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Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady is an epistolary novel by English writer Samuel Richardson, published in 1748. It tells the tragic story of a heroine whose quest for virtue is continually thwarted by her family and is regarded as one of the longest novels in the English language (based on estimated word count). It is generally regarded as Richardson's masterpiece.

Plot summary

Clarissa Harlowe, the tragic heroine of Clarissa, is a beautiful and virtuous young lady whose family has become wealthy only recently and now desires to become part of the aristocracy. Their original plan was to concentrate the wealth and lands of the Harlowes into the possession of Clarissa's brother James Harlowe, whose wealth and political power will lead to his being granted a title. Clarissa's grandfather leaves her a substantial piece of property upon his death, and a new route to the nobility opens through Clarissa's marrying Robert Lovelace, heir to an earldom. James's response is to provoke a duel with Lovelace, who is seen thereafter as the family's enemy. James also proposes that Clarissa marry Roger Solmes, who is willing to trade properties with James to concentrate James's holdings and speed his becoming Lord Harlowe. The family agrees and attempts to force Clarissa to marry Solmes, whom she finds physically disgusting as well as boorish.

Desperate to remain free, she begins a correspondence with Lovelace. When her family's campaign to force her marriage reaches its height, Lovelace tricks her into eloping with him. Joseph Leman, the Harlowes' servant, shouts and makes noise so it may seem like the family has awoken and discovered that Clarissa and Lovelace are about to run away. Frightened of the possible aftermath, Clarissa leaves with Lovelace but becomes his prisoner for many months. She is kept at many lodgings and even a brothel, where the women are disguised as high-class ladies by Lovelace. She refuses to marry him on many occasions, longing to live by herself in peace. She eventually runs away but Lovelace finds her and tricks her into returning to the brothel.

Lovelace intends to marry Clarissa to avenge her family's treatment of him and wants to possess her body as well as her mind. He believes if she loses her virtue, she will be forced to marry him on any terms. As he is more and more impressed by Clarissa, he finds it difficult to believe that virtuous women do not exist.

The pressure he finds himself under, combined with his growing passion for Clarissa, drives him to extremes and eventually he rapes her by drugging her. Through this action, he believes that Clarissa must accept and marry him. It is suspected that Mrs. Sinclair (the brothel manager) and the other prostitutes assist Lovelace during the rape. (Clarissa's temporary loss of sanity caused by the rape is represented by an innovative use of scattered typography.)

Lovelace's action backfires, and Clarissa is more adamantly opposed to marrying a vile and corrupt individual like Lovelace. Eventually, Clarissa manages to escape from the brothel but Lovelace finds her and by deception manages to get her back to the brothel. She escapes a second time, is jailed for a few days following a charge by the brothel owner for unpaid bills, is released and finds sanctuary with a shopkeeper and his wife. She lives in constant fear of again being accosted by Lovelace who, through one of his close associates and also a libertine – John Belford – as well as through his own family members, continues to offer her marriage, to which she is determined not to accede. She becomes dangerously ill due to the mental duress.

As her illness progresses, she and John Belford become friends and she appoints him the executor of her will. She is dying and is determined to accept it and proceeds to get all her affairs in order. Belford is amazed at the way Clarissa handles her approaching death and laments what Lovelace has done. In one of the many letters sent to Lovelace, he writes "if the divine Clarissa asks me to slit thy throat, Lovelace, I shall do it in an instance." Eventually, surrounded by strangers and her cousin Col. Morden, Clarissa dies in the full consciousness of her virtue and trusting in a better life after death. Belford manages Clarissa's will and ensures that all her articles and money go into the hands of the individuals she desires should receive them.

Lovelace departs for Europe, and his correspondence with his friend Belford continues. During their correspondence, Lovelace learns that Col. Morden has suggested he might seek Lovelace and demand satisfaction on behalf of his cousin. He responds that he is not able to accept threats against himself and arranges an encounter with Col. Morden. They meet in Munich and arrange a duel. The duel takes place, both are injured, Morden slightly, but Lovelace dies of his injuries the following day. Before dying he says "let this expiate!"

