Book Of A Lifetime: Clarissa, By Samuel Richardson
Friday 13 January 2012
No one evokes the feeling of being trapped like an 18th-century author. The smallness of the city, the difficulties of transport and communication as compared to now, meant that one obsession, one place, could take over your life. They say that Henry Fielding's 'Tom Jones' created earthquakes on its publication in 1749 – if so, then 'Clarissa' should have inspired a volcano. It is a novel simmering with anger.
I read much of 'Clarissa' when I was stranded on a endless train journey between the Midlands and Brighton while in my second year at university. It was a steaming summer, the windows were stuck, the air conditioning broken. I hardly noticed. I was utterly absorbed.
It might seem a simple tale – young heiress seized by a rakish man, is imprisoned, raped and dies. But what was for many years the longest novel in the English language (coming in at a million words) is almost unbearably gripping. The characters are so obsessed by each other that they cannot think of anything else – and they soon drag you into their warped and dangerous world. Because the novel is written almost entirely in letters, there is no other voice to balance out their observations, no authorial narrator to guide the reader's conclusions. You are completely on your own, caught in the crazed, terrified imaginations of Robert Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe.
The novel is a paean to the power of the imagination. Samuel Richardson was a plump, self-satisfied, rather pious and happily-married businessman from Twickenham. Anyone less likely to produce such a revelation of sadism and human cruelty might be hard to find.
And yet, scribbling away between appointments at his successful London printing house, Richardson explored male sexuality through the awful, compelling voice of Lovelace and produced the ultimate revelation of how humans are driven to destroy each other.
It's a terrifying, vicious book. Richardson himself seemed rather surprised by what had come from his pen. Once the book was published, he busied himself informing everyone that he meant it as a text for moral reformation. But to his increasing despair, the public were obsessed by the violence – and many women claimed to be in love with Lovelace.
He began revising the novel and republishing it – producing five editions in all – in an attempt to direct his readers to revile the rake. He failed. In the end, he wrote a further novel in which he tried to exorcise the demons of 'Clarissa'. 'Sir Charles Grandison' is about a hero of the same name, finely upstanding and kind to the ladies of his circle. It is measured, respectable – and utterly dull.
I write on the 19th century now, but my imagination is crafted by the fearful closeness and the cruelty of the 18th-century novel. Once you have read 'Clarissa', there is no escape from the story. A middle-aged pudding-shaped man from Twickenham began writing in his spare time, and ended up exploring sex and violence with a courage and passion that has never been rivalled.
Kate Williams's novel, 'The Pleasures of Men', is published by Michael Joseph
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 5 Tory activist asked to step down after Labour candidate Rupa Huq is 'manhandled' while questioning Boris Johnson on the campaign trail
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils