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 Lovelace’s correspondence with Jack Belford, know more about him than Clarissa does, and this knowledge engages their sympathy for her.
Clarissa, after escaping from the brothel, finds shelter with a kindly family, but her security does not last long. She is soon thrown into debtors’ prison. Belford secures her release and befriends her. By now, Clarissa’s health is broken, and it deteriorates further when she learns of plots Lovelace has launched against her, partly because of her rejection of him and partly because of his own guilt.
Clarissa prepares for death alone in London. She is now free from Lovelace and her family, which avoids visiting her. Upon her death, she is returned to Harlowe Place for burial. Lovelace, hearing of her death, is consumed by such guilt that he becomes temporarily insane. Finally, having recovered, he travels to the Continent. Clarissa’s cousin, ignoring one of Clarissa’s last wishes, follows Lovelace and kills him in a duel.
Clarissa is perhaps Richardson’s greatest triumph. By using two sets of correspondents, he overcame some of the problems he encountered in Pamela and also provided the kinds of multiple views that help to weave an intricate plot.
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...
(The entire section is 1,634 words.)