Clarissa's relatives finally realise the misery they have caused but discover that they are too late and Clarissa has already died. The story ends with an account of the fate of the other characters.


Major Characters:

  • Miss Clarissa Harlowe: The title character of the novel. Clarissa is a young and virtuous woman who ends up falling victim to Robert Lovelace after he convinces her to run away with him and ends up raping her. Feeling as though she has entirely lost the will to live after losing her virtue, Clarissa prepares herself for death.
  • Robert Lovelace: The villain of the story and pursuer of Clarissa. Mr. Lovelace is seen as a vile and selfish character who refuses to stop lusting after Clarissa until he gets what he wants.
  • Anne Howe: Clarissa's best friend whom she continuously writes to throughout the course of the story. Anne serves as Clarissa's confidant as the story progresses.
  • John Belford: A close friend of Mr. Lovelace whom he writes to during the course of the story. However, as the story progresses, he slowly begins to side with Clarissa instead of Mr. Lovelace.

Secondary Characters:

  • James Harlowe, Sr.: Clarissa's father
  • Lady Charlotte Harlowe: Clarissa's mother
  • James Harlowe, Jr.: Clarissa's brother, bitter enemy of Robert Lovelace.
  • Miss Arabella Harlowe: Clarissa's older sister
  • John Harlowe: Clarissa's uncle (her father's elder brother)
  • Antony Harlowe: Clarissa's uncle (her father's younger brother)
  • Roger Solmes: A wealthy man whom Clarissa's parents wish her to marry
  • Mrs. Hervey: Clarissa's aunt (Lady Charlotte Harlowe)'s half-sister
  • Dolly Hervey: Daughter of Mrs. Hervey
  • Mrs. Norton: Clarissa's nurse, an unhappy widow
  • Colonel Morden: A man of fortune, closely related to the Harlowe family
  • Mrs. Howe: The mother of Miss Howe
  • Mr. Hickman: Miss Howe's suitor
  • Dr. Lewin: One of Clarissa's educators, a divine of great piety and learning
  • Dr. H: A physician
  • Mr. Elias Brand: A young clergyman
  • Lord M.: Mr. Lovelace's uncle
  • Lady Sarah Sadleir: Half-sister of Lord M., widow, lady of honour and fortune
  • Lady Betty Lawrance: Half-sister of Lord M., widow, lady of honour and fortune
  • Miss Charlotte: Niece of Lord M., maiden lady of character
  • Patty Montague: Niece of Lord M., maiden lady of character
  • Richard Mowbray: Libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • Thomas Doleman: Libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • James Tourville: Libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • Thomas Belton: Libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • Capt. Tomlinson: The assumed named of a pander that aids Mr. Lovelace
  • Mrs. Moore: A widowed gentlewoman, keeping a lodging-house at Hampstead
  • Miss Rawlins: A notable young gentlewoman in Hampstead
  • Mrs. Bevis: A lively widow in Hampstead
  • Mrs. Sinclair: The pretended name of a private brothel keeper in London
  • Sally Martin: Assistant of, and partner with, Mrs. Sinclair
  • Polly Horton: Assistant of, and partner with, Mrs. Sinclair
  • Joseph Leman: Servant
  • William Summers: servant
  • Hannah Burton: Servant
  • Betty Barnes: Servant
  • Dorcas Wykes: Servant


Clarissa is generally regarded by critics to be among the masterpieces of eighteenth-century European literature. Harold Bloom cites it as one of the most central and influential novels in the English literary tradition. The novel was well-received as it was being released. However, many readers pressured Richardson for a happy ending with a wedding between Clarissa and Lovelace. At the novel's end, many readers were upset, and some individuals even wrote alternative endings for the story with a happier conclusion. Some of the most well-known ones included happier alternative endings written by two women called Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin. Richardson felt the story's morals and messages of the story failed to reach his audience properly. As such, in later editions of the novel, he attempted to make Clarissa's character appear purer while also Lovelace's character became more sinister in hopes of making his audience better understand his intentions in writing the novel.

