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Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady (1747)

by Samuel Richardson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,2312610,958 (3.47)1 / 364
Pressured by her unscrupulous family to marry a wealthy man she detests, the young Clarissa Harlowe is tricked into fleeing with the witty and debonair Robert Lovelace and places herself under his protection. Lovelace, however, proves himself to be an untrustworthy rake whose vague promises of marriage are accompanied by unwelcome and increasingly brutal sexual advances. And yet, Clarissa finds his charm alluring, her scrupulous sense of virtue tinged with unconfessed desire. Told through a complex series of interweaving letters, Clarissa is a richly ambiguous study of a fatally attracted couple and a work of astonishing power and immediacy. A huge success when it first appeared in 1747, and translated into French and German, it remains one of the greatest of all European novels.… (more)

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English (23)  French (1)  All languages (24)
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
An epistolary novel, one of the first, I believe. It is of astonishing sameness, but is a fine example of 1740's soft porn. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Oct 11, 2019 |
This was an 18th century story of Clarissa Harlowe, a young girl, who rather than be forced by her family to marry a man she despises, is aided in running away by a real scoundrel. This book is written in epistolary form with Clarissa and her best friend, Miss Howe, being the primary letter writers. Miss Howe is a true friend to Clarissa throughout the very sad story. This was a very long book and began to drag in the middle when Clarissa and her friend constantly moralize on their fates; it's very repetitive. There are some parts that are unbelievable; such as when Clarissa is moved to a lodging, which in reality is a brothel (twice) and she has no idea. Maybe naivety is supposed to be part of the story line; but from the beginning one would not assume Clarissa to be naive. 1534 pages ( )
  Tess_W | Jun 29, 2019 |
In Clarissa, Richardson solves certain technical problems coming from the letter form, one being the limited point of view and limited consciousness of the single letter-writer evident in Pamela. In Clarissa he extends the letter writing to a whole cast of characters with different views of the action, different moral principles, and different education. One character is usually the dominant letter-writer; this position moves from Clarissa to Lovelace to Belford to Morden at the very end. We can see an action from several writers who differ in their physical relation to it, their moral attitudes, and their expectations about what could and should come next.
Even when Clarissa herself is doing most of the writing in the beginning, comments by Anna Howe and others emphasize Clarissa’s isolation and also preserve some objectivity and perspective. Richardson is careful to differentiate styles, giving Howe a livelier and less circumlocutious style than Clarissa’s, even though the girls are of comparable age, interest, social position, and clear-headedness. In one letter early on Howe predicts the outcome of the present situation in words that could not come from Clarissa (of whom Johnson says, “there is always something which she prefers to truth”). Again, it is Howe who tells Clarissa that “punctilio is out of doors” if she once leaves her father’s house with Lovelace.
Lovelace is well-characterized, not to say that Richardson can really write like an educated rake, but Lovelace is splendidly evil and differentiated from his brother rakes, Belford and Mowbray. Belford was never an enthusiastic reprobate, and Mowbray is cruder than the others, as he shows in a letter after Clarissa’s death. Lovelace has a refinement that makes his intrigues more elaborate, and his enthusiasm is damnable and engaging at once. Lovelace sets up dramatic devices, such as the dinner party where Clarissa innocently comments on her fellow diners without knowing they are rakes and prostitutes. The method of “writing to the moment” is already as close to drama as you can get in narrative, and Richardson frequently sets up the narrative as drama, with speech headings, stage directions, and act/scene designations. Lovelace is in fact personating various characters: one for the landlady, another for Clarissa—and bringing in other actors who are playing parts to fool Clarissa. Lovelace’s letters occasionally turn into soliloquy, and his use of ironic self-justification approaches the comic.
The letters are also plot devices. They are written, but also “copied, sent, received, shown about, discussed, answered, even perhaps hidden, intercepted, stolen, altered, or forged” (McKillop, The Early Masters of English Fiction). Belford’s futile attempts to dissuade Lovelace from his designs on Clarissa are as ineffective as Anna Howe’s attempt to persuade Clarissa to marry Lovelace before and after the rpe. Lovelace’s forged and altered letters, on the other hand, are most effective in bringing about his purposes and keeping Clarissa ignorant of them.
