Forget ’50 Shades of Grey.’ Go Read ‘Clarissa.’


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? Continue reading


Fanny Burney’s ‘Cecilia’: Blame It on Pride (and Prejudice)

I’ve just finished this, Fanny Burney’s second novel, published 1782. It hurt like a toothache the whole time I was reading, yet I feel strangely bereft now that I am done.

People who complain that “Pride & Prejudice” lacks passion, a large group that includes not only Charlotte Bronte but also, apparently, the authors of “Pride & Promiscuity,” “Pride and Prejudice: The Wanton Edition” and “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife,” should try reading “Cecilia.” Compared to it, “Pride & Prejudice,” with Darcy’s “fine, tall person, handsome features and noble mien” as well as Elizabeth’s “light and pleasing” figure and “fine eyes,” is like “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”

But, really, anyone who likes “Pride & Prejudice,” a far larger group, should consider reading this work.  There are weird echoes of “Cecilia” all over “P&P,” not least the very title, an allusion to a comment late in “Cecilia” that everything that went wrong between the lovers could be attributed to the twin woes of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. (As is well known, P&P’s original title, “First Impressions,” had already been used by the time Jane Austen got around to finding a publisher in 1813.) “P&P,” like “Cecilia,” owes a debt to Samuel Johnson in its magnificent sentence structures, and explores how misunderstandings and status differences can thwart mutual attraction.

Unusually for a woman of the 18th century, Cecilia is wealthy in her own right, with (as we learn early on) £10,000 free and clear  from her parents and an estate from an uncle that assures her an additional yearly income of £3,000. She is also beautiful, kind and intelligent. And  an orphan! Continue reading

What Are Chapters For?

In the long time that I have been away from this blog, I have not been entirely unproductive. Among other things, I’ve been revising The Jane Austen Project and am now through Chapter 6. In honor of that, I have decided to post Chapter 2 here.

I’ve also been thinking about a lot of things, like Downton Abbey, which deserves a post of its own, only I don’t know where to start, and also, not completely unrelated, about chapters. For one thing that intrigues me about Downton Abbey is the issues it raises about the different ways there are of telling a story, and chapters have something to do with that. How do we decide where they begin and end, and what do they have to do with the architecture of a novel? Continue reading