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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (Penguin Classics)

Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady - Samuel Richardson, Angus Ross


When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a nun or a convict.

In my romanticized view, both situations provided a room and isolation. What more could anyone want? Space and isolation: the perfect ingredients to read endlessly and without interruption.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and my notions about being a convict were particularly skewed. There’s nothing romantic about being imprisoned, and Clarissa--more than most fictional characters would have much to say on the topic.

* * *

There are characters who float away almost as soon as you’ve put down the book, while others, even years later, remain vivid. I’m not sure what accounts for this.

The unabridged version of Clarissa exceeds 1500 pages, and yet the novel doesn’t seem that long. Though critics, such as V. S. Pritchett, have coolly and dismissively categorized the book as exemplifying the “principle of procrastinated rape,” the plot is secondary; Clarissa’s character animates this novel.

In contrast to a heroine like Moll Flanders bustling about in her world, Clarissa’s movements are small, and we perceive her world as though through a microscope. Clarissa is ill equipped to deal with her hostile environment – a world of materialism and hypocrisy. Clarissa doesn’t have the flexible morality that would serve her well. She operates by a strict code of moral conduct, and her disinclination to adapt guarantees her downfall--at least by the norms of her society.

The details of Clarissa’s setting are scant. Richardson creates here a mindscape rather than a landscape. In this blank world, the details that remain—a desk, a key, a lock, a room, a coffin, etc.—gain a heightened significance. From the beginning, the images used form a pattern of obstruction and closure.

The female code of conduct in the eighteenth century creates blockage as well. For example, women were not able to able to express their feelings during courtship. A humorous illustration of the problem this code creates occurs with Arabella and Lovelace. Lovelace initially courts Arabella but has become attracted to Clarissa. He cannot simply “dump” Arabella without causing serious offense. Cleverly, Lovelace uses punctilio to his advantage. He asks Arabella some question requiring immediate consent (we are not told what), since he knows—to not appear overeager—Arabella must deny him. While Arabella mistakenly believes Lovelace is simply playing the courtship game, Lovelace is now free to act as though he thought Arabella’s denial was final and move on.

Not surprisingly, the choice of a woman’s suitor depended largely on what her family dictated. But Clarissa cannot acquiesce. Her family’s choice, Mr. Solmes, is unthinkable. To Clarissa, he is the antithesis of subtlety and decorum, a “monster in her eye.” Marriage to him would represent a bondage so extreme Clarissa declares, “I would rather be buried alive, indeed I had, than have that man!” However, in this instance and in others throughout the book, Clarissa may as well have been speaking in a foreign tongue. Her mother ignores the remark, apparently interpreting it as babble.

Significantly, none of the other characters understand Clarissa either. Even her closest friend, Anne Howe, often underestimates her strength of will, and advises her to marry Lovelace long after Clarissa has rejected him entirely, having judged his actions unspeakable. Clarissa moves toward further alienation. Her actions--deriving from a moral code far above that of her society--create a situation where she is continuously misunderstood. Further, Clarissa becomes literally alienated as her setting becomes more confined. Her main activity—writing in her closet—illustrates her isolation. When she again refuses to marry Solmes, her family’s restrictions effectively turn her bedroom into a prison.

Her family’s confinement underscores their naïve belief that by shutting her up they may appropriate her person. Unlike Solmes and her family, Lovelace operates on a higher plane. He realizes Clarissa exists as a plenitude of one, a world within herself, hermetically sealed and inviolable. Lovelace’s aim is more demonic. He wants to shatter her resolve, for it is just this self-sufficiency that maddens and threatens him. Even Lovelace, though, cannot destroy her.

It is Clarissa’s character that makes this story compelling. In the face of pressure and humiliation, her fineness remains intact, and she never yields.