Wednesday 27 December 2023

My Experience of Reading Clarissa


 I finally wrote up (some of) my thoughts about the novel, Clarissa but I’d like to write just a little about the experience of doing it. 


I was extremely nervous. Clarissa may well be the last book I failed to finish and I remembered the quagmire that the book becomes after it’s initial burst of energy. That first reading was supported by the same group of people that read Evelina with me the first time, but even that support could not get me through that long stretch of tedium.

However, this time I knew what I was getting into. What’s more, I had a plan, to read the letters when they were written. As the book takes place over a whole year, this behemoth of a book would be split up evenly over twelve months. This meant that even as Clarissa was going nowhere slowly, I could enjoy other books. 

It didn’t quite work out like that. The letter as a physical element is an important part of the book. Letters are forged, lost and held, so some come after others despite being written before them. Then there’s the fact that the letters aren’t paced evenly. During the few moments of the book when something is happening, there can be pages and pages and pages of letters, while at other times, there are hardly any.

This meant that there were times when I had to put down something compelling and plough through hours of Clarissa to keep on track. What’s more, given the size of my copy (the penguin single volume edition) and given the tininess of the writing (good thing I read it while I can still see the thing) each page of Clarissa was the same as a page-and-a-half, even two pages, of another book. This meant that twenty pages reading was closer to forty and the book felt even more interminable.

What’s more, the book felt like a millstone around my neck. There it sat, looming on my bedside table, for the best part of a year. The little blue ribbon which marked my place inching along. I’d be in the middle of something fun and engrossing and I’d have to return to Clarissa and slog. During my summer holiday, I had to take my kindle and read things on that because there was only room for one book in my suitcase, and that was Clarissa

On the plus side, if there’d been a gap in letters and I hadn’t read the book for a while, it wasn’t hard to get back into the book to understand what was going on, because invariably, nothing was.  There’s also the fact that sometimes the book is genuinely gripping, the characters deep and interesting and there are a few points in my notes where I wrote, ‘Am I enjoying this?’… those notes were often followed by a, ‘nope, dull again’.

What’s more, finishing the book is a let-down. Clarissa herself dies in September. She’s been leading up to it for some time, installing her custom-made coffin into her bedroom and writing goodbye notes. We get the return of her body to the family, her burial, the last wrangling over her last wishes and will. Then a pause. Then Lovelace’s comeuppance. Then a pause. Then a final wrap-up. It fizzles out, ending with the merest of whimpers and without any feeling of satisfaction. The book is ostensibly a tragedy but there’s no catharsis. 

So, my experience of reading Clarissa was ultimately not a positive one and it’ll take wild buffalo to drag me into reading Sir Charles Grandison. Yet, I could appreciate the complexity of Richardson’s understanding of his characters, and can see how other writers took that and melded it into something more.. well.. enjoyable. But to people intrigued about reading for Clarissa for themselves, I’d advise them to leave it alone and just read Tom Jones again, that’s far more fun.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

(Finally) Review: Clarissa by Samuel Richarson

 I tried to read Clarissa eleven years ago when I joined a readathon. I barely got a quarter way through before giving up, overwhelmed by the circular, repetitive nature of it. So when I heard of another readathon this year, I thought I’d get on board. The difference this time (except for my eleven years worth of reading experience) was that this readathon was split over a year. Clarissa itself takes place throughout a year, and we’d simply read the letters when they were dated, easy. This turned out to not quite be the case but I’ll write another piece about that next week.

Spoilers: the whole plot of Clarissa can be summed up in one sentence. Hester Thrale described it as this. “A man gets a Girl from her Parents—violates her Free Will, & She dies of a broken heart.” Samuel Johnson said that ‘If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.’. He wasn’t wrong. Essentially, how the book works is that something happens, the book then spends 500 pages, breaking apart, digesting and regurgitating that something before moving onto something else. (As a note, 500 pages in my copy, is probably about 750 pages of an ‘ordinary’ book).

So, there’s almost no plot, what else is there? Sometimes, it feels nothing, but that’s not fair.

Someone picking up the book for the first time will probably feel surprised at how alive it feels at the beginning, how realistic. Starting in media res after Lovelace and James Harlowe have had a duel over his interest in Clarissa, it delves into the events running up to the duel. I was pulled in despite myself, even with a clear memory of the stagnation that is to come, I found those early parts gripping, and had trouble resisting the urge to read ahead. 

