- Clarissa: The Eighteenth-Century Response, 1747-1804
Famous for the controversy it caused and for the unruly sequels and parodies it inspired, Samuel Richardson's first novel Pamela is an important text for eighteenth-century reception studies. So, too, is his Clarissa, a book equally remarkable for the profusion of responses it provoked. Contemporary readers from Europe and North America had much to say about this gargantuan novel; Lois E. Bueler's two-volume collection lets us listen in on what she calls this "great conversation" by bringing together written commentary on and adaptations of Clarissa, some of which appear here for the first time in print or in English translation. Although more extensive critical analysis of the material would have enriched the first volume, Bueler's collection is a testament to the international flavor of Clarissa's reception and the novel's impact on its readers. Reflecting the field's continued fascination with book history and the history of readers, this is a valuable resource for scholars interested not only in Richardson's works and the period's literature and culture, but also in abridgement, translation, biography, and pedagogy, subjects to which Clarissa's readers frequently return.
Reading Clarissa, the first volume, sorts contemporary commentary on Richardson's novel into eight chapters: "First Reactions"; "Friends of Samuel Richardson"; "Obituaries & Biographies"; "Readers' Responses"; "Clarissa in Novels & Plays"; "Ethics & Education"; "Literary Criticism"; and "Looking Back: Barbauld & Her Reviewers." By conveniently assembling nearly two hundred reactions in one place, this volume reveals the wide reach of Clarissa's influence and the fervency of the debate which it sparked. Even readers who admire the novel will find it refreshing to hear the complaints of Horace Walpole, who clearly takes delight in his own cleverness when he repeatedly quips that the "French have adopted the [End Page 638] two dullest things we have, whisk and Richardson" (1: 270). Walpole's jest is a reminder of the sociability of Richardson's novel; like playing cards, reading and discussing Clarissa brought friends and strangers together, whether they liked the text or not. Fans and detractors alike are allowed to voice their opinions in this volume, and passion characterizes the responses on both sides. Charles Brockden Brown, an enthusiast for whom "Clarissa is not a single book; it is a library, in which my mind ranges without restraint, and riots without satiety" (1: 579), has little patience for friends who do not love the novel: "I can scarcely forbear saying, that if Richardson has your contempt, you will not be able to escape mine" (1: 575). Louis Sébastien Mercier, on the other hand, characterizes Richardson's works as an "inexhaustible ocean of morality" and remarks, "I can sooner believe in those man-horses the centaurs than imagine a Clarissa endowed with every virtue and committing every imaginable stupidity" (1: 316, 317). Despite herself, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's reaction is mixed: "I heartily despise [Richardson] and eagerly read him, nay, sob over his works in a most scandalous manner" (1: 60). Predictable complaints about Richardson's "prolixity" abound, counterbalanced with laments that Clarissa is not long enough: "At each moment I could see my happiness shortening by a page," writes Diderot (1: 393).
Another strength of this volume is its representation of readers from different social ranks and continents, their comments prefaced by detailed biographies. Such diversity shows, according to Bueler, that Clarissa was not "for novelists or public intellectuals alone, but for any person, of either sex and any age, who could read and write" (1: xi). For example, Joseph Marcos Gutiérrez, a Spanish civil lawyer and translator, is hopeful that "this celebrated work will serve to correct the conspicuously slackened manners of his nation" (1: 563); a suicidal German girl is advised by Professor Christian Fürchtegott Gellert to read less Clarissa, since the book seems "detrimental to your heart" (1: 333); American Abigail Adams, prior to becoming the first lady, eagerly anticipates dining with...