I’ve finally finished. At 984,870 words spread over nine volumes, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read. Starting on January 10th of this year, I’ve read it letter by letter according to the date ascribed to each one. Today marked the date of the last one. And now that I’ve been reading it for so long, I hardly know how to begin writing this review, but I’ll give it my best shot.
I suppose the first thing to talk about is the sheer length of it. It certainly presented an interesting change. In reading the 1001 list so far, I’ve had some challenges, but this one takes the cake for being the most monumental. I believe I mentioned in an earlier post that there’s a great feeling of accomplishment that comes along with reading a book like this cover to cover. I certainly wouldn’t be feeling that right now if the book had been of a normal length.
On the other hand, it was so long that it dragged. On and on, often repeating the same points over and over again. And sometimes it picked up, getting so exciting that I was tempted into breaking my schedule by reading ahead. But that only made it more frustrating when it all slowed down again. As a writing major, I’ve learned that one of the most important parts of editing is knowing what to cut. You have to chop out whatever isn’t pulling its weight, whatever doesn’t quite fit, even if that means that you have to “kill your darlings” as Faulker once said. So I can’t help but wonder how much better Clarissa might have been if Samuel Richardson had edited it down to size.
The author himself recognized that many of his contemporary readers had expressed a similar opinion, and he addresses this, along with other complaints, in a postscript to the novel. Now, I find this a little obnoxious as well. In my writing classes, we run workshops in a fairly standardized way, and the most important rule is that the writer of the piece being workshopped isn’t allowed to talk. This is for a lot of reasons, but one of them is to discourage the instinct to defend your piece from every criticism, which is exactly what Richardson appears to be doing. But perhaps you feel that a published author whose books are so highly regarded is allowed to break whatever rules he wants to. I just can’t quite get past it.
Anyway, in his postscript, Richardson defends the length by quoting another writer, who says, “That if, in the history before us, it shall be found that the spirit is duly diffused throughout; that the characters are various and natural; well distinguished and uniformly supported and maintained; if there be a variety of incidents sufficient to excite attention, and those so conducted as to keep the reader always awake! the length then must add proportionably to the pleasure that every person of taste receives from a well-drawn picture of nature. But where the contrary of all these qualities shock the understanding, the extravagant performance will be judged tedious, though no longer than a fairy-tale.” I agree completely! The problem is that this book does not provide “a variety of incidents sufficient to excite attention.” At least not enough to maintain it throughout a thousand plus pages. I would have given up on this book long ago if I had tried to read it as I would a normal book. The way I read it, though, a little bit at a time over months and months, made it enjoyable enough.
At this point, I would like to go into more depth speaking about the characters, the plot, and all that good stuff, but I feel that I just can’t restrict myself to speaking only of events that happen in the first volume or so. Therefore, I’ll save all of those for a later review to go on my spoilers page. For all those reading this review because they’re considering reading this book themselves, I would definitely recommend reading it according to the dates on the letters, as I did. It’s a fine book to read if you have the patience to stick with it. I’ll give it