One of the elements that grip most at the beginning, are the clear and complex family dynamics that are a main theme of the book. Clarissa is the youngest of three siblings. She’s long been the favourite, of the parents, of their father’s unmarried uncles and of everyone in general. Her older sister, Arabella is jealous of her, something which is hyped up when the handsome and rich Lovelace appears to court her but switches to Clarissa. (We later found out that Lovelace had heard of the Harlowe’s perfect daughter and had accidentally first alighted on the first one).

What’s more, Clarissa has recently inherited property. When her grandfather fell ill, she went to become his nurse, not out of monetary desire but out of love. Before he died, he changed his will, leaving everything to Clarissa, thanking her for her care but also reasoning that as the youngest child, the other two will get the bulk of their parents’ estate. This ramps up James’s jealousy. He’s acutely aware of his family status as nouveaux riche, and he feels insulted not to be left the property. His insecurities also fuel a personal hatred for Lovelace.

These two jealous siblings manage to spin events, manipulating the tyrannical father, the pathetically weak mother and the cold, mercantile uncles to turn their view of Clarissa from an altruistic angel into an inheritance-grabbing devil. What makes it magic, is the level of detail on how Clarissa sees and expresses all this. She sees how her siblings are turning her always fragile family against her but she won’t recognise their faults or acknowledge how imperfect that family are. 

…This, and more, is expressed in the first twenty pages or so. The trouble is, it’s also expressed for the next five-hundred pages or so, with a little variation.

Probably Richardson’s greatest success in the book is his creation of character and his attention to detail, subtlety and nuance to how each person in the novel, large or small, will react. This success has a huge positive and negative effect on Clarissa, it’s innovative and incisive but it’s also a large part of what causes its narrative stultification. We spend so long revisiting the same points, sometimes from different perspectives, but often with only minor changes so the book becomes a grind.

The worst part of the book, is after the initial rush, when the family have introduced Mr Solmes as her husband-to-be and Clarissa rails against it. Unfortunate that this should be in the first third of the book, because after she is tricked into running away with Lovelace, it never quite sinks into those doldrums again.  This section has no doubt turned away many readers. I know it did me, the first time I tried.

Once with Lovelace, things pick up a little. There still isn’t much in the way of ‘things happening’ but where Clarissa and her family are prepared to have the same argument ad nauseam, Lovelace likes to try different approaches. He begs, he wheedles, he charms, he tricks, he bullies, he threatens. He goes to extraordinary lengths to confuse Clarissa, involving a whole cast of characters to act out his little charades. It even begins to work until a small fire, which slightly threatens Clarissa’s life provokes his honest reaction. I can’t see how any reader can really see him as a sexy figure, he’s so incredibly weird and needy but at least his interesting and larger than life, and that does a lot in the drab world of this book.

Strangely, it’s the truthfulness, the lack of artificiality that undoes Clarissa while simultaneously making it something very odd and remarkable. I can’t ever define it as an enjoyable work, but it is an immensely impressive one.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Review: Doctor Johnson in Cambridge by S.C Roberts

Saturday the 2nd of December at Dr Johnson’s House. The temperature has dropped rapidly, everyone has discovered their hats and scarves and Gough’s Square is full of people hunting down the twelve snowman statues of Christmas. As busy as the square is, none of them are coming into the museum. It’s a little too cold to sit and read so I go into the parlour where the powder closet is open.

The powder closest was originally built as a place to powder a wig but may never have been used for that purpose. Certainly, Samuel Johnson wasn’t known for the upkeep of his wig. Now the museum uses it as storage for books, prints and items for the shop. However, there are two plastic tubs on the top shelves labelled ‘LB1’ and ‘LB2’. With nothing better to do, I decide to get them down and have a look.

The boxes consist of library overspill. Second copies of things the museum’s library already has mixed with doctoral dissertations and other odds and ends. There’s a copy of the wonderful Samuel Johnson; Detector, the first in a series of four collections of detective stories starring Boswell and Johnson. The library has a copy signed by the author, this is just a spare. There’s a Samuel Johnson edition of the Bookseller magazine from 1903, there are monographs of various quibbles and details, and there is Doctor Johnson in Cambridge, a true oddity.

