Clarissa, by Richardson

I love this picture, it could be an illustration either of Clarissa writing her letters in the book, or of myself half way through volume 5


There is some debate as to who should be credited with writing the first English novel.  Some people say Henry Fielding’s ‘A History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ (1749), some say ‘Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded’ (1740).  The debate is mostly about the difference between epistolary novels and normal novels.  Tom Jones looks like any novel written today, while Pamela is a series of letters that people really believed in (the equivalent of the found footage film).  Anyway, I love Pamela, in which a virtuous servant withstands the advances of her amorous employer (Mr. B) until he is so impressed with her chastity he marries her.  This isn’t a spoiler; it’s basically rephrasing the title.  One of the great things about Pamela is that it’s all written in the first person and Richardson is very inventive with stretching the constraints of a novel that is made up of letters and diary entires.  For one thing, Pamela has endless amounts of writing paper, but limited access to the post, so her letters get longer and longer and her parents don’t know what’s going on until a long time after the reader does.  This means they’ll write replies that are out of date or prescient, while the story has moved on without them.  We also have Mr. B writing additions in Pamela’s journal along the lines of ‘I’ve just read the above and I must say you’ve completely misunderstood my character’.  It’s a structural triumph that both takes advantage of and also exposes the limits of the epistolary novel form.

This is a long pre-amble to a page about ‘Clarissa’ but the message is read ‘Pamela’ first.  It’s a fraction of the length (about 500 pages rather than about 1500 pages, depending on your edition) and will let you know how you feel about Richardson’s style.  Do you like your heroines insanely beautiful and virtuous?  Do you like odd plot contrivances to ensure they can escape their would-be-seducers?  How do you feel about first person narration and sermon-type additions to add moral tone?  If ‘Pamela’ makes you want to dive into 18th century literature head first – read Clarissa.


I was lucky enough to read Clarissa when living in a university town with an excellent library.  I read it in 11 beautiful hard back volumes that must have been at least one hundred years old and it was just wonderful.  Since then, I’ve had read trouble getting hold of a copy that was affordable in terms of money and space.  The first time I ordered it online I ended up with an abridged version which really defeats the point as far as I’m concerned.  I currently have a big one-volume Penguin paperback which I don’t dare read because paperbacks were never supposed to be so massive and it will clearly fall apart as soon as I try opening it.

Overall, I’d recommend multiple small volumes.  They help you keep track of your progress and you can feel very proud as soon as you’ve finished one.  Also, they won’t fall apart and are much easier to hold and transport.  At the end of the day though, this isn’t exactly a best-seller, it’s not stocked everywhere so you may have go with what you can find.

The second tip is to keep going with it.  Reading books this long requires a certain amount of pacing.  You need to read quickly enough that you don’t forget everything or get too bored, but Richardson’s readers had lots of time on their hands.  He was writing for very long wet afternoons with no TV, internet or computer access, not for reading in the frantic 21st century.  I found that the plot really gets going at around volume 2 of 11 and there are some very well placed cliff hangers, but basically this is a book to wallow in, not to push through.

Learn to love the characters and the contrivances.  There are four letter writers:

– Clarissa.  The heroine, obviously, who out does even Mary Poppins because she actually is perfect in every way.  She is beautiful, witty, intelligent and rich.  Her family are determined to use her fortune to their advantage, so she is stuck between their selfish insensitivity and her determined would-be-seducer Lovelace.

– Lovelace is a literary great.  He prefigures Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons and is further proof that, in literature, the devil gets all the best lines.  He is not very good at science though and no one has explained to him that you can’t prove something true, his hypothesis is that Clarissa will not be able to withstand every possible test of her virtue – it’s a never ending experiment.   He fully intends to marry her (from fairly early on) but only after she’s proven that he can’t win her any other way.  He’s seductive and vile and duplicitous and funny.  His actions are despicable but he’s just so charismatic the reader is forced into the same position as Clarissa when trying to evaluate their feelings towards him.

Of course, the two of them write to each other throughout the book.  That’s only a part of the story though, because neither will confess the whole truth to the other, Clarissa, because she’s sensible and Lovelace because he’s too evil.  The two minor narrators who act as their confidents are also great

-Anna is my favourite character in the book because she’s Clarissa’s side kick and so slightly less perfect but still very cool.  She’s the person Clarissa is honest with and she does try to give her good advice.

– Belford is Lovelace’s friend.  He is less despicable and evil and tries to moderate his friend’s behaviour.  It’s also through him that we learn of Lovelace’s real plans.

The other thing to look forward to is the practical contrives of trying to believe that all of these people were writing this many letters to each other all the time.  It means they need to spend large sections of the book locked away with huge quantities of paper and ink, just to keep up with the news.  I also like imagining the numbers of letters they need to carry around with themselves at all times to make sure no one else reads them (though of course this might still happen with Lovelace around). As Clarissa spends so much time escaping and being abducted she is also carrying around 500 pages of letters with her at any one time.  It’s great!

Read Clarissa and get lost in her world.  Try to avoid learning the ending ahead of time – it takes a while to get there, but I promise it’s worth it.

2 Responses to Clarissa, by Richardson

  1. Liz says:

    I’d only ever met one person who’d read Clarissa – a great friend studying eng lit with me 25 years ago (yikes) – she certainly looked a little like the illustration during the process too! I remember having a celebratory cup of tea with her when she’d finished and needed some human companionship after all those pages (I think writing the essay about it was easy after that). So I am glad I now know another reader of Clarissa and firm fan and appreciate what an enormous achievement this is. Perhaps you’ll inspire me to be the third person I know (will it take another quarter of a century though?). Your blog is amazing, inspiring and packed with interesting observations and analysis – congratulations, Shoshi.

  2. shoshi1 says:

    Thank you so much and I’m so pleased you’re enjoying it! Clarissa is not going anywhere so there’s no rush, but she really is worth it – and please keep me posted with what you’d like to see on the blog.

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