Last Sunday I began the 900,000-odd words of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747-1748) and last night I finished it. Reading Clarissa in seven days is not something I'd recommend as a general practice. I don't think I've spent so many consecutive hours reading since my teenage years sprawled on my mother's couch devouring books of all sorts. Still, it was a strategy that ensured that I read the whole novel without letting it gather dust.
I found Clarissa enthralling. It is certainly long — Richardson knew it was long while he was working on it, and its contemporary readers knew it was long when they bought the seven volumes that comprised the first edition — but it justifies itself. It feels like a suitable length. If it were cut (and there have been abridgements) the plot might start overwhelming the structure. The long length gives the plot room enough to accomodate the characters, and what extraordinary characters they are! While at times it seems improbable that the characters found the time to write the long, detailed letters that make up the novel, the length and detail paradoxically add to the novel's realism. There is an intimacy and immediacy in Clarissa that most novels can't touch.
It's common for blog entries about novels or movies to avoid plot spoilers, but I've been ignoring that rule with Clarissa because the novel is over 250 years old, and most people who read Clarissa these days know the basic plot. When a monograph by Terry Eagleton is entitled The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (University of Minnesota Press, 1982), it hardly makes sense for me to avoid discussing the novel's central events.
The rape in Clarissa occurs a little past the mid-point of the novel. It's not expected, and it's initially confusing to the reader exactly what has happened. Indeed, the reader never gets an omniscient objective account of the events surrounding the rape. An epistolary novel contains nothing but subjective views, although sometimes more than one. It is part of the strength of Clarissa that the rape is never trivialized except by the person who committed it. The rape is the event that propels the novel to its final tragic end.
A few miscellaneous observations about Clarissa follow.
Words and Phrases
Part of the pleasure of reading an old novel is encountering new words. Samuel Richardson, writing 250 years ago, is much easier to read than Elizabethan drama (e.g., Shakespeare) from just 150 years earlier. His vocabulary is nearly our own. For cases where it's different, the Penguin edition of Clarissa (from which all quotes and page numbers below are taken) includes a "Glossary of Words and Phrases" that is helpful but incomplete, and must be supplemented by the Oxford English Dictionary.
When a character drinks "hartshorn," for example, the OED will tell you that this is a powder from the horn of the male deer, which was the original source of ammonia. It was the 18th century equivalent of smelling salts.
I didn't expect to encounter the word "bowels" so much in Clarissa. Here's an example in a letter from Anna to Clarissa when she finds that Clarissa may be caught in the center of a fight between Lovelace and Clarissa's brother James:
But we cannot bear that such an admirable creature [Clarissa] should be made the tennis-ball of two violent
spirits—much less that you should be seized, and exposed to the brutal treatment of wretches who have no bowels. (p. 474)
The OED indicates that "bowels" here means "(Considered as the seat of the tender and sympathetic emotions, hence): Pity, compaassion, feeling, 'heart'."
Here's an interesting phrase. This is a letter from Lovelace to Belford:
Thou couldst not, surely, play me booty, Jack? (p. 903)
The OED indicates that to "play booty" means "To join with confederates in order to 'spoil' or victimize another player...."
I guess I never really thought about it, but a "penknife" is so called because it was originally used to sharpen quills used for pens. Clarissa uses crow-quills (p. 324) and so does her friend Anna (p. 814). Lovelace says that "These ladies always write with crow-quills" (p. 814). Apparently men use goose-quills (p. 1209, 1383).
The Opposite of Anachronism
When modern authors write historical novels, they try hard to avoid anachronisms, and some of the hardest to avoid are words or phrases that were not yet in use during the particular time period the novel is set. I don't know what the opposite of "anachronism" is, but I think it must be words or phrases in an actual old novel that seem more modern than they really are. I'll never forget my reaction when I first encountered someone in a Trollope novel saying "tell it to the marines" (The Small House at Allington, chapter 41).
The phrase "flame out" is quite common in Clarissa, first occuring on page 52. The OED indicates the phrase dates from the 17th century and means "to burn (with envy, fury, indignation, etc.), to look angrily or passionately upon... to break out into open anger or indignation."
It's nice to know that people have been using the word "chit-chat" (p. 1474) for at least 250 years, and that they've also been reading "the handwriting upon the wall" (p. 1478).
