Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: The Editions

July 13, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

How did Samuel Richardson's Clarissa get to be so long? Wasn't there an editor who said "Let's tighten up this middle section. I suggest eliminating the character of Belford"? Wasn't there a publisher who laid down the law and said "We've only budgeted for a thousand-page book, and that's final"?

Well, no. Samuel Richardson was by profession a printer. (One of the biographries of Richardson is entitled Samuel Richardson: Printer and Novelist and another is Samuel Richardson: Master Printer.) That was very convenient because Richardson could print his own books. In theory, he could have made Clarissa whatever length he wanted.

As the publication of Clarissa approached, however, Richardson feared the novel was too long for many readers. For the few years that he had been writing the novel, he distributed pieces of it to a coterie of readers who suggested changes and edits. Richardson made some cuts before publishing the seven volumes of the first edition of Clarissa beginning in December 1747 and continuing into 1748.

Clarissa was very popular, but Richardson was disturbed at some of the reactions to the characters. Before the final volumes were published, some readers wanted the novel to end with Clarissa Harlowe and Robert Lovelace getting married. This idea rather appalled Richardson, and yet he had deliberately made Lovelace somewhat appealing so that Clarissa's attraction to him would seem reasonable. Lovelace was too well-rounded a character and readers interpreted him more ambiguously than Richardson preferred. It was important to Richardson that readers recognize him for the evil man he truly was.

Richardson began making changes to the first half of Clarissa for the 2nd edition of the novel in 1750 and made more changes to the last half for the 3rd edition in 1751. Some of these changes were restorations of material that had been taken out for the 1st edition, but many new changes provided additional emphasis about the evil of Lovelace and the goodness of Clarissa. Although the letters of an epistolary novel are supposed to tell the story by themselves, Richardson interjected more of himself as the work's "editor" into the novel to clarify things for the reader.

The 3rd edition became about 15% longer than the 1st edition, and was published in eight volumes rather than seven. From thereafter, the 3rd edition became the standard version of the novel whenever the novel was republished.

However, when Viking and Penguin published their single-volume edition of Clarissa in 1985, they chose to base it on the 1st edition rather than the 3rd. In his Introduction to the Penguin edition, editor Angus Ross discusses the various versions of the novel and justifies the use of the 1st edition (which he refers to as [C1] meaning "Clarissa 1"):

In both the 1st edition and 3rd edition, the letters were numbered consecutively in each of the seven (or eight) volumes starting with Roman numeral I. In the Penguin edition, Angus Ross imposed a uniform numbering scheme using the letter L (for "letter") so that the letters are identifed as L1 through L537. The novel actually contains about a hundred additional letters that are parts of other correspondences. For example, in L22 (a letter from Clarissa to her friend Anna), Clarissa discusses letters she exchanged with her father and writes "The following is a copy of what I wrote, and what follows, that of the answer sent me," and there follows two enclosed letters to which Angus Ross assigns the numbers L22.1 and L22.2.

The numbers that Angus Ross assigns to the letters are based on the 3rd edition. The material that Richardson added for the 3rd edition resulted in the creation of eight more letters, which leaves the Penguin edition in a blatantly disturbing state: It's missing L43, L66, L67, L122, L208, L249, L468, and L469. (This information is in a handy table on page 1512 of the Penguin edition.) For example, the book skips from L42 to L44.

Normally I wouldn't have minded very much, except that Judith Pascoe's delightful essay "Before I Read Clarissa I Was Nobody" quotes a hair-raising passage from L208 in which Lovelace fantasizes about committing a triple rape and his eventual trial for it. Apparently L208 was not written especially for the 3rd edition but was one of the cuts Richardson made for the 1st edition. Also, one of the readers of the Reading Clarissa in Real Time project makes some good arguments in a little writeup on The Importance of Reading the Third Edition whenever feasible.

At this point, I'm not going to go crazy trying to dig up a 3rd edition of Clarissa in time for my marathon reading beginning Sunday morning. Apparently, text versions of both the 1st and 3rd editions are available from the Literature Online site but that requires a library subscription. has an edition of Clarissa identified only as "10" which is probably the text of the 3rd edition but it's in nine volumes rather than the eight of the original 3rd edition. Here are the links with Angus Ross's numbering:

For myself I've printed out the letters "missing" from the Penguin edition but in the case of L122 this was complicated a bit because L121 had been expanded as well. I'm making no attempt at getting a feel for the additions made to other letters.

(I also consulted Google Books, of course, even though I know from experience that the site is just about worthless when you're actually looking for a particular edition of a particular book. It's as if Google Books has thrown all their books into a big pit and thrown all the librarians out the door. Don't get me started on this subject....)

There are also abridgments to Clarissa kicking around, but ever since a devastating article in Modern Language Studies almost 20 years ago entitled "Clarissa Censored" (which you probably won't be able to fully access unless you're reading this at a library that subscribes to JSTOR), nobody's been able to read an abridged Clarissa without hiding their face in shame.

I'm going to try not to worry too much about the differences between the 1st and 3rd editions. I'll basically be reading the 1st edition, which is the one that took England by storm in 1748, and the additional eight letters I printed from That seems like a reasonable approach to me.