Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The seven volumes of Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady, published in 1748, are a shortened version of the novel—the longest in the English language—that began to flow from the author’s pen sometime before 1744. Various people read manuscript versions of the book from that date forward. Subsequent editions in 1749 and 1751 were drastic revisions of the first and restored some of the earlier deleted material.
Clarissa Harlowe is the second and favored daughter of a good family. In a break from tradition, she has been left an estate by her grandfather. She is pursued by Robert Lovelace, an aristocrat, who cannot marry her until he finds a way to make her less attractive older sister, Arabella, reject him.
In a convoluted plot, Clarissa’s brother James fights with Lovelace and then, vengefully, arranges for Clarissa to be married to Mr. Solmes, a man she deplores. Ultimately, Lovelace tricks Clarissa into going off with him to London, where he installs her in a brothel. Clarissa suspects Lovelace’s motives and escapes to lodgings in Hampstead, but Lovelace follows and prevails upon her to seek refuge with his cousin and aunt, who are really prostitutes posing as relatives.
They take her to a brothel where Lovelace drugs and then rapes her. Following this event, Clarissa lapses into a period of madness and is faced with the crucial decision of whether to marry Lovelace. Readers, through being exposed to...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Robert Lovelace, a young Englishman of a noble family, is introduced into the Harlowe household by Clarissa’s uncle, who wishes Lovelace to marry Clarissa’s older sister, Arabella. The young man instead falls deeply in love with Clarissa, but he quickly learns that his suit is balked by Clarissa’s brother and sister. James has disliked Lovelace since they were together at Oxford, and Arabella is offended because he spurns her in favor of Clarissa. Both are jealous of Clarissa because she was left a fortune by their grandfather.
Having convinced his mother and father that Lovelace is a profligate, James proposes that Clarissa marry Mr. Solmes, a rich, elderly man of little taste and no sensibility. When Solmes finds no favor in the eyes of Clarissa, her family assumes she is in love with Lovelace, despite her protestations to the contrary. Clarissa refuses to allow Solmes to visit with her in the parlor or to sit next to her when the family is together. Her father, outraged by her conduct, orders her to be more civil to the man he chose to be her husband. When she refuses, saying she would never marry any man against her will, not even Lovelace, her father confines her to her room.
Lovelace, partly out of love for her and partly in vengeance for the insults heaped upon him by the Harlowe family, resolves to abduct Clarissa from her family. He is greatly aided in this scheme by the domineering personalities of Mr. Harlowe and his son, who...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)
Letters 1-5 Summary
Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, written by Samuel Richardson, was first published in a serialized form beginning in 1747. There were several volumes, with the complete collection published in full in 1748. Clarissa is a tragic story and was meant to be read as a parable to provide a moral lesson for women in mid-eighteenth-century England.
The novel begins with a letter from Anna Howe sent to Clarissa. In this letter, Anna mentions that a Mr. Lovelace has wounded Clarissa's brother in the arm. Anna portrays Clarissa's brother as being in the wrong, having provoked the duel because of his short temper.
Anna also asks Clarissa about the rumors that are circulating about Lovelace having been a suitor whose attentions were once focused on Clarissa's older sister but may have been diverted later to Clarissa. Anna tells Clarissa that everyone pities her for the recent events. She asks that Clarissa offers her own explanation for what has happened.
In closing, Anna also requests that Clarissa send a copy of Clarissa's grandfather's will to Anna's Aunt Harman. Although this Aunt Harman is not acquainted with Clarissa, Anna states that her aunt has grown fond of Clarissa and believes that Clarissa deserves to be the favored heir of her grandfather's estate.
In Clarissa's response to Anna, Clarissa tells the story about her sister, Arabella, and her relationship to Mr. Lovelace. Lovelace was introduced to the family, supposedly for the purpose of meeting Arabella. Lovelace is described as very handsome with a bad reputation toward women.
At first Arabella feels she is not pretty enough for Lovelace, but later she decides her looks are passable and so her interest in Lovelace increases. However, she becomes discontent with the man because he pays very little attention to her when he visits.
