Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), Clarissa (1747-8),

Class 1: Preface and Scene-Setting (1-148)

Hi folks,

Thanks for a great seminar on Monday. As I mentioned in class, we’ll continue another week on Teams next week, and continue to reassess as we go along.

As for our reading, we’ll begin slowly with Clarissa and then speed up as we go along. We’ll read the first 148 pp of the Penguin edition of Clarissa for Monday, and you should continue to keep a journal of your reading and responses along the way.

In class Thursday, we’ll read as a group the Preface, including the Principal Characters (35-8), then the first 31 letters, and conclude with the first letter of Lovelace to Belford (142-8).

For your next blog assignment, I’d like you to mine your reading journals to talk about the transition from amatory fiction (Bowers) to a more “circumstantial realist” presentation (Watt) in SR. You might also want to think about the extent that SR might want us to recognize Clarissa’s characterization as potentially offering a ““reform’d coquet” (Spencer) style narrative (with other characters perceiving her this way) and then showing this reading of her to be wrong. (For Bowers and Spencer, see last week‘s critical readings)

For “circumstantial realism” see Ian Watt, Rise of the Novel excerpt, here:

Hit the comment button on the left hand column (or the “leave a reply” box) and discuss what you noticed in the transition in a paragraph or so, along with some textual evidence taken from the texts you discuss. You are free to use the Bowers, Watt, or Spencer selections, or not, in your responses below.

Good luck,


UPDATE: Please have these posted by Monday morning, so we can all read and review them before classtime. Thanks, DM

Author: Dave Mazella

I am an Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston, Department of English, specializing in 18th-century British literature.

6 thoughts on “Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), Clarissa (1747-8),

  1. Watt makes the argument that Richardson, and by proxy Clarissa, exemplifies many of the transitional characteristics from amatory fiction to what we now consider “the novel,” including the realist manner in which he presents life, the use of non-traditional non-tropey plot, realistic particularity, specific character names, specific indications to the movement and passage of time, and concrete particularity on an emotional level, to name a few. Yet it could also be said that Clarissa, at least in these first 31 letters, seems to move away from the amatory fiction categorization on a character-level. According to Bowers, the most typical plot in amatory fiction is one in which “the innocent young girl is seduced by an experienced, older man who promises her everlasting love, but abandons her ruthlessly once his physical desires have been sated” and continues to explain that the fact that “women trust men is, in these stories, both their greatest error and their unavoidable fate.” Yet Clarissa Harlowe, in her letters to Anne Howe, doesn’t seem, necessarily to trust Lovelace, nor does she seem particularly interested in him romantically or sexually. Although her entire family eventually turn on her, trying their hardest to make her accept marriage with Mr. Solmes, Clarissa repeatedly explains, to her siblings and mother and father, that all she really wants is to not be forced into marriage with Solmes, whom she finds repulsive. To her mother, she “offered to live single; never to marry at all; or never but with their full approbation, (p 95)” and explained that the only reason she entertains the letters from Lovelace is “to prevent mischief (p 98). Certainly Lovelace’s obsession and focus on gaining Clarissa fits the bill of Bowers’ definition, but Clarissa, although likely innocent and young, doesn’t seem to be the type of girl to fall for his advances. In fact, Clarissa doesn’t seem to trust him much at all (“to prevent mischief”) and her reasons for avoiding Solmes (and thus, in a way, entertaining multiple suitors, as a reformed coquette might, according to Spencer) are justified, while the only reason her family wants to marry her off to him is because her siblings are jealous of her gaining her grandfather’s inheritance and to save face from James’ defeat in their dual.


