on purpose, no doubt.

Letter 14: Miss Pamela Coovert to Robert “Bob” Lovelace, Jerkward
26 October

What’s your damage, Lovelace?! I can’t believe you’re such an impatient ass that you would actually have the nerve to visit Clarissa when she’s trying to bust down Death’s door with her bony little emaciated shoulder. Christ on a pony! You’re so selfish it’s almost unbelievable! My question now is whether Richardson is going to be able to keep you even vaguely believable until you expiate (eyeroll), in my opinion he isn’t going to be able to. The scene where you’re harassing the shop keepers says as much about your character in eight pages at 1200 pages did before it, amazing. Your dreams always amuse me though, you really know how to look on the bright side of life, eh?

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