I pick the books I most fancy reading at some point and put them in the cellarette, a small cupboard designed for storing tea and coffee which now sits behind the desk I sit at when welcoming visitors (and taking their entrance fee). This cupboard is already full of modern books that have accumulated but I feel that it’d be a better ‘look’ to have the Johnson books behind me, plus I can read the ones that have caught my attention.

For the rest of the morning I read Doctor Johnson in Cambridge. It was written by an Sydney Castle Roberts and published in 1922. In 1923, this copy was given to someone called ‘The Hol Punch’ by someone called ‘Thomas Blue Bell’ in memory of the 34th anniversary of their Charterhouse days. 

Describing itself as ‘essays in Boswellian imitation’, the book consists of eight little sketches, with five of them having previously been published in The Cambridge Review. The book is small, the font is large and there are only sixty roughly cut pages. The premise of the sketches are to imagine that Johnson, Boswell and a number of other figures from Johnson’s life find themselves visiting Cambridge for various reasons, giving Johnson a chance to satirically assess Cambridge university of the modern day (or at least the 1920s).

Johnson in the modern day is an idea that pops up a fair amount. Julian Barnes gives him a cameo in England England, it’s sort of the premise of Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies and I even had a whack at it on my website, where Johnson became a couch potato and binged episodes of Top Gear. Here, Johnson opines about Cambridge Universities debates about allowing women to receive degrees (something they didn’t until 1944), watches a rag week and a modern game of cricket and even meets a major who’d gained renown due to his action in the First World War (in which the author himself fought at Ypres).

Like most depictions of Johnson (According to Queeney excepted) he is mainly created by taking various famous quotations and stitching them together in different ways. The ‘young dogs’ he wishes to frolick with are the Cambridge students, the Labour party are ‘the last refuge of an idler’ and he calls for student beer to see ‘what makes an undergraduate happy’.

Roberts shows himself to have a pretty deep knowledge of Johnson, especially the Johnson of Boswell’s Life. He remarks to a market stall bookseller that he once refused to man a similar stall. From this bookseller, he also buys a copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and announces it as the only book that’s ever prompted him to get out of bed two hours earlier. (I’ve often wondered about that, why couldn’t he just read it in bed? I know I did.) 

Roberts also characterises Boswell pretty well, from his giddiness at seeing Johnson in different situations to his own sense of ego at being Johnson’s confidant. He rather over-eggs Johnson’s jokey antipathy to the Scots, with most of the sketches bringing up something or someone Scottish for Johnson to rag on. There’s also a running joke about how Johnson sees himself as an Oxford man and rather runs down the Cambridge students for being less rigorous in their studies and generally more into boozing and partying.

What is most interesting/needling, is what Roberts imagines Johnson’s view of the modern day would be. In some aspect we are in agreement. If he’d seen a Cambridge rag week, I’m sure he would have been won over by the high-spirits eventually - he was always a sucker for youthful hi-jinks. Similarly, I agree that would have enjoyed a modern (well ‘20s) cricket match for its formal as well as athletic elements. However, I do find it hard to believe that Johnson, who was a big arguer for women’s education and helped designed curricula for Hester Thrale’s daughters, would have argued against women gaining a degree. Still less would I imagine he’d have had an instinctive ‘yuck’ reaction to women as he seems to in this book. Nor can I imagine Johnson arguing against the idea of liberty as he does in the chapter on the Cambridge Union. Roberts reuses the ‘yelps for liberty’ line from Taxation No Tyranny many times in odd contexts. 

I think this book, short as it is shows two particularly interesting things. One is how the scholarship around Johnson has changed since the 1920s, biographies and studies pull from a wider pool than just Boswell and as a result, Johnson is a more fragile, thoughtful man. Not just the blustering rhinoceros (as seen in Blackadder for example) but a man with a warm, if sometimes needy or self-pitying heart. There’s also the interesting way people use Johnson to reflect their own times. The Johnson we promote in the house was a supporter of intelligent women, an early anti-abolitionist and a holder of frequently liberal views - for Roberts he was a stalwart, not only of old Toryism, but the conservative party of the 20th century.

It’s interesting and a reminder that while the real Johnson was only himself, the image of Johnson is one that can revived, refreshed and refracted in many different ways.

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Review: The Storm by Daniel Defoe

I read The Storm during storm Brenda or Bethel or Bertha or something. As much as these named storms get a dramatic build-up, they’re never as dramatic as they promise to be, certainly compared to the Great Storm of 1703. Even the storm that barrelled past my childhood house in 1987 was nothing compared to the Great Storm of 1703. This storm was a real doozy and was the subject of Daniel Defoe’s first fall length work.

