You Can’t Do Both, by Kingsley Amis, 1994

‘You Can’t do Both’ was published in 1994, a year before Amis’s death. It is strongly autobiographical, in particular the central scene when the main characters, Robin Davies and his girlfriend, Nancy, decide at the last moment not to go through with a planned illegal abortion. It is constructed in four long chapters, each representing a phase of Robin’s life – schoolchild, undergraduate, young man, and married life. The third phase is key and formative – Robin is still in his early twenties, returning from active service in the Second World War and trying to resume normal life while his parents age and die.amis

In its review of this novel when it was first published, the Independent claimed “Amis throws off his reputation as a misanthropic old goat.” Distance as always gives perspective, and reading the novel now my immediate reaction was that if this is Amis being unmisanthropic and un-old-goatish, goodness help anyone reading the earlier novels, which must have been monstrous (personally I don’t think they were that much worse – I think the reviewer saw a change of tone where there wasn’t one).  Davies, the Amis-lite central character, perhaps anti-hero of this novel, is, in the words of a Goodreads reviewer, “seriously an insufferable git.” He tolerates other people, at best, and has few real friends. He is constantly on heat, and while his sexual conquests are at first clumsy and unsuccessful, he quickly becomes, as is the way with many author-avatar figures, irresistible to women.

The humour in the novel – it is intended as a comic novel – derives in part from Robin’s Lucky Jim-like frustration with the rest of the world. Where Jim’s frustrations managed to be comic and relatable, Robin’s are simply spiteful – his misanthropy towards his harmless young niece is particularly unpleasant. Occasionally he manages to raise a wry smile – for example in Robin’s description of meeting his father for the first time after a spell in a prisoner of war camp – “There had been the kind of brief, stylised embrace between the two that might have recalled a French general half-way down a long line of winners of minor decorations”.

In essence, this novel is a long and unsuccessful attempt to justify a life ill-spent. Davies is serially unfaithful to his wife, and only begrudgingly marries her because he is unable to go through with the said abortion. The denouement, in which he is caught in-flagrante by his wife with his cousin Dilys -“Within in a couple of minutes he was hard at it…On the whole the thing was a great success” – comes without consequences for Davies, barring a well-earned slap round the face. Amis is confessing to his weaknesses, and at the same time not very subtly bragging about his success with “the ladies” – women are “the little blonde creature” or “them” (as in “never lay a finger on them till they graduate”).

If this novel was a simple portrait of an insufferable old git then it would be a great success. But I strongly suspect it is a self-portrait of someone who knows himself deep down to be insufferable, but really hasn’t come to terms with it, is in denial, and can’t understand why everyone doesn’t love him as much as he loves himself.

Finally, in reading some online reviews of this novel I came across the following analysis.

It’s a wonderfully careful, detailed and thorough analysis that almost persuaded me not to write my own review. It’s a little long, but when you take down and apart a Booker prize winning novelist you can justify taking your time over it.


Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, 1749

The novel was still very much in its infancy as a form when Henry Fielding wrote ‘Tom Jones’. In this long and elaborate narrative, you can see Fielding working out some of the conventions and traditions that were still to be established. Fielding is a dominant and forceful presence throughout the novel, in contrast to Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’, published a year earlier, where the narrator tries very hard (but ultimately unsuccessfully), to disappear into the background. Each of the eighteen books which make up the novel are introduced by a chapter where Fieldtom-jonesing discourses on anything that happens to take his interest, invariably little to do with the novel itself. During the substantive chapters the narrator constantly intrudes, usually tongue in cheek, commenting on the reader’s expectations, anticipating objections, warning of salacious or shocking content coming up, and generally commenting on the novel as it develops:

We would bestow some pains here in minutely describing all the mad pranks which Jones played on this occasion could we be well assured that the reader would take the same pains in perusing them, but as we are apprehensive that after all the labour which we should employ in painting this scene the said reader would be very apt to skip it entirely over, we have saved ourself that trouble. To say the truth, we have from this reason alone often done great violence to the luxuriance of our genius, and have left many excellent descriptions out of our work which would otherwise have been in it.”

The narrative style is discursive – Fielding is telling a relaxed tale over a few drinks, and fully intends to take his time:

“Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever.”

