THIS is indeed an old tale, and we should not now have thought of inviting the attention of our readers to one so old, were it not for the boldness and unambiguous thoroughness of the challenge thrown down by Mr. Dallas, in his introduction to this new edition of Samuel Richardson's well-known novel. He expresses an opinion, almost in so many words, that Richardson is the greatest of all novelists, and Clarissa the greatest of all novels. He quotes Macaulay, who is said to have expatiated to Thackeray on the pleasures which he and others took in reading Clarissa among the hills in India. He tells us that Sir James Mackintosh declared that it was the finest work of fiction ever written in any language. He overwhelms us with French admiration, naming Alfred de Musset, D'Alembert, Voltaire. Rousseau, and Diderot, -- though, as two out of those five were admittedly adverse critics, we hardly see to what this leads. And then he tells us that many besides Diderot, put Richardson and the Bible together. In fact, Mr. Dallas means to assert that there is the strongest possible evidence which can be given by the admiration of contemporaries and by the judgment of critics that Clarissa is the greatest of novels. But he goes on to add, -- and this is the point at which he aims, -- that, though Clarissa is thus excellent, it does not now receive that attention which so excellent a work deserves, and does not administer to readers generally that delight which it is capable of affording. This, indeed, is the very gist of the plea which he puts forward. "I lament," he says, "that the noblest of all novels, the most pathetic, and the most sublime, should be unread, and well-nigh unknown among us." And again, "For the novelist who could so prevail, I claim in all the English courts of criticism, and in the regard of all his countrymen, a reversal of the sentence of neglect from which he now suffers." And again, "I challenge for him in all the courts of English criticism and in the regard of all his countrymen a reconsideration of his services."
There is an enthusiasm in this, a true admiration for an undoubtedly noble work, and a true interest for the reputation of a great writer, which the lovers of English literature cannot but love. One's first feeling on reading Mr. Dallas's remarks is that of sympathy, at any rate, with Mr. Dallas. Here, says Mr. Dallas to all English readers, [p. 164] is a great treasure. There are circumstances connected with it which seem to make it unavailable to the public in its present shape. Let us see if we cannot so handle this piece of unsurpassed excellence, as to make it of general service to humanity.
"Unfortunately," says Mr. Dallas, "Richardson has a great fault; he is prolix. He gives us indeed gold, but the gold is shapen into a goblet so huge that few of us can lift it to our lips." And then he goes on, "I have ventured to offer to English readers a simple abridgment of the marvellous tale, -- matchless in the range of prose fiction, -- because, for the honour of literature, I lament that the noblest of all novels, the most pathetic, and the most sublime, should be unread and well-nigh unknown among us." To cure the evil of prolixity, therefore, Mr. Dallas has abridged the work by omitting such of the letters as he deemed to be unnecessary to the development of the story.
In this there is an admission that Clarissa as left to us by the author, is in the present day unreadable. Thus there arises two questions. Is Mr. Dallas right in the extreme amount of eulogy which he passes on a work which he admits to be beyond the power of English readers to digest in its present form; and will he be successful in making that popular which is now admittedly unpopular by the simple work of abridgment? We notice the book thinking that his judgement is wrong and that his labours will prove to be futile; because the matter is of great importance, and because it may be worth while to inquire why nobody now reads Richardson's novels.
In this day everybody reads novels. Now and again we hear the voice of a thoughtful or earnest man raised against this popular recreation. Mr. Carlyle or the Archbishop may endeavour to prove to us that we are dissipating our minds, wasting our time, and encouraging laxity and diffuseness in our intellectual powers; but the preaching of the preacher is of no avail. Men are as laborious as ever they were. Our wives and daughters are more highly educated than were our mothers and grandmothers. We work, and pray, and ride, and dance, and gamble, and talk politics as assiduously as ever. But we all read novels; -- lawyers, divines, merchants, soldiers, courtiers, politicians, -- and what not. There is hardly a man or a woman who does not require that some amount of novel reading shall be printed for the delight of his or her leisure hours. And so much is learned from novels, -- so much of good and of evil, -- so many of the details of everyday life are done honestly or dishonestly, selfishly or unselfishly, in a manner divine or diabolical, as the mind of the doer may have been operated upon beneficially or injuriously by the novelist's art, that the production and possession of good novels instead of bad, that is of novels that will teach good lessons, instead [p. 165] of novels that will teach bad lessons, is a matter of vital importance to the nation. We think that we are right in asserting that the novels of the day have more effect on the national mind than either the sermons or the poetry; more probably than any other branch of literature with the exception of newspapers, -- even if we except them. In speaking of the novels of the day, we mean the novels which are now read, and should count Richardson's among those if they were in daily use. If this be so, it would be a great thing to redeem from darkness and bring out into meridian light a work, of which the lessons are undoubtedly moral, -- if that work be, as is asserted, of all novels the best and most charming.
