Study Guide

Clarissa

by Samuel Richardson

Clarissa Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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.)

Clarissa Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 took away Clarissa’s trusted maid and replaced her with a young woman who is impertinent and insolent to her mistress. They also refuse to let her see any of the family, even her mother. Clarissa’s only trusted adviser is Miss Howe, a friend and correspondent who advises her to escape the house if she can, even if it means accepting Lovelace’s aid and his proposal of marriage.

One evening, Lovelace slips into the garden where Clarissa is walking and entreats her to elope with him. After some protest, she agrees to go with him so as to escape her domineering father. Lovelace tells her she will be taken to the home of Lord ——, a kinsman of Lovelace, who will protect her until her cousin, Colonel Morden, can return to England and arrange for a reconciliation between Clarissa and her family. Lovelace does not keep his word, however, and takes her instead to a house of ill repute, where he introduces her to a woman he calls Mrs. Sinclair. Inventing reasons why he cannot take her to Lord M——’s house, he persuades the bewildered girl to pose temporarily as his wife. He tells Mrs. Sinclair that Clarissa is his wife with whom he cannot live until certain marriage settlements are arranged. Clarissa permits him to tell the lie, believing that it will prevent her father and her brother from discovering her whereabouts.

In Mrs. Sinclair’s house, she is almost as much a prisoner as she was in her father’s home. Meanwhile, her family...

(The entire section is 1196 words.)

Clarissa Chapter Summaries

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...

(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...

(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...

(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...

(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...

(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...

(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...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear