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Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady
Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (title page).png
AuthorSamuel Richardson
GenreEpistolary novel
Publication date
Media typePrint

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 young woman, Clarissa Harlowe, whose quest for virtue is continually thwarted by her family. The Harlowes are a recently wealthy family whose preoccupation with increasing their standing in society leads to obsessive control of their daughter, Clarissa. It is considered one of the longest novels in the English language (based on estimated word count). It is generally regarded as Richardson's masterpiece.

Picture from "Lettres angloises, ou histoire de Miss Clarisse Harlove." 1751.

In 2015 the BBC ranked Clarissa 14th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels.[1] In 2013 The Guardian ranked Clarissa 4th on its list of 100 best novels written in English.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Clarissa's older sister, Arabella, begins to be courted by Robert Lovelace, a wealthy “libertine” and heir to a substantial estate. However, she rejects him because she felt that he put more effort into gaining the approval of her parents than in wooing her and felt disrespected by this. Lovelace quickly moves on from Arabella to Clarissa, much to the displeasure of Arabella and their brother James Harlowe. Despite Clarissa's insistence in her dislike for Lovelace, Arabella grows jealous of her younger sister for Lovelace's interest in her. James, also, dislikes Lovelace greatly because of a duel which had occurred between the two of them. These feelings combine with resentment that Clarissa was left a piece of land by their grandfather and lead to aggression towards Clarissa from her siblings. It is proposed that Clarissa marry Roger Solmes, a match that the entire Harlowe family, except Clarissa, accepts. Clarissa, however, finds Solmes to be unpleasant company and does not wish to marry him. This makes her family suspicious of her feelings towards Lovelace, and they begin acting paranoid towards her insistence that she does not care for Lovelace either.

The Harlowes begin restricting Clarissa's access to the outside world by forbidding her to see Lovelace anymore and eventually forbidding her to either leave her room or send letters to her friend, Anna Howe, until Clarissa apologizes and agrees to marry Solmes. Feeling trapped and desperate to regain her freedom, Clarissa continues to communicate with Anna in secret and begins a correspondence with Lovelace, while trying to convince her parents not to force her to marry Solmes. Neither Clarissa nor her parents will concede, leading to a communication breakdown and her parents' disregard of Clarissa's protests as stubborn disobedience. Lovelace convinces Clarissa to elope with him to avoid her conflict with her parents. Joseph Leman, a servant of the Harlowes, 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. Her family now will not listen to or forgive Clarissa because of this perceived betrayal, despite her continued attempts to reconcile with them. She is kept at many lodgings, including unknowingly a brothel, where the women are disguised as high-class ladies by Lovelace so as to deceive Clarissa. Despite all of this, she continues to refuse Lovelace, longing to live by herself in peace.

The villain, Robert Lovelace, abducting Clarissa Harlowe

Lovelace, during this time, is desperate to destroy Clarissa's morals, despite his declaration that he loves her. He puts increasing pressure on her to compromise her morals in an attempt to prove that virtuous women do not exist; Clarissa, however, does not waver. Lovelace at last gains entry to Clarissa's bedroom, under the pretence of saving her from a fire, but is thwarted from seduction or rape by her extreme resistance to his physical advances. She agrees, under threat of rape, to forgive and marry him; however, she instead makes her first successful escape from him.

Enraged by Clarissa's flight, Lovelace vows to seek revenge. He hunts her down to the lodgings in which she is hiding, and engages all the rooms around her, effectively trapping her, while he plots to gain her trust by introducing her to respectable members of his family. These are actually hired impersonators. During this time he intercepts a letter to Clarissa from Anna Howe that would expose the true extent of his deception and roguery. He commits forgery to put an end to the communication between them.

Eventually, he persuades Clarissa to accompany his imposter-relatives out in a carriage, and thus carries her back to the disguised brothel. There, with the assistance of the prostitutes and brothel madam, he drugs and rapes her.

After the rape, Clarissa suffers a loss of sanity for several days, presumably brought on by her extreme distress as well as the dose of opiates administered to her. (This temporary insanity is represented in her "mad letters" by the use of scattered typography.[3])

When Clarissa recovers her senses, Lovelace soon realises that he has failed to "subdue" or corrupt her; instead, she is utterly repulsed by him, repeatedly refusing his offers of marriage, despite her precarious situation as a now-fallen woman. She accuses him of deceiving and unlawfully detaining her, and insists that he set her free, but he continues to claim that the impersonators really were his family members, and that his crime was simply one of desperate passion. He alternates between making threats, and professions of love, to convince her to marry him. She steadfastly resists, and attempts to escape him several times.

Lovelace is forced to concede that Clarissa's virtue remains untarnished, but he begins to convince himself that the "trial" was not properly conducted, since his victim was drugged at the time, and could give neither her consent nor refusal. He decides to orchestrate a second rape, this time without the use of opiates. Affecting to be angered by the discovery that she has bribed a servant to aid her escape, Lovelace begins to menace Clarissa, intending to escalate the confrontation to physical violence, but she majestically condemns his premeditated villainy, and threatens to kill herself with a pen-knife should he proceed. Utterly confounded by her glorious presence and righteous indignation, and terrified by her willingness to die for her virtue, Lovelace retreats.

Lovelace is now more intent than ever to make Clarissa his wife, but he is called away to attend his dying uncle, from whom he is expecting to inherit an Earldom. He charges the prostitutes to keep Clarissa detained, but well-treated, until he can return to secure her in marriage. However, while he is away, Clarissa manages to escape from the brothel. She is jailed for a few days following a charge by the brothel madam for unpaid bills, is released, and finds sanctuary with a shopkeeper and his wife. Corresponding with Lovelace's real family, she discovers for herself the true extent of his deception. 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, rarely eating, convinced that she will die soon.

As her illness and probable anorexia progresses, she and John Belford become correspondents, and she appoints him the executor of her will as she puts all of her affairs in order, to the alarm of the people around her. Belford is amazed at the way Clarissa handles her 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 realize 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. Influential critic Harold Bloom cites it as one of his favorite novels that he "tend[s] to re-read every year or so."[4] 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.[5] 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 sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin.[6] 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.[5]

The pioneering American nurse Clara Barton's full name was Clarissa Harlowe Barton, after the heroine of Richardson's novel.

Radio and television adaptations[edit]

The BBC adapted the novel as a television series in 1991, starring Sean Bean, Saskia Wickham, and Sean Pertwee.[7]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ciabattari, Jane (7 December 2015). "The 100 greatest British novels". BBC. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  2. ^ McCrum, Robert (14 October 2013). "The 100 best novels: No 4 – Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  3. ^ Letter 261; Lovelace to Belford, dated June 16
  4. ^ Bloom, Harold. "An interview with Harold Bloom". BookBrowse.
  5. ^ a b Keymer, Tom (2004). Richardson's 'Clarissa' and the Eighteenth-Century Reader. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521390231.
  6. ^ Sabor, Peter (2017). "Rewriting Clarissa: Alternative Endings by Lady Echlin, Lady Bradshaigh, and Samuel Richardson". Eighteenth Century Fiction. 29 (2): 131–50. doi:10.3138/ecf.29.2.131.
  7. ^ Bean, Sean; Wickham, Saskia; Phillips, Jonny; Baxter, Lynsey (5 April 1992), Clarissa, retrieved 4 May 2017

General sources[edit]

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. Phillip 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 (eds.). 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, 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, pp. 95–116.

External links[edit]