Eventually Arabella turns down Lovelace's advances. Lovelace is not discouraged, however, as he sets his sights on Clarissa. Because of a proposal by Clarissa's uncle, Clarissa is thrown into a relationship with Lovelace. The uncle wants Lovelace, known for his wide travels as well as his skill in writing, to compose a travel journal for the uncle's son, who is about to begin an exploratory journey. Because Clarissa is also well regarded for her writing skills, she is asked to edit Lovelace's compositions.
This creates an excuse for Lovelace to correspond...
(The entire section is 594 words.)
Letters 6-10 Summary
Clarissa writes to Anna, telling her about her brother's request that she go to his estate in Scotland to help him run his estate. James has recovered from the wound imposed on him by Mr. Lovelace. He has not, however, gotten over his bitter feelings toward the man.
Clarissa knows that her brother is merely attempting to get her away from any more advances by Mr. Lovelace. She also senses that if she were to go with him to Scotland, she would end up acting more as a maid for him than as a sister.
Fortunately, Clarissa's mother is against James' suggestion as she knows that Clarissa's older sister would not be as helpful as Clarissa is at home. Her father agrees with James that it might be good for Clarissa to get away as long as she promises not to entertain Lovelace.
One uncle points out that if Mr. Lovelace is persistent in pursuing Clarissa, would it not be better for Lovelace to come to this home rather than to seek her out at James' estate, where there is sure to be trouble because Lovelace and James share bitter feelings for one another?
Clarissa offers her own suggestion, that of going to Anna Howe's home, the young woman with whom Clarissa constantly corresponds. The father eventually agrees to this despite James' objections.
Clarissa is supposed to stay with Anna for an extended period of time, according to their arrangements. However, one day, without forewarning, her father's carriage appears at Anna's home, and Clarissa is ordered to come home immediately.
Upon arriving home, Clarissa learns that the family has arranged a new suitor for her. Several men have made their appearances prior to this new appointment, but Clarissa has rejected all of them. She has known of Mr. Solmes, a man she finds exceedingly unpleasant to look at and someone of little intelligence who is illiterate and has no understanding of finances nor husbandry. When Clarissa writes to Anna, she describes Solmes as someone who would make a "hideous lover."
The family is insistent, however. They have heard that while Clarissa was at Anna's, Mr. Lovelace came to call more than six times. Clarissa does not deny this. She tells them that it was not her right to prohibit Anna's parents from opening their doors to the visitor. She states that although she was in Lovelace's company at times, she never was with him alone.
This statement satisfies no one. Her brother and sister turn...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
Letters 11-15 Summary
Anna responds to Clarissa's letter and insinuates that Clarissa is perhaps in love with Mr. Lovelace. She warns Clarissa not to move too hastily in this regard or to give the man any cause to encourage his pursuit of her. Anna is wary of Lovelace's character.
In her letter to Anna, Clarissa is at first shocked by her friend's need for such a warning about Lovelace. However, upon rereading Anna's letter, Clarissa decides to reflect on a deeper level of her feelings, wondering if Anna may be seeing something that Clarissa is not aware of.
Afterward, Clarissa concludes that she definitely is not in love and insists that Lovelace is not now and never will be "THE" man. Clarissa writes that she has "great objections" to him, and contrary to what Anna has suggested, her heart does not "throb" for Lovelace.
In Anna's next letter, Anna accepts Clarissa's statement about not being in love with Mr. Lovelace. However, Anna also declares that she will keep an eye on Clarissa and suggests that Clarissa do the same in relation to her feelings.
Anna then reports on an evaluation of Mr. Lovelace provided to her by a Mrs. Fortescue, who has known Mr. Lovelace since he was a child. The first thing Mrs. Fortescue states is that Mr. Lovelace has always been as "mischievous as a monkey." She also claims that Lovelace is a man of pleasure, has a very lively imagination, and is brave and intelligent. He is guilty of neither gambling nor drinking, but nonetheless his character is faulty. He is a very proud man and is not reluctant to boast of his talents and strengths.
Although he is said to be a good writer, Lovelace is secretive about his subject matter. Few people have read anything that he has written, which makes Mrs. Fortescue very suspicious. He also does not seem to be concerned about his reputation, which tends to be unflattering. Mrs. Fortescue does not know if this means he is so arrogant that it does not bother him or that what is said about him is true.
