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Caveat before tackling this great but weighty novel
on 16 August 2000
I have to confess to reading this novel partly out of guilt, since I kept coming across references to it elsewhere. While I did enjoy it, it was largely this literary conscience that kept me going. It is indeed a superb novel, and you can read the other reviews to see why, but it is very slow and I think I'm not the only one who found it quite a slog, or got frustrated from time to time by Clarissa's unspeakable virtuousness (although her distraught state after the rape is portrayed most movingly).
As a comparison, read Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses, one of my favourite novels and one which makes one wonder why the epistolary form was abandoned. A beautifully structured, enthralling study of sexual intrigue in eighteenth-century France, it is far more exciting and the characterisation is extraordinary, exploring both good and vicious characters with great depth and achieving the rare feat of making characters at both ends of the scale human, realistic and sympathetic. One of the main differences, apart from the driven plot of Les Liaisons against the thoughtful consideration of what in Clarissa is, classically, basically an expansion of one incident, is that Laclos explored human depravity with such rigorous honesty and fascinated sympathy that he caused a great scandal and got himself banned; Richardson, on the other hand, always had an eye out for the moral lesson (he gives everyone their just deserts at the end in quite a scrupulous manner) and to my mind his portrayal of human nature is less believable, and certainly less interesting. Clarissa would have been far more likeable for a few faults (even Melanie in Gone with the Wind makes a sarcastic comment once), and the interaction with Lovelace would perhaps, I feel, have been deeper and more tragic if she had lowered her standards and communicated with him more.
Clarissa is a densely woven, lovingly detailed novel with a plot that can be summed up in one sentence, and I think that whether it appeals to you depends very much on whether or not this is to your taste. I certainly found it of great interest in relation to other literature and will no doubt dip into it again, but I couldn't face a re-read. One problem with boasting about having finished it is that even though it was much harder work than War and Peace (and twice as long), most people won't have heard of it!