Francis Hayman, Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlowe
I have spent the past couple of weeks in the company of Clarissa Harlowe and Robert Lovelace, the heroine and anti-hero of Clarissa, a history of a young lady, by Samuel Richardson, an epistolary novel published in 1748. A forbidding work in nine volumes, roughly 970,000 words, Clarissa consists of letter upon letter beautifully written by a range of characters to one another in a surprisingly accessible language, despite being three centuries-old (though I had to get used to expressions and turns of phrase which are now obsolete; and, of course, the style, full of polite circumlocutions eg "permit me, madam, to trouble you with a few lines, were it only to thank you for your reproofs" or "the maids who brought the flowers were ambitious to strew them about them").
Clarissa is part of the English literary canon but its influence on European literature has been huge. It is a novel about rape and abuse: emotional, physical and intellectual (no, this is not a spoiler; the rule about spoilers can be waived when dealing with works of this magnitude, which are known to almost everyone). But it is also a novel about strength, determination and integrity. If the emphasis on female virtue is set aside, the subject matter of Clarissa becomes very relatable: a woman who is drugged and raped by a controlling man infatuated with her, but who refuses to be defeated. She seeks comfort in religion and chooses death rather than marry the man who abused her and would have continued to do so. She could have denounced his actions and chosen to undergo a trial (rape was punishable by death sentence in the 18th century, but proving it was most difficult); however that would have been, she believed, a lost cause, due to the rank of the man, his wealth and his connections. She does not commit suicide; instead, through gradual starvation and neglect of her health, she wills herself to die.
Saskia Wickham as Clarissa, 1991, BBC
Sean Bean as Robert Lovelace, 1991, BBC
I was challenged to read Clarissa; I do not know what possessed me to accept the challenge, I realised as soon as I picked up the book that it was not an easy read but I persevered and once I went past volume 1, I was hooked.
I started the book on Easter day and have now got to the end; naturally, I feel a great sense of elation and a compulsion to share my observations, though I realise the number of people who have actually read the book is rather small. It's lamentable because Clarissa is an extraordinary novel that has to be discussed, it is so compelling a read, how can one choose to ignore it? In my view, it has to be read in one go, a marathon read, there is no other way of doing it. You have to allow yourself to be enveloped in Clarissa 's and Lovelace's conflict of will, immerse yourself in 18th century England, make several concessions to Richardson's puritanical views (context, context !) and then you will really enjoy the novel, with its numerous theatrical twists and philosophical disquisitions on libertinism and virtue.
No film adaptation has (yet) done it full justice - I watched the 1991 BBC version with Saskia Wickham and Sean Bean in the title roles and enjoyed it, Bean makes a wonderful, angst-ridden Lovelace, though the series takes some liberties with the novel, in the hope of making it more interesting to a modern audience. eg there is no incestuous relationship between Clarissa's older sister Bella and brother James, as made out in the movie.
But reading Richardson is an experience not to be missed.
I have cheated my way through it, having chosen the audiobook version, so that I could listen to a narrator while still attending to mundane things. I have also ordered a print version, this is a book you need to have in your library, to go back to some of the most poignant passages whenever you feel the need to do so and re-read it, skipping chapters, as you see fit.
Now that I have finished it, I confess I feel a little lost. For the past fortnight, I began my day with Clarissa and Lovelace and ended it with them. No more.
I thought the Audible audiobook, though an excellent recording (I listened to a sample), was a bit pricey, so I listened to the free one available through Libri Vox. Readers for Libri Vox are volunteers and whereas some of them do the job superbly, there are also very poor readers, especially those who fancy themselves being on stage. They kill the text through over-the-top, totally unnecessary, acting. Several times in the course of listening to the letters of volume 6, I had to turn off the audiobook and read the text myself (I downloaded the ebook from Project Gutenberg) as the voice of the reader and his style were awful - I totally disagreed with the way he read Lovelace's letters, turning him into a ridiculous, farcical character, whereas Lovelace, an archetypal rake, a handsome young man endowed with great charm, has a complexity, an inner turmoil that cannot be ridiculed, though he is quite despicable in his sense of entitlement. But this is an opinion readers must be allowed to form for themselves. In contemporary terms, Robert Lovelace is a narcissist. He is unquestionably a villain, as twisted as can be, but I remain convinced that Richardson never intended to depict him as a vaudeville character - his letters bear me out.
I doubt it I would have had the time and stamina to go through all the nine volumes in pre-Covid 19 times - but when I was a teenager I used to spend my school holidays in bed just reading, a luxury I was never again able to afford, until now.
I found Clarissa a tour de force that played havoc with my emotions. So many times I caught myself being totally enraptured, and 'in the book'. Occasionally, I had to remind myself I was reading (listening to) a novel, the world I had stepped into was Richardson's construct, Clarissa and Lovelace are not, never were, real people.
Clarissa is a bit too saintly for my liking though she makes her point with vehemence: she does not love Lovelace; despite a mild, cautious, initial attraction, she despises his ways and does not want him near her. And that's that.
Sean Dean as Robert Lovelace, 1991, BBCLovelace is totally infatuated with her, the more she refuses him, the more he wants her and he checks all her correspondence, stalks her, imprisons her in a brothel. It is inadmissible to him that she would turn him down. Even his eventual rape is not an ordinary rape, but an elaborate machination to own Clarissa, bend her will, get to her inner self in an attempt to force her to love him. That's what he really wants, her love and submission, to the point of believing that raping her is the only way to obtain her complete surrender. I cannot condone this, no one can (and Richardson rages against it, rightly so); rape is rape and NEVER justified. But one can feel throughout the book Lovelace's frustration and anguish, his pathological need to control Clarissa going beyond what is morally acceptable.
He is, as a matter of principle, being a libertine, against marriage, and would like for Clarissa to accept cohabitation, which to her is unthinkable; after raping her, he insists on marrying her, because he knows that through marriage he will own her. Clarissa is adamant he should never go near her again.
It seems odd that Clarissa should die but in the context of the novel, it is the only way for her to assert her total independence and her triumph over Lovelace's perversity and the callousness of her relatives.
As I said this is not a book for everyone. But if you wish to challenge yourself, do read it. It will stay with you for a very long time.
*** Samuel Richardson in his Conclusion II gives reasons for why he wrote this novel and why he chose such a tragic ending. He also justifies the length of the novel and his choice of the epistolary style ***