Anna also exposes a rumor she has heard about Clarissa's sister. An underlying emotion that has inflamed Arabella's dislike of Clarissa is that Arabella believes Clarissa has stolen Mr. Lovelace from her. Arabella has confessed to a friend that she is in love with Mr. Lovelace and that Clarissa has stolen him from her.
Because of Arabella's jealousy, she and James have plotted against Clarissa, turning against Lovelace and...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Letters 16-17 Summary
Clarissa writes to Anna that things have turned worse for her. One of her maids overheard her parents talking. Upon hearing what her parents have discussed, Clarissa feels doomed.
When she goes down for breakfast, her family is waiting for her along with Mr. Solmes. Although no one has made any pronouncements, she senses the tension under everyone's words. Even when she hears her parents speaking in pleasant voices, she knows they are about to announce something grim.
After breakfast, Clarissa meets with her mother, who pleads with Clarissa to comply with her father's wishes. Her mother relies on Clarissa to help her keep peace in the family. If she does not obey her father, the family will be completely disrupted.
When Clarissa begins to sob, her mother is actually relieved, for Clarissa's tears signal that she has already heard the rumors of what is about to occur. If Clarissa does not comply with her father, a man who insists that his wife and children obey him, the family will be ruined, Clarissa's mother says.
Clarissa's mother leaves the room temporarily to give Clarissa time to collect her emotions. When she returns, she finally tells Clarissa what she has been extremely reluctant to hear. Clarissa must marry Mr. Solmes. Sensing her reluctance to receive his hand in marriage, Clarissa's parents have already acted in her name.
When Clarissa asks her mother how she could be so compliant in this arrangement when she knows that Clarissa does not like Solmes, her mother attempts to make the man more attractive than he is by stating that he is at least honest. Clarissa challenges this concept, stating that he is very dishonest because to win her, Solmes has offered her and her family most of the inheritance that should have gone to other members of Solmes' family. To this, Clarissa's mother says that her daughter should stop seeking perfection in a man.
Clarissa continues to be reluctant to go downstairs and meet her fate and asks her mother how she can be complicit in a plan that will imprison her heart. In response, Clarissa's mother states that Clarissa, in duty to her family, must let duty govern her mind.
Clarissa continues to balk at her mother's suggestions. She states that she cannot allow herself to be married to a "monster." She would rather be buried alive. In a less emotional tone, Clarissa tells her mother that she would prefer to live single...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Letters 18-20 Summary
When Clarissa visits with her mother in her room the next day, she notices a change in her mother's attitude. Her mother appears more emotionally removed than she had been the day before. At one point, she even refers to Clarissa's father as "Mr. Harlowe," causing Clarissa to question if her father has already disowned her.
This makes Clarissa cry, to which her mother reacts with the statement that she has always disliked seeing someone cry about circumstances that they could control. Then Mrs. Harlowe tells her daughter to return to her room until her emotions are under control.
Before she leaves, Clarissa attempts to persuade her mother not to retract her feelings from her. However, Mrs. Harlowe reminds Clarissa that everyone in the family knows how eloquent Clarissa is. She would rather that Clarissa responded to her father's demands with actions rather than words.
Clarissa falls to her mother's feet and wraps her arms around her mother's legs, refusing to release her until she promises that she will not stop loving her. Her mother tells her that if she wants her love, then she must be good, by which she means that Clarissa should obey her father's wishes and marry Mr. Solmes. Mrs. Harlowe adds that Clarissa's father refuses to see her until she makes herself worthy of being called his daughter. To earn this worthiness, Clarissa must do as he demands.
In response to Anna's questions in her recent letter, Clarissa tells her friend that she is well aware of Arabella's jealousy concerning both Mr. Lovelace's attention and their grandfather's money, which he has bequeathed to Clarissa alone. As to Mr. Lovelace, Clarissa says that even though her sister, Arabella, was the one who turned down Mr. Lovelace as a suitor, she secretly wanted him and would have accepted him had he not turned his interest to Clarissa. Now Arabella blames Clarissa for stealing him away from her.
As to the grandfather's legacy, Clarissa says that had she known that her father and brother would react so strangely to her actions, she would never have turned the administration of her inheritance over to them. She had sensed the terrible jealousy that was developing in her family and thought that giving her father charge of the money would ease the tensions. She thought her actions would make everyone happy.