It is confessed that nobody reads Clarissa. Richardson's novel must, indeed, be classed among those standard national works of literature with which men in general think it no harm to profess an acquaintance, although they have never read a line of them, and have never opened the volume. There are many such national works. We don't mean to say that men and women lie about them. If asked to put their hands on their hearts and say whether they had perused this or that book from end to end, the truth would come from them clearly and rapidly. But in the ordinary conversation of the world, it is customary to presume an acquaintance with these happy literary owners of brevet rank. Beaumont and Fletcherare are a great example. We are disposed to believe that Spenser might be named in the list; Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress should be inserted; and De Foe's writings, with the exception of Robinson Crusoe. Dryden's poems, Chesterfield's letters, and Dr. Johnson's works, -- of course we do not include his dictionary, -- may be added. In this catalogue Richardson's novels must certainly find a place. All these are books which it is assumed that every man has read, which all men have on their bookshelves, but which nobody ever reads. If Clarissa is so pre-eminently the best of novels and as novels are now more popular than ever, why is Clarissa among the books that are never opened?
Mr. Dallas tells us that it is prolix, and has undertaken on our behalf to make it less so. We will acknowledge, as we pass on, that he has so far done his task well, that he has omitted nothing necessary to the story, and that, in the three volumes now under notice, Clarissa is a better novel than it was as left by Richardson. We will not pause to assert that an author should be judged by his works as he himself leaves them, and will acknowledge, also, as we proceed that the world of readers is indebted to the editor or commentator who will make that which fitted the taste of one age fit also for the taste of later ages by his labours. But we venture to express our opinion that, even in this abridgment, Clarissa is so prolix, that the impatience of the times will not endure the book; and also that, as a work of art, it is not only prolix, but is so replete with [p. 166] other faults which have been condemned by the ever-advancing literary education of the day, that it can never again become popular.
There are those, among whom, however, we do not think that we should reckon Mr. Dallas, -- lovers of literature, too, -- who will tell us that our education and taste as to that which we read have gone backwards; that men and women who prefer Macaulay to Burnet, Tennyson to Dryden, do so because to their attenuated intellects and sickly judgments tinsel shines brighter than gold. These are the "laudatores temporis acti," the Conservatives in literature, -- for there are Conservatives in literature as in politics, -- men who are very serviceable to us in saving us from too quick a desertion of things that are old, because they are old, -- the drag upon our wheels which might otherwise run down the hill too quickly. But we hold them to be altogether wrong in their judgement of men's intellects. As age succeeds age, that which is most worthy keeps its hold upon us. As it is in matters political, so it is also in matters of literature. Trial by jury remains, and is likely to remain, -- let Messers. Beales and Odgers be ever so triumphant; and Shakspeare is still known to us at least as intimately as in any previous age. The very admission that Clarissa is not read, is of itself proof to us that Clarissa is unreadable.
Mr. Dallas admits the work is prolix, and endeavours to cure the fault. But unfortunately the book is weighted with a double prolixity. It is prolix in all its parts, as well as in its whole. Cut it to pieces as you will, and it will still be prolix. The telling of every incident is done with a prolixity that to us is amazing; and, as the whole story is told in letters, it strikes us as being as impossible as it is cumbersome. The least critical reader knows that the writing of such letters must have been impossible. The twenty-four hours of the day were not long enough for the transcribing of all the words which men and women are supposed to have thrown into their letters, written, -- say, between Monday and Tuesday morning. Mr. Dallas will probably tell us that if the letters so written be in themselves charming, this inconsistency should be held to be venial. Even with this we cannot agree. The reader feels that there is a trespass made upon his judgment when he is asked to accept that as true which he feels to have been impossible. But independently of that, letters so written must in themselves be prolix, -- prolix, though a week were allowed for the writing of them. When two or three prolix letters have given accounts, equally prolix, of the same circumstance, Mr. Dallas has been able to omit one or two of the number; and the reader is so far spared. But the question should be one, not of sparing, but of delight; and a story told with prolixity is not delightful even when told but once.