But the one that stunned me was:
"such awakening calls are hardly ever afforded to men of his cast" (p. 1492)
In my experience, a wake-up call is something you get from a hotel front desk via the telephone, so I would have assumed that the metaphorical use of the phrase ("an event that alerts people to a danger or difficulty" — Collins English Dictionary, 5th edition) derived from that. But what's an 18th century "awakening call"? Were there "awakening calls" on farms, for example, to get everybody out of bed? And did that become a metaphorical phrase long before the telephone was invented? Apparently so.
Sentences Short and Long
The most difficult aspect of 18th century prose is not the vocabulary but the sentence structure, which often demonstrates the thinness of the line separating "elegantly beautiful" and "hopelessly convoluted." This isn't even a whole sentence in a letter from Clarissa to Anna:
What a generosity in you to write as frequently from friendship as I am forced to do from misfortune! (p. 93)
In common 21st century speech, that might be expressed with a rather clumsier sentence like "How nice of you to email me out of friendship when all my emails to you are full of my problems."
I also like this one in letter from Belford to Lovelace:
I long to know what the second request is: but this I know, that if it be anything less than cutting thy throat or endangering my own neck, I will certainly comply; and be proud of having it in my power to oblige her.
Longer 18th century sentences can be hard to untangle. Here's one in a letter from Clarissa to Anna that I'm still working on:
And often and often have I had reason on her account, to reflect that we poor mortals, by our over-solicitude to preserve undisturbed the qualities we are constitutionally fond of, frequently lose the benefits we propose to ourselves from them; since the designing and encroaching, finding out what we most fear to forfeit, direct their batteries against these our weaker places and, making an artillery, if I may so phrase it, of our hopes and fears, play it upon us at their pleasure. (p. 105)
Quotes and Pronouns
In many letters in Clarissa the letter writer recounts a conversation, or something said by someone else. I found Richardson's use of quotation marks and pronouns to be inconsistent and often confusing.
For example, consider this sentence:
And then she said she wants to be my friend.
You can also use quotation marks to indicate the verbatim words:
And then she said "I want to be your friend."
In Clarissa, Samuelson often switches the pronouns even within quotation marks, with a result equivalent to this:
And then she said "She wants to be my friend."
What's just as bad are occasional times when quotation marks are not used but the pronouns are swapped:
Then then she said I want to be your friend.
At no time did I even encounter an ambiguity, but the momentary confusion often slowed me down.
The First Feminist Novel?
Apparently in the 1970s and 1980s, Clarissa was rediscovered by academics as a proto-feminist novel, and it's hard to avoid that interpretation. Clarissa is a good girl. She is a model daughter and obeys her parents in almost everything they ask of her. But she simply will not spend the rest of her life married to a man to whom she has a fundamental and unconquerable aversion. Clarissa's refusal to marry Solmes is what kickstarts the plot of the novel.
Both Clarissa and her friend Anna are extremely intelligent young women, very well read, and delightfully witty. I'm afraid their contemporaries might, in fact, find them a bit "over educated" to make adequate subservient wives. Both Clarissa and Anna on multiple occasions express the desire for the "single life" but they are pressured by their parents to marry men not quite up to their high standards.
After the rape, Clarissa finds herself almost in the same position she was with Solmes: Everyone thinks that all can be forgiven and everyone reconciled if only Clarissa and Lovelace would marry. Even Anna advises that it's a legitimate way out. But the more Clarissa knows Lovelace, the more she despises him. Once again everyone is pressuring her to marry, and once again, all she wants to do is make her own decisions for any life-long commitment.
I haven't discussed Anna much in this series of blog entries, but she is actually a more vivid character than Clarissa, who is a little too saintly to be entirely believable. Richardson makes Anna so real that I wanted her to be my friend. Anna is more down to earth than Clarissa, more practical, and often reveals the truths that Clarissa is too polite to mention. Anna's mother is pressuring her to marry a Mr. Hickman, who is shy and awkward but a decent man, and who Anna finds rather ridiculous. Clarissa also believes Anna should marry Hickman, and she even makes that a stipulation in her will! When Anna is reminded of this by John Belford (who becomes executor of Clarissa's will), she responds:
Now, sir, as I must needs plead guilty to this indictment, do you not think I ought not to resolve upon a single life? — I, who have such an opinion of your sex, that I think there is not one man in an hundred whom a woman of sense and spirit can either honour or obey, though you make us promise both, in that solemn form of words which unites or rather binds us to you in marriage?
