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:
I have already stood the shock of three of this man's particular visits, besides my share in his more general ones, and find it impossible I should ever endur him. He has but a very ordinary share of understanding, is very illiterate, knows nothing but the value of estates and how to improve them, and what belongs to landjobbing, and husbandry. (pg. 62, Penguin edition)
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:
It was a grating thing, she said, for the parents of a child, who delighted in her in all the time of her helpless infanncy, and throughout every stage of her childhood, and in every part of her education to womanhood, because of the promises she gave of proving the most grateful and dutiful of children; to find, that just when the time arrived which should crown all their wishes, she should stand in the way of her own happiness, and her parents comfort, and, refusing an excellent offer and noble settlements, give suspicions to her anxious friends that she would become the property of a vile rake and libertine, who (be the occasion what it would) defied her family, and had actually imbrued his hands in her brother's blood. (p. 109)
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:
Upon my word, I most heartily despise that sex [i.e., males]! I wish they would let our fathers and mothers alone; teasing them to tease us with their golden promises, and protestations, and settlements, and the rest of their ostentatious nonsense. How charmingly might you and I live together and despite them all! — But to be cajoled, wire-drawn, and ensnared, like silly birds, into a state of bondage or vile subordination: to be courted as princesses for a few weeks, in order to be treated as slaves for the rest of our lives.... (p. 133)
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?
But what this stupid family can mean, to make all this necessary, I cannot imagine. My REVENGE and my LOVE are uppermost by turns. If the latter succeed not, the gratifying of the former will be my only consolation; and, by all that's good, they shall feel it; although, for it, I become an exile from my native country for ever. (p. 165)
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.