HOW HUGE NOVEL, CLARISSA, BECAME FIRST TO BE TOLD ENTIRELY IN LETTERS
Letters! He sure wrote lots and lots of letters!
He's 18th century British author Samuel Richardson, who wrote the one-million-word Clarissa, longest novel in English literature, and wrote it completely in the form of letters exchanged among the hero and heroine with other characters. It's what the literati call an epistolary novel.
Clarissa is the erotic story of the beautiful Clarissa Harlowe, who's carried off by a rakish aristocrat, Lovelace, after rejecting the rich suitor chosen by her family. Lovelace is determined to seduce the virginal and highly moralistic Clarissa, while she seeks to reform him before she'll consider marriage. He finally drugs and rapes her.
Adapted by David Nokes and Janet Barron, Clarissa airs as a three-parter on Mobil-funded Masterpiece Theatre nationally on PBS Sundays at 9 PM (ET) beginning April 5 . Newcomer Saskia Wickham stars in the title role, with Sean Bean playing the roguish Lovelace.
An unlikely person to influence the history of the novel, author Richardson was a poorly educated but successful London printer who didn't publish his first work until he was past 50. In 1739 two London booksellers commissioned him, as a longtime fancier of letter writing, to create a manual for other letter writers, with examples for various occasions.
While working on the manual, Richardson conceived the idea of arranging a series of letters to tell a story. This would give readers the opportunity, he thought, to know all that goes on in the minds of characters and also let readers see the same events or characters from several different viewpoints. Richardson's first such novel was Pamela, about a servant girl who wrote letters to her parents.
The author followed this with Clarissa, published in three installments in 1747 and 1748 and subsequently printed in eight volumes. Richardson realized the novel's massive length might hinder its acceptance, once saying that "length is my principal disgust." It's believed that length was less of an impediment for the more leisurely readers of the 18th century than it would be today.
Some critics also objected to the use of letters to tell a story. Richardson's friend, the renowned Samuel Johnson, complained that the method frustrated him but said readers might enjoy the sentiment of Clarissa, if not the style. Richardson himself worried that the technique forced his characters to do too much in too short a time.
But Clarissa was successful because the author was able to capitalize on the unique advantages of the letter-writing method. His talent for dialogue, some critics said, transforms many of the longer letters into a poignant romance. One critic wrote that "the process of correspondence comes alive as Richardson blends theater, discourse and romance into a compellingly tense picture of contemporary morals and manners."
Despite difficulties with its narrative form and what was called the "moral obstinacy" of its title character, Clarissa became "a revered example not only of the epistolary novel but also of the refined novel of sentiment," wrote another critic. "By the end of the century, it was imitated and acclaimed both in England and on the Continent."
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