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Reading the Classics: CLARISSA

Once you accept the lugubrious plot of the longest English novel (pure and innocent girl is Wronged, fades away into angelic death) Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson,  is fascinating on so many levels.

Apparently Richardson worked on it for years. And that includes after initial publication–he amended it significantly twice, after reading both published and private reviews. Unfortunately his emendations mostly were additions to hammer the point home that no, Clarissa realio trulio was saintly and pure and good and submissive (and therefore must die), and Lovelace a devil in thin disguise, adding on massive wordcount to shove readers firmly into accepting his judgment. He was appalled that many readers liked Lovelace, and wanted a happy ending for them both.

The thing is, the book is great–still great–in spite of that hammer.

First of all, the reader can watch the invention of the English modern novel as this book develops. Richardson plays around with narrative voice, POV, dialogue and dialogue attributions as he tries to juggle the inner and outer lives of all his characters. The result, I think, is fascinating: narrative commentary, footnotes, play format, stream of consciousness, omniscient narrator, third person limited, and of course first person epistolary make up a splendid tapestry of narrative experimentation made lively by irony here, passion there.

Then there is the historical context. The close reader will discover customs and attitudes of the time that all the characters accept as givens, but which we will find peculiar, enlightening, horrifying, and sometimes bewildering. Expressions we think we understand have origin meanings now forgotten, for example, “raising a family.” Very, very important concept–but it’s not about educating one’s children so much as using education as one of the many tools to boost one’s family into a higher social realm. So children are expected, as their duty to their parents, to raise the family–boys by doing great things in the world and girls by marrying up.

Finally, and most intriguingly, there is the battle of the sexes. When the reader reflects on the central turning point of the book being a rape, suddenly Richardson’s quaint language and people in their wigs and laces transform into moderns, facing the complex tensions of male-female relations now.

Richardson wants us to believe that a good girl is obedient and submissive, first to her father (and brothers) and then to her husband. Her purity is her single most important commodity. If we look past that absurdity (which we have been struggling against for the centuries since), what we have here is a novel about agency.

Jane Austen picked up on this when she began writing, with her assumption that what women think matters–that their lives are not solely about holding onto their “purity” until marriage. I say “picked up” because Jane Austen’s work is in dialogue with Richardson’s; he, though a male author, possessed enough sympathy and understanding of women to have created a cast of interesting females.

However much we might roll our eyes at Clarissa’s six hundred pages of dedicated “I have lost my purity so I must die” at the end of the novel, we can still feel for her because Richardson created a smart character with wit and determination. At the wise age of eighteen she tries to be submissive to her parents–in the very beginning, we learn that her grandfather had left her a significant fortune, which she promptly signs over to her father because she is a good, submissive girl.

Unfortunately for Clarissa, her father is a pompous fatwit, and her brother is even worse–his letters to her are full of innuendo about how she must submit to the loathsome Soames, that she must be mastered, that marriage will snuff out her pertness . . . using the language of rape.

Readers of the time were riveted; letters and memoirs then, and since, are full of oblique references to what goes on in the family home when brothers are taught that they are the masters of young sisters, until Virginia Woolf decided to spell it out bluntly.

And that’s the key, I think: in the parade of twits and hypocrites and spiteful sisters and overbearing parents and vile sneaks (who once, when young, had hopes of a good life but were tricked and lied to) we find the traces of people, and problems, we know now. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away.

At the novel’s center is the vexing snarl of questions about the nature of love, attraction, obsession and possession, and above all, trust. Clarissa might eventually have been wooed into loving Lovelace–she did find him handsome and witty–but he betrayed her trust, and he could never be made to understand that. And his reasons for the rape are more complicated than you’d think.

Obviously it takes time to read. That’s daunting to today’s life in the fast lane. But I believe every literature lover ought to read it once, and do it when there are others to discuss it with. And you might find it a whole lot more entertaining than you would have thought: it was not only a best-seller in England, but it was fast translated into other European languages, and had a profound effect on a variety of artists, including Mozart. (Listen to Don Giovanni again after reading this book.)

Though the language and customs are so very mid-eighteenth century, the emotions and motivations are resonantly relevant, and the book can spark endless debate. And thereby–one hopes–enlightenment. We humans certainly have a long way to go.


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