Watching Clarissa


I will warn everyone in advance: I do not know where I am going with this post.

And then I will say: Cara, avert your eyes. I’m talking Richardson.

Awhile ago, I got a copy of the BBC production of Clarissa, starring Sean Bean and Saskia Wickham.

When I was a teenager, I read and re-read Samuel Richardson‘s Clarissa; it is a tortured, compelling story of an honorable woman stuck between a rock (her family’s insistence she marry an awful man) and a hard place (Lovelace, a rake who falls violently in love with her). Honestly, I love this story. Each time I read it, I hoped Lovelace would reform earlier, or Clarissa’s family would relent, and each time I cried at the end.

I started watching the other day (my reward while ironing a random dozen of my husband’s shirts), and the televised version puts in an uncomfortable plot point: Clarissa’s sister and brother are dabbling in incest.

I was miffed that they would choose to make that a plot point because the book makes it clear why her siblings are being so terrible to her, but then I thought again that it might’ve happened more often back then.

Think about it: After a certain age, the sons were sent off to school while the daughters remained safely at home. They were separated so they didn’t have that sibling contempt (as in ‘familiarity breeds . . . ‘), but when they were together, they lived in the same house, so they had access to people of the opposite sex. And being teenagers, they probably were interested in sexual experimentation, and found the easiest solution: Their siblings.

We’ve all read with horror–and some salacious interest–of Byron’s suspected affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. They were raised separately, and began keeping company again when they were adults.

But back to Clarissa. One thing that made the book so compelling for me is that although Clarissa is a virtuous girl, she is indeed intrigued by Lovelace; certainly, he is far more appealing than the suitor her family has chosen, whom Lovelace warns her will be the cause of her early death. And who wouldn’t be fascinated by him? He has a shocking reputation as a rake, he is handsome, charming, and persuasive (that he is played by Sean Bean in the miniseries certainly does no damage in my eyes, either).

But since she is so pure of heart, and of motive, she decides against Lovelace, but circumstances ultimately force her to him. Which, in turn, forces her to her eventual demise.

If Clarissa were a romance novel, she would have reformed her rake early enough to achieve her happy ending. But Richardson wasn’t writing romance, he was writing virtue, so while Lovelace and Clarissa’s siblings get what they deserve, Clarissa herself does not.

I don’t think I would actually like Clarissa if I met her, whereas I would definitely have a great time with Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet.

Let’s see: I’ve brought up incest, sexual taboos, great (or not) works of literature, non-romance novels, unhappy endings, just rewards, and which heroine you’d get along with. Pick any or all and discuss, if you like. Thanks for following along with my train of thought, which has gotten very, very derailed.

Megan
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