Monday, August 25, 2008

Still Reading Clarissa

Yes. Sigh. I have passed the 800-page mark, which means I am more than halfway there.

Clarissa has fled the bawdy house where Lovelace had installed her and sought refuge in Hampstead Heath. (Which, according to the London public transport web site, she could have reached in about an hour from Convent Garden (I'm imagining her in CG because the neighborhood was a nest of vice in the mid 18th century) by subway, were she alive today. But I digress. If she were alive today, none of this would be happening, unless she had the misfortune to be born, say, in Afghanistan.) Lovelace, being as diabolical as he is clever as Clarissa is good, promptly finds her. He is intercepting the letters she and her only remaining friend, Anna Howe, are exchanging, substituting his words for theirs. This will not end well.

For all that I cannot seem to get through it, this is an astonishing book, like nothing I have ever read or imagined, both in the way it is told and what it has to say. If Penguin Classics had only published it in two volumes, I think I would be done by now. Frequently in the last month I found myself reluctant to take it on the subway -- if I had any other single thing to carry in addition to the usual essentials, or had to run any errand on the way to work, it just seemed too heavy.

I took a break and read Northanger Abbey -- the one Austen work I had not yet reread in the last year or so, finding it delightfully light, in both senses of the term, by comparison. Though it is definitely the slightest of her novels, and the most amateurish, if one can use a word like that in connection with Jane Austen. The early part in Bath is very funny, showing a mastery of irony astonishing in an author so young. It seems to drag a bit when Catherine gets to Northanger Abbey, with the awkward mix of the disparate elements that refuse to merge (faux-Gothic, more irony). Austen describes things, like rooms, much more than in any later work.

Henry is hilarious, utterly droll, but that he falls in love with Catherine seems unconvincing. He is so funny; she's so naive and prone to taking everything at face value that is hard to imagine that he finds her a particularly interesting companion. Or was this merely Jane Austen's subtle swipe at the preference of even intelligent men for air-headed women? Catherine is a dear creature, but she is no Elizabeth Bennet, no Emma Woodhouse or Anne Elliot.

Now I am back in the dark, relentless, claustrophobic world of Clarissa and Lovelace, there to remain for some time.

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