Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady Summary

Samuel Richardson

Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady

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Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady Summary

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Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady is an epistolary novel that tells the story of the beautiful, virtuous Clarissa and her tragic end. Harrison and Co. first printed the cautionary tale in 1748 in a series of eight volumes.

The first few letters are between Clarissa and her friend, Anna. Anna reports that Clarissa’s brother James was in a duel with a man named Richard Lovelace, and Clarissa relays that Lovelace was courting her sister Arabella. He turned his attention to Clarissa, angering her siblings.

Lovelace wins the duel against James but allows him to live. The Harlowes treat Lovelace with disdain and forbid Clarissa to correspond with him. Clarissa continues to communicate with Lovelace in secret.

Meanwhile, Clarissa’s family has chosen Roger Solmes as her suitor. Solmes is an old, ugly, rich man, and Clarissa refuses him. When pleading and bribing fails to change Clarissa’s mind, the family tells her they will send her away to her uncle’s house where she’ll be forced to marry Roger anyway. When Clarissa tells Lovelace of her family’s intentions, he begins concocting a plan for Clarissa to run away with him and stay at his family’s home.

Clarissa’s Aunt Hervey informs her that she’ll be marrying Roger soon and Clarissa tells Lovelace to enact his plan but to send his female cousins to preserve her reputation. She soon changes her mind, however, and decides to marry Roger. When she meets with Lovelace to let him know, a servant paid off by Lovelace distracts the family and Lovelace whisks Clarissa away under the pretense of rescuing her.

Lovelace takes her to his lodgings in St. Albans. His cousins aren’t present, making the situation morally questionable. Anna suggests that Clarissa marry Lovelace so she won’t be ruined.

In Lovelace’s letters to his friend, John Belford, he confesses his love for Clarissa and explains that he dislikes women because a woman refused him in favor of a richer man. After he has Clarissa at his lodgings, he tells John he’s delighted to have tricked her and is eager to prove that she’s not virtuous at all. Belford tries to convince Lovelace to give up his scheme to no avail.

Clarissa’s family refuses to help her because they believe she is ruined. Her brother is planning to kidnap her back so she can marry Roger and, according to a letter from Arabella, Clarissa’s father has put a curse on her.

Lovelace agrees to set Clarissa up in a house in London which is overseen by a widow named Mrs. Sinclair. Clarissa soon discovers that the house is actually a brothel. Lovelace ruined all of the women working there.

Lovelace promises to marry Clarissa and repair her reputation, but the day never comes.

Anna plans for Clarissa to escape and stay with her friend, Mrs. Townsend, but one of Lovelace’s mistresses shows him Clarissa’s letters and Lovelace is infuriated. Clarissa rips up their marriage settlements.

Lovelace convinces a friend of his to pose as a spy sent by Clarissa’s family. The spy asks Clarissa if she and Lovelace are married so that he might report the good news to her family. Lovelace has also repaired the marriage settlements and sent them to a lawyer for approval. He then hides in Clarissa’s bed. When she discovers him there, she’s furious and refuses to see him for a week. She takes the opportunity to escape.

Clarissa hides at a lodging house, but Lovelace’s servant finds her. Lovelace dresses as an old man and gets a room at the lodging house. He soon reveals himself in front of the other lodgers. He tells them that he’s Clarissa’s husband and begins intercepting and changing Anna’s letters.

Prostitutes posing as Lovelace’s cousins escort Clarissa back to the brothel in London. Mrs. Sinclair drugs Clarissa and Lovelace rapes her. He informs Belford, who is distraught. When Clarissa wakes up, she’s temporarily insane, and her letters are rambling. She wants to go to a mental hospital, but Lovelace won’t let her. Lovelace says he’ll marry her, but Clarissa refuses. After suffering a fever, she escapes the brothel dressed as a maid. While in hiding, Clarissa discovers all of the lies Lovelace has told and word gets out to his cousins and family.

Some of the prostitutes from Mrs. Sinclair’s tell the police that Clarissa owes them money and the police arrest her. Belford bails Clarissa out and finds her a lodging. There, she becomes ill and begins to waste away. She writes that she’s accepted Death as her suitor. She asks for her family’s forgiveness, which they refuse, and she settles her will. She dies.

Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden, finds Lovelace and challenges him to a duel. Lovelace is fatally wounded and dies.

Belford writes in the conclusion that Clarissa’s siblings marry philandering and dishonest partners, Anna marries the nice man she was courting, and Belford marries Lovelace’s cousin. Clarissa’s parents die shortly after her death.

Critics regard the novel as a masterpiece of 18th-century literature. While the story was popular and critically well-received upon its release, many readers disliked the sad ending, and several wrote their own conclusions. Many of these alternative endings saw Clarissa and Lovelace married.