The pretence is maintained that this is a ‘history’ – indeed, the novel’s full title is ‘The History of Tom Jones, a foundling’ – but the reader is at no point under any apprehension but that all will end up well for Tom and his amour, Sophia.

The novel’s plot is said to be complex, but rambling would be a fairer description. Fielding is a fan of that standby coincidence to help resolve the plot complications he leads himself into. The novel opens with Squire Allworthy  finding an abandoned baby sleeping in his bed. The baby’s presence in his bed – as opposed to in a cardboard box on the doorstep – sends a clear message that the mother is a member of his household, with easy access to his room, but Squire Allworthy is true to his name, and doesn’t pursue the issue with any interest, and accepts the presented fiction that the child is the son of a local village woman. Allworthy promises his sister Dorothy, who we (spoilers) eventually find out to be the boy’s mother, to raise the boy, and names him Tom. Dorothy goes on to marry and have a legitimate son, Master Blifil, who is brought up with Tom.

Years pass, and Tom grows into a promiscuous young man. He impregnates the local gamekeeper’s daughter, or thinks he does, although it later turns out the child is not his – fatherhood is an uncertain business in this novel. Tom then falls for the neighbouring squire’s daughter, Sophia, but being a bastard, and thus unlikely to inherit much from the squire, the match is never going to be sanctioned by their parents.  

Sophia’s father, Squire Western, is intent on making Sophia marry Allworthy’s heir, Master Blifil, but she refuses. Where this exact situation in ‘Clarissa’ is the cause of great distress for the heroine, here it is treated as a source of comedy – Squire Western is a preposterous lunatic, and easily controlled by the women in his life. Sophia runs away, as does Clarissa, ostensibly to escape from her father’s influence, but principally to allow her to join Tom in his adventures. Tom has earlier been thrown out by Allworthy as a result of a plot by Blifil to paint him in a bad light, something Tom makes very easy for him by his sexual escapades. Thus the central part of the narrative, whereby Tom travels around central England in a largely pointless round of adventures centring on numberless inns and pubs, is established. At one point Tom joins the army briefly, thus introducing the novel’s backdrop of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, but no sooner is this introduced than like several other threads it is quietly dropped. The legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession is freely damned by Squire Western, but the subject is mainly used for humour rather than as anything of legitimate political or dramatic interest. Later, Tom sleeps with two older women and nearly kills a man in a duel, incidents which are the source for the novel’s reputation as a bawdy “romp”. Certainly the narrator does not pass judgment on Tom for his sexual indiscretions – there is much more an attitude of encouraging the sowing of wild oats.

Eventually, the novel is wound up quite hurriedly – the happy ever afters are arranged by the discovery of Tom’s parenthood, allowing him to become Squire Allworthy’s heir and thus a suitable partner for Sophia. Tom’s previous sexual misconduct is quietly overlooked.

Tom is a likeable well-meaning hero, always falling on his feet. There’s never really a moment’s doubt about the ending that is in store for him. The supporting cast is reasonably strong – some characters such as Allworthy are two-dimensional, but there are enough well realised people such as Squire Western, Tom’s sidekick Partridge, and Sophia herself, to maintain interest when Tom’s storyline is put on hold to allow others to catch up. But the relaxed method of story telling extends matters to a pointlessly long degree – at one point even Fielding seems to recognise that yet another inn, with an identikit landlady and set of customers, is beginning to be a bit repetitive. The bawdiness of the novel is said to have been shocking to eighteenth century readers – I wonder how true this actually is? Frank discussion of “country matters” thinly disguised behind euphemism – at one point Fielding describes Tom having long “conversations” with one of his conquests, where the wink, wink,nudge, nudge is audible – surely didn’t really shock an audience used to Congreve and Shakespeare? Perhaps that is the point – Fielding is finding a new audience for the novel here, one more used to the bawdiness of the theatre.



Denying the Holocaust on Amazon

I am really flattered that Sunday Times journalists read my blog. That’s the only possible explanation for their headline today “Holocaust denial books sold on Amazon“,  full story behind their paywall, but the headline gives you the idea. You will recall that I wrote the exact same story in March 2015!aunday

Now if you follow that link you will see that I am not really claiming to be the original source of this story – it previously received national media coverage in 2013. What is remarkable is that a) Amazon are continuing to sell this stuff, even in countries where holocaust denial is a crime, and b) that the Sunday Times journalists either couldn’t be bothered to Google this story and acknowledge the fact that it is old news, or that they did know it was an old story but deliberately did not mention it. Either was that is pretty shoddy journalism. murdoch

So why is the Sunday Times going after Amazon now? Could it be anything to do with megatech’s comprehensive opposition to so-called president (and friend of the Dirty Digger) Trump? Now that would be an interesting conspiracy?


