Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Clarissa - Samuel Richardson

One of the most engaging books I've read recently (obviously not on the Canon) was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. At first I thought it was a treatise on marriage and found myself looking at the crumbling marriage with sympathy, occasionally uttering a "too true..." Until Nick's phone rings and he doesn't answer it and we realize we have an unreliable narrator. Then everything is turned upside down and the reader must attempt to parse reality from the sticky web of lies, fencing one's emotions and allegiances. Of course Amy is crazy - but the craziness stems from a desire to teach Nick a lesson. In a way, our villain, wrestles with the same objective, only instead of teaching a singular person a lesson, his vendetta is against women as a whole with Clarissa acting as resident scapegoat.

Clarissa in a way follows the same formula that Flynn takes in Gone Girl, or Nabokov takes in Lolita...can a reader be persuaded to sympathize with a reprobate?

Clarissa's plight is that she is too good, too dutiful and a touch spineless. Bequeathed a considerable fortune from her grandfather's death, she has the potential to be independent from the beginning, making this whole 1500 page book a moot point. Yet because she has such veracity and would rather offer olive branches than pursue her independence, the history of this young lady becomes a long drawn out tragedy of "what ifs".

Told in epistolary from, the first letter from Miss Anna Howe begins thus: "I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family." And we are thrown into the plot immediately. Robert Lovelace, after briefly courting Clarissa's sister Arabella, while Clarissa was out of town, upon her arrival home does a one-eighty in his affections and chooses to pursue the younger more beautiful Clarissa.

Obviously this does not go over well with Arabella and after a pretense of any kind is discovered, James the brother and up-and-coming patriarch of the family decides he must force Lovelace to duel. Lovelace is a much better swordsmen and the duel does not go according to plan although it is ended prematurely as Lovelace shouts something about valuing his little sister enough not to run him through, and James is left defeated emotionally and without honor. If Clarissa is what Lovelace wants, James will do everything in his power to make sure this does not happen.

The fortune left to her by her grandfather, and the favor of her two uncles only adds to estrange her further from her siblings who in turn hate and despise her. Their solution is to marry her off to the most illiterate, repugnant, gouty hag (can men be hags?) Mr. Solmes. Clarissa has begged to be allowed to live a life of celibacy, throwing into the bargain becoming her brother's housekeeper with the understanding that he will treat her little better than a servant. This is her preference. But out of spite, the brother rallies the family around him and they demand that Clarissa cede her preference out of obligation to the family.

An obligatory description of Solmes: "It was, however, [Solmes] laugh; for his first in three years, at least, I imagine, must have been one continual fit of crying; and his muscles have never yet been able to recover a risible tone. His very smile...is so little natural to his features, that it appears in him as hideous as the grin of a man in malice."

So Solmes is awkward, unattractive and a little dense, but is he really that bad? Clarissa profusely objects to this match and says repeatedly that she would choose death over this man. Unbeknownst to her is how close she comes to the truth.

Eventually (over the course of 400 painful pages) she has become a prisoner in her own room and her family demands that she cease all letter writing. Much to the chagrin of the reader this does not happen. Instead she writes letter after letter to Miss Howe and now Lovelace. Most of her letters to Lovelace are about how "this is the last letter she is going to write him and she would appreciate it if he respects this request."  Her letters to Miss Howe are more along the lines of "I hate Solmes, and Lovelace is a rake...I wish everyone would let me live alone in peace or join a convent...but it looks like I may be forced into the protection of one of these horrible options."

Lovelace at first seems justified in his pursuit, obviously who wouldn't want Clarissa? She's gorgeous, well established, relentlessly pursues charity and even has an account of her time budgeted in a way that would make even a compulsive salivate. Is he really all that bad? In letter 4 (50 pages in) Clarissa describes him to Miss Howe for the readers benefit as follows:

"...always noted for his vivacity and courage; and no less, it seems for the swift and surprising progress he made in all parts of literature; for diligence in his studies, in the hours of study, he had hardly an equal..."

Clarissa blames her brother's overt hatred on the fact that he recognizes his superior in Lovelace, and for about 400 pages there is a bit of consideration whether or not Lovelace is really all that bad. Sure he has a reputation of a degenerate rake, but he's young and wealthy...who doesn't? Sure there's an aura of disquiet that seems somewhat sinister...but at least he's up on all the classics? While Miss Howe prompts and teases that perhaps Clarissa is lying to herself, perhaps there is no one other than Lovelace she could even consider, Clarissa herself is almost convinced.

And then she is pushed into a corner. Her parents demand she marry the hated Solmes ASAP, as in Wednesday, and after bartering her time and submission, she has no other cards to play besides basic hope. She writes Lovelace a letter telling him she'll meet him outside the gate so that he can take her to a respectably safe distance where she can then, from her copious and persuasive letter writing, convince her family that she would like to join a convent, or live a life of charity and peace secluded in the country. But then after another 100 pages, she changes her mind and decides not to go with Lovelace at all and writes another letter saying basically that, leaving it in the little crack in the wall where it remains untouched and unread. So then of course when Lovelace comes to take her way, she is obligated to go outside the gate and say "just kidding- I'm not coming after all...bye?!" To which he replies by falling down on his knees and frothing at the mouth professing his undying love, until a servant comes running at them shouting "get your arms! Clarissa has eloped with the reprobate!!"

Clarissa is duly terrified and Lovelace works the terror and adrenaline into his favor and whisks her away.

