Clarissa Harlowe

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I’ve been reading an old book, one of the first novels written in English.  Clarissa Harlowe is an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, who’s sometimes credited with inventing the form with his earlier Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded.  Both date from the first half of the 18th century.

This is just for fun, mind you, the consolation prize for traveling a lot.  But the educational zealot in me can’t help but notice a couple of things.  First, the book holds up because of some timeless strengths –psychological insight, tight plotting, and some great turns of phrase.  It is really entertaining, for reasons that remind me that coursework in English Lit isn’t a bad way to pick up a few of the skills that benefit graduates in every major, like being able to express ideas, empathize with strangers, and hold people’s attention.

Second, confessionally, it holds up because I’m educated.  If I’d gone to a crummy elementary school and then quit a few years later, I wouldn’t find this nearly so absorbing.  But the capacity to read past the outdated diction, and accept a culture separated from mine by several centuries and an ocean, means I’m not only a better citizen and employee, but also seldom bored.  In public policy battles, we downplay the value of learning for the sheer fun of it, but Clarissa is a good reminder.

Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff's Office exhibited 1833 by Charles Landseer 1799-1879This book is long – nine volumes, believe it or not, each one the length of a novel on its own.  Awful things happen in it, usually to good people.  And it is SLOW, characters agonizing over tiny decisions with enormous personal consequences.

Yet it’s a page-turner:  in each letter one character recounts to another events that only just happened.  It feels somehow breathless, and so help me, real.  (Sometimes a letter is cut short because someone else is coming in, or the writer’s hand got tired.)  And, six and a half volumes in, there’s really no guessing where it will go.

When I started this, I wondered if I was the first person to read it since, say, the American Revolution.  But then I found a whole nest of fans here.

If you’re one, then don’t tell me how it ends.

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