Collected Poems, by Roger McGough, 2003

This is a first – I am going to write a blog about a book I haven’t actually read!

Last night I had the pleasure of going to listen to a reading by the great Roger McGough. If you haven’t come across McGough before he is a living legend, and his accessibility and at times sheer silliness is a joy. Just to save you the effort here’s a link to his Wikipedia page.  While I freely confess to not having read all of his collected poems – he has been writing for over 50 years, so that’s quite a collection – I have lived with his works and enjoyed his poetry pretty much all my life. And yes, of course I got him to sign my copy!mcgough

There is a particular pleasure in hearing a poet read their own works, and McGough’s gentle Scouse accent and throw-away lines are ideal for a public performance. There are plenty of recordings of him available if you want to see what I mean, and I would be shocked if he’s not got his own YouTube channel as well.

Many of McGough’s poems are short and funny, he can’t resist the worst of puns, and he doesn’t stretch the boundaries of poetic form too far. But having said all that faint praise, some of his works are wistful and elegaic. Just to give you a flavour, here’s “Let me die a youngman’s death”. (Notice all the compound words):

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I’m 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party

Or when I’m 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber’s chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
and give me a short back and insides

Or when I’m 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death




Last words on ‘Clarissa’, by Samuel Richardson, 1748


A final post about ‘Clarissa’, I promise. Please be aware of multiple spoilers in the unlikely event you were planning to read this novel.

I left Clarissa at the end of volume 4 of 9 in the hands of the sinister Robert Lovelace. In his citation of this novel in the ‘100 best novels written in the English language’ series, the Guardian’s Robert McCrum describes Lovelace as “dashing and witty” and “perhaps the most charming villain in English literature”, and characterises Clarissa and Lovelace as “lovers”, comparing them to Romeo and Juliet.

I must have missed the bit in Romeo and Juliet where Romeo imprisons Juliet in a brothel, drugs and rapes her, and distresses her so much that she eventually dies. In my reading of the novel, yes, admittedly Clarissa is initially attracted by the glamour of Lovelace’s reputation, but this attraction quickly fades following her kidnap. As it would. Sexual assault, an extraordinarily elaborate subterfuge to re-enslave her, and the drugged rape does nothing to re-kindle the flames of attraction. Clarissa finally escapes from her elaborate confinement, but her health and appetite for life has been clarissadamaged beyond repair.

Lovelace is a sinister psychopath – we are told at one point he enjoyed torturing animals as a child, a perceptive insight into his mentality. He is able to convince himself that the blame for the rape rests with Clarissa, his accomplices, her family, Miss Howe, in fact everyone but him. In volume five his psychological torture of Clarissa, culminating in the drugged rape, is highly distressing. Belford, his friend, emerges as a saner version of Lovelace, and comes to be Clarissa’s friend and protector, although not before the damage is done. Lovelace is used from childhood to getting his own way, and challenging with violence anyone who resists him. He is a serial rapist, and it is difficult to imagine how he has escaped prosecution thus far – obviously being heir to an earldom might have something to do with this. Far from being dashing and witty, he is a convincing portrait of a dangerous and psychotic narcissist.

Clarissa’s death is a long drawn out affair. What she dies from is never specified. The most likely cause is self-starvation – the symptoms of gradual weakening, loss of mobility and finally sight, suggest this is the case. Her acceptance of death is presented as a heroic process from which we can all learn. Lovelace’s fate (and that of his various accomplices) is equally presented as a morality tale, with a suggestion that Lovelace prefers “death by duel” as a way of avoiding responsibility for his actions.

