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Clarissa. Or, the History of a Young Lady (An Abridged Edition) by Samuel Richardson (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 251-253 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0019

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We have long needed a new edition of Clarissa for undergraduates. In the introduction to his 1962 Riverside edition, George Sherburn warns readers that the heroine is “too good for human use” and that Richardson does not succeed as well as Shakespeare in portraying “convincing human traits in connection with spotless near-perfection.” Insisting that “Lovelace steals the show,” he prejudices readers against Richardson’s protagonist before they have even read her first letter. Sherburn concludes that Clarissa was “from the first calculated for readers of leisure; for busy people, unconcerned with the life of ideals, it has to remain, what it has always been, ‘a large still book,”’ an observation unlikely to lure multitasking twenty-first-century students. His abridgment conveys the basic plot, but not the richness of the characters. Not surprisingly, I cannot recall my own emotional response to reading Clarissa for the first time in the Riverside edition. My inability to remember the novel’s initial effect on me stands in contrast to my subsequent experience reading Angus Ross’s unabridged Clarissa. Housebound for ten days in a tiny apartment during a January of record-breaking snowfalls, I finally “experienced” Clarissa. My experience was so intense, however, that I have been reluctant to assign Sherburn’s abridgment to my undergraduates; I often teach Pamela instead.

Before opening Mr. Richetti and Ms. Bowers’s new abridgment of Clarissa, therefore, I was already wondering whether I would want to assign it. Picking up the Broadview paperback, I felt the heft of it and calculated how many weeks of a semester it would take my overworked commuter students to read through the 722 pages of text, plus another eighty or so pages of useful and engaging Appendices (with selections from Richardson’s correspondence and an assortment of eighteenth-century responses to the novel). It is difficult for my students to keep pace with more than about 250 pages per week; I would need to allow one fifth of a fifteen-week semester. If the abridgment would lure them into Clarissa and give them something of the experience of the novel’s tug of war between desire and hesitation, between collusion and resistance, I knew I would be tempted to assign it. So, I opened the book. Unlike Sherburn’s off-putting introductory observations, Mr. Richetti and Ms. Bowers immediately inform their readers that this is a “minutely detailed, complicated, and protracted unfolding of a simple, tragic plot.” Moreover, it “embodies immense psychological depths and socio-historical resonances” and is considered “the greatest work of eighteenth-century prose fiction in English.” They make clear, with compelling honesty, that Richardson “would have been unlikely to approve of this abridged edition.” Nevertheless, they explain the necessity of what they are doing and they assure their readers that the University of Pennsylvania has guaranteed a permanent link to the full-text of the third edition from which they abridged this text. By contrast to Sherburn, who did little to help students appreciate Richardson’s protagonist, Mr. Richetti and Ms. Bowers emphasize Clarissa’s power to captivate her readers even through the protracted pages of her “long slide to death after her rape and its aftermath.” They ask us: “What are we to make of a nineteen-year old girl who dies of no apparent physiological cause, who purchases and admires her own coffin, which she has carefully designed with symbolic engravings?” Rather than suggesting that Lovelace steals the show, our editors point to the scene of Lovelace’s death when he “at last acknowledges something greater than himself.”

Mr. Richetti and Ms. Bowers explain that their aim is to retain the novel’s “rich and complex characterizations and its subtle depictions of relations among characters.” They must, of course, also include enough of the essential letters to allow readers to follow the plot. The result, if we compare their edition to Sherburn’s, is that we find many of the same letters, but more of each letter is included. We thus get more of the afterthoughts, the repetitions, the polite but insistent protests, the exclamations, and the epistolary codas that really give a sense of each character. When we reach Clarissa’s scribbled...

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