Sunday, December 27, 2015

“Clarissa; Or, The History Of A Young Lady”

In 1962, a columnist in the Florence, Alabama, Times wrote that “the longest popular novel ever published was ‘Clarissa Harlowe,’ turned out by Samuel Richardson in 1748. It ran to 984,870 words.” Proust wrote more, but the Penguin Classics print edition runs to 1500 pages of footnote-sized print, so it’s big.

Three years ago, your Biblio File columnist embarked on a journey to read that big book. I was intrigued by a study, published in 1994 by Chico State University English Professor Lois Bueler, called “Clarissa’s Plots” (out of print but available in selected libraries). Bueler contends that Richardson’s novel blends three kinds of plots, the Tested Woman Plot, the Don Juan Plot, and the Prudence Plot.

The plots thickened, indeed. But to appreciate Bueler, I had to read Richardson. Almost a thousand days ago I signed up for email excerpts from Daily Lit (, which has recently experienced technical issues). Every day, in my inbox, a thousand words of Clarissa. Which seemed fitting, since the book is an epistolary novel, told entirely in letters, mostly from near-saintly Clarissa Harlowe and her best friend, Anna Howe; and Robert Lovelace, a dashing rake and his best friend John Belford, a fellow libertine who would undergo an extraordinary “amendment” of his life.

Unwilling to marry the disgusting-but-rich Roger Solmes, Clarissa is duped by rival suitor Lovelace, runs away with him to avoid imminent violence, and is taken to a safe house. Which turns out to be Lovelace’s favorite brothel. She is drugged and raped, shunned by family and friends, and, mortified beyond measure, prepares for her death. Tragedies abound, even among the virtuous.

Richardson’s is a tale of moral instruction “in an age,” he writes, “given up to diversion and entertainment.” But his characters live, and breathe, and capture the heart. The action moves slowly (the great Dr. Johnson wrote: “if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself”) but is perfectly suited to bite-sized email. 

The last letter is dated December 18. And so the novel ends, and with it, the year. It is hard to say adieu.

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