Last week I came downstairs to find my sister in the kitchen, crying and eating up all the dried mango in the house (which was the only sugar we had). She had just finished reading Clarissa, a fifteen hundred page novel by Samuel Richardson. The heroine, she told me, took forever to die, and my sister had just spent the last three hundred pages of the book with tears streaming down her face.
As our friend Andrea said, three hundred pages makes a whole book! A whole book of tears. What was this book that could move my sister so strongly? I’ve decided to write a vicarious book review, based on my sister’s account of the plot and her reactions (vicarious reading, I believe, is a seriously underappreciated form of reading).
Clarissa was written by Samuel Richardson and published in 1748. He was much admired by Jane Austen and known for his realism, despite what sounds to contemporary readers as rather sensational plots. His novels were epistolary, that is written entirely as letters between characters.
The first thing to understand, my sister told me, is that Richardson wrote books that were meant to provide a template for how young ladies ought to behave. He was known for this and Clarissa Harlowe is a virtuous young lady trying to do good. Half her letters to her friend involvse the two of them discussing it. How does one do the right thing?
It’s especially difficult for Clarissa, because she seems to have the world’s worst family. Her parents have generally abdicated their responsibility and her brother and sister are running the show, trying to force Clarissa to marry a man she does not love. She even tells the man, Mr. Solmes, to his face that she does not like him, but he is not discouraged. She begins to fear that they will physically force her to marry this man. In the meantime, the charming libertine Lovelace has set his sights on Clarissa.
Through trickery, charm, connivance and a little hustling, Lovelace manages to get the desperate Clarissa (her family really is terrible) to run away with him. His goal is to seduce her and he is used to having his way. What he cannot understand is that Clarissa, as a person striving to do good, is genuinely repulsed by him…or at least the wrong things he does. This completely baffles and angers him and makes him even more desperate to humble her. What follows is a horrifying cat-and-mouse game between Lovelace and Clarissa. She is essentially a prisoner and he surrounds her with lies and people who he presents one way and turn out to be different. Clarissa does not initially realize just how bad Lovelace is. He’s charming, witty, educated and intelligent, but he’s also a skunk. My sister says it’s shocking how deceptive he is. He completely undermines himself and her through his deceit.
Eventually, in desperation, he rapes her and that is the last straw. Previously, because she was a ruined woman and she was attracted to him, she had resigned herself to marrying him, even saying later that “she could have loved him.” She thought maybe she could redeem him, not understanding how deceitful he really was. But afterwards, she doesn’t even want to see him, despite the fact that the solution of Lovelace’s family to the rape is that he marry her (!).
When she finally does escape from him, it’s like she’s lost the will to live. In the words of my sister, “he broke her.” He surrounded her with such a “cocoon of lies”, which takes her quite a while to sort out, that she doesn’t trust anyone anymore, especially men. Eventually, like a martyred saint, she fades away and Lovelace commits suicide via a duel.
It sounds like sheer melodrama, but the emotional scope, my sister said, is tremendous. And after spending fifteen hundred pages and two months with all these characters, she felt particularly invested and involved with them, making Clarissa’s extended demise all the more painful. She said she just felt so sorry for Clarissa and that everyone else in the novel reacted to Clarissa exactly the way she did. People who meet her feel terrible for her.
I couldn’t figure out how that relatively simply plot could take up fifteen hundred pages, but apparently it does. My sister explained that there is a lot of back and forth between characters – deciding what to do, explaining what they are going to do, reporting what happened. Because of the lies of Lovelace, some of the interactions are even fake. There is basically a giant con going on in the middle of the plot and Clarissa has trouble discerning what is true and what is real. Another thing my sister found interesting was how Clarissa was attracted to Lovelace, but she did not fall in love. His character prevented it. It’s an interesting view showing that falling in love is not just a physical reaction, but also a choice.
After watching the sheer emotional investment involved in reading Clarissa, the angst and tears, the dried mango and two months reading time, the frustration and inevitable tragedy…I want to read it, too! Anything that can move somebody so deeply has to be worth checking out. I asked my sister if she regretted reading it and she said she did not.