Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Samuel Richardson

Clarissa, Or, The True Story of My Reading in 2012

Merry Christmas! I hope it was wonderful for everyone. Mine was a very relaxing couple of days with family and I enjoyed it immensely.

As Christmas seems a concluding event to the year, it seemed especially satisfying that on Boxing Day I finished reading Clarissa. Yes, ours had been a year long affair, but like her family I neglected her terribly in the summer months. Now it is all over I feel quite sad but luckily I have the sense of achievement for comfort. Clarissa is an excellent read. Yes, really. If you want to be convinced to buy it, this is o’s post that convinced me.

Very well read.

Very well read.

When I started reading it back in January I was overwhelmed. The language was tricky and dense and despite my enthusiasm not a lot was going on in terms of plot. I read a few pages here and there until April, when I put the book down. And it stayed down. From time to time I would look at it sitting on my bookshelf and feel a bit guilty, but I started my War Books project so I wasn’t inspired to pick it back up. I knew that to finish it, I would have to read nothing but Clarissa until the bitter end and I wasn’t in the mood. Then came November and the awareness that I would have to start now or never if I didn’t want to be dragging my old reads into the new year. Funnily enough, I had managed to stop at just the moment Clarissa gets exciting. (Clever, me.) I made my schedule and stuck to it – actually I beat it slightly – and here we are.

Clarissa has got to be the ultimate classic: One of the very first European novels and one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers. I’m not quite sure why it is so neglected. Yes, it is incredibly long but that doesn’t stop us reading War and Peace or Les Misérables. Rather amusingly, in the Author’s Note at the end Richardson justifies the length of the novel by claiming that the details are what makes the story realistic and enjoyable, therefore why would you complain about getting a complete picture? (Incidentally on the Jane Austen note, there is a clergyman who is sent to check up on Clarissa who I’m sure must have been a basis for Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.)

I wasn’t sure I would warm to Clarissa herself in the early stages because she’s so virtuous. I completely did, though. I fell for her hook line and sinker. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone still ploughing through it, but what other end could there have been for her? And for Lovelace? The way the family separates and takes sides is so convincing and so much more interesting from only getting it through odd perspectives. I took sides too – I was always pleased when I turned the page and the next letter was one from Miss Howe or Mr Belford. The presence of Richardson at all was slightly mystifying because it really, honestly felt like I was reading real letters. Perhaps an obvious comment to make, but the characters are like Tolstoy’s – genuine people who change and adapt over time.

For a lot of this book I was only looking forward to finishing: I was counting pages and scheduling time. However, when I realised I was onto the final ten pages, I was gutted. I was so sad that something I had been carrying around and thinking about all year was leaving me. Read Clarissa for its characters and richness, for it’s often surprising plot, for its family drama, for its place in history, for its descriptions of a world far removed yet not so dissimilar from our own.

Just make sure you read it.

All Summer Long: Letters 219 – 381

December so far has been a great month for me. Last weekend we decorated our Christmas tree, drank mulled wine and watched Muppet’s Christmas Carol (yes, that was all in one glorious day) so I’m definitely feeling festive! Work is hectically busy but whilst I’ve been madly tired, I’ve enjoyed sitting around reading Clarissa in the evenings whilst it is dark and cold outside.

I am ever so slightly ahead of schedule and am now into the August letters. I’ll do a quick summary of June and July and then I’ll write more non-spoilery things afterwards.

In June: She is still prisoner in the house, which catches fire (a bit) and in the ensuing chaos Lovelace gets into Clarissa’s bedroom and attempts to seduce her. Clarissa manages to run away to Hampstead, but Lovelace manages to find her. He tricks her back to the original house in London (this is a real spoiler so I’ll give you another warning to skip over it) makes her lose her senses and then her honour. After a while she manages to escape again and the month ends with her finally getting back in touch with Miss Howe.

