With the much-heralded release of the film version of the much-heralded book, it’s hard to avoid thinking about Fifty Shades of Grey, the work that has given fresh hope to a million unknown optimists writing self-published fanfiction, that made pornography respectable and brought bondage into the mainstream, and has become a touchstone for terrible prose. But this weekend I found myself instead thinking of something else; I found myself thinking of Clarissa. A book I read almost seven years ago and am unable to get past.
You want a story of dominance and submission? You want a rich, creepy, brilliant, controlling male lead? Robert Lovelace leaves Christian Grey eating his dust. And Clarissa Harlowe, handsome, clever and rich, but born in the wrong century and created by the wrong author, makes Anastasia Steele look more loser-ly and pathetic than she already is. There is drama, heartbreak, betrayal, drug use, Stockholm syndrome, cliffhangers and gender battles. As God is my witness, there’s everything.
This book is amazing. Why is it not better known?
This is not a rhetorical question. There are several important reasons it is not better known, even among English majors, despite being the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day (its day being 1748-49). For one thing, it is 1,534 pages in the current Penguin edition, a heft that would take up much of a semester and took up my entire Manhattan Portage messenger bag when I was trying to read it on my subway commute back in 2008 (I did not yet own a Kindle, which would have helped enormously).
For another, it is slow. The events described in these 1,534 pages cover only about nine months, making it possible a slow reader could read it more slowly than it actually happens. It’s written entirely in letters, so the effect is of real time: no distance or perspective, no tactful eliding of the boring parts. It’s like watching paint dry, except creepier. It’s hard to describe the cumulative psychological effect of this book, except to say it’s powerful.
So, what happens in Clarissa?
I am reminded of a fairy tale. Clarissa Harlowe, beautiful, intelligent and virtuous, is shunned and abused by her relatives for refusing to marry the horrid man they have selected for her. Envy seems to be at the root of the problem: Clarissa’s grandfather has left her considerable property, passing over his sons and two other grandchildren, which has sent Clarissa’s odious brother and sister, who never liked her anyway, over the edge. Some in Clarissa’s family — her mother and an aunt — secretly sympathize but are too beaten down to stand up for her. Complicating Clarissa’s situation is that the notorious rake Lovelace, whom the sister at one point aspired to marry despite his “faulty morals,” has turned his attentions to Clarissa. The family cannot abide Lovelace, because he nearly killed Clarissa’s brother in a duel (long story). The obsessive concern that she will run away with Lovelace anyway, making them all look like fools, prompts the decision to essentially imprison her in the house.
Clarissa, a highly intelligent prisoner, though not one with a lot of options as a woman in 18th-century England, starts looking for a way out. This leads to exactly what her family does not want: a clandestine correspondence with Lovelace and an eventual elopement with him. But Lovelace does not want to marry her! Oh no. He believes that virtuous women do not actually exist, and to prove it, he is going to corrupt Clarissa.
I’m not giving much away here to say Lovelace finally succeeds (though it takes hundreds of pages and he doesn’t play fair) because the dark, claustrophobic power of this book is not in what happens, but the unforgettable way it’s told. It’s a book that you don’t just read but inhabit, and that is what is ultimately makes it unforgettable.
It’s now available on the Kindle, mystifyingly sold in two volumes at $5.49 and $0.99, but well worth it. Take your stand against E.L. James and all she represents!