In addition to learning about Jane Austen and her times, I have undertaken to read some of the books that she would have read. Tom Jones, which we know from the letters she read in her teens, was my first step, and a novel I should have read long ago on its own merits, because it is hilarious. Now I am embarked on Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, and finding it a bit more of a slog, not least bit hilarious, but with its own dark fascination.
I realized why few, if any, ever read "Clarissa" in an English class when I saw it waiting for me on the reserve shelf at the library. It is huge! As in, War and Peace huge, without the excuse of having years, generations, continents, an entire war (and a peace) to cover. As in 1,536 pages huge. What is more amazing, the events described in it take place over only nine months, giving rise to the possibility that a slow reader might take longer to read the action than Clarissa and her fictional friends did to live it. Being an epistolary novel adds to its real-time feeling. It is like watching paint dry, only slightly more suspenseful, I marvel to myself, and yet somehow I keep reading it.
In some ways, I am reminded of a fairy tale. Clarissa Harlowe, beautiful, intelligent and virtuous, is shunned and abused by her relatives for refusing to marry the horrid man they have selected for her. Envy seems to be at the root of the problem: Clarissa's grandfather has left her considerable property, passing over his sons and two other grandchildren, which has sent Clarissa's odious brother and sister, who never liked her anyway, over the edge. Some in Clarissa's family --her mother, and an aunt -- secretly sympathize but are too beaten down to stand up for her. Complicating Clarissa's situation is that the notorious rake Lovelace, whom the sister at one point aspired to marry despite his "faulty morals," has turned his attentions to Clarissa. The family cannot abide Lovelace, because he nearly killed Clarissa's brother in a duel (long story). The obsessive concern that she will run away with Lovelace anyway, thus making them all look like fools, leads to the decision to essentially imprison her in the house.
A key plot point of "Tom Jones" is also the effort to marry a virtuous young woman (Sophia Western) off to a man she loathes, making me wonder how often this problem occurred in real life at the time. Or was it simply a fictional device with a lot of potential? In "Pride and Prejudice," this motif appears, but with a highly comic treatment, when Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet. More seriously, Fanny Price feels pressure to accept Henry Crawford in "Mansfield Park," but it is of a far more subtle kind. And no Austen parent would think of accepting on behalf of the young women, as Sophia and Clarissa's fathers do without hesitation. Whether the status of women changed so much in 50-60 years, or Austen's novels are simply truer to life, cannnot be determined from the information given.