The letter technique never completely breaks down in Clarissa as it does inPamela, when Richardson seems forced to insert a narrative transition. But Richardson chooses to enter the narrative many times, in notes between letters and footnotes where he tries to keep his readers’ sympathies correctly aligned, bowdlerizes, or condenses, as when he omits the early Clarissa/Lovelace correspondence or cuts and abstracts, from the posthumous letters of Clarissa, for example. All this gives a distinct impression of the physical reality of the letters as artifacts, present on the “editor’s” desk.
There are still drawbacks to the method, partly aggravated by what Sherburn calls Richardson’s “prolix fondling of episodes” (A Literary History of England). The letter writers remember impossibly involved sequences of incidents and long passages of dialogue fraught with nuances. We wonder how they could have found time to writ their voluminous letters. Dorothy Van Ghent complains that the letter form “slows down the pace of the story almost intolerably” (The English Novel: Form and Function), but if we compare an epistolary novel like Humphry Clinker, we suspect that the pace is all Richardson’s doing and none of the form’s.
The key to the success of the technique here is that it opens up the book and lets the reader in. We only have, I believe, a very limited identification with either Pamela or Clarissa in the sense that we get inside their characters and see them as us. They are monsters—not in the way Fielding thought Pamela a moral monster, but in the sense that they do successfully resist what Richardson tries to depict as irresistible forces. Pamela resists the guile and force of Mr. B, and if we see the depicted actions as merely representative of the attack Pamela has to fend off, her story is one of almost impossibly triumphant virtue. In that sense she is difficult to identify with, as Aristotle said was the case with heroes who were too good. Clarissa is similarly difficult to inhabit, not in her successful resistance to rape, but in her resistance to pressure from everyone to marry Lovelace, who is rich and attractive in addition to the love he so assiduously feigns. In the middle of the book, when Lovelace proposes repeatedly to Clarissa, while Anna Howe is urging her to marry him and Clarissa’s parents are saying that marrying him is the only thing she can do, we find ourselves saying “Do it! Why are you hesitating?” even though we know Lovelace’s character and his whole mind. Clarissa’s constant awareness, despite her youth and comparative innocence, without the special knowledge we have, that Lovelace will not do as a husband for her—that is what makes her so different from you and me. It makes her “an Exemplar to her sex” at the same time it makes her difficult to identify with.
Richardson allows us to enter the novel by using multiple correspondents. More specifically, the characters of Anna Howe and Belford, and to a slighter extent Colonel Morden, are the means by which we can get into the action of Clarissa as participants who are enough like us. The very ineffectualness of Howe and Belford is indicative of this function: like us, they are forced to watch what happens with precious little power to affect it one way or another. When Belford exhorts Lovelace not to hurt Clarissa the admonition has no more force than our hissing at the villain from the audience of a melodrama. Anna Howe tells Clarissa to marry Lovelace, and so do we—both she and we acting probably against our better judgment but wanting something other than the tragic alternative we suspect is coming. They are surrogates for us as readers completely unable to affect the action, and we are inside them urging some hopeful move.
Colonel Morden’s function is slightly different in terms of his effect on the reader. He comes, against the professed better judgment of Richardson, who supposedly condemned duels, to bring about poetic justice, or at least revenge. It is curious that there are so many duels in Richardson, but he would probably say it was a pity that there were so many real and attempted rapes, too, in life as well as in his books, but that does not show he approved of them. At any rate we may identify with Morden, and at last our identification allows us to participate in action. We help kill Lovelace, we too have some second thoughts about whether we should have done it, but at least it allows some feeling of resolution of the action, dispersion of the emotional tension, and feeling of having done something.
1 vote michaelm42071 | Jul 12, 2018 |
My worst intellectual flaw is my poor memory. I have been reading all my life and can still tell you what I've read and haven't, but few details from any of it remain permanently lodged (thus the personal value of writing reviews). The plot of this 1,500 page novel is simple enough I'll retain that much, but the ocean of emotions, the flood of quotable bits, those are going to escape me. What I'll be able to hang onto is how it has made me feel: very, very full. Resuming my reading each time was, emotionally speaking, like plugging back into an electrical socket.