In a world in which many women have no (or very little) say in who their husband is to be, ‘Clarissa’ remains hugely relevant. Clarissa is treated as property by her family (at one point she is even described as such). Lovelace’s offence is seen by Clarissa’s family and friends as a form of robbery, removing her of her commercial value on the marriage market.  Richardson lays heavy emphasis on Clarissa’s inheritance from her grandfather as being the origins of her siblings’s resentment towards her, but this bequest also complicates the question of her marriage – as the younger sister she is intrinsically of less value than Arabella, but she now has an element of personal wealth that the Harlowe’s are desperately keen to keep control over. As an act of theft, Lovelace can remedy his offence my marrying Clarissa – something Miss Howe consistently urges her to do, because it will effectively legitimise his crime – you can’t steal something that is yours.

Clarissa, and by implication Richardson, reject this notion of women as property. Clarissa is a strong minded independent character, who is unwilling to allow herself to be traded as a commodity, sold to the highest bidder irrespective of her personal preferences. It would be stretching the point to paint ‘Clarissa’ as a feminist novel; Richardson creates a fully rounded character who knows her own mind, but pays a heavy price for that independence.

‘Clarissa’ is a compelling, if ridiculously long tragedy, and was clearly hugely influential – echoes of this story can be found in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for example. But I think we can all be grateful that the novel has evolved as a form since the eighteenth century, and is not such an all-consuming affair.

Dress in Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’

Descriptions of clothing in ‘Clarissa’ are rare, which means that when they are included the reader pays particular attention. Two descriptions in particular stood out for me – one of Mr Solmes, and a little later, one of Clarissa:

Describing Mr Solmes

In volume 2, letter 34 of ‘Clarissa’, we are given our first clear description of her approved suitor, Mr Solmes, from the agitated perspective of her maid, Betty:

“Miss! Miss! Miss! cried she, as fast as she could speak, with her arms spread abroad, and all her fingers distended, and held up, will you be pleased to walk down into your own parlour?—There is every body, I will assure you in full congregation!—And there is Mr. Solmes, as fine as a lord, with a charming white peruke, fine laced shirt and ruffles, coat trimmed with silver, and a waistcoat

standing on end with lace!—Quite handsome, believe me!—You never saw such an alteration!”

Physical descriptions of characters in ‘Clarissa’ are rare, so when they do occur they stand out, as Mr Solmes’s waistcoat does here. He is dressed for a solemn meeting with his intended, with all the family in attendance. Clarissa is panicked by the maid’s enthusiastic description of the gathering, and Mr Solmes’s appearance in particular. The use of the term “full congregation” suggests this is going to be a ceremony, and Clarissa surely fears that the threatened marriage is being sprung upon her.

The peruke is a Georgian wig worn by gentlemen. It came in different lengths, from the relatively modest to the full Beau Brummell. It would not perhaps have been too distinctive on its own, but combined with the fine laced shirt with ruffles, waistcoat “standing on end” with lace, and a silver trimmed coat (which today one would describe as a jacket, I think) one can easily picture Solmes as a bridegroom. While wedding attire was not as prescriptive as it is in today’s Western society, this formal attire would not be unsuited to a wedding.

The marital atmosphere of the scene is amplified by the adjectives in the maid’s speech suggestive of suspense and extension – “arms spread abroad”, “fingers distended and help up”, “standing on end”. The room is full of anticipation, and perhaps there is even an echo of the phrase ‘to walk down the aisle’ in the maid’s ‘to walk down into your own parlour’.

Clarissa’s reaction can hardly be considered a surprise given this build up.

Describing Clarissa

If Solmes is a disappointed bridegroom, the same could be said of Clarissa from the intricate description of her in volume 3 letter 7. In this letter from Lovelace to Belford he describes Clarissa’s appearance on the night of her removal from her parent’s home. He has already told Belford, with a leer, that  “I am a critic, thou knowest, in women’s dresses. Many a one have I taught to dress, and helped undress”, and this boast of his observational skills in relation to the detail of women’s clothing seems justified.mob-cap

“Her head-dress was a Brussels-lace mob, peculiarly adapted to the charming air and turn of her features. A sky-blue ribband illustrated that. But although the weather was somewhat sharp, she had not on either hat or hood…

Her morning gown was a pale primrose-coloured paduasoy: the cuffs and robins curiously embroidered by the fingers of this ever-charming Arachne, in a running pattern of violets and their leaves, the light in the flowers silver, gold in the leaves. A pair of diamond snaps in her ears. A white handkerchief wrought by the same inimitable fingers concealed—O Belford! what still more inimitable beauties did it not conceal!—And I saw, all the way we rode, the bounding heart (by its throbbing motions I saw it!) dancing beneath her charming umbrage.