In July: A lot of the letters between Clarissa and Anna are working out that Lovelace had been forging their letters to each other. Clarissa is really ill from her massive trauma and is unsurprisingly incredibly depressed. Really annoyingly, when Anna, Mrs Howe and several of Lovelace’s female relations find out what has happened to Clarissa they think the best solution is still for Clarissa to marry Lovelace. Clarissa has to write millions of letters saying she never will. Lovelace has sent his friend Belford to find things out about Clarissa and what she is up to. He doesn’t seem to think he’s done anything wrong (bastard) and that he can still win her over. Belford, however, is more sympathetic towards Clarissa. At the end of July Clarissa has written to her sister and has hinted in her letters that she would like to be if not forgiven by her family, then at least not hated.

Making myself go back and give Clarissa proper attention is what this book needs. Where I was once stalling, I can now wholeheartedly write that I LOVE THIS BOOK. And also, finally, I love Clarissa herself. Initially I wasn’t sure  because she seemed virtuous and not much else. Now I realise that she is less one-dimensional when you pay attention to what is unspoken. I mean, you don’t  as an eighteenth century woman write about how much you desire a less than virtuous man in your letters. But equally, you don’t run away with a man you find repulsive. So yes, she’s virtuous, but she is tempted too. And as more unpleasant things happen, her strength of character really shines.

After the first few months of letters, I never thought Clarissa would become so compelling, I can’t stress more that if you’ve started it you should pick it back up! You won’t regret it.

Clarissa, Letters 161 – 218

Why did I put Clarissa down for six months? Its great! Last week I read the May letters and have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it has been to pick back up. No more language struggle and I’ve finally got to the part where there is full on plot!

Spoilers in this paragraph only: May sees Clarissa and Lovelace hiding away in town. Surprisingly they are still not married and Lovelace trying to be controlling and adoring in turns. Officially, he is trying to sort out his inheritance and estate settlement but instead he is scheming. The women of the house they are living in are conspiring with Lovelace and stealing Clarissa’s letters. There is a bit of a twist towards the end of this section where Lovelace pretends to be uniting Clarissa with her Uncle. He isn’t though… because he’s Lovelace.

In this section, more than any others, I’ve really started to appreciate Clarissa and her risky position. I’m intrigued by what the eighteenth century attitude to her life choices so far would be, as Richardson seems pretty sensitive to the difficulties in preserving a woman’s reputation – especially when there is a dastardly man involved. Anna Howe is still my favourite character because she is both a voice of reason and helps to remind me that these are essentially the romantic problems of teenagers. I really enjoyed this week’s reading and am going straight for the next part.

The Lady of Letters: How to Read Clarissa in Six Weeks

Yes, I am committed to my previous post and I will finish Clarissa this year. I am so committed I made a list (of course) to make sure I don’t spend the last few days of 2012 panicking that I can’t read it all in time.

Week One 19th – 25th November: Letter 161 – 218, page 702
Week Two 26th – 2nd December: Letter 219 – 253, page 867
Week Three 3rd – 9th December: Letter 254 – 319, page 1020
Week Four 10th – 16th December: Letter 320 – 381, page 1167
Week Five 17th – 23rd December: Letter 382 – 465, page 1339
Week Six 24th – 31st December: Letter 466 – end.

I have been reminding myself that the language will be tricky again but I’m certainly up for the challenge!

Ready, steady, read…

Reading Schedules and Other Misadventures

I haven’t been posting very much because I have spent my time (productively) reading – probably one of my better excuses! I had three books to tackle for specific dates but I had forgotten how plans are more fun to make than to follow. The last eleven days or so have been working to this list:

  • Clarissa, Letters 81-160, by April 30th, so as to not get left behind
  • As I Lay Dying, for a book club meeting tomorrow
  • Wolf Hall, by today, ready for the release of Bring Up the Bodies tomorrow

I’ve done it! The April chunk of Clarissa was finished at about 11.30pm on April 30th, I finished As I Lay Dying exactly a week ago, and I finished Wolf Hall about half an hour ago. Hurrah, now some writing to wind down / wrap up. Please excuse the mingling of books: I can’t face writing three separate posts.

