(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.)


(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.)