  2. One of the changes I see in transitioning from amatory fiction to circumstantial realism is the shift in naming conventions. Davys’ Coquet had type names as we discussed in class. Watt notes that in addition to type names, historical names were also common prior to realism (18). Richardson departs from these conventions and utilizes names that his audience would find amongst their own friends and relatives. Richardson also gives his characters both first and last names rather than just one of these like Davys and Haywood do (e.g., Lord Lofty, Altemira, Beauplaisir). Yet there remains, as Watt suggests (19), a certain likeness to type names in Richardson’s Clarissa. For example, Lovelace sounds like loveless and might refer to Mr. Lovelace’s inability to truly love a woman, for if he actually loved Clarissa, he would stop causing trouble for her via his manipulations (mentioned in letter 31) in an effort to coax her into marrying him. I would also note that Clarissa’s quite mature and excellent nature almost remove her from need of reformation, for she is hardly to blame for her situation. Her circumstances were caused by the ill feelings between her brother and Mr. Lovelace and she is caught between their hatred for each other. It almost seems as if Richardson intends to reform Mr. Lovelace (and maybe Clarissa’s brother) and transform him into a true gentleman, rather than reforming Clarissa who is doing her best to stay as respectable and above reproach as possible in her trying situation.


  3. As far as comparing the first 31 letters of Clarissa to the works of amatory fiction that we’ve read, at first glance they couldn’t be farther apart—there’s nothing farcical in Clarissa, the characters are grounded in reality, and the world too more closely resembles the one which exists outside of the book itself. This difference is also evident in the length of the text—whereas things happen an a nearly absurd pace in the two amatory novels we’ve read (most particularly in Fantomina), with events practically stepping on each other’s toes in their eagerness to unfold, in Clarissa, Richardson seems determined to mimic the way the story might happen in real life, almost to a fault as the reader is subjected to practically the same conversations between the same characters over and over again. Many of these characteristics are ones that Watt notes as defining the early novel and separating it from previous forms of writing. However, one of the things that I find interesting is tracking the similarities between Clarissa and the two amatory novels. Although the characters are less pure archetypes, they still seem to remain closely within the purview granted to them at the beginning of the book (this is exemplified in the list of characters that starts the novel). The characters who are set up to be bad are bad with impunity (most particularly Clarissa’s sister and brother), and the characters who are set up to be good are good. Although we are nominally in Clarissa’s perspective for the vast majority of the text, there definitely seems to be an omniscient lean to her narration. That is to say, things seem to exist precisely as she sees them as existing: despite little specific evidence to back it up, we as readers are left to trust her impressions that Lovelace is a rake, that Solmes is contemptible. To me, these seem to be types just as assuredly as anything we encountered in the amatory fiction.

    As Pritha noted, Clarissa doesn’t seem positioned to fall for Lovelace’s professions of love and admiration and rather has a fairly sober idea of his character, one that isn’t tinged by emotion. This seems to run counter to what Bower characterized as the most common plot of amatory novels, but yet it seems to fall in line with the heroines in the two amatory novels we read, both of whom seem to have some immunity to the various “rakes” they encounter (even Fantomina who clearly lusts after Beauplaisir has no illusions as to his character). In fact, of the three, Clarissa seems the most archetypal—she’s purely innocent, sweet to the point that her friend Miss Howe chastises her for it. She is the morally unimpeachable heroine, whereas the two amatory novels we read presented far more morally interesting protagonists.


  4. One of the major commonalities between amatory fiction and circumstantial realism is their insistence on being both entertaining and didactic. Richardson notes that many of his own editors were happy with the blend he managed to achieve in Clarissa (36). And, as Spencer points out, “it was as a teacher that the ‘respectable’ woman novelist found an acknowledged place in literary discourse,” all of which seems to underlie the impetus of amatory fiction from writers such as Haywood and Davys. Despite a similar goal, amatory fiction and circumstantial realism deploy very different methods. Amatory fiction relies on an “earlier literary tradition of using timeless stories” and type-cast characters to “mirror the unchanging moral verities” (Watt 21). The obvious example to point to is the naming of the characters, most of whom exhibit types names such as Callid (i.e., cunning), Lord Lofty, and Beauplasir. These characters have very shallow roots in a real world, and a reader may not feel compelled to become invested in the life and personality of a single character. In addition to bearing names that leave little to the imagination about the kind of moral characters they represent, they’re backgrounds are relatively obscure, only those details necessary for presenting the “type” are included. The emphasis in these stories is on the moral lesson itself, and less upon the particularities of the characters.

