Richardson proclaims Clarissa is boring before you even start the novel

Here’s what Samuel Richardson wrote about his novel Clarissa (1748) in its “Preface:”

From what has been said, considerate readers will not enter upon the perusal of the piece before them as if it were designed only to divert and amuse. It will probably be thought tedious to all such as dip into it, expecting a light novel, or transitory romance; and look upon story in it (interesting as that is generally allowed to be) as its sole end, rather than as a vehicle to the instruction.

I don’t think I’m a “considerate reader,” since novels that don’t “divert and amuse” on some level are, in fact, “tedious.” The novel is a 1,000-page deferral regarding whether and who with the title character is going to do it. Although I understand intellectually that this matter was of great import at the time it was written, I can’t quite build up the need to care. Reading about Clarissa is better than reading the novel itself.

Consider this comment, which Keith thinks in The Pregnant Widow:

It sometimes seemed to Keith that the English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What’ll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall? Well, there’ll be new ways of falling . . .

Notice that Keith doesn’t assert that the central question of the novel is will she fall: only that it “sometimes seemed to Keith,” implying that other times the central question might seem otherwise. But it also asks whether we should care: if she “falls,” that means she’s a person who makes her own decisions, and if she doesn’t—then so what? What’s at stake is a question that doesn’t matter all that much except to the extent the woman involved makes it matter. This brings up an uncomfortable point alluded to by that ellipsis: if it doesn’t matter, then the novel doesn’t matter. And this novel doesn’t matter. So why should we read it?

The “it” is deliberately ambiguous, as it could refer to Clarissa or The Pregnant Widow. Various answers arise: as a historical document; to understand shifting ways we understand sexuality; to trace how the novel developed as a genre.

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