Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: The Reading Strategy

July 13, 2006
New York, N.Y.

Gosh, I feel like the woman at the party in Woody Allen's Manhattan: "I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor said it was the wrong kind." I'm planning on reading Clarissa in seven days but the authors of the standard biography of Samuel Richardson tell me I shouldn't "race through" it.

I hope I don't feel like I'm racing through it. I'm basically devoting all of next week to the book, and I don't think I'll be spending fewer than ten hours a day on it, and perhaps longer, depending how I manage with the 18th century prose.

The Penguin paperback I'll be reading reproduces the first edition of the book, which was published in seven volumes. According to the Eaves and Kimpel biography, Richardson seems to have had the whole plot conceived by 1744 and possibly had written quite a bit of the novel. Three years later he was ready to start printing. "On 1 December 1747 the first two volumes were advertised in the newspapers, for sale at six shillings bound." (p. 213) "The third and fourth volumes of Clarissa appeared on 28 April 1748." (p. 217) "On 6 December 1748 volumes five, six, and seven were available to the public" (p. 220) But the novel was actually longer than the seven volumes would imply. Richardson said

If I'm going to read the first edition of Clarissa in seven days, it makes sense to use each day to read the contents of each original volume. I don't think the volume breaks are significant — that it, there probably aren't cliffhangers or resolutions at the end of each one — but I might get some kind of feel for how the English public first consumed the book.

Fortunately in a table on page 1,512 of the Penguin paperback, editor Angus Ross indicates what letters appeared in each of the original volumes, from which I've assembled this little table with the page numbers:

Reading Day Volume Letters Pages Page Count
Sunday 1 L1 - L45 35 - 206 171
Monday 2 L46 - L93 206 - 372 166
Tuesday 3 L94 - L173 372 - 566 194
Wednesday 4 L174 - L231 566 - 761 195
Thursday 5 L232 - L293 762 - 969 207
Friday 6 L294 - L418 969 - 1,223 254
Saturday 7 L419 - L537 1,223 - 1,499 276

Well, isn't that interesting! For the most part the volumes get longer as you proceed through the book. The early days look like a snap — but keep in mind that these are 600-word pages — but the last volume has almost 100 pages more than the first volume.

So now I'm not so sure how I'll allocate the pages over the seven days. Certainly by the last two days I should have gained some proficiency in reading Richardson's prose, so maybe by that time I'll be reading much faster and more fluidly. Maybe on Saturday I really will be able to read 276 pages in the same time I read 171 pages on Sunday. Or maybe by Saturday I'll be totally exhausted by the entire project. I don't know.

I guess I'll have to see how the first day goes and then evaluate from there