Saturday, 19 November 2011

Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson

My now tatty but much loved copy of Clarissa.
On the 30th September 2011, a month and a half ago, I bought Clarissa from a bookshop in Newcastle. I began reading it sitting outside a bank on Grey Street, whilst my pal did whatever he was doing in there. 

"So how are you going to read it?" I think he asked when he came back out.

"Five letters a day? Two letters a day? Not sure." We looked through it, and the length of it is intimidating. At around one million words, it is one of the longest novels in the English language. Even the full title of Clarissa is slightly off-puttingly long:

Clarissa 
or the 
History 
of a 
Young Lady: 
Comprehending 
The Most Important Concerns 
of Private Life, 
And particularly showing 
The distress that may attend the
Misconduct both of parents and children,
In relation to Marriage

Richardson himself was worried about the length, however refused to cut it down, using devices such as clusters of italics to draw the reader's eye to a particular passage and to emphasise certain parts, refusing to allow the reader to skim over or skip anything of importance.

Reading the first letter, from Clarissa's best friend Anne Howe, and hearing from some that this book was particularly dry, I decided to read just two letters a day. Then, I wasn't so familiar with the difference in language, and in the past I have struggled with 18th Century Literature. I think this might be one of the first pre-19th Century texts I have chosen to read, and now I can say I am officially 'broken in' and wonder why on earth it was that I struggled in the first place!

So, I read the first letter on the afternoon of the 30th September on Grey Street, one of England's most beautiful streets, and finished last night, here on the Scottish Borders, in my armchair at around eleven o' clock. For a few days, less than a week certainly, I did stick to the "two a day" plan, and worked out that it would take me until July 2012 to finish. But it wasn't that I was impatient to finish it, that isn't the reason why Clarissa quickly became my 'bedtime book', it was because, frankly, it is astonishingly good. The preconceptions I had - dry, too long, difficult to understand - were entirely unfounded. There is a very good reason why some say it is one of "the greatest of all European novels" (Angus Ross) - it is one of the greatest of all European novels.


I never expected to like it, let alone love it. I decided to read it not as a "duty read", or even a "victory read", though looking at it, twice as long as War and Peace, which is long enough, and hearing that so many people have not read it despite best effort, I was slightly motivated in knowing I would be able to say, "Yes, I have read this." I read it, in fact, because I wanted to see why it was one of the great European classics, and why so few had got to the end. When it was first published, in 1747-48, this was not the case. It was very successful indeed, and translated into French and German, but in the 21st Century, it is massively under-read. F. R. Leavis wrote that whilst it was "impressive, it's no use pretending that Richardson can ever be made a current classic again." Perhaps he's right, but isn't it up to us to decide what a classic is, and not scholars? If everyone was to read it and love it, and not allow themselves to be put off by the length, which is absurd if you think about it, then it would be a current classic. There is no reason for it not to be. It's, in my mind, incrediblely complex, the writing has great depth and brevity, though it is entirely readable: it is, as with 18th Century literature, plot-driven, it is not written to confuse you or play tricks on you. It is what it says it is, it is entirely readable and enjoyable, intensely gripping so hard to put it down even if you wanted to. There is no reason whatsoever that this book should not or cannot be read. It is in English. You can read English, if you are reading this, so read it.

There almost seems to be a kind of mythology around it. It is argued to be one of the first novels, and to the modern reader for reasons stated, it remains a bit of a mystery. The subject matter is important, if you want to understand the place of women in the 18th Century, or learn about the history of marriage, the place of women within marriage, then this is essential. It is not just a novel, therefore, but a historical document. It is epistilatory, and the characters develop in their own words and terms. Lovelace hangs himself (not literally, I'm not going to give out spoilers) with his own rope, for example. The characters who are referred to but do not write their own letters are described by the main letter writers, and the lack of their own words adds to the drama. Clarissa's father, for example, rages "off set" as it were, largely, and adds to the confusion. Why did it get this far? you might ask, why did her family allow this to happen? but you will get no satisfactory answer from the patriarch, just the various interpretation of his words. And Anne Howe, her advice is on occassions dreadful, but there is no doubt of the closeness and attachment between her and Clarissa. Their friendship is inspirational. You see in Clarissa the development of another character, Lovelace's closest friend Belford transforms, and it done realistically, subtlely, in his own words: this is the genius of it. In this sense, Richardson doesn't tell you things, the characters stand alone, they show you themselves of their change in psychology, morals, or simply circumstance. You are left entirely alone with them.

