100 Best Novels Guardian list, 18th century literature, Book review, Clarissa, epistolary novel, Samuel Richardson

Supplementary: 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.


10 thoughts on “Supplementary: Last words on ‘Clarissa’, by Samuel Richardson, 1748

  1. “Dashing and witty”? “Perhaps the most charming villain in English literature”????????? OH MY GOD. I remember telling someone towards the end of the book that Lovelace was the most atrocious character I’ve ever come across in literature, in large part because of how he justifies/rationalizes his actions.

    It’s such a pleasure to read your take, though, especially being so similar to my own. I really liked your description of Clarissa as “a fully rounded character who knows her own mind, but pays a heavy price for that independence,” and I totally agree with your analysis of Lovelace.

    Liked by 1 person

      • The Reading Bug says:

        Would be really interested in your take on my review of Lolita – I enjoy and admire Nabokov’s work mostly – Pale Fire is extraordinary – but there is a dark heart to Lolita that I can’t get past.


  2. Thanks for stopping by on my blog.
    An excellent post. I ploughed through this a couple of years ago. I found it painful reading, wildly unrealistic though it is. I despised Richardson’s self serving, puritanical morality and the whole business of Pamela marrying her would be rapist in the earlier ‘Pamela’. it is to be hoped that Richardson’s ideas developed after that – perhaps during all those discussions with women? In a later letter, quoted by Terry Eagleton, Richardson does admit that the only way that Pamela could find ‘happiness’ with such a man as Mr B was in ‘slavish submission’ so in a way, she does become his property. I am glad that in ‘Clarissa’ there is no possibility of the heroine marrying this successful rapist. I suppose rapists and psychopaths are the same, really…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Top 10 Highlights of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

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