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.

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