As for Clarissa herself: I think you would have to be a cold-hearted soul to be irritated with her, but perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps some people will find her irritating. She is virtuous - that is the word that sums her up. And she stays true to herself, her faith, and her morals. She draws her strength from them. I cannot understand how anyone could dislike her, but reading Angus Ross's introduction and Sebastian Faulks;s short essay on Lovelace, I gather it has been known.

I don't think there is a book from which I have got so much satisfaction. Yes, the obvious, the, "Yes, I have read this" accompishment I mentioned before. And the time I spent on it: I know many have spent a much longer time on, say, War and Peace, but I loved this book so much it came everywhere with me. It's been all over the North East of England, down to the Midlands twice, and a little further than that. It's sat on my knee in the car, on the dashboard, on the floor once because it kept falling off. It's been in the kitchen (and has an oil stain on it as a result), Little G the parrot ripped a bit of it in the living room trying to get my attention, Effy rested her paws on it once. It's been to my friends' house so they could wonder at the length, it's been in the bath, it's had an ashtray sit on it by the side of my bed, and it's been in the garden when I enjoyed the final warm day of the year. As you can see, it's tatty now. Big C wrote in the front, "Read by the little o, November 2011". It is so loved, and for the past month and a half it's been a part of me. People have texted me asking me how far I was with it, and I texted others, telling them where I was at. Until five days ago, I couldn't imagine finishing, but then suddenly the end was near and the pages to go were less and less. I had to prop it up with a cushion to read because the weight of it meant I might have ripped the final pages away. And, oh God, it was so good. I will certainly re-read it, and soon I should think, in the next few years, if not the next year. It is unlike anything you will read. And I love it, the writing, the genius of it, and I love my now battered, torn copy. This black Penguin Classic is my most precious book. If it wasn't so expensive, I would buy another one and do a 'give away'. If I ever have some cash to spare, I will do just that.

26 comments:

  1. You've convinced me to put it on my wishlist! I'll be adding a copy to my Nook. :)

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  2. I agree with Eva! You have definitely convinced me to read this. It's been awhile since I've read 18th c. lit, but the pieces I have read were rewarding.

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  3. Brilliant! I can't wait to see what you have to say! Honestly, it is well worth your while :)

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  4. I'm so glad that you loved this! It makes me all the more eager to read it this coming year with Jillian. :)

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  5. Yay! Can't wait to hear what you think, I really can't! I wish more people had read it, very eager to talk to someone who has read it too :)

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  6. AWESOME post! I seriously can't wait to read this now. You've cleared up all my fears and given me plenty to anticipate -- without spoilers! Thanks!!

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  7. Marvelous, no problem :)

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  8. I don't know if it's still the case now, but when I was a literature student 'Pamela' had a terrible reputation as humourless, pompous and preachy. Henry Fielding was the one we were told to admire. Richardson was the populist moraliser. I'm fascinated that this is not the case, at least for yourself. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it, I never doubted that you would finish it but did expect it to be a 'victory read' (great phrase by the way. I've read 'Pamela' and enjoyed it. On the face of it, it might seem very similar to 'Clarissa' being also an epistolatory novel about a virtuous woman, but it's a very different story from what I can make out. Now, must get back to 'Varney the Vampyre; or the Festival of Blood' by (probably) James Malcolm Rymer which comes in at a mere 1, 116 pages in my edition. And, as the title suggests, has a vampire in it.

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  9. Didn't you come up with "victory read"?

    As for humourless, well, it isn't a laugh a minute, and why would it be given the subject matter, but it does have a few moments, like the one I showed you (I'll cut and paste it on to the end for the benefit of others). It really is worth the read. And as I say, it's one of those books where all my preconceptions are proved to be entirely unfounded, which is awesome :)

    One of the funny bits:

    Mr. Brand to John Harlowe (letter 444, should you wish to look it)

    "P.S. I shall give you further hints when I come down (which will be in a few days), and who my informants were; but by these you will see that I have been very assiduous (for the time) in the task you set upon me.

    The length of my letter you will excuse; for I need not tell you, sir, what narrative, complex, and conversation letters (such a one as mine) require. Everyone to his talent. Letter writing is mine, I will be bold to say; and that my correspondence was much coverted at the university, on that account. But this I should not have taken upon me to mention; only in defence of the length of my letter; for nbody writes shorter, or pithier, when the subject is upon common forms only - But in my apologising for my prlixity I am adding to the fault (if it were one, which however I think it cannot be, the subject considered: but this I have said before in other words): so, sir, if you will excuse my postscript, I am sure you will not find a fault with my letter.

