Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940
Few men would have seemed less likely than Samuel Richardson to be influential in the history of the novel. A successful printer, he did not publish his first work until after he was fifty years old. Because of a reputation as an accomplished letter writer, he was encouraged to write a book of sample letters. Even before the publication of this volume, Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions (1741), he turned his epistolary talent to didactic purposes in fiction with the publication of Pamela (1740-1741), which was greeted with popular approval and critical disdain. By 1744, he had prepared a summary of his epistolary masterpiece, Clarissa. The massive novel was published in three installments between December, 1747, and December, 1748, and was subsequently printed in eight volumes. The length of the novel (about one million words) was probably not a great impediment for the more leisurely reading class of the mid-eighteenth century, but Clarissa eventually came to be read mostly in an abridged version by George Sherburn.
Richardson’s main literary contribution is his mastery of the epistolary style. The use of letters as a means of narration has obvious drawbacks. Certainly the flow of the narrative is repeatedly interrupted, and it takes all the strength of the reader’s will to suspend disbelief concerning the writing of thoughtful and informative letters by characters during periods of extraordinary stress. Conventions aside, it is difficult to sustain a continuous and progressive narrative in this form. The method frustrated Samuel Johnson, a friend of Richardson, who concluded that the work should be read for its sentiment. Richardson himself worried that his narrative technique had let his characters do too much in too short a period of time.
Richardson did, however, capitalize on the correlative advantages of the epistolary method. The immediacy of writing at the moment in which events are occurring is an excellent means of creating concerned attention in the reader. Moreover, Richardson’s talent for dialogue transforms many of the lengthier letters into poignant scenes, and the text of each letter is most decorously cast in a style appropriate to the correspondent. There is the further advantage, especially in a didactic novel such as this, of multiple points of view that add complexity and sympathy to the interpretation of events. Letters are not simply presented but copied, sent, received, discussed, answered, intercepted, stolen, altered, and forged. The whole process of correspondence comes alive as Richardson blends theater, moral discourse, courtesy book, and romance into a compellingly tense analysis of contemporary morals and manners.
As the use of the epistolary style would suggest, action is less important to Richardson’s fiction than reflection on the moral significance of the action. It may be that the author was familiar with the life of the gentry only through the theater. Nevertheless, despite an apparent ignorance of the occupations of a rich country family, the focus is so much on the tension of the situations and the meaning of actions that little is lost by the absence of sociological verisimilitude. Although Richardson occasionally presents dramatically vivid details, he usually is less interested in setting than in what Sherburn calls, in the contemporary eighteenth century terminology, a “distress.”
The main theme of the novel, as described by Richardson on the title page, is “the distresses that may attend the misconduct both of parents and children in relation to marriage.” There is no doubt that the motives of the Harlowes are crassly materialistic: to improve the already comfortable family fortune by forcing Clarissa to marry the suitable, but elderly, Solmes. There is a striking lack of tenderness and family feeling toward Clarissa, to whom they soften only after it is too late. Clarissa, for her part, is also strong-willed. As Richardson explains, “The principal of the two young Ladies is proposed as an exemplar of her Sex. Nor is it any objection to her being so, that she is not in all respects a perfect character.”
At first, Clarissa is attracted by the roguish but fascinating Lovelace, who occasionally seems not entirely a bad fellow. At least he is the most vivid character in the novel. In his egocentrism and his love of intrigue he is inconsiderate and cruel to others, sins he does not recant until his sentimental dying breaths. After his assault on Clarissa, practicality seems to demand that Clarissa turn virtue into its own reward, as Pamela had done, by marrying her seducer. Clarissa, however, is a more complex novel than Pamela, and Clarissa and Lovelace have already shown a moral incompatibility that makes acquiescence by Clarissa impossible (despite the impassioned pleadings of Richardson’s sentimental readers before the last third of the novel appeared).
At the heart of the incompatibility is Clarissa’s rigid idealism. Although a gentle person, she is unreserved in her commitment to virtue and to, as Sherburn puts it, decorous behavior. She is not so much a puritan as a devotee of what is morally fit, and she carries her commitment to the grave. When her friend Miss Howe suggests that she take the expedient way out by marrying the ostensibly repentant Lovelace, Clarissa cannot give in. Her sense of propriety will not allow such moral and personal compromise. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that she is less interesting for her idealism than for the distressing situations and dilemmas her idealism occasions.
Despite its narrative improbabilities, Clarissa became a revered example not only of the epistolary novel but also of the refined novel of sentiment, and by the end of the century, the novel had been imitated and acclaimed both in England and on the Continent.