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My Week with Clarissa: Background

July 12, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

In a review of the recent Thomas Pynchon novel in the March 5, 2007 issue of The New Republic (available online here), literary critic James Wood begins by asserting:

Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) were literary rivals as well as seminal figures in the development of the English novel. Fielding, best known today for the bawdy comic novel Tom Jones (1749), is described in Wood's dichotomy like this:

If Fielding is (in Wood's words) "a great externalizer" then Richardson—whose masterpiece is the epistolary novel Clarissa (1747)—is the author associated with psychological depth and subjective inner worlds:

If Richardson was able to portray realistic characters, it was at least partially though his use of the epistolary form. Characters reveal themselves through their letters and speak with an immediacy and depth often not possible with even an omniscient narrator. In her recent book Inventing Human Rights, historian Lynn Hunt credits epistolary novels with developing a sense of empathy among their readers, leading to the necessary conditions for the conception of universal human rights. (See my blog entry about the book.)

Richardson's first major novel was Pamela (1740), about a maid who resists the sexual advances of her boss until her virtue is rewarded when he proposes legitimate marraige. Fielding's first major novel was a parody of Pamela called Shamela (1741), which exposed the character as a slut.

The difference between Fielding and Richardson that James Wood describes can be further simplified as a distinction betwee narratives that are "plot driven" and those that "character driven." Thackeray (Barry Lyndon, Vanity Fair) is obviously a descendent of Fielding, and so is Dickens to a large extent. The gothic novel of the 18th century and the sensation novel of the 19th century are certainly plot driven rather than character driven. When a major character surprisingly announces that she is "a mad woman" as happens in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, you know you're in a world in which characters conform to plot twists rather than the other way around.

From the character-centric Richardson branch of the tree comes Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Henry James, as well as most of what's chosen for Oprah's Book Club.

The distinction is evident in popular film as well: There are "movies for guys who like movies" such as plot-driven action films, versus the character-driven "chick flicks."

Samuel Richardson's Clarissa—the novel I'm going to start reading in two days and finish six days after that—is the mother of all chick flicks.


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