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REVIEW: Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

I read Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady beginning last autumn and through the winter because I have the epistolary novel featured in the novel I wrote (Woman in the Painting; or His Other Half. Still undecided.) I even treated myself to an 1810 edition (6 of 8 volumes) to celebrate the achievement of finishing the longest book I have ever read.

About the novel: “Pressured by her unscrupulous family to marry a wealthy man she detests, the young Clarissa Harlow is tricked into fleeing with the witty and debonair Robert Lovelace and places herself under his protection. Lovelace, however, proves himself to be an untrustworthy rake whose vague promises of marriage are accompanied by unwelcome and increasingly brutal sexual advances. And yet, Clarissa finds his charm alluring, her scrupulous sense of virtue tinged with unconfessed desire. Told through a complex series of interweaving letters, Clarissa is a richly ambiguous study of a fatally attracted couple and a work of astonishing power and immediacy.”

My review: It is very long. Realllly bloated in that way a lot of classic literature often is. But if you read it in chunks, and, if you enjoy stories told through letters, it’s amazing.

Warning: Richardson has dark themes (suicide, rape). This may be the longest book I have ever read. I also felt that reading the Spark notes has helped me understand the book and maybe appreciate the author’s intent better. Kinda like years ago when I could not finish Austen’s Emma. I thought it tedious and long and I didn’t like Emma (just like I found Clarissa self-absorbed, too dramatic, and “poor me“ after a while), I found Emma easier to read after I listened to it in audio. For whatever reason, hearing the language made me more engaged. Anyway... A person who reads contemporary works only might give up on it because it probably could be told in a more shortened novel or be frustrated by Clarissa, wondering why she makes such choices when we recognize the danger (not blaming her but one might say, “Gah! Saw that coming!”) Looking at when it was written, I just wanted the young woman to find her happily-ever-after, and my modern sensibilities were disappointed knowing I was not going to get that payoff in the end. I bet there are college classes devoted all to this one book. It’s a semester’s worth of discussion at least.

Recently I found these excerpts of Richard Armitage reading it. This might be the way to go for future “reads”.

Have you read Clarissa or any of Richardson’s other works?


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