Clarissa, Letters 81 – 160, April 6th – April 30th

Clarissa is finally out of the house! She had been kept inside being a disappointment to her family since I began the book back in January, which is a claustrophobic kind of feeling that I think I would have missed if I hadn’t been reading along with the dates. I don’t think I’d have been a very patient correspondent though, her attitude towards Lovelace and her tendency to miss what seems (to the modern reader) incredibly obvious is frustrating to say the least. I’m actually quite pleased to have a scoundrel in the book because otherwise the sheer good-naturedness of Clarissa herself would be a little too hard to bear. I’m pleased that there is a bit more action, but I think I need to devote a little bit more time to this book before it turns into a chore. Maybe I’m just not cut out for two timing my books!

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

This is my second read of Wolf Hall: I loved it the first time, but I adore it so much more now. I’m really glad I read this book again, not just so I’ll know where the second book will be picking up from, but because I got so much more from it. Yes, there were still a bajillion characters called Thomas but I was ready for them. I knew they were hiding in the woodwork so they didn’t catch me unaware.

I felt I really got to grips with the detail of the book and picked up on parts that completely overwhelmed me during my first read. There was more humour, more memories, more texture than I remembered from last time. I could just ramble about how brilliant a writer Hilary Mantel is – she’s up there as one of my absolute favourites. Read her books! Read them now!

You can have silence full of words. A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shrivelled petal can hold it’s scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.

Sigh.

The wait is nearly over. Bring Up the Bodies is out tomorrow, I’m SO EXCITED.

In other literary news, I have recently read (although not a classic) The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, and was lucky enough to meet her last week! I solemnly swear to write about it properly very soon. But the book was great and M. L. was lovely and very interesting to talk to.

Clarissa, Letters 31 – 80

Letters 31 – 80, March 13th – April 5th

For had they not been imposed upon her by nature, when she was in a perverse humour, or could she have chosen her relations, would any of these have been among them?

I stuck to my guns and didn’t start a new book until I had caught up with some Clarissa. As long as the dates in the novel don’t overtake the actual date I’ve decided that means I’m doing alright. As ever, plot discussion and spoilers are limited to the next paragraph only.

This section contains the first of Lovelace’s letters. He claims extravagantly to be in love with Clarissa, but his previous character of a universal lover haunts him. We can gather that Clarissa is a prize rather than a wife and the pleasure of the catch is heightened by his dislike of her family and an opportunity to get one up on them. Clarissa tries to appeal to her uncles for help but they are a united front, rallying with her family. They assume she is rejecting their choice of husband as she only wants Mr. Lovelace. Clarissa claims to prefer Lovelace, but only because Solmes is such a bad match for her in terms of education and interests, she sticks to her previous assertion that she would rather remain single than marry either of them. After visits from various relatives, she is told she will be carried off to her Uncle’s house (complete with moat!) and married like it or not the following week. After offering to give up her inheritance, her parents then decide she can remain at home for a week as long as she spends one hour in Solmes’ company. Obviously this goes horribly, lots of shouting and weeping, for some reason Solmes thinks this is some kind of coyness and will continue his suit. Clarissa is to prepare for immediate travel whilst attempting to flee to stay with Anna Howe.

– Spoilers over! –

After such a long break from this book I initially had the same language struggles as I did at the beginning. But after some fair few pages, I got back into the swing of things. I find it difficult to compare Clarissa to modern novels, I suppose because writing letters to people is not the same activity it was in the 1700s. Considering it is a book filled with people writing incredibly long letters to (in many cases) people in the same house as them, it is actually quite exciting!

