Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady
Half a year it took me to get through this one, but then I can also say I have read one of the longest novels in English literature. And, yeah, it is a tough one to get through, but also worthwhile. It moves at glacial speed, but because of that we get details, facets, aspects that enrich the tale to an extent few other novels achieve.
The basic story is not very complex. Clarissa is a young lady of 18 years of a wealthy, landed family. She is the virtuous youngest child of three with a covetous and choleric brother and an envious sister. When Clarissa gets courted by the hated Robert Lovelace, the brother and sister sets the entire family up against her to make her marry a terrible, but rich fellow named Solmes, partly to avoid Lovelace and partly to get back at their beloved-by-all sister.
Clarissa counts dutifulness to her parents among her many important virtues, but marrying Solmes is too much. Instead she wants to remain single. The family does not buy this but insists this is just so she can marry Lovelace. He, in turn, is a certified libertine and is encouraging this resentment hoping it will move Clarissa to run away with him. He almost succeeds, but when Clarissa changes her mind, he tricks her and take her with him to London.
Lovelace does not intend to marry her, he just wants to get into her pants, seeing her virtuousness merely as a challenge worthy of him. He employs all his talents for schemes and plots, gets her installed in a house that is actually a brothel, invent characters, one of which is supposed to promote a reconciliation with her family, and finally he resorts to sedation and rape.
This attack on her virtue is so hard a blow that Clarissa resolves to die as the only means to recover her virtue and while suicide is out of the question, she “dies of shame”.
It is obvious that Clarissa is the good girl besieged by the villain Lovelace and her implacable family and that only her virtue saves her. It is in the tone that we are supposed to admire her and despise Lovelace. But it is not as simple as that. For all her qualities Clarissa is singularly incapable of helping herself. So stuck is she in her ideas of correct behavior that she cannot save herself from her family or from Lovelace. Yes, she makes an escape, but it is almost pathetically poorly executed and all options of taking her fate into her own hands are consequently refused with a “leave me alone” petulant attitude. Her friend, Miss Howe, whom she styles her letters to, is an altogether more resourceful type, and although both Clarissa and the author constantly chide her for her independency, there is also a hidden admiration as if secretly the author actually prefers her qualities, contrary to the generally accepted sentiment of the age.
In the same way, while we are supposed to despise Lovelace, it is difficult not to see him as a lot more interesting man than anybody else in the story. Sure, he carries his manipulations too far and has a very high opinion of himself, but his far more practical and joyful approach to life is adventurous and he main error is that he has thrown his love on the one woman who is completely unresponsive to his charms.
So, beneath the story of good versus evil, there is an undercurrent of criticism against over-zealous virtue and the passive state women are supposed to be kept in.
The story would have been entirely different if Clarissa had taken the consequence of the impossible options of obliging the family (by marrying Solmes) or obliging Lovelace, by choosing an active third option, such as leaving England, rather than the passive one of “the single life”. She could have taken Miss Howe up on the offer to go away with her or at least accept her financial support for a solution away from her family and Lovelace, but meekness is a virtue, and constantly those virtues force her to take the wrong decisions, camouflaged as the right decision, ultimately leading to her “blessed” death.
How about matching up Howe and Lovelace? Then Clarissa could have the dull and prudent Mr. Hickman. But then of course there would be no story.
“Clarissa” is definitely a story of its age. The gender politics are antiquated and the emphasis on virtue is tiresome. Yet it remains an interesting read, not least because of its epistolary format. The 537 letters give a unique view into the minds of people of the mid-eighteen century and the characters manage to become very much alive. I am happy I got to read it.