We will attempt very shortly to analyse the story of Clarissa and to show, in doing so, that its faults, independent of its prolixity, are [p. 167] such as to forbid its ever being restored to general popularity. We will begin by admitting that the tale possesses in the highest degree the highest merit which a work of prose fiction can possess. It is pre-eminently pathetic. They who can make their way through it, and, even in the three volume form in which Mr. Dallas has given it to us, it is about twice as long as an ordinary novel, -- will find that their feelings are harrowed by the sufferings of the heroine, and that their indignation is stirred by the iniquity of the chief transgressor. Such cruel usage, and borne with such angelic heroism, -- such barbarity, and planned with such devilish art, is not perhaps to be found in the whole range of novels with which our shelves and those of our circulating libraries are laden. And this great virtue belongs admittedly and of tradition so absolutely to Clarissa, that its existence is in itself the strongest proof of the faults of the book in other respects. There is no virtue in novels so generally in demand as the virtue of pathos; and yet, though the existence of this virtue in Clarissa is admitted on all hands, although it has become an acknowledged fact in literature, neither men or women will read it. They will not read it because there is no touch of natural life in it from beginnning to end.
Clarissa Harlowe is the daughter of a wealthy gentleman, and is one of a large and united family, with whom, up to the period at which the story begins, she was loved, not only in family amity, but a a favoured one, a pet, and an idol. She has father, mother, brother, sister, and two uncles who have all adored her; and she has had a grandfather who has left to her a large fortune. She has also a friend, Miss Howe, who worships her; and she has two lovers, -- one, the notorious Lovelace, who is the villain of the book; and the other, one Solmes, who is the object of her early disgust. Of these two lovers, the first has managed to get himself refused by Clarissa's sister, who is, nevertheless, frightfully jealous when the lover transfers himself to Clarissa. The other is favoured by all the Harlowe family, as being one who will not give trouble, either by profligacy or in money matters. Clarissa, of course, loves Lovelace, -- though, throughout the whole story, so much is never admitted by her, -- and protests loudly that she will have nothing to say to Solmes. Then the whole family to go to work to force her to marry the man she hates, and make scruple of no tyranny to drive her to compliance. Her brother and her sister become fiends of malice. Her father removes himself away as an offended god, but as a god who knows no mercy; and her uncles are stormy, cruel, and devilish. Clarissa, in the meantime, manages to keep up a correspondence with Lovelace, and at last elopes with him. Up to this point the mind of the reader is solely intent on getting on with his work. The whole story is told in letters, -- chiefly, up to this point, passing between Clarissa and her friend, Miss Howe. The minutest details are told, but all these details are unnatural. [p. 168] There is not a letter among them that any girl could have written in any age. Anna Howe herself is detestable. She has a respectable lover, whom she marries at last, and in respect of whom her letters are full of the most absurd abuse. She relates to her friend all her ill-treatment of this lover, down to the very words she uses. Yet not once does she profess affection for him. And yet she marries him. In depicting Anna Howe and her lover, Richardson has intended to be humorous, but even Mr. Dallas will not, we think, break a lance in defence of his author's humour. And, in describing the manner in which Anna Howe did get married and Clarissa Harlowe did not, Richardson has adhered to his stiff, ungainly, puritanical idea as to women, -- that a woman till she is married should be ashamed ever to own that she loves. We may be told that such was the idea among well brought-up women of the time; but we venture to assert that the poetry, plays, and tales of the day tell us that this was not so, and that women then, if less demonstrative, and therefore less natural than now, were still known to speak their minds. Richardson desired to teach virtue as he saw it; and, in doing so, has repudiated all human nature, as is done by so many who, in these days, endeavour to teach us virtue in godly but false little books, about godly but false little people.