Now that I am a bit further into it, the characters are starting to gain more shape. As the tension increases, so does their passion, and the debates take on a more philosophical context. Richardson doesn’t shy away from discussing the different statuses of men and women or brothers and sisters. For a male writer in the 1700s when women were more of a margin, a commodity, his treatment of what marriage would be like for a young girl is surprisingly sensitive:

Once more, let me repeat, that this is not a small point to give up: and that it is for life. Why, I pray you, good sir, should I be made miserable for life? […] Marriage is a very solemn engagement, enough to make a young creature’s heart ache, with the best prospects, when she thinks seriously of it! – To be given up to a strange man; to be engrafted into  strange family; to give up her very name, as a mark of her becoming his absolute and dependent property: to be obliged to prefer this strange man to father, mother – to everybody: and his humours to all her own […] Surely, sir, a young creature ought not to be obliged to make all these sacrifices but fo such a man as she can approve. If she is, how sad must be the case! – how miserable the life, if to be called life!

Great paragraph, no? I’m certainly pleased I won’t be marrying an eighteenth century man.

In the last part of this commentary, I wasn’t enamoured with Clarissa herself: This has changed somewhat, as her arguments develop from the initial I just don’t want to. I have enjoyed the introduction of her Uncles, as they make me sympathise more with her parents views than I did at first.

Yes, I’m happy to have picked this back up. On a less serious subject of reading I have rewarded myself for all this Clarissa-ing by reading The Hunger Games trilogy. It isn’t a classic in a historical sense, but I may have to post about them because I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying them! Watch this space.

Clarissa, Letters 16 – 30

My standard Clarissa Commentary disclaimer: The first paragraph is plot. The rest is spoiler free!

Letters 16 – 30 : March 3rd – March 12th

As you can see from the timeframe, there is a lot more happening and letters are flying around everywhere. Clarissa receives several visits from her mother, who is lenient one moment and unwavering the next. What was previously  guesswork is confirmed: It is the wishes of her family to marry Solmes. There is a lot of discussion of duty and Clarissa’s ‘previously agreeable’ character is called into question. She is banished to her room for the foreseeable future, forbidden to speak to her family and only allowed to walk in the garden (supervised) when nobody else is there. Her faithful servant is dismissed for aiding in communication between Clarissa and Lovelace. For all her protesting that Lovelace is too forward and gives her unwanted attention, there must be something appealing in him, as it seems Clarissa would give up writing him letters if she truly didn’t like him. Miss Howe advises Clarissa to claim her inheritance and retire to her estate, but Clarissa doesn’t want to do this as it would further anger her family. This section finishes with a little show down in church: Lovelace is there and compliments Clarissa’s mother. She accepts. Presumably this will be Clarissa’s fault too…

~

I was given some very good advice when I was struggling with the language of the book in the first part of my commentary. This was to keep reading because I would get the hang of it: It is true! I’m very happy to pass this on to other Clarissa readers. I really liked the idea of the Clarissa Readalong (see Terri and JoAnn) which was to read the book over a year on the dates the letters were written. I think this sounds brilliant because it would be like living the events of the novel with the characters, but I really needed to read a chunk of this to get into the language. I think if I ever re-read Clarissa (getting ahead of myself and seeing a time in the future where I will have finished it!) I would probably follow the dates.

The book as a historical artifact is really taking shape for me. The discussion of women’s duty and character is so interesting, because for a lot of women today arranged / forced marriages and male relatives taking control of your property isn’t an issue. It might be the epistolary form that highlights this – the novel and the letters were written to be a copy from life. I read in one of the many introductory pages that Richardson got the idea for Clarissa when he was asked to write a book / pamphlet to educate people in the correct letter writing style. I haven’t previously been particularly attracted to the epistolary novel but am finding it really readable. I reckon the form should make a comeback.

I’ve not completely warmed to Clarissa herself yet, she seems a little too good. I like Miss Howe who is maybe a little bit more satirical – she describes herself as flippant. Perhaps she seems more modern. Clarissa on the other hand – too forgiving? Too misguided? I’m not sure but she’s very much still a character to me, rather than a person.

Clarissa, Letters 1 – 15

The year has begun with a very long book, and so I don’t lose the plot (heh) I will be making an ongoing commentary of Clarissa. I did this most of the way through War and Peace so I could remember all the little details I loved. I won’t explicitly put in any twists (if there are any, I don’t know yet), but this commentary will discuss the plot so please don’t read if you don’t want to know the events of Clarissa!

