Review: Clarissa

Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (Penguin Classics)Clarissa
by Samuel Richardson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Clarissa / 0-140-43215-9

You've got to feel sorry for Richardson. After some careful soul-searching over the literary success of his earlier and similarly-themed (but more cheerfully ended) Pamela, he decided that he'd pen a novel for the ages, a novel that would finally put to rest the idea that reformed rapists make good husbands. Imagine his disappointment when his laboriously long novel, full of the evil wrongdoings of the horrible Mr. Lovelace, only evoked passionate sighs from the literary community as they waited for the `inevitable' (in their minds) wedding between lovely Clarissa and cruel Lovelace.

"Clarissa" is one of the longest English novels ever written. The plot advances through the sometimes tortuously slow "letter writing method", wherein Miss Clarissa writes her friends breathlessly describing the horrible things that have occurred to her within the past hours, weeks, or months. As a person, Clarissa embodies a struggle between the genders and classes of her time; her family resents her inheritance and intends to marry her forcibly off to a much older gentleman in the expectation that he will die before conceiving an heir and his wealth will revert to Clarissa's family. She despairs of being used in this manner, but can't really bring herself to elope with the more eligible Lovelace, because she doesn't exactly think that much of him, either - Clarissa would like to love, or at least like, the man she marries.

Nevertheless, Lovelace persuades her to run off with him for her own safety and, once ensconced in his home, he brutally and cruelly rapes her, expecting that she will be forced to marry him once he takes her virginity. Clarissa stuns the conventions of the day and takes Lovelace to court and then slowly and perversely (again, according to conventional mores, not our own) wastes away and dies from a broken heart. Lovelace echoes the conventions of his day, wondering in confusion what crime he could have committed against Clarissa that a wedding ring wouldn't have set right? Richardson insists that it isn't that simple - marriage does not magically create love where there was once hate and fear.

The story itself is wonderful, but the pacing is *very* slow. Clarissa's letters span dozens of pages to describe a single afternoon's worth of action. Richardson labors over hundreds of pages to ensure that the society of his day would not find Clarissa too disobedient for refusing her family's marriage plans - we are treated to pages and pages of insistence that Clarissa really IS a sweet, perfect, wonderful girl.

I do not say all this to denigrate the novel in any way - this is an important classic, and a crucial piece of our literary history, but a reader needs to know what they may be purchasing and choose accordingly - no one likes to waste money. If you are brave enough to slog through this novel, you will find it touching, fascinating, and an important turning point in gender relations. Just be aware that there is quite a time investment you're getting into when you start Clarissa.

~ Ana Mardoll

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