Richardson' s Clarissa was a financial and critical success. Attesting to the popularity of the novel, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his niece reading it, and contemporary readers traveled to the Upper Flask, the tavern Clarissa and Lovelace stopped at in Hampstead. Samuel Johnson praised Clarissa as "the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart." Fielding admired Richardson's portrayal of character and was moved to compassion, terror, grief and astonishment by Clarissa (Fielding's letter to Richardson). Philip Skelton saw Clarissa as "A System of religious and moral Precepts and Examples"; enlarging this view, Smollett found in Richardson's works collectively "a sublime system of ethics."

Not all readers were so enthusiastic. One anonymous reviewer objected to Clarissa for being "rather too good, at least too methodically so" and to Richardson's drawn out detailing of Lovelace's attempts "to satisfy the brutal and the sexual appetite." His objections anticipate later criticism and modern speculations about Richardson's own sexuality and sadomasochism. Somewhat reluctantly, Coleridge confessed his admiration for Richardson, who had "so very vile a mind, so oozy, so hypocritical, praise-mad, canting, envious, concupiscent!" and who portrayed "the morbid consciousness of every thought and feeling in the whole flux and reflux of the mind."

On the Continent, Clarissa was widely read and influential; two generations of European writers imitated him. Diderot not only admired Richardson in Eloge de Richardson (1762) but even judged friends using Clarissa as his yardstick. For Rousseau, "no one, in any language, has ever written a novel that equals or even approaches Clarissa"; his Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise (1761), one of the most important French novels of the eighteenth century, showed Richardson's influence. That influence also extended to Germany, most notably in Lessing's plays and Goethe's novels.

The novel was very popular during the Romantic period. But Richardson's star waned as the nineteenth century wore on. Even the editor of his collected works, Leslie Stephen, objected to Richardson's lingering over Clarissa's agony as if he enjoyed her suffering; Stephen attributed part of Clarissa's success to its being in bad taste.

For the twentieth century, Clarissa became a largely unread masterpiece; Q.D. Leavis even challenged its status as a masterpiece when she asserted that its only interest was "almost entirely historical." Modern readers objected to the length of the novel, Richardson's heavy-handed morality, and his class consciousness; they also tended to find Clarissa an unbelievable goody-two-shoes. Nevertheless some twentieth century critics were taking a new look at Clarissa and challenging the view of it as old-fashioned or outdated. E.M. Forster labeled Richardson "a modern novelist," even "an eighteenth-century Henry James." Percy Lubbock compared Clarissa to James's The Ambassadors in the ability to "show a mind in action, to give a dramatic display of the commotion within a breast." Richardson became "a pioneer in the analytical study of behavior under the pressure of a social code" (Alan Dugald McKillop); a writer who anticipated James, Joyce, and Woolf in "his direct rendering of the minds of his characters in the very moment of thinking and feeling" (Walter Allen). Thus, though the epistolary technique of Clarissa did not survive in the mainstream of the English novel, it is currently acknowledged as a forerunner of the stream of consciousness technique and the interior monologue.

It was not just Richardson's technique that has been reassessed. Thematically he convincingly portrayed the abuse of power. But it was his psychological acumen--his ability to portray character under the stress of a social code and its disintegration and his analysis of the divided heart and mind--that came in for particular praise. He presented "the dark, hidden drives of the human soul" (John Carroll). Torn by inner conflict, his characters, as Harold Bloom suggested, observed and judged their own conflict, though the roles they clung to affected their objectivity.

Clarissa was reinterpreted in yet another, often non-literary way; a variety of political meanings have been seen in it–or sometimes read into it.



In this class, we are reading George Sherburne's abridgement of Clarissa; there are other modern abridgements, e.g., by John Butt, John Burrell, and Philip Stevick. William Beatty Warner rightly points out that the abridgement chosen affects how the reader interprets Clarissa and Lovelace: for example, whether Clarissa is seen as simple victim or whether Lovelace opens the potential for many futures or is merely Clarissa's destroyer.

In revising Clarissa, Richardson kept adding text and footnotes, so that by the third edition, the novel was two hundred pages longer. These additions, Mark Kinkead-Weekes explains, "serve to emphasize the darker side of Lovelace, to throw light on the problem of Clarissa's ‘delicacy', and to underline the novel's moral teaching." If the revisions are intended to correct misreadings, the editor preparing the novel for a new publication is faced with a dilemma. Which edition, Weekes asks, "represents Richardson's real intention: the novel he wrote expecting an audience capable of appreciating it, or the revision for one he found careless, superficial, and sentimental?" In the first edition, the psychology is more complex and the analysis more subtle; however, the revision adds improvements, like the quarrel between Clarissa and her sister.



Day 15 (M, Oct. 28) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. xix-86
Overview of Richardson and Clarissa
Political Readings of Clarissa
Parent-Child Relationship
Day 16 (W, Oct. 30) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 86-172
Day 17 (M, Nov. 4) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 172-288
Day 18 (W, Nov. 6) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 288-360
Flight and Rape
Day 19 (M, Nov. 11) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 360-433
The End: Clarissa
Day 20 (W, Nov. 13) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 434-516
Second paper due

November 24, 2002