When I look round upon all the married people of my acquaintance, and see how they live, and what they bear, who live best, I am confirmed in my dislike to the state.
Well do your sex contrive to bring us up fools and idiots in order to make us bear the yoke you lay upon our shoulders; and that we may not despise you from our heart (as we certainly should if we were brought up as you are) for your ignorance, as much as you often make us do (as it is) for your insolence.
These, sir, are some of my notions. And, with these notions, let me repeat my question, Do you think I ought to marry at all?
If I marry either a sordid or an imperious wretch, can I, do you think, live with him? And ought a man of a contrary character, for the sake of either of our reputations, to be plagued with me?
Long did I stand out against all the offers made me, and against all the persuasions of my mother; and, to tell you the truth, the longer and with the more obstinacy, as the person my choice would have at first fallen upon was neither approved by my mother, nor by my best friend. This riveted me to my pride, and to my opposition: for although I was convinced that after a while that my choice would neither have been prudent nor happy; and that the specious wretch was not what he had made me believe he was; yet could I not easily think of any other man: and indeed from the detection of him took a settled aversion to the whole sex.
At last Mr Hickman offered himself; a man worthy of a better choice. He had the good fortune (he thinks it so) to be agreeable (and to make his proposals agreeable) to my mother.
As to myself; I own that were I to have chosen a brother, Mr Hickman should have been the man; virtuous, sober, sincere, friendly, as he is. But I wished not to marry: nor knew I the man in the world whom I could think deserving of my beloved friend. But neither of our parents would let us live single. (p. 1456)
The Brothel and the Surgeons
For part of the novel, Lovelace hold Clarissa captive in a brothel. But the reader doesn't get a sense that it's a brothel until being told later on. This is unfortunate: Who among us wouldn't want to peep inside an 18th century brothel? The opportunity comes much later, when the madam (who is referred to as "mother") badly breaks her leg, and the prostitutes are gathered round. Belford narrates:
The other seven seemed to have been but just up, risen perhaps from their customers in the fore-house, and their nocturnal orgies, with faces, three or four of them, that had run, the paint lying in streaky seams not half blowzed off, discovering coarse wrinkled skins: the hair of some of them of divers colours; obliged to the blacklead comb where black was affected; the artifical jet, however, yielding space to the natural brindle: that of other plaistered with oil and powder; the oil predominating: but every one's hanging about her ears and neck in broken curls, or ragged ends; and each at the entrance take with one motion, stroking their matted locks with both hands under their coifs, mobs, or pinners, every one of which was awry. They were all slipshod; stockingless some; only under-petticoated all; their gowns, made to cover stradling hoops, hanging trollopy, and tangling about their heels; but hastily wrapped round them as soon as I came upstairs. And half of them (unpadded, shoulder-bent, pallid-lipped, feeble-jointed wretches) appearing from a blooming nineteen or twenty perhaps overnight, haggard well-worn strumpets of thirty-eight or forty. (p. 1387-8)
That scene in the brothel also provides a little glimpse of 18th-century medicine. Two surgeons are examining the broken leg, and Belford asks:
Will amputation save her? Her affairs and her mind want settling. A few days added to her life may be of service to her in both respects.
They told me the fracture was high in her leg; that the knee was greatly bruised; that the mortification in all probability had spread half-way to the femur: and then, getting me between them (three or four of the women joining us, and listening with their mouths open, and all the signs of ignorant wonder in their faces, as there appeared of self-sufficiency of the artists), did they by turns fill my ears with an anatomical description of the leg and thigh, running over with terms of art; of the tarsus, the metatarsus, the tibia, the fibula, the patella, the os tali, the os tibiae, the tibialis posticus and tibialis anticus, up to the os femoris, to the acetabulum of the os ischion, the great trochanter, glutaeus, triceps, levidus, and little rotators; in short, of all the muscles, cartilages, and bones, that constitute the leg and thigh from the great toe to the hip; as if they would show me that all their science had penetrated their heads no farther than their mouths; while Sally lifted up her hands with a Laud bless me! Are all surgeons so learned! — But at last both the gentleman declared, that if she and her friends would consent to amputation, they would whip off her leg in a moment. (p. 1390-1)
Robert Lovelace, Esq.
