Clarissa

Lovelace’s Kidnapping of Clarissa Harlowe (1867) by Edouard Louis Dubufe.

Anyone who’s ever been involved with the study of English Literature has more than likely been instructed to read Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, published in 1748. This gargantuan tome of 18th Century drama occupied seven volumes of tediously written pages at the time of its finalized publication, and conveys the story of a woman seemingly adrift in a sea of her godliness and virtue. Faced with the unavoidable prospect of marrying the loathesome Mr. Solmes for the expressed purposes of negotiating a property arrangement, Clarrisa’s ordeals progress beneath the chastising remonstrations of her insensitive family to complete the transaction. Lurking behind the scenes of the drama, the infamous Sir Robert Lovelace, womanizer and homewrecker extraordinaire, is there to woo the vulnerable Clarissa from the familial dilemma that troubles her.

Richardson’s experience in writing the novel was as unique as it was unorthodox. After a bulk of the plot had been completed, popularity and controversy compelled him to continue adding pages and pages of storyline. Contemporary readers wrote and spoke to him offering inputs and suggestions about how Clarissa should behave, how she should react, and how she should have ended up. Like watering a plant whose roots grow in a healthy, fertilized soil, the novel that was Clarissa kept growing and growing at the command of his audience and his fellow writers. One WWII story goes as follows, that a woman whose husband evacuated their mansion home during the war, left his wife to occupy an attic that went unnoticed by the Nazi infiltration. Here the woman stayed for a year and a half in which she states, gave her ample time to perform a complete reading of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa.

As for Clarissa herself, she dazzles us with her goodness and her beauty, yet she perturbs us with her flawless method of reasoning. She makes decisions that fill us with awe and frustration, yet she keeps us close to her heart with her sensibilities and gaiety of air. She adores the poor, despises the ugly of heart, senses the guilty, and loves with invigorating passion the God of her Bible. Her movements are angelic, her standing as a human is guiltless, and we feel ever so resolutely for her when the lascivious fiend Lovelace abducts her into his clutches, replete with the help of his corrupted and depraved allies in crime and their sinister schemes.

Clarissa is a statement, an idol, a deity that spotlights and exposes our deepest sins, for she is also a sacrifice. Clothed in the garments of an angel, the vilest crime against a woman has deemed Clarissa no longer fit for the earthly sphere. When poised with the rapid decline of her health, her skin becomes as lily white as her clothes, and she spends the final moments of her dying hours lavishing praise upon everyone but herself while endowing forgiveness upon all those involved with her demise. Deep in the silent hours of a small bedroom far from the land she called home, the world mourns for the loss of Clarissa, Madonna of the age, where all become faced with the ugliness of their wrongs curdling inside their stomachs by the stillness of her unmoving corpse. Clarissa teaches us in death, as she teaches us in life.

Clarissa arrives as the primordial novel, a mode of storytelling ahead of its time, though Richardson sought to view his work as something more. He wanted people to read Clarissa with the hopes that they would obtain a moralistic understanding, a working knowledge on how to act toward their fellow human beings. The work created quite a stir during the age and poses a historical and cultural study window for scholars ranging from creative writing to property, social, and marital law with the inclusion of sexual discrepancies involved with the marriage act. When one undertakes the monumental task of reading this masterpiece of writing, one will invariably and inevitably note with due clarity the before and after effects such a read is destined to impress upon the mind of those who brave its pages.

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