    I think now I have nothing to add until i have the honour of attending you in person; but that I am, as above, etc. etc. etc. EB"

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  10. This post is AMAZING! You've completely convinced me that I should read Clarissa - and soon! I've always been put off in the past thinking it looked dull and too difficult, but now I feel really excited about reading it. I love your picture of your copy - it looks very well loved :)

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  11. Thank you :) Awesome that you're going to give it a go - it's far from dull and difficult! As I say, the only problems I had was when I wasn't used to 18th C English, but I soon got used to it!

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  12. What wonderful work you have done, convincing all of this people to take a run at Clarissa. Yes, read it, read it! Worth every minute, except perhaps for the most repetitive parts of Book II, which do not actually go on forever.

    If I remember correctly, it took me about 9 months to read. It is an enormously satisfying book to finish, but, as you say, with enormous pleasures (and frustrations) along the way.

    Lovelace is amazing, the end is amazing, the desperate logistics of the letter writing are amazing.

    Great post, and congratulations on finishing this beast. Sir Charles Grandison coming up soon?

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  13. Most definitely, and Pamela too :)

    You mention "book II" - my edition wasn't divided into books, so I'm not 100% sure which bit you're referring to, however I suspect it's around half way through? I said to one of my friends I thought that would be where people fell. It wasn't the most engaging part, but I still enjoyed it :)

    And great to meet someone else who has read it :)

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  14. I may well be thinking of Part III, the long stretch where one wonders if anything at all is actually going to happen in this novel. The part before Something Happens.

    I forgot to recommend Judith Pascoe's great article about reading Clarissa. And teaching it - Pascoe routinely teaches an all-Clarissa class to her undergrads. A wonderfully casual and enthusiastic essay.

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  15. That's the part I'm thinking of, I reckon!

    Thanks so much for sharing that article, will take a look. Am eager to read other people's thoughts on the novel, and there aren't that many who have made it through! Interested that it's on an undergrad course... Will go read article.

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  16. What a fantastic post! It has made me even more excited to begin our project. I do hope you'll join in our discussion.

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  17. Of course :) If I hadn't read it so recently, I'd join in for a re-read. I really like the way you've organised this, it makes it much more do-able, the size really does put people off, but you've come up with the answer and I'm so thrilled you've got a lot of interest in this!

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  18. Hi O,
    Love your review! Having finished Pamela, which I loved, I am reading Clarissa. I've downloaded free ibooks on my iPad (9 volumes) and am half way through Vol I. I am taking notes and copying down some great quotes, which is slowing down my reading but is worthwhile, I think. So far, am loving it.

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  19. Brilliant, it's well worth it!

    I haven't read Pamela yet, but it's on my list! I read somewhere that Pamela was a cross between Dobby from Harry Potter and Bella from Twilight! I hope that's not true :)

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  20. Wow. Now I'm glad I'm working my way through this thing. Your review has really made me enthusiastic about this. I will say though, that all through March letters, I really really disliked Clarissa and found her so annoying - but now, in April, things are looking brighter for our relationship. In fact, we're really getting along now :-)

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  21. I am so thankful for Tom's comment about Part II! That is the part that is driving me crazy and making me think this is terrible. I've just to the part where something is starting to happen, so I'm glad to hear it picks up from there! I've read Pamela and liked it, but certainly didn't love it, and mainly liked it because it gave me a better appreciation of Fielding (who was definitely taught as the better of the two writers when I was in college as well). Clarissa is supposed to be better than Pamela, so I've been frustrated by it so far, but hope that I've made it through the slog and am about to be rewarded. :)

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  22. This is a stunning review! There's nothing better than finding an intimidating book to be worth the time and struggle.

    I just read your 'Classics Club' interview and I'm in love with the sound of your lonely forest house!

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  23. Okay, I'm officially pumped. Tomorrow is Day One for me. I am planning to use a number of vacation days to get this done. Really, thanks to everyone for all your remarks, I needed this. I was beginning to look at this like a prison sentence. But not now.

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  24. Thanks for this great post. I agree with you about Clarissa. When I read it I was completely blown away by it. It's about 1,500pages, but I found it so gripping that the pages just flew by. I couldn't put it down. The only difficulty I had in reading it was that it depressed me so severely. The picture Richardson paints of human evil -- of how ordinary human beings, the kind that we all know, live with and work with, prey on and destroy one another -- is utterly compelling and utterly horrifying. An incredible picture of human complexity and destructiveness.

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  25. Clarissa was alluded to in All That Is, a new James Salter novel. He called it a terrifying book, but the context was positive, a note of phrase.

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  26. I believe I posted this somewhere else on the site but I did in fact finish Clarissa four months after I started. It was quite the consuming experience and I miss it already. My dear friends actually threw me a little brunch as a congratulations, it was all quite touching. My copy was battered and bruised when I was done. Thanks again to all ye who post.

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