Clarissa, The History of a Young Lady is by Samuel Richardson and was first published in 1748. It is one of the longest novels ever written and the longest novel in the English language. To put that in context - Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, the Guinness World Record holder for the longest novel, is about 1,267,069 words long. Clarissa is less - 984,870 words according to the New York Times. That's about 200,000 words more than the Bible (783,137 words), but 105,869 less than the Harry Potter series (1,090,739 words). Length-wise, then, clearly half-way between the Bible and Harry Potter. It is undoubtedly huge - the kind of book that tears if not held properly, and with no support whilst reading can easily injure one's wrists (I speak from experience). Is it worth it? Oh yes. Definitely.
You would think for a novel this length I would write a monster length review to go with it, but no - Clarissa, despite all that, is straight forward in its plot. Furthermore, I think it can be divided into three parts - to go too far in describing the first part would ruin the reader's experience and I wouldn't want to do that to anyone. The full title of Clarissa sums up the whole book best without giving away any plot details:
THE MOST IMPORTANT
CONCERNS OF PRIVATE LIFE
And particularly showing
ᴛʜᴇ ᴅɪsᴛʀᴇss ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴍᴀʏ ᴀᴛᴛᴇɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ
ᴍɪsᴄᴏɴᴅᴜᴄᴛ ʙᴏᴛʜ ᴏғ ᴘᴀʀᴇɴᴛs ᴀɴᴅ ᴄʜɪʟᴅʀᴇɴ,
ɪɴ ʀᴇʟᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴛᴏ ᴍᴀʀʀɪᴀɢᴇ.
In terms of action - well, it's not half-way between the Bible and Harry Potter. What happens is important of course, but what this novel is really about is emotion. Samuel Johnson wrote that Clarissa was "the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart". He did however concede, when someone remarked that Richardson was rather tedious,
Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment. [from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell]
It is slow, I'll give the critic that. But no, it's not tedious at all. The heroine is Clarissa Harlowe, the daughter of the newly wealthy and ambitious James Harlowe and Lady Charlotte Harlowe. She has two siblings - James (the younger) and Arabella, and two uncles - Antony and John Harlowe. Her best and dearest friend is Anna Howe. Through a series of letters (537 of them, from 10th January to 18th December) we learn first from Miss Howe that Clarissa's brother James has fought and been wounded in a duel with Robert Lovelace, The story begins with Miss Howe writing to Clarissa (dated 10th January),
I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbance that have happened in your family. I know how it must hurt you to become the subject of the public talk: and yet, upon an occasion so generally known, it is impossible but that whatever relates to a young lady, whose distinguished merits have made her the public care, should engage every body's attention. I long to have the particulars from yourself; and of the usage I am told you receive upon an accident you could not help; and in which, as far as I can learn, the sufferer was the aggressor.
Mr. Diggs, the surgeon, whom I sent for at the first hearing of the rencounter, to inquire, for your sake, how your brother was, told me, that there was no danger from the wound, if there were none from the fever; which it seems has been increased by the perturbation of his spirits.
Mr. Wyerley drank tea with us yesterday; and though he is far from being partial to Mr. Lovelace, as it may well be supposed, yet both he and Mr. Symmes blame your family for the treatment they gave him when he went in person to inquire after your brother's health, and to express his concern for what had happened.
They say, that Mr. Lovelace could not avoid drawing his sword: and that either your brother's unskilfulness or passion left him from the very first pass entirely in his power.
|Clarissa by John Everett Millais (1887).|
Robert Lovelace is the novel's anti-hero, a sort of combination of Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff, though with such cunning and lack of regard of others' emotions one can easily suppose he is far more of a sociopath than Heathcliff ever was (even his name suggests it - "Lovelace" sounding very much like "Loveless" when spoken aloud). Clarissa is the very opposite - an archetypical English heroine - beautiful, virtuous, kind, generous, intelligent, a good writer, and accomplished. Yet Lovelace and Clarissa are drawn to each other somehow. Following the duel it is out of the question of their making a match, and besides Clarissa certainly knows how unsuitable a husband Lovelace would be. Her parents decide that Roger Solmes would be the perfect husband for Clarissa, despite the fact that she despises him. She writes to Anna (Letter VIII, 24th February) of their persistence - her family's and Solmes,
They drive on here at a furious rate. The man lives here, I think. He courts them, and is more and more a favourite. Such terms, such settlements! That's the cry.