We may here point out the impracticability of telling letters, by means of letters between correspondents, a story in which the details of life are to be given and the intricacies of a wide plot evolved. Novelists who have attempted this have ususally begun their work with epistles which might possibly have been written, -- with letters which as letters are not altogether absurd, -- with simple statements of facts and expressions of feeling and opinion, of wishes and fears; but they have invariably found themselves driven to use the straightened form of narrative with which they have provided themselves in a manner of which epistolary correspondence can know no real example, repeating whole conversations, and, on occasions, conversations which have reached the writer second-hand, heaping letter upon letter, one after another in the same day, and presuming at last that the writers of them wrote as though they themselves were intentionally fabricating the novel which has to be given to the public. Scott tried this mode of structure in Redgauntlet, and Scott failed. In this novel the great master gradually escapes from the narrow confines of familiar epistles to the still cramped mode of a diary, and from that to a narrative, with which he ends his story; -- and even with this resource ends a story that has been spoilt in the telling. Evelina is perhaps the best instance we have of a novel told by letters; and this is so, not because the letters are at all natural, but because Miss Burney in concocting them has thrown over all idea of fashioning the letters to the minds and natural language of the writers, and has allowed herself to write them as though she herself had forgotten her own trammels. When [p. 169] the reader comes to "Evelina in continuation," it is to him simply the beginning of a new chapter. But Richardson has provided for himself no such refuge from his difficulty as was found either by Miss Burney or by Scott. The plot becomes most intricate, but the letters which tell the plot are continued throughout, and are so written that the reader is never for a moment permitted to feel that his story is being told to him by the person who should tell it. That young ladies should be laborious, persistent, and long-winded in their letters to their friends, is perhaps an idea so well established in the minds of novel readers, as to make it seem to be possible that eight or ten hours a day should be devoted to the purpose; but when young men about town, gay rakes, fellows who fight, and drink, and gamble, and notoriously spend their hours in the pursuit of pleasure, -- when such as these are found to cover quires of paper daily, not only with their own productions to their own correspondents, but in copying them to send to others, and in copying the production of others to send to their correspondents, -- the patience of the reader gives way, and he feels that too much is demanded of him.
Clarissa elopes, and after various adventures with her lover, is taken to a house of ill fame, and is there detained a prisoner by Lovelace with the aid of a bevy of vile women, and by the assistance outside of men as vile. In arranging this, Richardson has been forced to continue intricacies of plot so minute, so detailed, so dovetailed, as to create continually the feeling of impossibility. Letters go astray, and don't go astray, get into wrong hands, and into right hands, with equal improbability. A diplomate in the old days of diplomacy cozening all Europe, a Talleyrand or a Metternich carrying out a scheme for imposing or deposing an emperor, were as nothing in intrigue to Lovelace managing the ruin of a young woman, whom, to do him justice, he is generally quite ready to marry, and who has eloped with him clearly with the purpose of marrying him. Plot thickens upon plot. Forgery, perjury, rape, and murder are executed or proposed with the freest volubility; and to every such crime, or scheme for crime, women of the town, domestic servants, and ruffians hired for the occasion, are made privy with no compunction. There could have been no law in the land, and yet Richardson is writing of the reign of George II. It is known to her friends that Clarissa is in the hands of a villain; -- it is even known during the story that she is with villainous women; -- but no one comes to help her. Her devoted Anna Howe writes letters by the dozen, but never appears on the scene, even when she hears the whole story of her friend's tragedy. During the greater portion of this part of the book the reader finds himself detained at the house of ill fame in company with women of the town whose conversation is given at length, -- and is given as repeated by Clarissa to a gentleman who is the chief correspondent of Lovelace! Will Mr. Dallas tell us that Clarissa [p. 170] Harowe's life at Mrs. Sinclair's will ever be popular among English novel readers? It is very moral and not obscene; -- but it is nasty, altogether unnatural, and wanting in all the elements of dramatic effect.
From this den she escapes to Hampstead, and is brought back again by contrivances which are surely the most clumsy which ever a novelist used. She was a lady of excellent education, of high intellect, used to society, and able to talk down an archbishop on any matter of discourse. In conversation it is impossible to have her at a loss. Her manners and wit are as perfect as her beauty. And yet she is cajoled away from her refuge at Hampstead by two women of the town who represent themselves, at Lovelace's instance, to be ladies of title, and his near relations! By them she is taken back to her former prison, -- and there she is drugged and violated. And upon this the violator writes the only short letter in the book. "And now, Belford, I can go no futher. The affair is over. Clarissa lives. And I am, your humble servant." We will admit here that the pathos is so great and overwhelming as to banish from the reader's mind for the moment the remembrance that no woman that ever lived could in such circumstances have written such a letter.
And now the author is so vilely crippled by the fashion of this narrative that he can make but little of the picture of his heroine. Clarissa, half-crazy, as she well might be, writes a letter to Anna Howe, and a letter to Lovelace, -- which Lovelace copies and sends to his friend! But the injured woman herself cannot be brought on the scene, -- and the two letters seem to have tried too highly the novelist's power. "Oh, Lovelace," she says, "you are Satan himself, -- or he helps you out himself in everything, and that's as bad. But have you really and truly sold yourself to him? and for how long? What duration is your reign to have?" After this she escapes again; gets into good hands; is then arrested by the bad women, not at the instance of Lovelace, but on his behalf; again escapes, is grandly persistent in her refusal to marry him, and dies unvisited by any of her near relations or her darling friend.