    Samuel Richardson offers a very different approach. In his preface to Clarissa, he defends the length of his story by appealing to the scope and style. First, he points out that his story attempts to unpack the psychology and moral underpinnings of young aristocratic libertines as they correspond with each other. Second, he notes that the letters are written by characters/people who are wholly invested in the series of events. They become loquacious and tend to include “instantaneous descriptions and reflections” (35). As a result, many of the letters are almost as long (if not longer) as Fantomina. Finally, he claims that his story will set forth a history of the main characters and many of the secondary characters as well–including how each of them fared after the main events. It’s this kind of attention to detail that effects a form of didacticism that is personal and situational. The characters are real people who attempt to navigate complicated ethical situations, many of which have no clear answer.


  5. Apologies for the delay! Before starting my discussion, I would like to copy and paste two letters here:

    To the All-conquering BEAUPLAISIR.

    I imagine not that ’tis a new Thing to you, to be told, you are the greatest Charm in Nature to our Sex: I shall therefore, not to fill up my Letter with any impertinent Praises on your Wit or Person, only tell you, that I am infinite in Love with both, and if you have a Heart not too deeply engag’d, should think myself the happiest of my Sex in being capable of inspiring it with some Tenderness…

    —from Fantomina’s letter to Beauplaisir

    In short, Mr. Lovelace’s visits were admitted as those of a man who had not deserved disrespect from our family; but as to his address to me, with a reservation, as above, on my father’s part, that he would determine nothing without his son. My discretion as to the rest was confided in: for still I had the same objections as to the man: nor would I, when we were better acquainted, hear any thing but general talk from him; giving him no opportunity of conversing with me in private.

    —from “Letter III. Miss Clarissa Harlowe, to Miss Howe”

    Although the two letters vary, the first one being a passionate letter between different sexes, the second one between members of the same sex on love and family affairs, they remind me of Ian Watt’s discussion about the novel as a “correspondence between life and literature.” The term “correspondence” is interesting here with two layers of meanings. First, it refers to the form of the novel as a “dispassionate and scientific scrutiny of life,” imitating and reimagining life through words on paper. To me, the novel differs from its predecessor, amatory fiction, because the author intervenes little in the narrative. Instead, they observe the world (both the real and the literary world) as it continues and pushes it forward through the characters’ actions. Instead of jumping in at any time to impart moral lessons to us, they hide their judgments in the actions and words of the characters (and, in the case of Clarissa Harlowe, Samual Richardson hides his judgments in the prologue.) Second, the novel also turns correspondence into a tool that sheds light on the characters’ background and transformation. While Fantomina’s letter to Beauplaisir is passionate and demonstrates her boldness as a coquet heroine, it does not tell us about her family, what she thinks privately, or whether she feels wronged or prejudiced against for her actions. In Clarissa’s letter, however, Clarissa creates her own image on the page. Even without Miss Howe’s judgment of her as “prudent” and “uniform…in conduct,” she demonstrates her prudence in identifying Mr. Lovelace’s immorality, considering his relationship with her family, evaluating her father’s indecision, and determining her best strategy under the given circumstance. Her letters are “real” as they communicate not only feelings, but also decisions and judgments to a correspondent who expects her response and is ready to be surprised/sorrowed/angered by her new stories. By contrast, there is no real exchange in Fantomina’s and Beauplaisir’s letters to each other. They are, if not announcing their passion in a letter-form monologue, talking directly to the reader.


  6. I agree with Hannah’s point regarding the differences between Richardson’s Clarissa and the two amatory novellas we read the last two weeks. Both in length of text, as well as literary devices and character descriptions, readers see an obvious shift from more farcical fiction to literary realism that would of course remain very popular in the Regency (especially with our Jane) and Victorian periods. The shift closer to psychological realism is one of the most easily identifiable changes from the what we have read thus far, and Richardson’s epistolary style lends itself well to modes of feminine interiority, which was of course, one of the main and lasting appeals of epistolary format. But I am also intrigued by Nicholas’s point of commonality between Clarissa, Fantomina, and The Coquet; in particular Nicholas notes that type-cast characters versus realistic characters both work to serve similar purposes, which is to present an “entertaining and didactic” story. It is, in my opinion, the epistolary format which served to more forcefully employ didacticism that either of our amatory stories.


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