#66 Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (title page).png

To my very great surprise, I felt an immediate and intense bond with the fierce but kindhearted Clarissa this book is named for. Granted, no one has ever tried to force me into marriage with a middle-aged prick, or conned me into living in a house above a brothel, or ordered my arrest on false charges just to watch my spirit break. But this book isn’t so much about what happens to Clarissa as how it makes her feel.

And how it makes her feel is pissed.

Published in 1748 on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s enormously popular Pamela, Clarissa is tremendously long, tediously slow, and stiflingly intimate. But it’s also meticulously crafted, remarkably thoughtful, and endlessly moving. By far the most extensive character study of The List, Clarissa is an epistolary novel of epic proportions: 1,499 pages, to be exact. Letters between Clarissa and her BFF Anna, as well as Lovelace and his BFF Belford, make up the bulk of the narrative.


Yep: Clarissa‘s the one on the bottom.

When the story kicks off, Clarissa is already knee-deep in a sea of drama. Her family wants her to marry the un-marriable likes of Roger Solmes and, when she refuses, locks her up in her own bedroom. Clarissa’s crush, Robert Lovelace—a well-known rake hated by her entire family—tricks her into running away with him. In an apartment above a brothel, lost in the unholy streets of London, Lovelace schemes, manipulates, and harasses Clarissa into marrying him or sleeping with him—whichever comes first.

Clarissa, more than a little resentful at all these affronts to her reputation and integrity, plots her escape(s) with occasional success but too little haste. Lovelace, a practiced sociopath, calls most of the shots—and although Clarissa manages one final getaway worthy of Lovelace himself, his London minions call for her arrest on false charges and see her thrown in jail. This last indignity is too much for Clarissa, who, after her release, fades out in a slow death. In easily the most satisfying moment of the novel, Lovelace is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden.

One of the quickest ways to make me hate a protagonist is for the writer to tell me how much I should love them (see: Isabel Archer, Rory Gilmore). I Just Can’t with the whole “look-how-special-and-superior-this-protagonist-is” Festival of Praise that, by the way, only ever seems to follow female characters. I’m convinced it’s a symptom of the Madonna/Whore Complex that terrorizes classic fiction, and let’s just say I’ve never had much patience for Madonnas.

But somehow my opinion of Clarissa survived even this. Yes, it was annoying to hear every character gush uninterruptedly about Clarissa’s consummate perfection. Yes, I lost count of the references to Clarissa’s flawless beauty, unsurpassed intellect, and “angelic” purity. Yes, I resented the implication that there is one right way to be a woman, and that way is Clarissa.

But somehow Clarissa remains, for the most part, utterly relatable. It’s hard not to identify with a character who puts her every thought on paper with such careful precision. She lays out her emotions, her motives, and her logic with charismatic warmth, showing down even Lovelace’s seductive (if warped) arguments. Indeed, you root for her all the more for being surrounded by villains and lunatics.

Because, of course, while Clarissa is an interesting read, it’s also an infuriating one. Lovelace pressures Clarissa into corresponding with him, tricks her into running away with him, coerces her into living with him, guilts her into spending time with him, violates her privacy, gropes her without her consent, and then, ultimately, drugs and rapes her—and still sees HIMSELF as a victim. He curses her virtue as the barrier that keeps him from what he wants most, even though her virtue is the very thing that attracted him to her in the first place. He is regularly occupied by efforts to “punish” (his word) the people women around him for their every minor betrayal doing anything he doesn’t specifically condone/authorize.

Clarissa, for her part, berates and blames herself for her errors in judgment, views her disobedience as a cautionary tale, and wishes for death. She never gives up hope of making amends with her garbage family, and pities Lovelace almost as much as she loathes him. And then there’s the whole part where she just has to emerge from her final hiding place multiple times a day to go to church, knowing she risks recapture by Lovelace. Just pray at home, Clarissa! Or, better yet, face the fact that God might not be listening anymore.

So, yeah, infuriating. I spent many of Clarissa‘s 1,499 pages with my head in my hands, screaming, What is wrong with you people??? But I know what’s wrong with them. The 18th century is what’s wrong with them. Anna and her mother go from urging Clarissa to prosecute Lovelace in one letter to encouraging her to marry him in the next. Belford excoriates Lovelace for his treatment of Clarissa but doesn’t bother to, like, CALL THE POLICE. All in all, this book is a feminist nightmare: a parade of male entitlement, a showcase of rape culture, and a testament to just how little control women have had, historically, over their own destinies.

