Adventures in Reading

Austen’s Contemporaries: Samuel Richardson
September 18, 2007, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In an earlier post I mentioned reading some of the more popular and published sequels of Austen’s novels. While I have not entirely written this ambition off of my list, after reading Marilyn Butler and Claudia Johnson I have been compelled to read more of Austen’s contemporaries. I am hoping that by doing this I will have a better understanding of those authors that Austen herself would have read and found influential, other author’s interpretations of the period from the same period as Austen, as well as some authors immediately influenced by her writings.

To kick this off I picked up Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (1748) – a 1,600 some page novel written entirely in epistolary style. In his introduction, John Butts credits Richardson with “the power of projecting characters who are readily recognizable, whose fortunes evoke the reader’s sympathy and whose adventures do not lead them too far outside the scenes of everyday life,” which would have been a relatively new phenomena with the novel during the 18th Century. Between Richardson and Henry Fielding there is a literary push to embracing “the petty emergencies of everyday life.” From my knowledge, Richardson is writing in a literary tradition that embraces the weak over the strong, the young over the aged, relentlessly terrible oldest brothers (a nod to primogeniture), etc.

Clarissa Harlowe, our heroine, is a young woman from a privileged and wealthy family. While her brother James is away in Scotland surveying his newly inherited property from a deceased godmother, an uncle Harlowe introduces Robert Lovelace to Clarissa’s older sister Arabella. Arabella is rejected, Robert loves Clarissa, Clarissa does not care for him, and through all of this there are suggestions that Lovelace’s moral character leaves much to be desired (though his vast fortune and property perhaps makes up for this a bit, and we do later learn Lovelace has been jilted by a woman himself – perhaps contributing to some of his behaviors). Clarissa’s father Mr. (James) Harlowe has been waiting in anticipation for the return of his son to decide what to do. (A relationship that clearly is defined as superior (the son) and inferior (the father).) Upon Jame’s return the reader discovers that in addition to Lovelace’s less than savory character that he and James had some not-so-friendly competition whilst in college together. In short: Lovelace is forbidden to see the family let alone Clarissa.

Now we discover all of this plot as a result of correspondence between Clarissa and her dear friend Ms. Anna Howe. And this is where things start to become very messy with Clarissa. While visiting Ms. Howe for a 30-day period Lovelace becomes a regular visitor and Clarissa is quickly and unexpectedly summoned home. Why has she been summoned home? To protect Clarissa from herself as well as Lovelace her family desires her to marry Mr. Solmes – a very disagreeable man at best. Clarissa is a good natured and moral character and the novel places her in a situation where she quickly becomes isolated and alienated. Clarissa defines her relationship with Lovelace and Solmes: “Mr. Lovelace, for instance, I may be allowed to say, is a man to be preferred to Mr. Solme, and that I do prefer him to that man; but surely, this may be said without its being a necessary consequence that I must be in love with him.”

Early in the novel we learn Clarissa’s deceased grandfather willed her a large portion of her estate that should have been inherited by her brother. This animosity along with some unhealthy sibling rivalry creates a situation where the Harlowe family assumes Clarissa is deeply in love with Lovelace and despite her pleas to the contrary they feel she will only be safe if married. Clarissa insists that she would prefer a life of solitary living – quite a different attitude than many characters written in this period. But her insistence that her heart is free from love or inclination to any man only produces her family’s argument that if this is so she is merely behaving in a disobedient manner.

I am really enjoying Clarissa. Marilyn Butler describes the epistolary style as allowing for external view and independent opinion. I have found this to be very true (some of the letters even contain cross reference to other letters) as all the information is provided mainly from the important characters. Letters are written back and forth between all the characters and as the reader we are even privileged to read letters Clarissa has no ability to. The book definitely creates a feeling of eavesdropping. Clarissa lives in a world of male stratagems that are targeted against her and insisting that she considers (if not eventually make) choices she does not want to. “I suppose it is the way of this (male) sex to endeavour to entangle the thoughtless of ours by bold supposals and offers, in hopes that we shall be too complaisant or bashful to quarrel with them; and, if not checked, to reckon upon our silence, as assents voluntarily given or concessions made in their favour.”

Clarissa describes her condition (if not the female condition) or her perspective on marriage necessities as “to be cajoled, wire-drawn, and ensnared, like silly birds into a state of bondage or vile subordination: to be courted as princesses for a few weeks, in order to be treated as slaves for the rest of our lives.” For all of her perks I still find Clarissa obnoxious in the sense of her never failing duty to her family that treats her miserably and without cause.

Today’s image is from Southampton online and is “Robert Lovelace Preparing to Abduct Clarissa Harlowe” (1753) by Francis Hayman. The site describes the scene as: “In this rather theatrical composition the debonair and evil Lovelace is tricking poor Clarissa into eloping with him: ‘Fear nothing, dearest creature, said he! – Let us hasten away! – The chariot is at hand! -‘.”


Very interesting post. I enjoy reading your articles.
Good info for me to pursue as I adore Austen.

I am not so sure if I could get through a 1,600 page novel, but you never know!

Thanks !


Comment by redneckrenaissanceman

There is the abridged version of Clarissa always available. ;) It is a good book and one I am enjoying but I will admit it is a bit exhausting and I might start reading something else to supplement it.

Comment by bookchronicle

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: