Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: Day Two

July 16, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Artifice seems almost intrinsic to the novel. If the novel is written from an omniscient point of view, how can the author possibly know everything she's writing about? And even if the narrative makes clear that you're reading something penned by a specific person in a particular place over a particular time — for example, by Holden Caulfield in the mental institution, or Humbert Humbert or Frank Chambers from death row — we have to wonder if the polished prose we're reading is actually a first draft.

To a certain extent, this problem of artifice is avoided in the epistolary novel — a novel written entirely in letters (epistles). Epistolary novels often contain overly eloquent letters of prodigious lengths, but if done well, the collection of letters can nonetheless seem very real. The author can add to the realism by suggesting that he is merely the "editor" of these letters.

Epistolary novels were very popular in the 18th century but then faded out of fashion. Before beginning Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747-1748) yesterday, I believe the only "classic" epistolary novel I ever read was an English translation of the unforgettable Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

When done properly, the epistolary novel has to encompass multiple points of view, and different styles must be associated with different letter writers. Ideally, the styles should be distinct enough so the reader never "forgets" who is writing a particular letter. The epistolary novel is essentially equivalent to multiple first-person narratives, except that often the characters writing the letters are describing events that just recently occurred, so the letters can crackle with a passionate immediacy not common to conventional first-person narratives. Depending on the letter writer's stamina, the letters can even recount whole conversations, just as in regular novels. The letters themselves can become part of the plot: Intrigue can surround the writing or delivery of the letters, and the letters can become evidence of treachery or innocence.

Clarissa is an epistolary novel done very well. Today from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM with a half-hour lunch-and-email break, I read Letters 46 through 93 of Clarissa (pages 206 to 372 of the Penguin edition), approximately the 100,000 words that was originally published as Volume II of the novel in December 1747. Although my overall reading speed hasn't increased above 200 words per minute, I never felt bogged down or bored. The narrative has a compelling pull and frequently burns with white-hot emotion.

When we left Clarissa Harlowe at the end of Volume I, she has been mostly confined upstairs to her room at Harlowe Place. She is not allowed to share in family activities such as meals, but she can take walks outside, during which she secretly stashes letters to her friend Anna Howe and, less frequently, to Robert Lovelace, who has been lurking around the grounds of the estate to get information about what's going on inside.

Inside the house, the psychological tug of war continues: For various reasons — most of them involving a desire to increase the land mass of the estate — Clarissa's family wants her to marry Roger Solmes, a man she detests.

Clarissa's family desperately wants her to concede to this marriage voluntarily and happily; if necessary, however, they will marry her against her will, and they have a bribed parson lined up to perform to ceremony. Throughout much of Volume II, the family threatens to move Clarissa to Uncle Antony's, and that's a place Clarissa wants to avoid — what with the moat and the built-in chapel.

One of the emotional focal points of Volume II is Letter 78, which is itself over 10% of the total text of Volume II. Clarissa has been tricked into agreeing to a delay of going to Uncle Antony's if she would only spend an hour with Mr. Solmes. But the meeting with Mr. Solmes is then interpreted as the first meeting of many. The confrontation and resultant anguish and anger is almost too vivid to stand.

Clarissa knows she has to get out of the house and into the care and protection of someone sympathetic to her cause. Her friend Anna lives alone with her mother (the father is dead) so perhaps that's a possibility. But Anna writes:

Another possibility is for Clarissa to run off to the big city of London where she can hide out:

In Volume I we were treated to a couple of Robert Lovelace's lecherous letters to his friend, and although he's in communication with Clarissa, he's a more shadowy figure in this volume. Is he good or is he bad? The intelligence Clarissa and Anna receives about Lovelace is decidedly ambiguous. In Letter 70, Anna writes that she's found out he's ruined a 17-year old peasant girl. (We already know about this girl from Lovelace's Letter 34.) But a day later (Letter 72), Anna is correcting herself. She's now learned that Lovelace actually helped the girl marry her sweetheart! So maybe it's all right that Lovelace has promised to let Clarissa stay with his uncle, Lord M., and Lord M.'s widowed sisters, and their virtuous daughters.

But Lovelace has also never hidden the fact that he wants Clarissa for himself. He says he wants to wed her, but can he be trusted? Everyone knows he has a rakish past, but can he give up his libertine ways? Clarissa writes,

Maybe Lovelace is the perfect man for Clarissa. After all, there's an old adage that says a reformed rake makes the best husband. Then why, in the brief Preface to the novel, has Samuel Richardson specifically promised to demonstrate the untruth of this saying?

At the end of Volume II, Clarissa has made the commitment to escape Harlowe Place by running off with Lovelace. She's not sure she's doing the right thing, and neither does the reader.

The first readers of Clarissa had to wait almost five months between Volume II and Volume III, and the suspense must have been unbearable. I'll be reading Volume III tomorrow.