Radio and television adaptations

The BBC adapted the novel as a television series in 1991, starring Sean Bean, Saskia Wickham, and Sean Pertwee.

BBC Radio 4 released a radio adaptation in March and April 2010, starring Richard Armitage and Zoe Waites.

See also

  • Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded
  • Sir Charles Grandison
  • Eneas Sweetland Dallas (editor of a well-known 1868 abridged version of Clarissa)
  • Forced seduction



Most entries below from the Richardson Bibliography by John A. Dussinger

  • John Carroll, "Lovelace as Tragic Hero", University of Toronto Quarterly 42 (1972): 14–25.
  • Anthony Winner, "Richardson's Lovelace: Character and Prediction", Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14 (1972): 53–75.
  • Jonathan Loesberg, "Allegory and Narrative in Clarissa", Novel 15 (Fall 1981): 39–59.
  • Leo Braudy, "Penetration and Impenetrability in Clarissa", in New Aspects of the Eighteenth Century: Essays from the English Institute, ed. Philip Harth (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1974).
  • Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).
  • John Traugott, "Molesting Clarissa", Novel 15 (1982): 163–70.
  • Sue Warrick Doederlein, "Clarissa in the Hands of the Critics", Eighteenth-Century Studies 16 (1983): 401–14.
  • Terry Castle, "Lovelace's Dream", Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 13 (1984): 29–42.
  • Sarah Fielding, "Remarks on 'Clarissa'", introduction by Peter Sabor (Augustan Reprint Society, 231–32). Facsimile reprint 1749 (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1985).
  • Florian Stuber, "On Fathers and Authority in 'Clarissa'", 25 (Summer 1985): 557–74.
  • Donald R. Wehrs, "Irony, Storytelling and the Conflict of Interpretation in Clarissa", ELH 53 (1986): 759–78.
  • Margaret Anne Doody, "Disguise and Personality in Richardson's Clarissa", Eighteenth-Century Life n.s. 12, no. 2 (1988): 18–39.
  • Jonathan Lamb, "The Fragmentation of Originals and Clarissa", SEL 28 (1988): 443–59.
  • Raymond Stephanson, "Richardson's 'Nerves': The Philosophy of Sensibility in 'Clarissa'", Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (1988): 267–85.
  • Peter Hynes, "Curses, Oaths, and Narrative in Richardson's 'Clarissa'", ELH 56 (1989): 311–26.
  • Brenda Bean, "Sight and Self-Disclosure: Richardson's Revision of Swift's 'The Lady's Dressing Room'", Eighteenth-Century Life 14 (1990): 1–23.
  • Thomas O. Beebee, "Clarissa" on the Continent: Translation and Seduction (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ., 1990).
  • Jocelyn Harris, "Protean Lovelace", Eighteenth-Century Fiction 2 (1990): 327–46.
  • Raymond F. Hilliard, "Clarissa and Ritual Cannibalism", PMLA 105 (1990): 1083–97.
  • Nicholas Hudson, "Arts of Seduction and the Rhetoric of Clarissa", Modern Language Quarterly 51 (1990): 25–43.
  • Helen M. Ostovich, "'Our Views Must Now Be Different': Imprisonment and Friendship in 'Clarissa'", Modern Language Quarterly 52 (1991): 153–69.
  • Tom Keymer, Richardson's "Clarissa" and the Eighteenth-Century Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992). Probably the most important book-length study of Richardson after the first wave of Kinkead-Weakes, Doody, Flynn, and others in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • David C. Hensley, "Thomas Edwards and the Dialectics of Clarissa's Death Scene", Eighteenth-Century Life 16, no. 3 (1992): 130–52.
  • Lois A. Chaber, "A 'Fatal Attraction'? The BBC and Clarissa", Eighteenth-Century Fiction 4 (April 1992): 257–63.
  • Mildred Sarah Greene, "The French Clarissa", in Man and Nature: Proceedings of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, ed. Christa Fell and James Leith (Edmonton: Academic Printing & Publishing, 1992), pp. 89–98.