She also knew that a financially independent woman is closely watched by not only her family but also...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
Letters 21-27 Summary
Clarissa has asked her mother to allow her to speak. Her mother agrees because Mr. Harlowe and Clarissa's uncles have gone out for supper, thus leaving Mrs. Harlowe with her two daughters.
Arabella is in the room with Mrs. Harlowe when Clarissa arrives. As Clarissa once again pleads her case for not marrying Solmes, there is a knock on the parlor door. It is Solmes, who asks to be allowed to join them.
Solmes enters the room, acknowledging Mrs. Harlowe and Arabella before he greets Clarissa. Clarissa claims that this is the social custom that a husband usually plays out, leaving his wife to be the last one he greets.
Clarissa is annoyed by Solmes' arrogance and his assumption that she will marry him. She makes a point of being rude to him. She also continues her discussion with her mother, admitting the reasons why she is so appalled by the idea of marrying Solmes while Solmes listens.
Mrs. Harlowe and Arabella are shocked that Clarissa is acting so rude. However, Clarissa points out that as soon as her father returns home, he has promised to confine her to her room and disallow any conversation with her mother. This is her last time to appeal to her mother. So she has been forced to do so in front of Solmes.
Mrs. Harlowe, although she has a little empathy for her daughter's predicament, continues to remind Clarissa that there is nothing for her to do but obey her father's will. Mrs. Harlowe has no power in this decision. If Clarissa does not comply, Mrs. Harlowe repeats, she will bring discordance upon the entire family.
Returning home, Mr. Harlowe hears the news that Clarissa will not give in to his will. The first thing he does to punish her is to take away every house key from her. Upon discovering that Clarissa's maid has been instrumental in delivering Clarissa's letter, he dismisses the maid. From now on, Clarissa will share a maid who has proven her allegiance to the parents. Clarissa is to go nowhere without this maid accompanying her.
The other restrictions imposed include Clarissa being prohibited from being in the same room or in any garden outside with her parents. She must wait until her parents have left before she may enter. Any communications that she wants to make with her parents must first be approved by her brother.
Although correspondences have been banned, Clarissa continues to manage to send out and receive letters both from...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Letters 28-31 Summary
Clarissa is upset with her friend Anna for criticizing Clarissa's family. Although Clarissa believes Anna has just cause to judge her family, she does not appreciate Anna taking the same liberties no matter how much her family punishes Clarissa.
She also refuses to take any legal action against her father, as Anna has suggested, to gain access to the inheritance she received from her grandfather. Clarissa says that she would rather do without the money than hire a lawyer and file suit against her father.
Clarissa's anger does not last long, however. She says that Anna is the only friend she can turn to. She is the only counsel she has left. Clarissa also remembers that in a vow of friendship, both she and Anna made a pact always to be completely honest with their emotions when sharing information with one another.
Then Clarissa tells Anna about two letters she has sent, one to her brother James and the other to her sister Arabella. To her brother, Clarissa has written that it is not her intention to displease him or her father. However, she challenges her brother to answer why he is treating her more as a stranger and a servant than as a sister and a friend. She argues that one of James' stated reasons for his opposition to Mr. Lovelace is the fear that Lovelace would treat Clarissa unfairly. Clarissa points out that Lovelace would probably not be any more cruel than James is being toward her.
Clarissa next states that she cannot understand why James insists that she marry Solmes. Why does she not have the right to turn down a suitor? She reminds James that he has turned down women he did not want to marry. Why should she not have the same right?
James' response is to tell Clarissa that her impertinence intensifies with each letter. He calls her a conceited preacher. James claims that Clarissa is blinded by her love for Mr. Lovelace. If she should indeed decide to marry him, she can consider that she no longer has a brother. Clarissa's letter to her sister receives a similar reaction. Arabella says that she refuses to respond to any more of Clarissa's accusations against her.
Clarissa discovers that Lovelace attended her parents' church on the next Sunday and was bold enough to turn and stare at the members of the family. Although Mrs. Harlowe acknowledged Lovelace, Mr. Harlowe and James did not. If Lovelace appeared at church for her benefit, Clarissa writes, he was totally...
(The entire section is 527 words.)