Clarissa – Samuel Richardson (progress report)


Inspired by I’ve Been Reading Lately, I’ve been reading Samuel Richardson’s great epistolary novel Clarissa on the dates the letters in the novel were written. I’m now 500 pages in, only 1,000 pages to go! So, I thought it was time for a report on my progress with Clarissa now that I’m completely in the swing of things.

I have to admit that I haven’t always been able to read the letters on the exact day. Clarissa writes so much, her letters go on for pages (& the Penguin edition is a large format paperback with quite small print) & there were times when I almost gave up in despair at the amount she could write about the smallest incidents. Turning them this way & that, looking at them from every point of view, agonising over the implications of everyone’s behaviour. This is stream of consciousness 150 years before Dorothy Richardson (is she any relation to Sam, I wonder?) & Virginia Woolf. The Penguin edition is also heavy so it’s difficult to read when either of the cats are on my lap & impossible to take to work for my lunchtime walk. Luckily I also have the Complete Works of Richardson on my Kindle thanks to Delphi Classics so I’ve been reading the eBook as well as the paperback. So, I am up to date & looking forward to the next instalment. Once I’ve finished the book, I’ll be interested to read some of the other books in the Delphi edition, especially the Remarks on Clarissa & the biography by Sir Walter Scott.

So, now that the practicalities are out of the way, here’s a summary of the plot so far. Clarissa Harlowe is a beautiful, virtuous young woman in easy circumstances. Her grandfather favours her over her sister, Arabella, & brother, James, & has left her an estate. James is incensed by this & is determined to force Clarissa to marry Mr Solmes whose property adjoins the grandfather’s estate. This will enable James to gain control over the property as Solmes is completely under his sway. Arabella has been courted by Robert Lovelace, a wealthy man but with a dubious reputation as a rake. She declines his attentions but then is furious when he turns his attention to Clarissa. Clarissa is intrigued by Lovelace but his bad reputation gives her pause for reflection.

Clarissa’s family, including her parents, uncles & aunt, imprison her & try to force her to marry Solmes. Her mother is sympathetic but completely under the sway of her husband & son. Clarissa’s faithful servant, Hannah, is dismissed, & Arabella’s saucy maid, Betty, now waits on Clarissa, spying on all she does. Clarissa has been drawn into a correspondence with Lovelace which, when discovered by the family, incenses James who has fought a duel with Lovelace in the past. Clarissa’s only resource is writing letters to her friend, Anna Howe. The letters are ingeniously hidden in a hen house (Clarissa is allowed to walk in the garden & tend her poultry) & collected by Anna’s servant. Anna is my favourite character & her letters are a relief after Clarissa’s agonising. Witty, confident & loyal, Anna would offer Clarissa refuge but her mother, influenced by the Harlowes, has turned against Clarissa & forbids the correspondence (although, of course, it carries on regardless).

Lovelace contrives to meet Clarissa in the garden several times &, eventually, tricks her into running away with him. She is now in St Albans, living in an inn with Lovelace although they pass as brother & sister. Her virtue is still intact although Lovelace has designs on this. His letters to his rackety friend, Jack, expose all his machinations & the snares he is leading Clarissa into. He is plotting to get her to London, telling her that he has respectable lodgings organised for her & that he will leave her once she’s settled there. He’s also holding out the lure of recognition from his family. However, he is manipulating everyone, including Anna Howe, behind the scenes with the help of his servants to marry Clarissa or seduce her if marriage looks unlikely. Clarissa is adamant that she will not marry Solmes but she’s unsure about Lovelace as well. Obviously attracted to him, she doesn’t altogether trust him.

I’ll end with a quote from one of Clarissa’s letters to Anna which explains Clarissa precisely. How she’s getting hold of the paper, pens & ink to do all this writing, is a question that cannot be asked. The reader willingly suspends disbelief in the rush to find out what happens next.

And indeed, my dear, I know not how to forbear writing. I have now no other employment or diversion. And I must write on, although I were not to send it to any body. You have often heard me own the advantages I have found from writing down every thing of moment that befalls me; and of all I think, and of all I do, that may be of future use to me; for, besides that this helps to form one to a style, and opens and expands the ductile m ind, every one will find that many a good thought evaporates in thinking; many a good resolution goes off, driven out of memory perhaps by some other not so good. But when I set down what I will do, or what I have done, on this or that occasion; the resolution or action is before me either to be adhered to, withdrawn or amended; and I have entered into compact with myself, as I may say; having given it under my own hand to improve, rather than to go backward, as I live longer.