53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Caveat before tackling this great but weighty novel,
This review is from: Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady (Classics) (Paperback)
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!
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Initial post: 6 Jul 2010 10:07:28 BDT
J. Patterson says:
I think you vastly underestimate this novel. Its scope is equal to War and Peace: on the one hand, you should delve a little more into your (:-)) Greek heritage, particularly Antigone, Oedipus Rex and the Oresteia with regard to the clashes between individual and group, custom and law, family and city, scapegoating and so on; and on the other, check out Smith, Ferguson, Montesquieu and others on the development of civil society and forms of social and political participation. It's all there in abundance in Clarissa. Richardson was not some kind of idiot savant who somehow hit on a good tale, but a true genius, who managed to focus an enormous mass of forces and developments in his writing. Also, Clarissa's virtue is not remotely as unalloyed as you make out: read between the lines a bit. In any case, it is no more the key to this work than kiddy fiddling is to Lolita. Both Clarissa's virtue and Humbert's "amour improper" stand for something much vaster in terms of the human condition. Perhaps both stand in the shadow of Poe's "kingdom by the sea".
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