Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: Day One

July 15, 2006
Roscoe, N.Y.

Today I read about the first 100,000 words of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, corresponding to the part of the novel originally published as Volume I in December 1747. This chunk of the book required about 8-1/2 hours of reading, and I finished just in time for Deirdre and me to drive over to a friend's house in Long Eddy for dinner.

Volume I of Clarissa is dominated by letters from Clarissa Harlowe to her best friend Anna Howe. Clarissa's family is gentry — roughly middle class — and own a large plot of land. Clarissa is the baby of the family; she has an older brother James and older sister Arabella who (like many older siblings) consider themselves the boss of the youngest child.

Volume I begins with a minor duel: A charming and sexily dangerously man named Robert Lovelace has been invited to the Harlowe house with the idea that he would begin courting Arabella. He seems reluctant, however, and appears to be more interested in Clarissa. But older brother James has known (and hated) Lovelace since their college days — he considers Lovelace to be a rake and a libertine — and on James's return to the estate, he and Lovelace swipe at each other with swords.

The family has bigger plans for Clarissa: A match is planned between her and Roger Solmes, a rich but crude and ignorant man. The entire purpose of the proposed marriage is to consolidate the land of the two families, including a chunk of land that Clarissa's grandfather willed specifically to her. Clarissa, in short, is being treated as chattel. She despises how she's being used, and she particularly despises Solmes:

For the first time in her life, the normally good-girl Clarissa disobeys her parents and refuses to marry Solmes. But the deal between the families has been finalized, all the wedding plans have already been made, and Clarissa is punished for her obstinate refusal to say two words. Her maid is fired, she is confined to her room, and the whole Harlowe family (father, mother, brother, sister, and two uncles) gangs up against Clarissa and try to persuade her that she must consent to this marriage. They believe — at first wrongly but eventually more accurately — that her refusal is based on her preference for Lovelace. Here's Clarissa describing her mother's view:

The only friend that Clarissa has left in the world is Anna, to whom she sneaks letters to, and who writes back with support, even saying things that Clarissa dare not utter:

You go, girl!

Letter 31 (page 142) is the first letter from Lovelace to his friend John Belford, and Lovelace enters the novel with an arrogant, self-assured swagger, and a seductive velvety voice. We learn that the abortive courtship with Arabella was the result of a mistake with the "blundering uncle." From the very first he wanted Clarissa. But will she be just one more notch in his belt or is it true love? And if it can't be love with Clarissa, what then?

At the end of Volume I, Clarissa is still confined to the upstairs bedroom, and the ultimatums from her family have left her with few alternatives. Only one person is offering her an escape from the coerced marriage to a man she despises, and that savior is Robert Lovelace.