Her fear, and greatest hesitation about actually eloping with Lovelace is that she thinks him a "vain man, capable of triumphing, secretly at least, over a person whose heart he thinks he has engaged." (page 72) Sadly, this is the actual plot of the book.

150 pages in we finally hear from Lovelace for the first time: "I have boasted that I was once in love before: and indeed I thought I was. It was in my early manhood - with that quality-jilt, whose infidelity I have vowed to revenge upon as many of the sex as shall come into my power. I believe, in different climes, I have already sacrificed a hecatomb to my Nemesis in pursuance of this vow."

That's Lovelace in a nutshell. Bent on avenging himself on all women. Later while defending himself to his friend John Belford, he essentially says "I don't know what all the fuss is about, each time I knock someone up I always provide a good midwife for the birth and make sure to provide enough to meagerly get by on until I can find a suitable spouse to pawn her off to...isn't that the gentlemanly thing to do?

Slowly, the narrative spirals down hill in a truly modern way. For a book published in 1747 there is an element of vindictive meanness that is somewhat surprising. Like Nick and Amy, able to anticipate each others next move and notice the malicious subtleties that might pass by the unsuspecting, Clarissa and Lovelace are the only two people destined to cause one another the most possible pain and heartache.  Although Clarissa is unable to anticipate the next move in the intricate web of deceit Lovelace is always gloating over, she is capable of instantly recognizing his motives.

Lovelace has decided there's no such thing as a virtuous woman and has made it his life's purpose to try Clarissa's virtue with all the intrigue and web of lies he can skillfully weave. Test after test proves Clarissa to be only more admirable, more chaste and ultimately more virtuous. What? This can not be! Lovelace decides this plan is boring and may take forever...why not date rape her (minus the date but with plenty of drugs so she is requisitely unconscious!) and then see how she'll behave. If he can a) further induce her to forgive him and decide to live with him as a mistress that would be sweet or b) decide maybe it's not all that bad - but she needs to be married ASAP and then he can put up a wedding farce so that she thinks they are married and he can live with her as a mistress.

Throughout this whole book Anna Howe is far from helpful. While she's always offering to come for a visit (to the brothel where Clarissa is imprisoned) and send her money or do anything of value she always ends her offer with "let me just check with my mom." Which of course then turns into "mom and I had a huge fight about the whole thing, mom thinks you're probably enjoying yourself and you definitely did not listen to your parents (a big no no!) so at this point all that help I just offered is a no go." While Clarissa finds herself in one trying disastrous catastrophe after another, Miss Howe's responses are akin to "wow, that is so horrible for you! Yikes! Maybe I will pursue a life of celibacy after all...or I could marry Mr. Hickman who's such a bore...but I think I'll just think about everything for a few months until all decisions are moot and void...Love ya!"

Eventually Clarissa escapes from the brothel that Lovelace has brought her to/imprisoned her in and after an accidental stint in prison becomes increasingly sickly.

So begins the test: Lovelace becomes increasingly distraught over what he has done and the fear of losing his one true blah blah blah...he vows a life of virtue and integrity and even suffers a bout of illness himself that takes him to the cusp of insanity.  Throughout his brief if yet not entirely disingenuous reformation, John Belford writes him letters saying "How could you try such a virtuous angel of a woman like Clarissa? She is so near perfection she's barely human, um I think you basically date raped an angel! You had better feel seriously bad about this and change your way of life stat. I am disgusted at who you are as a person, but since I never stopped you when you appraised me of your very detailed plan of mortification I also feel slightly complicit in this poor angels downfall...therefore I have just enough spine to write you endless letters...but not enough to be actually helpful. Get well soon!"

Eventually, even Samuel Richardson is annoyed/tired with Lovelace and decides that despite that fact that dueling is considered poor form, and despite the fact that Clarissa explicitly "forgives everyone and demands they all live in perfect harmony..." he can not let this villainous rake get away with it by simply "reforming" and devoting his life to charity. Instead after about a nanosecond of almost genuine remorse, he decides he has a gift, and that is being a rake! He's so good at what he does! So he skips off the island (Great Britain) for a bit to galavant around, presumably looking for more maidens to defile until Colonel Morden finally shows up (only after waiting for him for 1000 pages) and decides as much as he loves Clarissa and as much as he mostly honors all of her wishes...he can not let Lovelace get away with defiling the gem and pride of humanity. They duel. Lovelace is caught off guard. The End

In the end there is nothing even close to sympathy for Lovelace. He is pure unadulterated evil to Clarissa's pure unadulterated goodness. While evil may prevail in this life, life is not the end for the righteous and we're left to recognize that he will live an eternity in hell-stone and fire, an eternity of regret and remorse with small breaks in-between for gnashing of teeth; while Clarissa floats to heaven in peace and joy, enraptured by her ability to forgive and for God's grace.

Still, for the third longest book in the English language, the end feels sort of rushed. I wish that Lovelace had to suffer a few more tangible humiliations...like being put into the stocks naked in the town square and having rats chew off his appendages...or something.

I can not say that I enjoyed this book. There were moments that were actually really engaging and all I wanted to do was hide in a hole (from my 2 year old) and read for hours...but eventually that feeling would subside and I would realize I still had 1000 pages to go. The thing that is interesting about this book though is how it anticipates all books in which a villain carefully and intricately plots the hero's demise. That being said it probably would have been better as a novella.

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