Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa – one of the great masterpieces of European culture

O Richardson! In spite of ourselves we play a role in your works, we take part in your conversations, we approve, we blame, we marvel…’ Denis Diderot

I’m with Diderot. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is, without doubt, one of the great masterpieces of European culture. An enormous claim, I admit, but I’m going to do my best to vindicate it, and persuade those of you who haven’t read this magnificent novel to give it a try.

Let’s start with a brief resumé. Clarissa was Richardson’s second novel after Pamela, and was published in three instalments from December 1747 to December 1748. Like Pamela, it’s a novel-in-letters, telling the story of the virtuous Clarissa Harlowe, who is tricked away from her parents’ house by the libertine Robert Lovelace, raped by him, and dies. Or, as Samuel Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale Piozzi put it, ‘A Man gets a Girl from her Parents – violates her Free Will, & She dies of a broken heart. That is all the Story’.

All the story indeed, and it takes the best part of a million words to tell it. And as Johnson himself observed, ‘If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.’ When I’ve written posts recommending Clarissa in the past I haven’t – as far as I know – reduced people to quite that degree of despair, but I have had rather forlorn comments likening it to a doorstop, or a house-brick, and believe me, I know what they mean. There’s no getting away from it, this is an immense work in every sense of the term. It was, of course, written for a more leisured age, without the pressures and distractions we have now. But if you can find the space for it – and allow it the time it needs to get underway – you’ll find that the cumulative effect is extraordinarily powerful.

Indeed the very fact that it is so long – that you can read it in ‘real time’, day by day, at the same pace as the letters themselves – builds gradually into what one critic has called an astounding ‘reality effect’. Many of Richardson’s contemporaries record exactly the same experience – his friend Susanna Highmore, for example, was not alone in reacting to Clarissa’s death as if she had been a living friend: ‘I see, I hear, I feel the same, and am for the present as unhappy, as if it were all true…”

One reason the book had – and has – this intense impact is down to Richardson’s masterly handling of the epistolary form. A novel in letters can be a cumbersome beast, but Richardson expertly constructs a ‘double yet separate correspondence’ between Clarissa and her friend Anna on the one hand, and Lovelace and his confidant Belford on the other. At its simplest level, this structure gives us a special intimacy with the two main protagonists, as the struggle between them is related to their respective correspondents, and they reveal, in private, the ‘secret recesses of the heart’.

Richardson described his characters as writing ‘to the moment’, and there really is an amazing immediacy to these letters, written so soon after the events they relate. Some of that is down to what the characters say, but it’s also how they say it. Richardson was remarkably innovative in the way he used both syntax and typography to mimic the ebb and flow of thought. The short half-finished sentences, the dashes, italics, question marks and exclamation marks, all show him straining language to represent emotion – a dazzling technique that pre-empts the development of the modern ‘stream of consciousness’ novel by nearly 200 years.

More subtly, the epistolary approach also provides us with different and often conflicting versions of the same episodes, which force us as readers to decide who (if anyone) is telling the truth, without the benefit of an omniscient third-person narrator. In the first third of the book, for example, it’s genuinely impossible to make a final judgment one way or another. Twenty-first century readers, in particular, may identify emotionally with Clarissa, but she is not always playing it as straight as her letters would have us believe. In her very first letter she insists that she will ‘recite facts only; and leave you to judge of the truth,’ but in this novel ‘facts’ – never mind ‘truth’ – are never as straightforward as that.

If Clarissa claims veracity; Lovelace glories in falsity. He is a virtuoso in the art of verbal deception, using his letters by turns to plead, mislead, persuade, and exonerate, exploiting all the slippery ambiguity of language, and turning Clarissa’s words into weapons to be used against her. (Lovelace, incidentally, is at once Richardson’s most impressive and most unlikely achievement: that a prim and portly printer could have created so breathtaking, sexy and ambivalent a villain almost defies belief; it’s worth reading the book for him alone).

As I said before, Richardson used the epistolary form in Pamela as well, but the difference – and the greatness – of Clarissa lies in the fact that in this book he does not simply present us with the central protagonist’s letters; he dramatizes the process of reading them within the novel itself. Anna and Belford are readers of Clarissa and Lovelace inside the novel, just as we are their readers outside. We, like them, must decide if the version of events we are given is a reliable one, and whether the writer is holding something back and, if so, why. The most obvious example is Anna’s perceptive questioning of Clarissa in the opening section, where she attempts to persuade her friend to confess that she does, in fact, have feelings for Lovelace, even though she is denying it, and where it’s Clarissa’s ambivalent and equivocating replies that may – or may not – reveal the truth.

And if Clarissa dramatizes the challenges we face in the act of reading, it also demonstrates the distortions and self-delusions inherent in the act of writing. Letters are part of the fabric of this novel in a very postmodern way; they’re lost, stolen, forged, changed, hidden, encoded, miscarried and torn apart – indeed Clarissa’s letters are opened and ‘raped’ long before she is herself. Only in Thomas Hardy is the act of putting pen to paper equally fraught with existential hazard.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, this quintessentially 18th-century novel is actually a very contemporary text. In an age when we communicate less and less by speech, and more and more by written words (on screen if not on paper), when we can so easily reveal more of ourselves than we intend, when social media make us more vulnerable than we have ever been to careless communication, Clarissa is a novel for our times.

I began with a great French writer; I’ll finish with a great English one: Henry Fielding, Richardson’s celebrated rival, and a scathing parodist of Pamela. He was, nonetheless, both moved and impressed by the first instalment of Clarissa, and was prepared to go into print to say so:

“Such deep penetration into nature; such power to raise and alarm the passions, few writers, either ancient or modern, have been possessed of. My affections are so strongly engaged, and my fears are so raised, by what I have already read, that I cannot express my eagerness to see the rest…”

If that doesn’t persuade you, nothing will.


This post was originally written in 2013 for the late Norman Geras, as part of his long-running ‘Writer’s Choice’ series. I have also written a book on Richardson, Clarissa’s Painter: Portraiture, Illustration and Representation in the Novels of Samuel Richardson

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