One of Samuel Richardson's most momentous achievements in Clarissa was getting into the head of Robert Lovelace, composing letters from him full of verbal pyrotechnics, that are funny, outrageous, and borderline psychopathic. To Robert Lovelace, the universe orbits Robert Lovelace. Everything is about him, as he reveals over and over again in his letters to John Belford:
It is certainly as much my misfortune to have fallen in with Miss Clarissa Harlowe, were I to have valued my reputation or ease, as it is that of Miss Harlowe to have been acquainted with me. And, after all, what have I done more than prosecute the maxims by which thou and I and every rake are governed, and which, before I knew this lady, we have pursued from pretty girl to pretty girl, as fast as we had set one down, taking another up—just as the fellows do with their flying-coaches and flying-horses at a country fair—with a Who rides next! Who rides next! (p. 970)
Did Richardson have fun writing this stuff? Or was he sickened by it? Or did he feel guilty because he had so much fun getting into this sick man's head? These questions go to the very core of what a novelist is called upon to do. A novelist must reveal all aspects of the world, including evil men and their evil plots, and must make them real, which often means making them gray and uncover their good sides as well. If the reader then finds himself or herself actually liking this man, or identifying with him— just a little bit—then we learn much about ourselves as well.
The charismatic monster that is Robert Lovelace leaps off the pages of the novel, gets into your head, and makes himself at home, poking his sword into the moral centers of your brain and even insulting you for tolerating him as much as you do.
In the very little preparation I made in reading Clarissa I read a fascinating article by University of London lecturer Elaine McGirr. She contends that Lovelace should be identified with the Restoration, the period beginning in 1660 under the rules of Charles II and then James II. In his letters Lovelace frequently quotes Restoration poets and plays, some of which exalt rakes and royalty. This period ended with the Glorious Revolution (also known as the Bloodless Revolution) of 1688, when the Catholic-leaning James II was deposed and replaced with William & Mary, leading to a stronger Parliament and the Hanoverian line of kings, including George II, who was king when Richardson was writing Clarissa.
Descendents of James II were known as Jacobites, and several times attempted to restore their rule and establish a Catholic monarchy. James II's grandson, Charles Edward Stuart (known as Bonnie Prince Charles) led the biggest assault in 1745 — during the time Richardson was writing Clarissa. It is McGirr's contention that Lovelace represents the Tory Jacobites that must be defeated by the Whigs of Richardson's sympathies, which is why McGirr's essay is entitled Why Lovelace Must Die.
Although the standard Richardson biography, Samuel Richardson: A Biography by T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel (Clarendon Press, 1971), seems to indicate that Richardson was not very political, I find Elaine McGirr's arguments too compelling to ignore.
Death and Providence
At times when reading Clarissa I realized why suicide was banned by both civil and ecclesiastical law. Suicide was one of the few ways in which Clarissa could have clearly communicated to her parents that she did not want to spend the rest of her life with Solmes. Suicide was also one of the few ways in which Clarissa could have successfully escaped from Lovelace. For a good Christain woman like Clarissa, however, suicide was simply not an option. It would have allowed her too much power.
Yet, Clarissa does die through a process almost like suicide. Whether out of depression or her subconscious will, she seems to starve herself to death. She is referred to as "a lovely skeleton" (p. 1231) and "emaciated" (p. 1351). But she is at peace with herself because she is going to a better place. Her posthumous letter instructs Anna "to rejoice that she [Clarissa] is so early released; and that she is purified by her sufferings, and is made as she assuredly trusts, by God's goodness, eternally happy." (p. 1377) No one in Clarissa denies the existence of this future state.
By an amazing coincidence, the year 1748 when the final volumes of the first edition of Clarissa were published was the same year that David Hume published his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which included the famous Chapter 10 ("Of Miracles") and Chapter 11 ("Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State") that constituted some of the first strong blows that kicked away the foundations that supported Clarissa's blissful optimism.