Samuel Richardson, Clarissa Harlowe
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1966
Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa Harlowe, or, the history of a young lady” is published in several volumes in 1747-48. The reader learns the tragic story of the unfortunate heroine from the correspondence of letters between Clarissa and her friend Anna Howe, Robert Lovelace and his friend John Belford, and several other characters.
The extremely modest Clarissa, a paragon of virtue and chastity, unexpectedly becomes heiress to the grandfatherly estate instead of her brother James. Now the dashing but not very virtuous Lovelace courts her, which presents the family with the dangerous scenario of seeing their money go out the window, or rather out the door, together with Clarissa. Lovelace, mind you, is mainly interested in her because she defends her virginity so bravely and makes it his declared aim to conquer this fortress of chastity. The family decides that Clarissa should marry the disagreeable Mr Solmes. She refuses, is locked away and humiliated by her family. Lovelace plays the knight in shining armour and abducts poor Clarissa. Unfortunately, not to his royal castle but to a brothel, and when she continues to fend him off, his patience eventually snaps; he drugs and rapes her. She intermittently loses her wits after this traumatic experience. Cast out by the family, with no friends, she attempts several fruitless escapes from Lovelace until she finally manages to get away. The remorseful and reformed Belford takes care of her until she dies and writes her letters when she grows too weak to do so.
If one were to judge the novel solely by this plot, its elevation to the status of world literature would arguably seem more than dubious. The famous lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson said about Richardson you would have to hang yourself if you read him for the plot. No, you read Richardson for the feeling. And in this respect, Richardson’s novels are ground-breaking: For the first time in English literary history they turn to man’s inner life, his psyche, emotions, and thoughts. When Richardson publishes his first novel “Pamela” in 1740, his intentions are humble: revolutionize writing, or rather invent the modern novel. If we are talking about the discovery of the psychological in literature, he has succeeded.
And yet being confronted with this piece of literary history as a (female) modern reader can be quite challenging. In the preface the author clearly states his intention that “Clarissa” be read as a model story for the purpose of moral education. It was not meant for the sole purpose of entertainment, but the reader was to take the heroine serious as a role model and learn from her example. Clarissa and Anna are to serve as paragons of virtue for the entire female sex. Parents are to learn that exerting too much force on their children leads to catastrophe and drives them into the arms of rapists. And young ladies are to learn that they mustn’t fall for the “bad guy”, but keep to the proper, if unattractive, bore if they don’t want to be raped. One could make a plea for mitigating circumstances though, considering that the novel doesn’t condone Lovelace or the rape, but rather aims to evoke sympathy for Clarissa and horror in the face of Lovelace’s brutal mistreatment of the young woman. That many readers and fans of the novel asked for a rewrite of the ending so that Clarissa and Lovelace would get married in the end, however, is presumably a view not shared by today’s readers.
by Teresa Teklić