CLASSIC THOUGHTS / A villain smiles and smiles: In the first of a series of reflections on classics, Doris Lessing considers England's longest novel, Clarissa (1748) by Samuel Richardson

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FOR YEARS only faithful admirers spoke of Clarissa, which had fallen as thoroughly out of sight as ever a book did. It was republished in 1985, and soon reached millions via an insipid television series. In today's climate Clarissa herself had to get the attention, but when the novel first dazzled all of Europe, it was because of Lovelace. Clarissa was seen as a tiresome girl, of interest because of the deviousness of her hypocrisy: her secret desire for a violent end was matched only by Lovelace's desire for his, in a duel.

The novel was admired for its psychological depth, for nothing like it had been seen before, certainly not Pamela, its predecessor. Lovelace was a subtle, not a brutal seducer, and was admired and execrated for his lies, his cynicism, his ingenious philosophising, his sophistries, and his knowledge of young women.

It was Russian literature which first and most generously saluted Clarissa. This is easily seen in Crime and Punishment, particularly in Raskolnikov. When Raskolnikov exclaims that Napoleon was admired for murdering millions while he might not kill even one useless old woman, he was echoing Lovelace, who said that kings may make wars and kill soldiers and helpless civilians, but he would be called a criminal for killing even one person. It is hardly likely that this was the first time in history this thought occurred to humankind, but perhaps in Clarissa it first reached the common reader.

Lovelace's protest expressed some imperative for his time, and had prolific progeny. Its brutal logic became the communist tag - You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs - and, later, the justification for murdering self-righteous terrorists. One may just catch a glimpse of Lovelace's satiric smile, for he was too clever not to recognise his offspring. Laclos certainly knew the book: the Marquise de Merteuil lent a copy to the Vicomte de Valmont, who kept it in a locked drawer by his bed. And when Julien Sorel, that most intellectual of passionate lovers, was on the guillotine, the exclamation 'Never had that head such poetic beauty as at the moment when it was about to fall' was dictated to Stendhal by Lovelace's ghost.

Dandyism and crime, sophistry and seduction, heroics and heroism - and philosophical acquittals for even the most sordid brutalities. Oh yes, a prophetic book if there ever was one. If for decades the mere mention of Clarissa caused parents to think how they might best lock up their daughters, then even more they wanted to lock up their sons, where their minds could not be poisoned by the wiles of the Clever One, the proud Tempter who, like Nietzsche, and long before the idea became commonplace, knew that when God died so would morality, dull old morality, fit only for the simpleminded.

The preface of the Penguin edition hardly mentions the novel's great influence all over Europe, as potent as Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther a quarter of a century later. Lovelace has been airbrushed out of our story.