Her ruffles were the same as her mob. Her apron a flowered lawn. Her coat white sattin, quilted: blue sattin her shoes, braided with the same colour, without lace; for what need has the prettiest foot in the world of ornament? neat buckles in them: and on her charming arms a pair of black velvet glove-like muffs of her own invention; for she makes and gives fashions as she pleases.—Her hands velvet of themselves, thus uncovered the freer to be grasped by those of her adorer.

This is our first full description of our nineteen year old heroine. The context here is important, naturally. Clarissa has arranged to meet with Lovelace at the end of her extensive garden. Originally the plan was that they were going to leave Harlowe Place and run away to one of his relative’s many houses – the detail of the plan was never fully explored. Clarissa has had second thoughts, and decided not to go, despite an imminent moment of crisis in her family’s campaign to force her to marry Mr Solmes. She decided to tell him of her decision in person, lest he feels the need to burst into her house in an attempt at rescue – or at least that is what she tells herself. He is prepared for this change of heart, and bustles her into his carriage anyway. The other relevant aspect of the context is the date and time – it is late evening in April – Lovelace tells us that the weather was “somewhat sharp”. Clarissa is not dressed with a view to running away or eloping – Lovelace interprets this as a demonstration of her determination to remain with her family.

What stands out from this description is the level of detail – Lovelace has had plenty of time during the coach-ride to notice Clarissa’s apparel, but he picks up on every small detail, and believes Belford will be interested in his account. His account goes from head to toe in order, starting with her Brussels lace mop-cap. A mop cap was a lightweight piece of fabric of varying ornamentation Typically it covered all of the hair and was typically bordered by a broad ruffle or decorative frills. One made from Brussels lace was rather fine – and was largely ornamental (rather than functional). Whether this was standard day-wear for a Georgian young woman is hard to say. The impression I have, with only very limited evidence to support this, is that the mob-cap was a sign of respectability. The cap is secured by a sky-blue ribbon – the first of several images Lovelace draws from nature in his description. Her morning gown is standard day wear, but the material it is made from – paduasoy – is a heavy, rich corded or embossed silk fabric, quite opulent for everyday wear. While Clarissa may not be dressed to elope, she is dressed for more than a quiet evening meal alone in her garden – she is dressed to impress, whether she is prepared to admit it to herself or not.

Lovelace’s eye travels to her arms, covered in embroidered violets and their leaves. The choice of violets is of course deliberate, referencing as it does the story of one of the goddess Diana’s  nymph companions, who was pursued by Diana’s twin brother, Apollo. To protect her, Diana changed the nymph into a violet. Clarissa is to be the subject of a similar unrelenting pursuit – and possibly a similar fate? Richardson encourages this train of thought by invoking a more explicit classical reference, to Arachne. In Greco-Roman mythology, Arachne was a talented mortal weaver who challenged Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a weaving contest; this hubris resulted in her being transformed into a spider. Women being transfigured from their natural state into violets or spiders – what can this mean for Clarissa?

I am going to pass swiftly over Lovelace’s lascivious leering over Clarissa’s breasts, and consider the next phase of his description. As well as wearing a morning gown, Clarissa has on an apron, embroidered with flowers, continuing the nature theme, a white satin coat and a black velvet muff. This is quite an opulent ensemble, if not bridal then surely suggesting that the thought has crossed her mind. Clarissa’s ambivalence about Lovelace – she is attracted to him, but afraid of his reputation – is reflected in her costume. Despite her protestations to the contrary, it seems clear that Clarissa dressed carefully for this appointment, intending to make a positive impression on Lovelace.


‘Clarissa’, by Samuel Richardson, 1748, volumes 3 & 4

Back to ‘Clarissa’.  At the end of book 2, Clarissa has taken the bold, if not foolhardy step of running away from her family home with the blaggard Lovelace. While it looks to the rest of the world as if this was an elopement, the actual events were more confused – Clarissa intended to tell Lovelace the plan was off, and she was going to try one more time to persuade her family of her implacable opposition to the proposed marriage with Solmes. Well aware of this possibility, Lovelace arranges for their liaison at the end of her garden to be ‘discovered’, and bundled her into his carriage.lovelace

Volume 3 opens with the reader concerned for Clarissa’s fate – has she fallen foul of Lovelace’s dishonourable intentions? Not yet. Clarissa has exchanged one form of imprisonment for another. Lovelace keeps a close eye on his prize, but for now decides to continue to frighten her into submission rather than his usual technique of using violence, or as he would think of it, seduction.

