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'The longest novel in the european language'. A statement that is about as qualiatative as 'Britain's loudest band'. This is how most people will know of Clarissa. Which is a shame for two reasons: the length of the damn thing is what perhaps justifiably puts people off reading it; moreover, the novel truly deserves to be considered one of the finest in the English language, regardless of its length.
I won't distil the plot as the other review on here has done a decent enough job of that. Also I want to focus instead on the intricacies of the novel and why Dr Samuel Johnson considered it to be 'the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart'.
One thisn that is important to remember when reading Clarissa is that, like most novels of its time, it was written in serial form. The detail and pace of character development and events in the novel are therefore perhaps more akin to that of a season of a t.v series, rather than a film.
The novel is written in epistolary form (letters, in other words) which gives a brilliant sense of realism to the novel. Indeed Richardson merely calls himself the editor rather than the author. This helps to convey the morally didactic element of the story in a way that is not worthy or preachy. The change in writing styles and tone is subtle and cleverly done, some letters even including deliberate spelling mistakes. This is a device that if used today would probably be considered as "very postmodern".
The main moral of the story seems to be that people cannot change others for the better. Clarissa hopes that Lovelace will change from his free living, rakish ways and can only hope for his character to reform. She also begs her family to reconsider the marriage they have arranged for her and Roger Solmes. This ends up being in vain as does her hopes of Lovelace becoming a reformed character. The novel also raises many other issues, such as fatalism, moral conventions, duty, politics and class.
Again, as these themes are subtly raised within the letters of the characters rather than interjections of personal opinion by the author (or editor) it makes them all the more poignant.
The plot does move very slowly, but it is worth sticking with as the letters are enjoyable reads in themselves (some more than others) and the beauty of the novel lies in its detail and realist accuracy. Richardson tried to slim down the word count himself several times, but only ended up making it longer. Though it will become slowly apparent to the reader that there is much more depth to the novel than the basic plot.
With regards to the plot, things start heating up about halfway through and therefore makes the novel perhaps a little quicker to read from that point onwards.
The penguin classics edition reprints the first and most concise edition of Clarissa. The introductory essay is also very comprehensive and insightful. It does give away the plot, but to be honest, I found that the novel was easier to get through than it might have been if I didn't know what was going to happen. Even if you know the basic plot, the intrigue lies more in how the events in the novel unfold and from whose perspective you learn of them.
I had to read Clarissa as part of my English Literature degree over the summer, which meant I had an incentive/obligation to finish it. For those who don't have that, it could be perhaps a little more difficult to get through. What I would say however, is that as the plot is so slow moving, you could put it down for weeks and pick up where you left off without having to reacquaint yourself with the story. Alternatively if you are going on a long holiday and don't take any other books then you may just finish it!
The novel is a rewarding read and well worth the effort. The plot and the characters make it an increasingly easy read and the variety of writing styles mean you may tire of it less than other more conventionally narrated novels of this length.
They haven't even heard of Samuel Richardson in the pub in the village he was born in. I know, I went there specially to ask after him. But one day, I hope, they will acknowledge him. Richardson is a genius - but like all pioneers, his achievement seems less now than it is - simply because we take for granted what he achieved. If you love the classical English novel - Fielding, Austen, Dickens, the Brontë's - you will one day have to set the record straight by reading Richardson, for they all stand upon his shoulders. The novel was first published in the 1740's. It is epistolary - written in the form of a series of letters. It is about a young woman, Clarissa, torn between her desire to obey her parents and her fatal attraction for the wealthy, charming, aristocratic Mr. Lovelace who is also the most appalling sexual predator. Her parents, through the prompting of her jealous brother and sister, effectively drive Clarissa into the hands of Lovelace. They do this by demanding, for purely mercenary reasons, that she marry somebody wholly unworthy of her. What follows, when she falls into the hands of Lovelace, is an act of the most hateful and cynical exploitation. "Clarissa", I suspect, is Richardson's masterpiece (I've not read his last novel, 'Sir Charles Grandison'- I'm not even sure if it's in print). If you finish it, you will feel like you have REALLY achieved something. The reason for this is simple: the book is VAST. It makes "War and Peace" seem comparatively slim. It is 1,500 pages long in the Penguin edition - but bigger pages than the Penguin Classics edition of "War and Peace." In fact it took me a while to learn how to hold the book without my arms aching. My solution was to read it sitting on the sofa with the book rested on a cushion on my knees! If you take this novel on, it will cost you dear in time, attention and, for the last 800 pages,
deep emotional engagement with the plot. There are times when it travels with maddening slowness - maddening, because you can't really skip the tough bits without knowing that you're losing something vital. Beware of the Penguin dust cover - it irritatingly tells you the plot. Suffice it to say, "Clarissa" is a tragedy. The main aim of the novel, like its predecessor, "Pamela", was to defend the virtue of chastity. But, in this respect, it is very strange: for a novel designed to extol chastity, it is deeply sex-obsessed. Mind you, he had learnt to tone it down because "Pamela" is TOTALLY sex-obsessed. I was attracted to "Clarissa" for three reasons: 1 - It's reputation. It was read avidly and generated an enormous amount of interest when it was first published. It is constantly referred to by people writing about better known classical novels. Most sexual predators in most great novels for 150 years after "Clarissa" are mostly drawn on the lines of Lovelace. I suspect that everything from "Dangerous Liaisons" to Don Giovanni owes a debt to "Clarissa". 2 - Its size. 3 - The wonderful TV adaptation with Sean Bean as Lovelace. It was immensely powerful and poignant.
An eighteenth century classic, telling the story of a man's love for a young woman, Clarissa, and her attitudes to marriage, through the medium of a series of letters.