Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: Alternative Approaches

July 12, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Although I plan to read Clarissa in one week, there are certainly other approaches that work and which don't reveal an underlying insanity.

In a charming essay published in the Hudson Review in 2003, University of Iowa literature professor Judith Pascoe tells how she first took possession of the 1,500-page Penguin edition of Clarissa as a graduate student in the late 1980s:

At the time she wrote this article, she had read Clarissa five times and also taught a course based entirely on the novel. She has her students tackle the book at a rate of 100 pages per week, which gets them through in 15 weeks. (Keep in mind that the pages of the Penguin edition of Clarissa are dense 600-word pages, probably about twice as many words as an average book page.)

Many of the letters in Clarissa are dated. The first letter is dated January 10 and the last is December 18 of the same year. In 1995, a group of readers decided to tackle Clarissa in "real time" — reading the letters on the same dates they were supposed to be written. They recorded comments in a listserve, which were then consolidated by Jim and Ellen Moody on their Web site:

There are definitely problems with this approach, as the participants in this exercise realized: The letters tend to be written in clumps. This results in several days of heavy reading and then long stretches with no reading at all. I'd be afraid that spreading the book out over the course of a year might cause a loss of momentum, and that could be deadly.

Jim and Ellen Moody's Web page also has a large photo from the 1991 BBC adaptation of Clarissa with Saskia Wickham and Sean Bean. Watching that gets the whole thing out of the way in just three hours.