There are certain classics I am intimidated to review, both because they are beyond my full comprehension and because I don’t think I can do the parts I understand full justice. Samuel Richardson was not only a pioneer of the novel form, but is also considered the first author to write a “bestseller”. His novel Pamela took the same form as Clarissa would later, in the latter’s 1748 publication: epistolary. This style, comprised entirely of letters written among characters, allows for deep characterization. While the narrator(s) can be less dependable than third person or omniscient view, it’s quite a poignant and engaging form–especially when the reader knows something the characters don’t.
Richardson’s Clarissa centers around his title character—a nineteen-year-old, well-to-do maiden in the 1700s. Pressured unendingly by her family to marry a man she despises, and increasingly robbed of personal agency, Clarissa is faced with the desperate decision of whether to marry the man, or escape with another admirer of hers: a gentleman by the name of Robert Lovelace. Her decision will irrevocably alter not only her future, but her reputation and connection to her family. While the novel was written during the sentimental fever of the 18th century (critics then and now complain of the drawn out, emotional languishing of characters) there are positive elements in the amazing work—the longest novel written in the English language, at over one million words—that capture one’s attention and imagination.
To clarify, our university class read the Broadview Editions abridged version, which is about seven hundred pages, or 45% of the full novel. The editors endeavor to keep the meat of the plot, so the result is a fairly thorough representation of Richardson’s story.
Here are the positive things I admired about Clarissa:
First, in the introduction, Richardson gives this ultimate reason for its creation:
“…above all, To investigate the highest and most important Doctrines not only of Morality, but of Christianity, by shewing them thrown into action in the conduct of the worthy characters; while the unworthy, who set those Doctrines at defiance, are condignly, and, as may be said, consequentially, punished.”
Today, artists are often encouraged to cloak their true meaning and message somewhat in order to avoid affronting others. In a society that pushes the relevancy of everyone’s personal truth, it’s encouraging to see such an enduringly classic author be explicit about his beliefs. It proves that firm conviction and good reception are not mutually exclusive, then or now.
While the sentences are long and the prose denser than today’s audience is used to, Richardson’s characterization is superb. He takes his time fleshing out figures who are not only well-rounded, but contradictory at times: layered. Even minor characters are given due attention. Nuances and mysterious actions and thoughts are intriguing throughout the plot. In my opinion, the effort and thought given to characters here is much beyond the modern norm.
The plot is complex, with thrilling contrivances by more than one character, and intellectual and psychological battles. It’s not just a story about a trapped, withering 1700s woman. There’s drama. There are captures. There is bloodshed. It’s intense. And, as Richardson promises, moral issues are examined in surprising complexity: What is honor? Does it matter? If so, what is false honor? What is true friendship? Or actual love? What is forgiveness? Can it be not okay to forgive?
With an epistolary, character-driven story, it’s nearly impossible not to get attached. If you have enough time to gradually trek through Clarissa, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re a growing classics scholar, or a writer, it’s definitely beneficial to read at least an abridged version. The amount of insights into writing, and the skill, Richardson presents will stick with me for a long time.
Lastly, here are some of my favorite quotes:
“The person who will bear much shall have much to bear, all the world thro’.”
“And now I found my presumption punished—Punished, as other sins frequently are, by itself!”
“I am half-sorry to say, that I find a pleasure in playing the Tyrant over what I love. Call it an ungenerous pleasure, if thou wilt: Softer hearts than mine know it. The women to a woman know it, and shew it too, whenever they are trusted with power…”
“Yet, God knows my heart, I had no culpable intentions!—I honoured Virtue!—I hated Vice!—But I knew not, that you were Vice itself!”
As you can see, the style is different from what modern readers are used to; but the view into 1700s life, and the values that attend it, is so immersive—and at times similar to our own—that I often forgot about that. Once I got about three hundred pages in, reading through the style began to feel more natural.
So definitely pick up Clarissa. It is an amazing, iconic work of skill and art and morality. You will not be disappointed. Five stars.
What are you reading right now?