Thus far we have had only a limited portrait of Robert Lovelace (‘loveless’?). We know of his reputation as a libertine, a seducer of innocent women, which he acknowledges is justified. He holds a grievance against all women as a result of an earlier failed romance, which he uses to explain his relentless philandering. The extent to which this is a true self-portrait, or simply a caricature, is at this point unclear. But in volume 3 and 4 he begins to emerge from the shadows, and he is a truly unpleasant creation.

In letter 12 to Belford he regrets that Clarissa and Miss Howe live so near one another,

Else how charmingly might I have managed them both! But one man cannot have every woman worth having—Pity though—when the man is such a VERY clever fellow!

In letter 14 he congratulates himself in his restraint in not pursuing other women while his focus is on Clarissa. He estimates he has been celibate for:

“let me see, how many days and nights?—Forty, I believe, after open trenches, spent in the sap only, and never a mine sprung yet! By a moderate computation, a dozen kites might have fallen, while I have been only trying to ensnare this single lark”.

In his exchange with his spy in the Harlowe household, Joseph Leman, (V3, letters 38 and 39), he freely admits an earlier affair with a Miss Betterton, dismissing it as “a youthful frolic” and while accepting an illegitimate child was born as a result, denies Leman’s claim that “there was a rape in the case betwixt you at furste”. He then immediately contradicts himself, saying

“It is cruel to ask a modest woman for her consent. It is creating difficulties to both”

Even his closest accomplice, Belford, pleads with him to behave honourably to Clarissa, and describes him as “cruel as a panther” (V3, letter 51).

Later in volume 4 Lovelace returns to his favourite topic, bragging about his ‘seduction’ technique (letter 16), which sounds a lot like rape to me:

Is it to be expected, that a woman of education, and a lover of forms, will yield before she is attacked?… I doubt not but I shall meet with difficulty. I must therefore make my first effort by surprise. There may possibly be some cruelty necessary: but there may be consent in struggle; there may be yielding in resistance.

His plan to ensnare Clarissa slowly unfolds. He manipulates her into moving into lodgings in London, where they live together to outward purposes as husband and wife. It becomes apparent that these lodgings, unbeknown to Clarissa, are nothing more than a high class brothel, run by Lovelace’s previous victims.

Lovelace thinks of himself as a master plotter, ensuring Clarissa is isolated from family and friends and surrounded by his agents. His plot is vulnerable to discovery at any time, but a more serious objection is that Lovelace hasn’t decided what his ultimate objective is – is it to deflower and then discard Clarissa, or to marry her? He enjoys the business of plotting and manipulating, being in control, but when his plans are foiled by Clarissa’s resolution to remain chaste, he is petulant and sulks. When pressed on this issue, he claims that his seduction of Clarissa is all a test – if she successfully resists him he will reward her with marriage; if she fails and succumbs to his charms then she was never worth his attention in the first place. This is contradicted by his boastfully predictions of success, even if he should need to resort to violence – I don’t think even Lovelace himself is persuaded by this flimsy justification. He is a hard man to dissuade however, and even Belford’s point, that in ‘ruining’ Clarissa he would be furthering the aims of her brother and sister, does not deflect him from his course.

Clarissa, meanwhile, remains highly suspicious. She realises that she has become ever more vulnerable, isolated from friends and family, with just her correspondence with Miss Howe as a lifeline. The tone of the novel shifts slowly in volume four as more letters from Lovelace are featured, and the authorial voice becomes more prominent. The correspondence, which in the earlier volumes is presented verbatim, is now quite heavily edited, with the narrator telling us what sections of letters he has excised, summarising others, and commenting on the characters’ behaviour.