Letters 1 – 15, January 10th – March 3rd

Clarissa is writing to her friend Miss Howe concerning the details of her family’s introduction to Mr. Lovelace. At first he is treated as a friend of the family with designs on her older sister, Arabella. Arabella is vain, and flatters herself with this supposed attention, which comes to nothing. Her opinion of Mr. Lovelace quickly turns sour, and is supported by her brother James. If this was a battle, I’d say a small skirmish breaks out, James is wounded, and Lovelace contrite. Clarissa is sent to stay with her friend Miss Howe, whilst her family concerns themselves with seeing her married off. On her return home, Clarissa is horrified to discover her family’s plot of having her marry Mr. Solmes. She discovers the motivations to be that her brother is jealous of the estate she received in her grandfather’s will, and her sister wants to see her married to prevent her from marrying Lovelace. In the last letter of this bundle Miss Howe consoles Clarissa about her impending marriage.

Enjoyable quotes so far:

If a man could not make a lady in courtship own herself pleased with him, it was as much and oftentimes more to his purpose to make her angry with him. (Letter 3)

My reading so far is going ok, although the language is more tricky than I thought it would be. The novel was written just a little bit earlier (1747) than others I have read, so the slightly unfamiliar turn of phrase is something I will have to get used to as I read on. At the moment reading is requiring more concentration than usual. My main challenge with this book so far is working out how to read comfortably! This book is huge: It is so tall as well as thick that I’m trying to find a way of holding it up without serious arm ache! Still, I’d pick paper and ink over a soulless imitation any day, sore arm or no…

I’m also trying to get used to reading more than one book at a time. I’m reading Clarissa in bed at night (and early in the morning) but continuing with Great Expectations in the day. This has resulted in me feeling a bit like I’m not reading much of either! Still I am liking the bedtime book experience and am already planning what would be a good one to read next. I’m thinking The Diaries of Samuel Pepys. But mustn’t get ahead of myself because I think I’ll be reading Clarissa for the foreseeable future.

Christmas Books

Merry Christmas!

Sorting Out Sensibility

I’ve started reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time and it wasn’t until chapter ten that I suddenly thought… Sensibility… What is it? Austen’s titles are so recognisable that I never thought about the words she chose for them. A little bit of afternoon research and I feel better! Sensibility isn’t a word we use now, but it was quite the concern of the eighteenth century.

Sensibility began as a scientific concept quickly adopted by philosophers. It is based on people’s perception of and response to events. It seems to be an emotional and intellectual concern – people with sensibility often showed signs of extreme distress, tenderness and ‘fine feeling’. This popular idea inspired writers who turned it into a literary movement: the sentimental novel. For example the narrator of The Sorrows of Young Werther demonstrated a very exaggerated response to unrequited love which led to young readers following his unwise example *spoiler removed, sorry Jillian!*.

The sentimental novel seems quite similar to gothic novels: I’m particularly thinking of Ann Radcliffe’s heroines! They faint at a moments notice, love passionately and unwaveringly, and weep at the beauty of mountains. There are a couple of other authors who wrote novels about sensibility that were admired by Jane Austen, for example Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the sentimental novel was no longer popular; perhaps sensibiity had become cheapened; the activities involved in being ‘sensitive’ became more associated with illness. Sense and Sensibility was a latecomer to the genre, and satirises the sentimental novel by contrasting sensibility with actual sense and reason: Elinor Dashwood is sensible and considering, whilst Marianne Dashwood is passionate:

Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility.

I’m quite good at avoiding ever finding out the plot of classic stories if I’m likely to ever read them, so I have never seen an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility or let anyone tell me anything about the plot, so I’m curious to discover – reason or emotion – which will prevail?

And so, Advent with Austen continues. I finished Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame last night but I think I will wait until the end of my Austen adventures to review it.