Most impressive is that it was a memorable and fascinating experience even though not much actually happens for all the size of this behemoth. The ratio in length between the hugeness of this novel and a summary of its action is frankly ridiculous: the back cover of my edition managed it shamelessly in one short sentence. You'll benefit from knowing the overarching story in advance, but to avoid spoilers and only speak metaphorically: it is about the tempting of an angel by a devil, where the angel is reluctant to believe anyone is truly evil and the devil is convinced he can prove or make every angel a fallen creature.

Although it could have been condensed to a fifth of its length or less, here is a case where sheer size lends a work its greatness. Small events are made momentous through being viewed and considered from every conceivable angle. These characters have an opinion to share on everything, and every position is brilliantly argued. Back-and-forth correspondence and the artfulness of rhetoric and self-deceptions won me over early on, convincing me to persevere and soon to enjoy. Suspense is often built on the back of nothing greater than wondering how someone will reply to some modest proposal or other, and yet I felt that suspense. Much of the driving thrust of most novels, 'what action happens next?', is replaced here with 'how will X possibly respond to Y?' or 'When will Y realize the deception of X?' Characters are written into corners and write their way back out brilliantly, over the course of 537 letters all told. There's nothing cold about this exercise; almost every letter tweaks the heart, be it to feel empathy and compassion, chuckle at a spot of humour, or experience outrage and demand justice.

There is one problem towards the end: the exhortation by virtually everyone for Clarissa to get over herself and marry her rapist, as if that would be a happy ending. At least Clarissa herself wears something closer to our 21st century views, even if she can't frame it that way.

Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Samuel Richardson, said of this work "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." The good doctor has summarized my own sentiment perfectly. ( )
  Cecrow | Nov 17, 2017 |
Well, after finishing U.S.A. at 1,300 pages or so, what better way to follow it up than to write a review of a novel that's even bigger?

What surprised me most about this novel is how readable it is. For its size and the era in which it was written, this is one of the most readable novels I've tackled. That is very definitely something to be thankful for.

The story basically revolves around the eponymous heroine Clarissa who, being the sole inheritor of her grandfather's estate, finds herself the victim of family plotting when they attempt to force her to marry a man she has absolutely no feelings for.

Resolutely standing her ground only results in Clarissa being completely isolated by her so-called family who virtually imprison her in solitary confinement within the family home.

Fearing that she will be dragged to the alter and committed against her will, she seeks escape and the supposed safe house offered by Lovelace, a man who comes across as a valiant aide in time of trouble. We readers however, are aware of his ulterior motives as Richardson relates his tale entirely in letters between various of the characters.

Clarissa's frying pan becomes Clarissa's fire as she discovers Lovelace's true purpose. And while this plot is enough to drive the novel on for well over 1,000 pages, quite unbelievably, it culminates in a living room scene that is as damp as a damp squib can be. I honestly thought I'd perhaps missed segment of the audio version I listened to on Librivox (which I recommend actually). Quite inexplicable.

Still, Richardson's novel is a masterful study of misogyny. Lovelace (the pronunciation of whose name is no coincidence) writes some absolutely writhing letters to his friends in which you can't help but see Richardson's criticism of his contemporary "rake." It's scathing.

And through it all, of course, Clarissa's virtue remains a bastion of impregnability. If this had been written by a woman, it would be a seminal feminist text. But it wasn't, so it isn't. Too bad. ( )
1 vote arukiyomi | Oct 13, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richardson, Samuelprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brett, SimonIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Butt, John EverettIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ross, AngusEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stinstra, JanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, AngusIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family.
The person who will bear much shall have much to bear, all the world through.
But what will not these men say to obtain belief, and a power over one?
Why was such a woman as this thrown in my way, whose very fall will be her glory, and perhaps not only my shame, but my destruction?
Marriage, with these women, thou seest, Jack, is an atonement for all we can do to them.
There is a good and a bad light in which everything that befalls us may be taken. If the human mind will busy itself to make the worst of every disagreeable occurrence, it will never want woe.
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ISBN 0140432159 is NOT a Signet Classic abridgment edition
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Average: (3.47)
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