Let’s Get Literal: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 24/100Title: Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady
Author: Samuel Richardson
Year: 1748
Country: UK

Never again. Just never again.

Here’s the thing. After reading In Search of Lost Time I figured that I would be able to get through anything. I continued to believe this when I was able to get through The Lord of the Rings in about a month.

And then there was Clarissa. The longest book that was originally written in English, and one that spans nine volumes… yet those volumes only makes up a few months in Clarissa’s life(ish). As you can imagine, this is a book that just drags. With In Search For Lost Time it may have been relentlessly long, but at least it was meant to be the course of a person’s life.


So here’s the kicker, not only is it relentlessly long, but it is relentlessly harrowing. I seriously began to wonder during Volume 2 whether her last name of Harlow was chosen because it was so similar to harrow. I mean, I spent most of the book waiting for her to be raped. I knew it was coming since it was on a sleeve jacket I once read. This meant that, every now and then, I would just be wincing at my Kindle expectant for her to be drugged and raped by her kidnapper, Robert Lovelace.

Now, this is the point I would like to address every person that I have seen on the internet who has expressed any positive feeling towards the character of Lovelace. He is very much painted as the villain all the way through, but I am all for someone who is enjoyed as a villain. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, Stimpole in Bleak House and Wuthering Height’s Heathcliff are characters who are villains (yes, Heathcliff is a villain and I will not be convinced otherwise) where I understand people liking them. They are bad people, but they are interesting and you can sympathise with them in certain regards.

However, I refuse to accept sympathy for Lovelace. He is a kidnapper. He is a rapist. What’s worse, he is very self-aware that he is a bastard. Self-aware, yet he does not understand that rape doesn’t equal a woman willingly marrying you. If you think of him as any way of being a hero or antihero then, in all honesty, you are a rape apologist pure and simple.

Now, I’ve spent a while looking at Lovelace. What about characters who are good? Clarissa is an amazing character when it comes to morality and sticking true to what you believe in. She does not want to marry someone she feels she won’t be able to love. She doesn’t want to be held captive. She wants to be free to love who she chooses. Not really a lot to ask nowadays, but nearly impossible for her back in the 1780s.

The only light in Clarissa is her friend Anna, whose letters provide some comfort for Clarissa and Belford. Now, Belford is an interesting character who only really emerges in the latter half. He is introduced as a member of Lovelace’s aristocratic libertine gang. The development is slow until Volume 7 where he suddenly is shown to be what Lovelace would have been if he had a conscience. Belford is one of those people who could easily have been a villain, but his inner nature means he ends up trying to protect Clarissa whilst also keeping his friend Lovelace on side. It is a hard tightrope to walk and he does it as well as he possibly can.

In the end, Clarissa is a morality play/novel. Since is it told through a long series of correspondence you end up completely in the minds of the characters themselves. This is what makes reading Lovelace’s letters so hard. I just felt dirty doing so.

The point of the book (within the book) is a warning to girls of how such an exceptional lady could have fallen and not to repeat her mistakes. It also tries to give all characters some form of comeuppance. I am gratified the way that Clarissa’s father and Mrs Sinclair ended up, for example, and I am glad that Anna and Belford had some form of a happy ending.

I don’t feel that Lovelace receives his just desserts. I don’t care that he gets the comeuppance that the laws of civility dictated. I wanted him to go in the way of many characters in the prison drama Oz. Yes, I hated him that much.

As for Clarissa, for the author to make his point she had to die. It’s long and it’s horrible, but there was no way she would be able to make her way through it. The writing is on the wall at the end of Volume 3 that there is only one way out of this, even more so by the time you get to Volume 6.

It’s a hard hard read, but I am glad that I gave it the time of day. Even if it is to just say that I know the story of Clarissa Harlowe.


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