Analysis of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady

Samuel Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady, was published in 7 volumes, 1747-1748, eight years after the appearance of Pamela. This was the noble and tragic story of Clarissa. It explores and reexplores the same events from the points of view of several of the characters, is considered his best work. Like Pamela, it was praised for its lofty moral tone, sentimentality, and understanding of emotions and the feminine mind. However, it is far more mature than Pamela, and shows a deeper knowledge of the human heart. It reduced all Europe to tears, and had a great effect upon continental fiction. It should be noted that Richardson was enough of an artist (or moralist) to withstand the importunate petitions of his friends that this story should be given a happy ending. Its fame spread all over the continent, and it is interesting to note that the Abbe Prevost had to make in his translation certain omissions to suit the delicacy of French taste. Clarissa, which is also written in the form of letters, was intended as a companion –piece to Pamela, and was designed to show that virtue was not invariably rewarded in this world. The chief fault of this novel is its inordinate length.

Clarissa Harlowe  is a masterpiece of sympathetic divination into the feminine mind. Clarissa is, as has been well said, the  Eve of fiction, the prototype of the modern heroine"; feminine psychology as good as unknown before (Shakespeare’s women being the "Fridays" of a highly intelligent Crusoe) has hardly been brought further since. Though, like all his works, too long-winded, there is in it a power and a depth of pathos which keeps the reader who has once fairly entered on its perusal enchained to the end. Nowhere in either English fiction or poetry is there drawn a figure more beautiful, intense, and splendid than that of Clarissa. Mrs. Oliphant does not exaggerate when she says that in this figure Richardson added at least one character to the inheritance of the world, of which Shakespeare need not have been ashamed the most celestial thing, the highest imaginative effort of his generation.

When the first four volumes of Clarissa appeared, and apprehensions began to be entertained that the catastrophe was to be unfortunate, requests crowded upon the author to spare the high-souled creature whom he had called into being, and wind up his story with the stereotyped happy ending. To his credit be it said, Richardson steadfastly withstood all such importunities. He saw that if he were to save his heroine, he should inevitably degrade her, and thus ruin what is probably, with all its many defects, the grandest prose tragedy ever penned. Truly and to be precise, Clarissa, the heroine, is a study more than mere psychology. She represents a contemporary tendency and she starts a new epoch: Woman in literature as a self-suffering individuality, as an existence endowed with equal rights to independence of choice, feminine rights.

Samuel Richardson: Novelist, Printer, Business
Married:  twice
Starting As Novelist: At the age of 50
The Story behind Pamela: Richardson, as per request from his publishers, writes a collection of model letters for the use of persons unaccustomed to correspondence, but it soon developed in his hands into a novel.

Social Significance: With faults and absurdities, it struck a true note of sentiment, and exploded the prevalent idea that dukes and princesses were the only suitable heroes and heroines (Pamela was a maid-servant), and it won immediate and phenomenal popularity.

Richardson was familiar with the workings of the female heart.

Richardson’s knowledge of women is profound, but he attained it by patient research rather than by flashes of inspiration.

His Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady can be read from women psychology.

The idea of writing a novel in epistolary form (a series of letters)—a structure that he refined and developed became very popular. Examples: Smollett’s masterpiece, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), and Miss Burney’s Evelina (1778) etc.

Richardson was popular in Germany and France than in Britain.

Richardson’s influence is to be seen in the work of Lessing, Schiller, Rousseau, and Voltaire, and is even more conspicuous in the stories of the greatest of all French novelists.

Ref: 1. C. L. Thomas: Samuel Richardson: A Bibliography and Critical Study
     2. Wikipedia