Saturday, April 19, 2008

Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson

I have a confession: occasionally, I start a novel without finishing it. By occasionally, I actually mean “very rarely.” I typically feel this inexplicable obligation to finish a novel once it's begun, which often forces me into hours of grudgingly dutiful page-turning. But, as my confession stated, I don't always go through the motions. Sometimes, I get so frustrated with a book, that I toss it aside -- the pages fluttering open in a flourish -- and breathe a sigh of relief as I choose a fresh book to begin.

There are only two books that I've abandoned within the past couple of years. One is The Food of Love, by Anthony Capella. The smooth, tempting paperback cost only $4 at a local outlet store, and because the back cover promised a "delicious" adventure through Italy, I couldn't resist. About a third of the way through, I determined that the book was pure trash with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Toss.

The other book is Pledged, by Alexandra Robbins. Missy really enjoyed this book, so I thought that I would too. However, for some reason, I could not get into it. Again, I read about a third of it before growing so bored that I found myself craving some Tolstoy. Now, I like Tolstoy a lot. But you get the picture. Toss.

A third book threatened to become part of this novelistic waste pile: Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson. I must preface this discussion by noting that I did not elect to read this book; rather, it was assigned for my 18th century literature class. However, I could have closely read most of it and then skimmed the rest. Or I could have tossed it aside partway through and been a "bad" student. I won't lie; I was tempted to toss. At times, the prose was tedious and frustrating. But the guilt of being "bad" combined with the investment I had already put into the first half of the book ultimately persuaded me to complete the entire novel. I can't tell you how glad I am to have made that decision.

Clarissa, in its full text, is over a million words. My professor's unabridged copy is 1500 pages long. Luckily, we read an abridged version (the Riverside Edition) for class, which adds up to slightly over 500 pages. That's the version I recommend.

The novel was first published in 1748 in London. The mid-18th century was a time of textual proliferation in England, particularly in the city. Religious tracts and political pamphlets rivaled proper "books" in production volume, but English citizens still heartily craved a good story. Authors like Richardson seized the opportunity to moralize, producing didactic stories that both instructed and entertained.

Richardson was both a printer and an author. His prior novel, Pamela (1740), is hailed as the first English romance novel. Clarissa has been deemed the longest novel in the English language. It's also known for its epistolary format. This format is at times frustrating, but it allowed Richardson's characters to write "to the moment." The separation between the events, as they occur, and the characters' documentation of those events is minimal, thus providing us with a psychologically in-depth look into the characters that even third person omniscient narrative can sometimes lack.

Allow me to adumbrate the basic storyline of Clarissa; any further discussion would threaten to give away too much. There are two main threads of letters, each between a pair of best friends: one is between Clarissa Harlowe and Anna Howe, and the other is between Robert Lovelace and John Belford. Clarissa is a virtuous young lady who is principled in every way. At the start of the story, she is a beloved favorite among her family. Lovelace is an infamous womanizer whose principles are glaringly absent.

The novel begins with the description of a duel between Lovelace and Clarissa's brother. We thus know, from the onset, that strong tensions exist between the Harlowes and Lovelace. Clarissa's sister, Anabella, had once loved Lovelace, but he did not love her in return; he instead chose to offer his attentions to Clarissa. This rejection incensed Anabella, and when the family began to note partiality on Clarissa's end as well, they felt they needed to take drastic measures to ensure that Clarissa and Lovelace would never be united.

Anabella's personal jealousy combined with the family's general antipathy toward Lovelace created an impenetrable wall of hatred from which a million words of text pour forth. This hatred is the seed of Clarissa's trials and misfortunes. This hatred proves stronger than familal ties and pits Clarissa against her own family, as she fights both to retain her family's love and the right to choose her own marriage partner.

Clarissa's family implores her to marry Roger Solmes, a repulsive and ignorant man whose only merit is his money. She refuses, and they suspect that her feelings for Lovelace have motivated her refusal. Thus, the war begins. Imploration turns to compulsion, but Clarissa still resists.

Meanwhile, Lovelace begs Clarissa to run away from home with him to escape her family's domination; her morals battle with her desperation, but her desperation finally proves stronger. Once she's thrown herself into the power of the infamous womanizer, however, Clarissa feels immediate regret. Yet she is no longer the mistress of her own destiny, and Lovelace's desire for revenge against the Harlowes combined with his insatiable sensual appetite trap Clarissa in a web of dishonesty and deceit.

The novel's conclusion is a powerful, heart-wrenching example of the didacticism which Richardson and some of his contemporaries upheld as the primary goal of writing. The lessons are clear, the virtuous paths are illuminated, and even the formerly evil are given chances for redemption. Who survives -- physically and spiritually -- must only be revealed, of course, through your own journey through the text. The occasional tediousness is outweighed, I feel, by the story's beautiful thematic complexity and its reflection upon 18th century English society, which a historical account, or even a straightforward "traditional" narrative, rarely equals or surpasses.

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