Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

by Rachel Baker on October 13, 2013

The Guardian’s fourth book in the 100-week series on the 100 best novels written in English is Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, published in 1748. This is the first to address affairs of the heart.

After Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe, the next landmark in English fiction is a towering monument of approximately 970,000 words, Clarissa, the longest novel in the English canon. From time to time, its length is challenged by later upstarts – most recently by Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – but Samuel Richardson’s “History of a Young Lady” remains an extraordinary achievement.

To Samuel Johnson, it was simply “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart”. Most critics agree that it is one of the greatest European novels whose influence casts a long shadow. I first read Clarissa, in France, in a gold-tooled library edition of many volumes. In the house where I was staying there was nothing else to read in English; I picked it up quite ignorant of its reputation and importance. Perhaps that’s the best way to approach a classic – unawares. Soon, I was swept up in the headlong drama of Clarissa Harlowe’s fate – a novel with the simplicity of myth.

Clarissa is a tragic heroine, pressured by her unscrupulous nouveau-riche family to marry a wealthy man she detests. When she is tricked into fleeing from her family’s designs with the dashing and witty Robert Lovelace, she inadvertently places herself in the power of an inveterate rake, perhaps the most charming villain in English literature. It’s the magic of Clarissa that the lovers seduce the readers’ imagination as much as any in our literature, including Romeo and Juliet. From this we have Dr Johnson’s famous verdict, noted by Boswell: “Why, sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story… you would hang yourself… you must read him for the sentiment.”

Book 3 of the series: Gullivers Travels

Book 2 of the series: Robinson Crusoe

Book 1 of the series: The Pilgrims Progress

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