The latter part of the story is chiefly told in the letters of Belford to his friend Lovelace. Belford is admitted to the intimacy of Clarissa, and is named her executor. In this position he becomes acquainted with all the details of her life, which he communicates to his friend in letters eight, ten, and twelve pages in length writing sometimes two a day. In the last months of Clarissa's life, Mr. Belford had almost more than man could do in looking after her, and telling the history of her life to her seducer; but during all this time he never quarrels with his friend or is stirred to avenge Clarissa. This is done some months after the lady's death by a military cousin who has had much dealing with Lovelace, dealing that was frank and almost friendly, and that after he had learned the story of the poor [p. 171] girl's fate; but who at last, after full consideration, conceives it to be his duty to follow Lovelace, and to challenge him with all courtesy, and -- to shoot him. Of hot anger, of passionate indignation, of that feeling which would have driven almost any man, -- nay, almost any woman, -- to clutch at Lovelace, and to tear him to pieces, there is not a word.
The first question to be asked as to every novel is whether it will please. There are various other questions to be asked, which are also very important. Will it be injurious to its readers? If so, though it be ever so full of delight, let it be banished from our rooms. Is it well written? If it be not, even though it please, it is open to just censure. Is it untrue to nature ? If it be false to nature, let the critics say so, even though the charm of the work be complete. Let all and every fault be pointed out, -- for the benefit of readers and of writers too. These novels are so far good that the readers seek them and delight in them. So much is true of them, though we acknowledge that they might have been better. But a novel that will not please is naught. The world will not have it if there be more of trouble than of pleasure in the reading of it. Now, to our thinking, the world of the present day cannot be made to take delight in Clarissa. Every reader that does read it will acknowledge its wonderful power of harrowing up the feelings, its surpassing pathos, its terrible picture of Virtue suffering all things but debasement under the hands of Vice. But no reader will rise and feel that in the reading of the book he has passed happy hours. It is quite true that readers who have commenced may be unable not to finish the volumes, -- that readers may find themselves compelled to get through the work by some mixed process of reading and skipping; but the desire will always be to reach the end in order that the labour may be over. Throughout the story there is no one to love or even to like, save only Clarissa. The personages with whom the reader will become acquainted are for the most part either gloomy and tyrannical, or vicious and abominable. And with Clarissa herself the reader forms no pleasant acquaintance. She never smiles, and we must admit, indeed, that she has little reason for smiling. She is always among wretches, and from first to last we never see what Clarissa would have been with pleasant friends around her, or with a lover whom she loved. Maintained misery may please through a short story; but the world of readers is averse to be steeped in wretchedness through a long series of volumes.
It has not been so much our intention to criticise Richardson's story, which, as we have said, is indeed an old tale, as to call in question the conclusion of Mr. Dallas with the view of inquiring whether that which he has done will resuscitate a lost popularity. When Richardson wrote novels were scarce, and of those which were written few were deemed to be fit reading for young and modest [p. 172] women. That Clarissa should have been so esteemed somewhat astonishes us, as in no novel that we know is a fouler brood of low characters introduced than in Clarissa; -- but the moral teaching was supposed to be good, and the book was undoubtedly accepted. As we look back to the literature of past ages we see that the tastes of men and women have changed. The novels of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are now absolutely unreadable by us, and we do not think that any abridgment would make them pleasant to us. Those of the eighteenth stand their ground with a certain amount of life. We have acknowledged that men desire to have Richardson on their shelves, and almost persuade themselves that they have read Sir Charles Grandison. But no force from the outside will draw people back upon them. We do not think much of the admiration of Diderot, of Scott, or of Macaulay, as expressed for Richardson. The enthusiasm of an individual, let him be who he may, or the enthusiasm of a certain hour in that individual's life, is but slender proof of the excellence of anything. If we found that the volumes of Richardson were frequently taken down from our shelves, that the booksellers dealt in them widely, and that the novels were sold at the railway stores for a shilling apiece, we should think more of such evidence than of that of the Governor-General, and Secretary, and Commander-in-chief in India, with their wives and families, as given by Macaulay to Thackeray in the drawing-room of the Athenaeum. But we will not close these remarks, widely opposed as they are to the views of Mr. Dallas, without again expressing our admiration for the literary zeal of an Editor who has been willing to give so much labour and time to an old tale, simply because it has moved him deeply.
1 Anthony Trollope, "Clarissa," St Paul's Magazine, November 1868, pp. 163-72, as reproduced in Writings for St. Paul's Magazine, introd. John Sutherland. New York: Arno Press, 1981.