When a reconciliation with her family is refused, and when hopes of assistance from her long-awaited cousin Morden evaporates, Clarissa accepts that marriage with Lovelace is now her only remaining option. The wedding, and the attempt on her honour that will precede and perhaps pre-empt it, are coming to a climax when volume 4 closes. However the final chapters, possibly as an attempt to secure readers for the following volumes, show Lovelace indulging in an extraordinary rape fantasy, in which he and his fellow ‘bravos’ kidnap and rape Miss Howe, her mother, and her maid. Lovelace enjoys the thought of his trial – in which he plays the central role of conquering hero – more than the ‘escapade’ itself, and brags of using his position to avoid conviction. These letters to Belford are unanswered, and are uncomfortable reading, out of tone with the rest of the novel. Having thought that Lovelace was finally coming to terms with the likelihood of marriage, it seems he has had a last minute change of heart, and is planning to continue Clarissa’s torture as long as possible, before she finally realises he is irredeemable.



Different types of reading

When presented with a list of “must read before you die/turn 50/graduate” novels, the instinctive response is to run down the list saying “read/not read/read” etc. In other words we treat the question of whether we have read a novel as a binary yes/no matter.

But if you think about it for a moment, that’s almost certainly wrong. reading abook
Why? Well, apart from reading or not reading a novel (or any other book) there are a number of other answers. I’ve come up with this list, but I suspect it’s possible to add more:

  1. I have read it, but got bored and skipped bits
  2. I read some or most of it but didn’t finish
  3. I read it in translation
  4. Someone read it to me
  5. I’ve seen the film/television adaptation
  6. I read an abridged version
  7. I listened to the audio book
  8. I read it a long time ago and can’t remember (hardly) anything about it
  9. I have read it and reread it so many times I can recite long chunks from memory
  10. I read it carefully because I knew I was going to have to write something sensible and coherent about it in my blog.

You will probably have guessed this, but nowadays when I say I have read a book, I usually mean the final category. I am not saying any of the others are in any way wrong – just pointing out that “I’ve read that book” can mean different things to different people.

Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, 1748 – Volume 2

Volume 2 of ‘Clarissa’ is extraordinarily like volume 1 – Clarissa’s family send various people to try to persuade her to comply with their wishes, she in reply explains her adamantine opposition to Mr Solmes. Lovelace, the libertine suitor who her family have rejected, lurks in the background, waiting for his opportunity. Every word is recorded faithfully for Miss Howes, Clarissa’s faithful friend, who in return occasionally chips in with some moderately helpful advice. Miss Howes’ suitor Mr Hickman appears briefly, but is dismissed primarily as a nuisance to be dealt with once the main drama is concluded.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion at times that Clarissa is enjoying being the centre of attention, even though the threat she is living under is real enough. She generates vast volumes of letters, often several in one day, but her practical problems of getting these to Miss Howes – there is some clumsy business with a loose brick in the garden wall – are overlooked. Email would have been so convenient to imprisoned young women in the eighteenth century!

With so little ground to cover, and so many pages to fill, Richardson inevitably gets long-winded, as in this extract from letter 43, which for me is also an example of pretty clumsy writing

“If the thing requested be of greater consequence, or even of equal, to the person sought to, and it were, as the old phrase has it, to take a thorn out of one’s friend’s foot to put in into one’s own, something might be said— nay, it would be, I will venture to say, a selfish thing in us to ask a favour of a friend which would subject that friend to the same or equal inconvenience as that from which we wanted to be relieved, the requested would, in this case, teach his friend, by his own selfish example, with much better reason, to deny him, and despise a friendship so merely nominal.”

Moments of actual activity, rather than debate about a daughter’s duties, are rare, and the format Richardson has adopted makes it impossible for him to describe any such action when it does happen other than in retrospect. He increasingly resorts to having people scribble notes as they wait for someone to arrive, and then breathlessly report on what has happened, with the events themselves being the one time the screen goes blank. The constraints of the format occasionally lead to Richardson breaking his own rules – footnotes begin to appear from the anonymous editor of the correspondence, pointing out various contradictions in the characters’ behaviour. Using correspondence allows the author to give us directly and immediately the character’s thoughts and feelings, but the other shortcomings of the form are becoming more obvious as the novel progresses.

Despite being her intimate correspondence, Clarissa rarely tells us what she is really feeling – she instead spends a huge amount of time setting out what she believes she ought to think and feel. Which is why her dream recounted in letter 34, when the prospect of a forced marriage with Solmes seems imminent, is revealing:

‘Methought my brother, my uncle Antony, and Mr. Solmes, had formed a plot to destroy Mr. Lovelace; who discovering it, and believing I had a hand in it, turned all his rage against me. I thought he made them all fly to foreign parts upon it; and afterwards seizing upon me, carried me into a church-yard; and there, notwithstanding, all my prayers and tears, and protestations of innocence, stabbed me to the heart, and then tumbled me into a deep grave ready dug, among two or three half-dissolved carcases; throwing in the dirt and earth upon me with his hands, and trampling it down with his feet.’