  • Elizabeth W. Harries, "Fragments and Mastery: Dora and Clarissa", Eighteenth-Century Fiction 5 (April 1993): 217–38.
  • Richard Hannaford, "Playing Her Dead Hand: Clarissa's Posthumous Letters", Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35 (Spring 1993): 79–102.
  • Lois E. Bueler, Clarissa's Plots (Newark, DE: Associated Univ. Presses, 1994).
  • Tom Keymer, "Clarissa's Death, Clarissa's Sale, and the Text of the Second Edition", Review of English Studies 45 (Aug. 1994): 389–96.
  • Martha J. Koehler, "Epistolary Closure and Triangular Return in Richardson's 'Clarissa'", Journal of Narrative Technique 24 (Fall 1994): 153–72.
  • Margaret Anne Doody, "Heliodorus Rewritten: Samuel Richardson's 'Clarissa' and Frances Burney's 'Wanderer'", in The Search for the Ancient Novel, ed. James Tatum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 117–31.
  • Joy Kyunghae Lee, "The Commodification of Virtue: Chastity and the Virginal Body in Richardson's 'Clarissa'", The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 36 (Spring 1995): 38–54.
  • Mary Vermillion, "Clarissa and the Marriage Act", Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10 (1997): 395–412.
  • Daniel P. Gunn, "Is Clarissa Bourgois Art?" Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10 (Oct. 1997): 1–14.
  • Brian McCrea, "Clarissa's Pregnancy and the Fate of Patriarchal Power", Eighteenth-Century Fiction 9 (Jan. 1997): 125–48.
  • Mary Patricia Martin, "Reading Reform in Richardson's 'Clarissa' and the Tactics of Sentiment", SEL 37 (Summer 1997): 595–614.
  • Paul Gordon Scott, "Disinterested Selves: Clarissa and the Tactics of Sentiment", ELH 64 (1997): 473–502.
  • Donnalee Frega, Speaking in Hunger: Gender, Discourse, and Consumption in "Clarissa" (Columbia, SC: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1998).
  • Laura Hinton, "The Heroine's Subjection: Clarissa, Sadomasochism, and Natural Law", Eighteenth-Century Studies 32 (Spring 1999): 293–308.
  • Murray L. Brown, "Authorship and Generic Exploitation: Why Lovelace Must Fear Clarissa", SNNTS 30 (Summer 1998): 246–59.
  • Derek Taylor, "Clarissa Harlowe, Mary Astell, and Elizabeth Carter: John Norris of Bemerton's Female 'Descendants'", Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12 (Oct. 1999): 19–38.
  • Krake, Astrid (2000). "How art produces art: Samuel Richardson's Clarissa". Spiegel ihrer deutschen Übersetzungen. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
  • —————— (2006). "He could go no farther: The Rape of Clarissa in 18th-Century Translations". In Cointre, Annie; Lautel-Ribstein, Florence; Rivara, Annie. La traduction du discours amoureux (1660–1830). Metz: CETT. Archived from the original on 7 December 2010..
  • Townsend, Alex, Autonomous Voices: An Exploration of Polyphony in the Novels of Samuel Richardson, 2003, Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt/M., New York, Wien, 2003, ISBN 978-3-906769-80-6 / US-ISBN 978-0-8204-5917-2
  • (in Chinese) Hou, Jian. "Haoqiu Zhuan yu Clarissa: Liangzhong shehui jiazhi de aiqing gushi" (A Tale of Chivalry and Love and Clarissa: romantic fiction based on two distinct social value systems), Zhongguo xiaoshuo bijiao yanjiu, p. 95–116.

External links

  • Clarissa (1991) on IMDb
  • Japanese translation
  • Clarissa at Project Gutenberg
  • Clarissa Harlowe, or the History of a Young Lady public domain audiobook at LibriVox
  • A version currently in print ISBN 0-14-043215-9

Townsend, Alex, Autonomous Voices: An Exploration of Polyphony in the Novels of Samuel Richardson Year of Publication: 2003 Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt/M., New York, Wien, 2003 ISBN 978-3-906769-80-6 / US-ISBN 978-0-8204-5917-2

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