History: This novel was published in 1748.
Plot: Clarissa Harlowe, the tragic heroine of Clarissa, is a beautiful and virtuous young lady whose family has become wealthy only recently and now desires to become part of the aristocracy. Their original plan was to concentrate the wealth and lands of the Harlowes into the possession of Clarissa's brother James Harlowe, whose wealth and political power will lead to his being granted a title. Clarissa's grandfather leaves her a substantial piece of property upon his death, and a new route to the nobility opens through Clarissa marrying Robert Lovelace, heir to an earldom. James's response is to provoke a duel with Lovelace, who is seen thereafter as the family's enemy. James also proposes that Clarissa marry Roger Solmes, who is willing to trade properties with James to concentrate James's holdings and speed his becoming Lord Harlowe. The family agrees and attempts to force Clarissa to marry Solmes, whom she finds physically disgusting as well as boorish.
Desperate to remain free, she begins a correspondence with Lovelace. When her family's campaign to force her marriage reaches its height, Lovelace tricks her into eloping with him. Joseph Leman, the Harlowes' servant, shouts and makes noise so it may seem like the family has awoken and discovered that Clarissa and Lovelace are about to run away. Frightened of the possible aftermath, Clarissa leaves with Lovelace but becomes his prisoner for many months. She is kept at many lodgings and even a brothel, where the women are disguised as high-class ladies by Lovelace himself. She refuses to marry him on many occasions, longing to live by herself in peace. She eventually runs away but Lovelace finds her and tricks her into returning to the brothel.
Lovelace intends to marry Clarissa to avenge her family's treatment of him and wants to possess both her body as well as her mind. He believes if she loses her virtue, she will be forced to marry him on any terms. As he is more and more impressed by Clarissa, he finds it difficult to believe that virtuous women do not exist.
The pressure he finds himself under, combined with his growing passion for Clarissa, drives him to extremes and eventually he rapes her by drugging her. Through this action, Clarissa must accept and marry Lovelace. It is suspected that Mrs. Sinclair (the brothel manager) and the other prostitutes assist Lovelace during the rape.
Lovelace's action backfires and Clarissa is ever more adamantly opposed to marrying a vile and corrupt individual like Lovelace. Eventually, Clarissa manages to escape from the brothel but becomes dangerously ill due to the mental duress of many months caused by "the vile Lovelace."
Clarissa is sheltered by the kind but poor Smiths and during her sickness she gains another worshipper — John Belford, another libertine who happens to be Lovelace's best friend. Belford is amazed at the way Clarissa handles her approaching death and laments what Lovelace has done. In one of the many letters sent to Lovelace he writes "if the divine Clarissa asks me to slit thy throat, Lovelace, I shall do it in an instance." Eventually, surrounded by strangers and her cousin Col. Morden, Clarissa dies in the full consciousness of her virtue and trusting in a better life after death. Belford manages Clarissa's will and ensures that all her articles and money go into the hands of the individuals she desires should receive them.
Lovelace seems to have moved on but Belford sends him Clarissa's will. He is shattered when he reads it and can live no longer. Col. Morden has gone back to Italy and he knows that there is only one way to atone for his sins. Lovelace asks Morden for a duel (although not directly) and they meet somewhere in Italy. Lovelace fights Morden and keeps on getting injured. He pretends to be not injured and goes after Morden many times — each time receiving another deadly blow. Eventually Morden realizes that he has been injured very badly and might die. The duel ends, Morden leaves and Lovelace is taken to his lodgings. The doctor is unable to do anything and Lovelace dies a day afterwards. Before dying he says "let this expiate!"
Clarissa's relatives finally realise the misery they have caused but discover that they are too late and Clarissa has already died. The story ends with an account of the fate of the other characters.
Review: Samuel Richardson's massive 1747-8 novel, "Clarissa," is much like Richardson's first novel, "Pamela," "Clarissa" deals with the torments of a virtuous young lady abducted by a rake/libertine (in modern parlance, a rapist) who submits the heroine to a series of trials. Unlike Pamela, a lower class maiden, Clarissa is a member of an established and wealthy family. This change in social situation allows Richardson to explore a host of new issues, with the primary goal of moral didacticism remaining intact between the two.
Clarissa Harlowe, the most beautiful and exemplary of her sex, is being imposed upon by her implacable family to marry one Mr. Solmes, a man of no mean fortune, but whose ethics, especially with regard to his own family, are suspect. Simultaneously, Clarissa's sister, Arabella, has just rejected a proposal from one Robert Lovelace, the heir of a nobleman, educated and refined, but known for his libertinism - his tendency and enjoyment of seducing young women and then abandoning them. Lovelace falls in love, or in lust, with Clarissa, and after he and Clarissa's brother James, heir to the Harlowe fortune, engage in a near fatal duel, Clarissa's continued correspondence with Lovelace becomes a major thorn in the side of the Harlowes' plans for Clarissa. The Harlowes continue to urge the addresses of Mr. Solmes while vilifying Lovelace - Clarissa not approving of either - and when her family's insitence becomes insupportable to Clarissa, the utterly demonic Lovelace takes advantage, whisking her away from a seemingly inevitable union with Solmes. Thus begins an absolutely terrifying journey for Clarissa through the darkness of humanity, as Lovelace plots and executes his seduction of the 'divine' Clarissa.
An epistolary novel, "Clarissa" is written in the form of a series of letters spanning nine months, principally between Clarissa and her best friend and iconoclast, Anna Howe, and between Lovelace and a fellow libertine, John Belford. Richardson's 'to the moment' style of writing gives a minute account of everything that happens to the main characters almost as it happens, giving the novel a highly dramatic sense of urgency. The four major correspondents, as well as others, also give the novel a well-developed sense of perspective, as we get not only the events, but biased opinions and readings of all the other characters, making the events at times difficult to follow, but at the same time, marvelously rich and complex.
Some of the most interesting facets of this novel are its interactions with the law, primarily inheritance law, the contrast between history and story, and at the forefront, the debate over gender roles in marriage. Almost of a piece with the novel's legal issues, Richardson examines the vagueries of semantics - what do words mean? How are words regarded and used differently by men and women? Richardson also confronts the way we read and interpret 'truth' - in a book composed of letters, subjectively written and read, where can we look to for 'truth'?
Among the characters in the novel, by far the most captivating and challenging in "Clarissa" is the aforementioned Anna Howe. The ways she clashes with tradition and propriety throughout the novel are entertaining, and very much reminiscent of the eponymous heroine of Defoe's "Moll Flanders."
Opening Line: “I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbance that have happened in your family.”
Closing Line: “But where the contrary of all these qualities shock the understanding, the extravagant performance will be judged tedious, though no longer than a fairy-tale.”
Quotes: “For love must be a very foolish thing to look back upon, when it has brought persons born to affluence into indigence, and laid a generous mind under obligation and dependence.”
Rating: I confess I only skimmed.