He wrote this piece at a difficult time. Long a writer under William III, he’d lost his patron and stumbled into dangerous territory with his satirical piece The Shortest Way With The Dissenters, where head aped the vicious rhetoric of anti-dissenters with such accuracy that there are still discussions over whether it was meant or not. (Personally, I feel that as a dissenter, Defoe was probably taking the piss). As a result he’d been put in prison while awaiting his punishment by being put in the pillory. This was a serious punishment, people had died from the injuries sustained but he managed to spin the PR in such a way that he was crowned with flowers and released. Most damaging to him, was that his time in prison unravelled his wavering business and sent him bankrupt - most galling, the business made roof tiles, something people needed a lot of after The Great Storm.

It must be this recent run in with the law that gives the book so nervous a tone. The Preface, addressed from ‘The Ages Humble Servant’ takes great pains in stating the methodology of the book and the importance of truth. He talks about how producing a book that’ll reach thousands has a greater duty to truth than a sermon that reaches hundreds. He says how the public were asked for their experiences of the storm and how he, as editor pored through each communication, selecting the ones that support each other and come from the most reputable sources. Compared to the narrator of The Plague Year, which happily mixes fiction and truth, and of his other novels which confidently present the imaginary as history, it’s a really tip-toeing tone, which is maintained throughout.

The book proper begins with a discussion of weather, and what is known about wind in particular. He cites theories, both classical and modern but concludes that ultimately, not much is known. Even the people who have “rifled Nature by the Torch-Light of Reason, even to her very nudities” have no definitive answer. As such, studying natural phenomena like storms always leads a person back to God, his immensity, his power and his unknowability. 

The book then goes on to describe his own experiences with the storm in London. I particularly liked the detail of how his barometer dropped so low and so quickly he’d assumed his children had broken it playing. He would also have recorded the wind direction but his weather-vane had been blown off the roof of the house. I found it interesting he had such things, perhaps The Storm was partly written because Defoe had a previous interest in the weather.

The book then includes a large number of accounts from people in different parts of the country about how the storm had effected their local area. There are many tiles blown off, chimneys blown down - sometimes crushing those on beds in rooms below, sometimes missing them. In the countryside there are reports of barns being blown down and hay-ricks blown up, some of them landing fully formed but in a different place. A Somerset correspondent mourns the ‘apples without number’ that have been blown off trees. Bits of churches were blown off and many lead roofs were described as being peeled off or rolled up ‘like parchment’. There was a particularly striking description of windmills being blown so hard, the friction of their gears set them alight.

The drama is higher in costal places and at sea. The Eddystone Lighthouse collapsed with the designer and builder inside, a man is crushed by a ship. Whole fleets were blown as far as Sweden and the descriptions of sailors include huge panic, fear and a little bit of heroism.

To be frank, this information would probably have been presented better as tables or graphs. The repetition of details becomes quite tiresome. There’s a bit more interest when a correspondent is from a place you know, I was particularly interested in the storm’s impact on Grimsby (where I will soon be moving to) and Brighton (where I was born). It’s an interesting snapshot of ‘Brighthelmstone’ before it became a popular holiday destination.

The biggest controversy in the book is probably the differing accounts relating to the seaside town of Deal, where some accounts stated that the townspeople refused to help those in trouble in ships near the town. The Mayor very indignantly tries to argue that the people of Deal simply could not help because his town had been woefully underfunded. 

Defoe’s nervous tone doesn’t help the book much. While the introduction suggests that he probably did rewrite many of the letters to shape it, the appearance is one where he simply mediates what was sent to him. He planned to make a sequel of the book by getting correspondence of the storm’s effect over the wider European area, but he never did. The book reminds me of the programme 999, which ran for ten years on the BBC. It used to show dramatic reconstructions of rescues, and even had a special in 1997 about the Great storm of ’87. I have to say, I hated that programme as a child and found it very dull. The Storm was, however, going to be the next step in Defoe’s career, where he’d gain confidence again and become one of the progenitors of the English novel.

Incidentally, the Great Storm of 1703 took place on the 26th of November, and I was going to post this last week as the closest date to that. However, that date was in the old style calendar and actually took place on the 7th of December on our calendar, so I’ve posted it on the nearest Wednesday to that.