Highlights of the novel are the bullshit-intolerant Anna, often referred to as “flighty” or “saucy” (and, on one memorable occasion, “saucebox”), and the darkly hilarious scene in which Clarissa buys her own coffin. Lowlights are everything Lovelace says, does, and thinks, and when Clarissa’s family finally forgives her in a letter that arrives one day too late.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yes, but I would never recommend it to a friend. This is a book for masochists, written by a sadist.

You’ve been warned.

Favorite Quotes:

I imagined for a long while that we were born to make each other happy: but, quite the contrary; we really seem to be sent to plague one another.

I may venture to say, that many of those who have escaped censure, have not merited applause.

For what are words but the body and dress of thought?

Poor man! He has had a loss in losing me! I have the pride to think so, because I think I know my own heart. I have had none in losing him! 

But love, me thinks, as short a word as it is, has a broad sound with it.

Read: 2016-2017

#23 The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James


Isabel Archer’s biggest problem is that every man she meets wants to marry her. She is so charming, so popular, and so very beloved that her aunt can’t resist taking her on an all-expenses-paid Eurotrip; her uncle is compelled to leave her half his fortune (70,000 pounds in the 1860s); and her cousin nominates her as his sole reason to live. (And yes, he wants to marry her. More on that later.)

Isabel spends the first half of Henry James’s most popular novel breaking hearts right and left. Her suitors, hundreds of pages later, have yet to move on. Feeling crestfallen after you’ve been rejected by a woman you knew for a week? Weird, but fine. Hoping she’ll change her mind? Sad, but fine. Following her across entire continents to tell her how heartbroken you are—for years at a time—and laying on guilt trips as if she owes you fuck all?

Not OK, gents. Not OK.

Needless to say, when she does get married, and her husband grows to hate her with a passion, Isabel is utterly perplexed. But I’m so charming! she thinks. And so popular! And so beloved, and attractive, and rich!

To the reader, however, the mystery of his malice is skimpy at best. For one, his name is Gilbert Osmond—obviously a villain’s name. Second, and more importantly, no human can live up to the kind of expectations harnessed to Ms. Archer. When Madame Merle (a friend suspiciously interested third party) encourages Osmond to meet Isabel, he asks:

Is she beautiful, clever, rich, splendid, universally intelligent and unprecedentedly virtuous? It is only on those conditions that I care to make her acquaintance.

Madame Merle assures him that this description neatly “corresponds” to Isabel, the human equivalent of a profiterole. A few sad years into the future, however, Isabel is already failing on every count (except, perhaps, “rich”), to the detriment of Osmond’s matrimonial ROI.

To everyone else, though, Isabel has lost none of her appeal. There are still several mopey losers stalking her—notably her cousin Ralph, a full-time invalid for whom stalking is a challenging hobby. Manly professions of love have, by this point, become comedic for the reader, and tedious for Isabel. Here’s her reaction to Ralph’s romantic entreaties:

Was he too on that tiresome list?

Contrary to Osmond’s line of thinking, perfection may actually be Isabel’s greatest flaw. You know that old platitude moms hand out like lunchboxes to their fourteen-year-old daughters, looking with the eyes of unconditional love past braces and puppy fat: “Honey, flaws are what make you interesting”?

Well, it turns out that’s absolutely true. I’m not saying those fourteen-year-old girls will get Prom invitations from the Jonas Brothers, or anything. But my biggest point of dispute with The Portrait of a Lady is its supremely boring heroine in Isabel Archer. Her commitment to her own “independence” lasts about as long as this sentence. Her ambitions fall prey to the usual predators of marriage and motherhood. Duty to her husband and social convention wins out, in most cases, over her own feelings.

None of this would be as grating if we weren’t repeatedly reminded of Isabel’s (supposed) independence, ambition, and defiance of tradition—and if Isabel weren’t constantly patting herself on the back for these very qualities. She’s not even as autonomous or accomplished as her friend Henrietta Stackpole. If Isabel were ever to meet Countess Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence while walking the streets of New York or London, she would look like a wilting wallflower in comparison.

All that said, I enjoyed my trip across Europe through the eyes of Henry James and Ms. Archer—particularly the plot twist I inexplicably did not foresee. I just wish there had been a scene where all of Isabel’s lame suitors lined up, one in front of the other, only to be knocked down like dominoes. Literally or figuratively—I’m not picky.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

James is not as funny as Jane Austen, or as gifted as William Makepeace Thackeray. His ambition is weak next to George Eliot’s, and his themes look timid up against the Brontës’. But as a fan of 19th-century Brit lit, I’m going to let this one sneak its way onto the Greatest Bookshelf anyway.

Favorite Quotes:

“You are too fond of your liberty.”
“Yes, I think I am very fond of it. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

She wondered whether his sense of humour were by chance defective.

She had too many ideas for herself; but that was just what one married for, to share them with some one else.

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

Read: 2015