There is a real and immediate physicality to this that is absent in the rest of Clarissa’s letters, real violence. Dirt and half-dissolved carcases are not the kind of things young Georgian ladies are meant to dream or talk about. It is tempting to interpret this as a sex dream, with its reference to stabbing and tumbling, and of course one would expect a young woman of this era to be apprehensive about the impending loss of her virginity – “innocence” – on her marriage, but I think the genuine fear here is palpable. For once this is no longer a game for Clarissa – she is slowly beginning to realise that sooner or later she is going to have to leave her warm protective family home with its servants and high garden walls, and have to face the real world in which she will be another man’s possession. No wonder she is terrified.


Clarissa Harlowe, or the history of a young lady, by Samuel Richardson, 1748

Further subtitled “Comprehending the most Important Concerns of Private Life. And particularly shewing, The Distresses that may attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, In Relation to Marriage”.clarissa

The good news is that I have finally finished volume one of ‘Clarissa’.

The bad news – for me – is that I have another eight volumes to go! This is indeed a monster of a novel, running to over 1500 pages. To preserve my sanity I am going to approach it as a series of novels, and may well break it up with lighter reading,

First impressions:

Clarissa is an epistolary novel, where the narrative is progressed through the characters’ correspondence. This has the advantage of showing us their thoughts and feelings, and given the frenzy with which Clarissa and her friends and family write letters, sometimes several in one day, including to members of the same household, gives an immediate reportage feel to the novel. The disadvantage of this format is that without an omniscient narrator there is little in the way of descriptive writing – we are only told what the characters believe to be relevant, which excludes the setting, their appearance, etc.

Clarissa, a rich young lady, is the subject of a fierce battle of will between herself and her family. Her father and other relatives want her to marry Mr Solmes, an even richer young man, who promises to add to the family’s overall wealth and status, and believe it is their right to dispose of their daughter as they see fit. She is valuable property, the more so now her grandfather has recently bequeathed her some money. She is disinclined to accept these arrangements. The family believe her refusal stems from an attachment to an unsuitable young man, Mr Lovelace. She adamantly denies any such attachment, but Richardson skilfully uses the differences between her descriptions of events and those of others to allow the reader to deduce that there may be some truth in their suspicions. An impasse is reached, which is where volume one ends, with the family resorting to ever more forceful attempts to persuade Clarissa to accept Mr Solmes, and she equally forcefully rejecting him.

The bulk of the novel (this volume at least) is formed of letters between Clarissa and her friend, Miss Howe. It is a significant moment when a third voice is introduced, that of Lovelace, who reveals himself as the libertine Clarissa’s family fears him to be. In Letter 35 Lovelace boasts to a friend,

“I will throw myself into my charmer’s presence. I have twice already attempted it in vain. I shall then see what I may depend upon from her favour. If I thought I had no prospect of that, I should be tempted to carry her off. That would be a rape worthy of Jupiter!”

This is one of those sentences that brings the reader up short – is Lovelace really lasciviously anticipating raping Clarissa? My initial reaction was that he might be using the word ‘rape’ in a special, eighteenth century context, a robust form of seduction. The word ‘ravish’ is sometimes used in this way, implying a more complex relationship than a simple assault. But I think that would be letting Lovelace off the hook – he clearly has every intention of having sex with Clarissa, and her consent is of little concern to him. Richardson makes it clear that Lovelace considers having sex with women a form of revenge.

“A rape worthy of Jupiter”.

We are, in this one packed phrase, at the heart of the novel’s sexual politics – Clarissa is a possession, the most prized component of which (in addition to her grandfather’s inheritance) is her sexual attractiveness, and in particular her ability to provide an heir. It is that value which is threatened by the lothario Lovelace, and that which her family imprison her in order to protect. It is another example of the double standards of the time, that Lovelace’s reputation for immoral behaviour is something that can quickly be forgotten when it comes to considering him a potential groom, when set against his considerable fortune and expectations.

Only eight more volumes to go!