O my dear, that I had not reason to deplore the family fault, immensely rich as they all are! But this I may the more unreservedly say to you, as we have often joined in the same concern: I, for a father and uncles; you, for a mother; in every other respect, faultless.
Hitherto, I seem to be delivered over to my brother, who pretends as great a love to me as ever.
You may believe I have been very sincere with him. But he affects to rally me, and not to believe it possible, that one so dutiful and discreet as his sister Clary can resolve to disoblige all her friends.
Indeed, I tremble at the prospect before me; for it is evident that they are strangely determined.
My father and mother industriously avoid giving me opportunity of speaking to them alone. They ask not for my approbation, intended, as it should seem, to suppose me into their will. And with them I shall hope to prevail, or with nobody. They have not the interest in compelling me, as my brother and sister have: I say less therefore to them, reserving my whole force for an audience of my father, if he will permit me a patient ear. How difficult is it, my dear, to give a negative where both duty and inclination join to make one wish to oblige!
I have already stood the shock of three of this man's particular visits, besides my share in his more general ones; and find it is impossible I should ever endure him. He has but a very ordinary share of understanding; is very illiterate; knows nothing but the value of estates, and how to improve them, and what belongs to land-jobbing and husbandry. Yet I am as one stupid, I think. They have begun so cruelly with me, that I have not spirit enough to assert my own negative.
They had endeavoured it seems to influence my good Mrs. Norton before I came home—so intent are they to carry their point! And her opinion not being to their liking, she has been told that she would do well to decline visiting here for the present: yet she is the person of all the world, next to my mother, the most likely to prevail upon me, were the measures they are engaged in reasonable measures, or such as she could think so.
My aunt likewise having said that she did not think her niece could ever be brought to like Mr. Solmes, has been obliged to learn another lesson.
And so we have two men - Solmes and Lovelace, and, as Anna Howe remarks,
What a fatality, that you have no better an option—either a Scylla or a Charybdis [Letter XII, 25th March]
|Samuel Richardson by Joseph Highmore (1750).|
But Clarissa is more than that: it's a novel of moods and emotion - the very feel of the novel peaks and dips, Richardson is an absolute master in this respect of portraying feelings of fear and tension. The situation may be a mess but Richardson isn't - he is in complete control and events are easily followed bar one incident whereby, for the sake of 18th Century decency, he was unable to be explicit. Nevertheless, the mood of the novel changes again and the reader is in no doubt of the reasons for the ensuing drama.
And so it plays out - the majority of the letters are between Clarissa and Anna, and Lovelace and John Belford, who is as near to a friend as Lovelace can manage. As Clarissa is an archetypical English heroine, he is the archetype of English villains: cruel, deceitful, immoral, yet very handsome and charismatic. He spends more time describing Clarissa's clothes and how she frustrates his endeavours than worrying about her own distress and fear. Yet Richardson's villain is entirely convincing, and so is Clarissa - it would take a very hard heart not to appreciate that she is, as Anna Howe remarked, caught between a Scylla and a Charybdis.
Clarissa is Samuel Richardson's masterpiece I think, though I have not yet read Sir Charles Grandison (1753), I have read Pamela (1740; I'm frankly surprised it's by the same author - I thought Pamela was dreadful). Once one gets past the slight struggle of reading 18th Century English, Clarissa is very readable and very hard to put down. Though long, and though with a slow plot, the range of it, the sensitivity and depth is outstanding. It is one of the greatest novels ever written, it's only problem is its length. As Eneas Sweetland Dallas (the editor of the abridged 18688 version) wrote,
He [Richardson] gives us indeed gold, but the gold is shapen into a goblet so huge that few of us can lift it to our lips.That is the challenge, but it is worth persisting.