Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: The Postmortem

July 22, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Last Sunday I began the 900,000-odd words of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747-1748) and last night I finished it. Reading Clarissa in seven days is not something I'd recommend as a general practice. I don't think I've spent so many consecutive hours reading since my teenage years sprawled on my mother's couch devouring books of all sorts. Still, it was a strategy that ensured that I read the whole novel without letting it gather dust.

I found Clarissa enthralling. It is certainly long — Richardson knew it was long while he was working on it, and its contemporary readers knew it was long when they bought the seven volumes that comprised the first edition — but it justifies itself. It feels like a suitable length. If it were cut (and there have been abridgements) the plot might start overwhelming the structure. The long length gives the plot room enough to accomodate the characters, and what extraordinary characters they are! While at times it seems improbable that the characters found the time to write the long, detailed letters that make up the novel, the length and detail paradoxically add to the novel's realism. There is an intimacy and immediacy in Clarissa that most novels can't touch.

It's common for blog entries about novels or movies to avoid plot spoilers, but I've been ignoring that rule with Clarissa because the novel is over 250 years old, and most people who read Clarissa these days know the basic plot. When a monograph by Terry Eagleton is entitled The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (University of Minnesota Press, 1982), it hardly makes sense for me to avoid discussing the novel's central events.

The rape in Clarissa occurs a little past the mid-point of the novel. It's not expected, and it's initially confusing to the reader exactly what has happened. Indeed, the reader never gets an omniscient objective account of the events surrounding the rape. An epistolary novel contains nothing but subjective views, although sometimes more than one. It is part of the strength of Clarissa that the rape is never trivialized except by the person who committed it. The rape is the event that propels the novel to its final tragic end.

A few miscellaneous observations about Clarissa follow.

Words and Phrases

Part of the pleasure of reading an old novel is encountering new words. Samuel Richardson, writing 250 years ago, is much easier to read than Elizabethan drama (e.g., Shakespeare) from just 150 years earlier. His vocabulary is nearly our own. For cases where it's different, the Penguin edition of Clarissa (from which all quotes and page numbers below are taken) includes a "Glossary of Words and Phrases" that is helpful but incomplete, and must be supplemented by the Oxford English Dictionary.

When a character drinks "hartshorn," for example, the OED will tell you that this is a powder from the horn of the male deer, which was the original source of ammonia. It was the 18th century equivalent of smelling salts.

I didn't expect to encounter the word "bowels" so much in Clarissa. Here's an example in a letter from Anna to Clarissa when she finds that Clarissa may be caught in the center of a fight between Lovelace and Clarissa's brother James:

The OED indicates that "bowels" here means "(Considered as the seat of the tender and sympathetic emotions, hence): Pity, compaassion, feeling, 'heart'."

Here's an interesting phrase. This is a letter from Lovelace to Belford:

The OED indicates that to "play booty" means "To join with confederates in order to 'spoil' or victimize another player...."

I guess I never really thought about it, but a "penknife" is so called because it was originally used to sharpen quills used for pens. Clarissa uses crow-quills (p. 324) and so does her friend Anna (p. 814). Lovelace says that "These ladies always write with crow-quills" (p. 814). Apparently men use goose-quills (p. 1209, 1383).

The Opposite of Anachronism

When modern authors write historical novels, they try hard to avoid anachronisms, and some of the hardest to avoid are words or phrases that were not yet in use during the particular time period the novel is set. I don't know what the opposite of "anachronism" is, but I think it must be words or phrases in an actual old novel that seem more modern than they really are. I'll never forget my reaction when I first encountered someone in a Trollope novel saying "tell it to the marines" (The Small House at Allington, chapter 41).

The phrase "flame out" is quite common in Clarissa, first occuring on page 52. The OED indicates the phrase dates from the 17th century and means "to burn (with envy, fury, indignation, etc.), to look angrily or passionately upon... to break out into open anger or indignation."

It's nice to know that people have been using the word "chit-chat" (p. 1474) for at least 250 years, and that they've also been reading "the handwriting upon the wall" (p. 1478).

But the one that stunned me was:

In my experience, a wake-up call is something you get from a hotel front desk via the telephone, so I would have assumed that the metaphorical use of the phrase ("an event that alerts people to a danger or difficulty" — Collins English Dictionary, 5th edition) derived from that. But what's an 18th century "awakening call"? Were there "awakening calls" on farms, for example, to get everybody out of bed? And did that become a metaphorical phrase long before the telephone was invented? Apparently so.

Sentences Short and Long

The most difficult aspect of 18th century prose is not the vocabulary but the sentence structure, which often demonstrates the thinness of the line separating "elegantly beautiful" and "hopelessly convoluted." This isn't even a whole sentence in a letter from Clarissa to Anna:

In common 21st century speech, that might be expressed with a rather clumsier sentence like "How nice of you to email me out of friendship when all my emails to you are full of my problems."

I also like this one in letter from Belford to Lovelace:

Longer 18th century sentences can be hard to untangle. Here's one in a letter from Clarissa to Anna that I'm still working on:

Quotes and Pronouns

In many letters in Clarissa the letter writer recounts a conversation, or something said by someone else. I found Richardson's use of quotation marks and pronouns to be inconsistent and often confusing.

For example, consider this sentence:

You can also use quotation marks to indicate the verbatim words:

In Clarissa, Samuelson often switches the pronouns even within quotation marks, with a result equivalent to this:

What's just as bad are occasional times when quotation marks are not used but the pronouns are swapped:

At no time did I even encounter an ambiguity, but the momentary confusion often slowed me down.

The First Feminist Novel?

