Monday 30 January 2012

Clarissa Big Read, January

I was a little concerned about reading Clarissa. It was not just the length, but also the reputation as a book with much dry moralising preaching and some rather icky sexual politics that I had heard made some modern reader’s skin crawl. Apart from anything else, I was worried about the detail of the piece, this whole slab of pulped tree details the events of only one year, I was worried it was going to be slow going and hard work.

So far, I needn’t have worried, the book pulls you in, fast and firm. It is more immediate then Evelina, less arch then Tristram Shandy and more coloured then Defoe’s works. Only Fielding’s works (except Jonathan Wilde) grabbed me into the story quicker, maybe Vathek also. 

    We start with Clarissa explaining to her friend Miss Howe that her brother has been injured by a dual and that she is being blamed for getting him into it. We are then given (surprisingly concisely) the longstanding enmity between her domineering, unfriendly brother, James and the charming but egotistical Lovelace. This dislike flaring up into a dual, partly over his attentions to Clarissa, which he paid only after her shrewish sister brushed him off. 

In these 20 pages we are given a clear picture of how the family works, it’s tight-nit structure and the dominance of her brother and uncles over her father and mother. We see her position as the kind, thoughtful patsy who gets pushed around. The characters and relationships are extremely detailed and full, without feeling flabby or overwritten. The only thing I would like is that Lovelace is less described and more dramatised - but I suppose that is building up to what I hope to be a grand entrance in a bit.

Samuel Johnson was once asked whether he preferred Tom Jones or Clarissa, and he replied Clarissa because it was ‘the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart’ and I can see what he meant. Where Tom Jones gives us delightfully larger then life characters, Clarissa gives us the minute details that make a person live and breathe. Here are three I particularly liked.

The first, was Clarissa telling her friend that she wished she had died in her last fever when everyone loved her and surrounded her. I thought this a very accurate sentiment, and there are times I have wished I had died or disappeared before the bad times came.

The second was the description of how her sister played hard-to-get with Lovelace and failed because ‘My poor sister is not naturally good humoured...she must, therefore, I doubt, have appeared to great disadvantage when she aimed to be worse tempered then ordinary.’ Which I found to be a very funny description for a book (and author) I had been lead to believe was humourless. 

Finally, and my favourite was the description of her mum, a lady of such amiable stoicism that “had she been of a temper that would have borne less, she would have had ten times less to bear then she has had.” Which I think was such a lovely description of her mum, and possible in some ways any mum. They all put up with more then they have to from their children - I know mine does.
So, January had proved to be very engaging, and the family are proving to be a fascinating group of people when it comes to their minute politics.

Let’s see what February brings.

Read everyone else's views here.


  1. What an excellent discussion of this months events, Adam. I have not read any of the other books you referenced, but you've certainly made me curious.

    The politics and dynamics within the Harlowe family are very interesting, both because the uncles are consulted in every decision and because Mr. Harlowe seems so ineffectual. Why does James command so much authority? Maybe we will see more of these inner workings, too.

    I'm also looking forward to learning more about Clarissa's character and getting a chance to 'see' Lovelace.

    I am very surprised at the readability of this book and hope it can continue to hold my attention for the next eleven months.

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  2. Adam, I'm looking forward to your observations and compare & contrast of Clarissa with other 18th c. literature. I agree with you ... I look forward to Lovelace being dramatized rather than described. I want to hear what he has to say for himself!

  3. I was surprised at how quickly the action began and how much I learned about the family dynamics from Clarissa's letters in such a short time. It's off to a great start.

  4. I was pulled in myself, but mostly by Clarissa's "modernity." I loved your thoughts on the first letters!

  5. Of the books you mentioned, I've only read Robinson Crusoe, and yes, this is much more exciting than that! I have also been entertained by her witty descriptions of her family members.

    1. I like the directness of Robinson Crusoe though, it doesn't faff about with trying to be profound because it is too busy trying to be believable.

      I do recommend Tom Jones though, as a compare and contrast piece if nothing else.