Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Today we’re going to talk about one of the true monsters (my copy weighing in at somewhere over 1533 pages) of English literature, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Or, The History of a Young Lady. Or, as I liked to call it, Clarissa Explains it All.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Emma Donoghue and 4th for Vendela Vida.)

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth century epistolary novel about a young woman named, oddly enough, Clarissa. Clarissa’s family is newly wealthy and seeking entrance into the nobility. As part of that, they look to marrying the virtuous Clarissa with Robert Lovelace. However, her brother gets into it with Lovelace and then her family hates him, instead wanting to marry Clarissa to a man she despises. Due to an accident of circumstance, Clarissa ends up going off with Lovelace, though firmly committed to remaining virtuous, and the increasingly despicable Lovelace spends the rest of the book trying to undermine her virtue. He drugs and rapes her before eventually meeting his own horrible end, at least his being deserved.

I was once more offering the key to the lock, when, starting from his knees, with a voice of affrightment, loudly whispering, and as if out of breath, they are at the door, my beloved creature! and taking the key from me, he fluttered with it, as if he would double lock it. And instantly a voice from within cried out, bursting against the door, as if to break it open, the person repeating his violent pushes, Are you there?–come up this moment!–this moment!–here they are–here they are both together!–your pistol this moment!–your gun!–Then another push, and another. He at the same moment drew his sword, and clapping it naked under his arm, took both my trembling hands in his; and drawing me swiftly after him, Fly, fly, my charmer; this moment is all you have for it, said he.–Your brother!–your uncles!–or this Solmes!–they will instantly burst the door–fly, my dearest life, if you would not be more cruelly used than ever–if you would not see two or three murders committed at your feet, fly, fly, I beseech you.

O Lord:–help, help, cried the fool, all in amaze and confusion, frighted beyond the power of controuling.

Now behind me, now before me, now on this side, now on that, turned I my affrighted face, in the same moment; expecting a furious brother here, armed servants there, an enraged sister screaming, and a father armed with terror in his countenance more dreadful than even the drawn sword which I saw, or those I apprehended. I ran as fast as he; yet knew not that I ran; my fears adding wings to my feet, at the same time that they took all power of thinking from me–my fears, which probably would not have suffered me to know what course to take, had I not had him to urge and draw me after him: especially as I beheld a man, who must have come out of the door, keeping us in his eye, running now towards us; then back to the garden; beckoning and calling to others, whom I supposed he saw, although the turning of the wall hindered me from seeing them; and whom I imagined to be my brother, my father, and their servants.

Thus terrified, I was got out of sight of the door in a very few minutes: and then, although quite breathless between running and apprehension, he put my arm under his, his drawn sword in the other hand, and hurried me on still faster: my voice, however, contradicting my action; crying, no, no, no, all the while; straining my neck to look back, as long as the walls of the garden and park were within sight, and till he brought me to the chariot: where, attending, were two armed servants of his own, and two of Lord M.’s on horseback.

Here I must suspend my relation for a while: for now I am come to this sad period of it, my indiscretion stares me in the face; and my shame and my grief give me a compunction that is more poignant methinks than if I had a dagger in my heart. To have it to reflect, that I should so inconsiderately give in to an interview, which, had I known either myself or him, or in the least considered the circumstances of the case, I might have supposed would put me into the power of his resolution, and out of that of my own reason.

For, might I not have believed, that he, who thought he had cause to apprehend that he was on the point of losing a person who had cost him so much pains and trouble, would not hinder her, if possible, from returning? That he, who knew I had promised to give him up for ever, if insisted as a condition of reconciliation, would not endeavour to put it out of my power to do so? In short, that he, who had artfully forborne to send for my letter, (for he could not be watched, my dear,) lest he should find in it a countermand to my appointment, (as I myself could apprehend, although I profited by the apprehension,) would want a device to keep me with him till the danger of having our meeting discovered might throw me absolutely into his power, to avoid my own worse usage, and the mischiefs which might have ensued (perhaps in my very sight) had my friends and he met?

But if it shall come out, that the person within the garden was his corrupted implement, employed to frighten me away with him, do you think, my dear, that I shall not have reason to hate him and myself still more? I hope his heart cannot be so deep and so vile a one: I hope it cannot! But how came it to pass, that one man could get out at the garden-door, and no more? how, that that man kept aloof, as it were, and pursued us not; nor ran back to alarm the house? my fright, and my distance, would not let me be certain; but really this man, as I now recollect, had the air of that vile Joseph Leman.

I would normally hate to do this much of a spoiler, but I’m guessing that either you know all this already or you won’t read the book in any event. This is a book that is commonly referred to, but not so commonly read.

It surprised me that Clarissa was written by the same author as Pamela. Sure, Clarissa is a bit preachy in spots and can dwell on a few things that don’t really advance the plot, but the difference is astonishing. Clarissa is the far superior work, in my view.

Clarissa is actually moving, containing developed, human characters who come alive and engage the soul. Though I think Pamela would have been better if cut from 500 pages down to 150 or 200, I found very little in Clarissa that I would cut. Richardson apparently learned a bit between Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela is more of a curiosity piece as I see it, but Clarissa is a truly wonderful early example of what the English language novel could accomplish.

Of course, I don’t actually expect that you’ll read the whole thing.

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