Apparently in the 1970s and 1980s, Clarissa was rediscovered by academics as a proto-feminist novel, and it's hard to avoid that interpretation. Clarissa is a good girl. She is a model daughter and obeys her parents in almost everything they ask of her. But she simply will not spend the rest of her life married to a man to whom she has a fundamental and unconquerable aversion. Clarissa's refusal to marry Solmes is what kickstarts the plot of the novel.

Both Clarissa and her friend Anna are extremely intelligent young women, very well read, and delightfully witty. I'm afraid their contemporaries might, in fact, find them a bit "over educated" to make adequate subservient wives. Both Clarissa and Anna on multiple occasions express the desire for the "single life" but they are pressured by their parents to marry men not quite up to their high standards.

After the rape, Clarissa finds herself almost in the same position she was with Solmes: Everyone thinks that all can be forgiven and everyone reconciled if only Clarissa and Lovelace would marry. Even Anna advises that it's a legitimate way out. But the more Clarissa knows Lovelace, the more she despises him. Once again everyone is pressuring her to marry, and once again, all she wants to do is make her own decisions for any life-long commitment.

I haven't discussed Anna much in this series of blog entries, but she is actually a more vivid character than Clarissa, who is a little too saintly to be entirely believable. Richardson makes Anna so real that I wanted her to be my friend. Anna is more down to earth than Clarissa, more practical, and often reveals the truths that Clarissa is too polite to mention. Anna's mother is pressuring her to marry a Mr. Hickman, who is shy and awkward but a decent man, and who Anna finds rather ridiculous. Clarissa also believes Anna should marry Hickman, and she even makes that a stipulation in her will! When Anna is reminded of this by John Belford (who becomes executor of Clarissa's will), she responds:

The Brothel and the Surgeons

For part of the novel, Lovelace hold Clarissa captive in a brothel. But the reader doesn't get a sense that it's a brothel until being told later on. This is unfortunate: Who among us wouldn't want to peep inside an 18th century brothel? The opportunity comes much later, when the madam (who is referred to as "mother") badly breaks her leg, and the prostitutes are gathered round. Belford narrates:

That scene in the brothel also provides a little glimpse of 18th-century medicine. Two surgeons are examining the broken leg, and Belford asks:

Robert Lovelace, Esq.

One of Samuel Richardson's most momentous achievements in Clarissa was getting into the head of Robert Lovelace, composing letters from him full of verbal pyrotechnics, that are funny, outrageous, and borderline psychopathic. To Robert Lovelace, the universe orbits Robert Lovelace. Everything is about him, as he reveals over and over again in his letters to John Belford:

Did Richardson have fun writing this stuff? Or was he sickened by it? Or did he feel guilty because he had so much fun getting into this sick man's head? These questions go to the very core of what a novelist is called upon to do. A novelist must reveal all aspects of the world, including evil men and their evil plots, and must make them real, which often means making them gray and uncover their good sides as well. If the reader then finds himself or herself actually liking this man, or identifying with him— just a little bit—then we learn much about ourselves as well.

The charismatic monster that is Robert Lovelace leaps off the pages of the novel, gets into your head, and makes himself at home, poking his sword into the moral centers of your brain and even insulting you for tolerating him as much as you do.

In the very little preparation I made in reading Clarissa I read a fascinating article by University of London lecturer Elaine McGirr. She contends that Lovelace should be identified with the Restoration, the period beginning in 1660 under the rules of Charles II and then James II. In his letters Lovelace frequently quotes Restoration poets and plays, some of which exalt rakes and royalty. This period ended with the Glorious Revolution (also known as the Bloodless Revolution) of 1688, when the Catholic-leaning James II was deposed and replaced with William & Mary, leading to a stronger Parliament and the Hanoverian line of kings, including George II, who was king when Richardson was writing Clarissa.

Descendents of James II were known as Jacobites, and several times attempted to restore their rule and establish a Catholic monarchy. James II's grandson, Charles Edward Stuart (known as Bonnie Prince Charles) led the biggest assault in 1745 — during the time Richardson was writing Clarissa. It is McGirr's contention that Lovelace represents the Tory Jacobites that must be defeated by the Whigs of Richardson's sympathies, which is why McGirr's essay is entitled Why Lovelace Must Die.

Although the standard Richardson biography, Samuel Richardson: A Biography by T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel (Clarendon Press, 1971), seems to indicate that Richardson was not very political, I find Elaine McGirr's arguments too compelling to ignore.

Death and Providence

At times when reading Clarissa I realized why suicide was banned by both civil and ecclesiastical law. Suicide was one of the few ways in which Clarissa could have clearly communicated to her parents that she did not want to spend the rest of her life with Solmes. Suicide was also one of the few ways in which Clarissa could have successfully escaped from Lovelace. For a good Christain woman like Clarissa, however, suicide was simply not an option. It would have allowed her too much power.

Yet, Clarissa does die through a process almost like suicide. Whether out of depression or her subconscious will, she seems to starve herself to death. She is referred to as "a lovely skeleton" (p. 1231) and "emaciated" (p. 1351). But she is at peace with herself because she is going to a better place. Her posthumous letter instructs Anna "to rejoice that she [Clarissa] is so early released; and that she is purified by her sufferings, and is made as she assuredly trusts, by God's goodness, eternally happy." (p. 1377) No one in Clarissa denies the existence of this future state.

By an amazing coincidence, the year 1748 when the final volumes of the first edition of Clarissa were published was the same year that David Hume published his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which included the famous Chapter 10 ("Of Miracles") and Chapter 11 ("Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State") that constituted some of the first strong blows that kicked away the foundations that supported Clarissa's blissful optimism.