At around 1,431 pages, Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady beats out Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (826 pages), Bleak House by Charles Dickens (813 pages) and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (955 pages) for the title of longest book I have ever read. Such a tome seems like an overwhelming task to get through but fortunately they are often divided up into a number of sections, each a mini book in themselves. How I got through War and Peace was that I would read a section and then take a break for a few week and repeat until the book was finished. I am going to do the same for Clarissa.
After her grandfather dies and leaves her a large fortune, Clarissa Harlowe, a young woman of great beauty, intelligence, and virtue, is uninterested in marrying; being independently wealthy, she lacks the economic incentive to do so. She has already refused several suitors and her nouveau riche family is frustrated with her. They insist that she marry the rich but repulsive Mr. Solmes, which is partially a revenge plot by Clarissa’s greedy and envious brother and sister. Her refusal to marry the man picked out for her by her family causes them to become increasingly controlling and hostile. Clarissa’s beauty and virtue attract the notice of Robert Lovelace, a notorious rake, who sets out to win her with offers of protection should she wish to flee her impossible situation.
The story is told through a series of letters from Clarissa to her best friend, the sassy and witty, Anna Howe, and from Lovelace to his partner in crime John Belford, with the occasional sub letter from a whole host of other characters.
Passive and virtuous Clarissa is a heroine who would be hard for modern audiences to get behind. We like our period heroines to be rebels who stick it to the patriarchy but this does not do justice to the reality for what life was like for women in centuries past. Clarissa’s plight is an extreme example of what many women in the 18th century went through. They were considered the property of either their father or their husband and were constantly reminded that they had to be obedient. By refusing to marry Solmes, Clarissa is posing a threat to the social structure. Her parents do not relent because doing so would compromise their authority; they are pretty much a parody of the “because I said so” style of parenting. Trying to buck the system backfires on Clarissa as doing so causes her to be stripped of whatever freedom she has: walking in the garden, sending letters, and even leaving her room. The point is that Clarissa is a goody-goody who is used to playing by the rules but is conflicted when duty means sacrificing her own happiness. A genteelly brought up girl like Clarissa would be ill equipped to handle life on her own and she would be dependent on a man, which is where Lovelace comes in, who we get the feeling cannot be trusted.
Richardson explores the helplessness of women in his society. From the time she was a child, Clarissa would have little say in own life. She would be subject to the authority of her parents and later her husband, an authority which could easily turn tyrannical and abusive. Clarissa starts off as a beloved and indulged daughter of privilege but the absolute rule of parents slowly turns her into a prisoner in their own home when she opposes them. A contemporary reader may ask why she does not stick up for herself? The answer is: she does. Clarissa finds a number of ways to snark at and rebel against her oppressors but this only serves to make life worse for her.
The Jo Marches and Arya Starks of the world will always chaff against what society expects of them and be admired when they rebel against these expectations. But for the majority of women throughout history, this would be merely wish fulfilment fantasy. The Clarissa Harlowes of the world try their best to find their way within the system and later end being screwed over, then criticized for being weak.