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Reading Clarissa

Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady

Along with several other hardy souls I’ve decided to read Clarissa this year. It’s a huge undertaking as Clarissa, published in 1748,  is a book of ample proportions - over 1500 pages in the Penguin edition. I’d already told myself that 2014 was the year I’d tackle it, so when Lynn Shepherd suggested reading it in ‘real time’ as a read-along I was enthusiastic. The book is composed of a series of letters starting on 10 January and ending in December. Some months have very few, others a veritable plethora. What I like about the idea of reading the letters as dated is that it gives a structure for dividing the book into manageable chunks, without arbitrarily dividing the number of pages by weeks of the year. From people who have read Clarissa already, it also allows for the richness of story, through the characters and events revealed in the letters, to fully develop. It is well worth reading Lynn’s post about the book, it might just persuade you to join in too.

If you are thinking of giving Clarissa a go, it’s not too late. The book is freely available to download via Kindle if the £25 paperback from Penguin strikes as a bit steep! My copy is a second-hand bargain from a charity shop; it’s a slightly older Penguin version that uses the first edition as its text. The first letter is a mere two pages, and pitches straight into the drama. There’s time to catch up, the second letter is dated 13 January (tomorrow). If you do want to read-along, or just fancy seeing what’s being said, there’s a Twitter hashtag Clarissa. Lynn is blogging about the book and people's reactions here. My plan is to write a little blog post at the end of each month to discuss how I’m getting on.

I must admit to feeling a bit apprehensive, because if I’m totally honest Samuel Richardson is not one of my favourite eighteenth century authors. His first novel, Pamela, sets my teeth on edge with its paragon of female virtue and passivity. I much prefer the bawdier, funnier work of Tobias Smollet or Henry Fielding, or the downright filth of John Cleland (make of that what you will!). But, I want to appreciate Richardson’s skill as a writer, and better understand the sensibility he depicts.

I love this portrait of Richardson by Mason Chamberlin. Oil on copper, 1754 or before NPG 6435 © National Portrait Gallery, London  

I read a bit more about Richardson’s life, and he didn’t have the privileged upbringing I had assumed. His father had intended him for the church, but didn’t have the resources to pay for this path. Consequently, his schooling was patchy and he was apprenticed to a printer, before taking up the profession himself. Growing up, he lived in some shady places. It was his own hard work and talent that gave him a better life. He also had some close relationships with female friends; all of which makes me better disposed towards the man and his work.

Wish me fortitude, my challenge awaits.


  1. I am one of your fellow *readalongers*; I undertook the realtime reading of Clarissa alone 2 years ago and made it through to the end, but am happy to have some company in the endeavour. I look forward to following your blog!


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