Sunday, June 7, 2015

Clarissa on a smartphone

Lovelace abducting Clarissa Harlowe (detail), by Édouard Louis Dubufe (1867)

Ahead of the technology curve as ever, I recently bought a smartphone. (Or should that be "smart phone"? I'm not sure.) So far, I've kept my smartphone as ignorant as possible: I haven't loaded it up with apps, and I've turned off many of its privacy-invading features. I'm sure a few years from now I'll be defending Townsville, obsessively monitoring my resting heart rate, and hooking up with random strangers; not yet, though.

The phone came pre-loaded with an e-book app, which at first seemed useless. The idea of reading a full-length book on a palm-sized phone screen seemed awkward at best. But I decided to try it when I found that I could download, for free, a complete text of Samuel Richardson's 1747 novel Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady. [1]

I had been meaning to read Clarissa for over a year. It's a monument of 18th-century literature—almost literally: the unabridged Penguin paperback runs to 1500 pages of small print, and weighs almost three pounds. (Penguin reprinted the first—and shortest!—edition; Richardson added even more material for the second and third editions.) A three-pound paperback was not something I wanted to lug back and forth on my commute. Since I would be carrying my phone anyway, though, I thought I would give reading the e-book version a try.

And the experience wasn't bad. You turn pages by swiping, and they curl back in a reasonable simulacrum of a printed page—cute, and it avoids the problem of endless scrolling. There are page numbers, although they don't correspond to the pages of any print edition. Instead they are the screen numbers of the phone version; each page in the phone version of Clarissa was about a third the length of a printed page in the Penguin edition. You can change the font size, although the default seemed fine, and the screen contrast automatically adjusts to ambient light. You can search within the text, bookmark pages and, with the touch of a finger, underline passages (something that I can't bring myself to do with a physical book).

The main annoyance is that the optical character recognition program used to digitize the text makes pretty frequent transcription errors. In the screenshot of the first page of the novel, for example, the word "disturbance" in the first sentence should be "disturbances" (and is so rendered in the Penguin edition). But most of the errors were readily decipherable, and they didn't seriously interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

Finally, my engagement with the text did not seem less than it would have been with a printed book. That was reassuring, because there are conflicting accounts of how print and onscreen reading compare. In the late 1990s Jakob Nielsen found that reading from screens was 25% slower than reading print, and that when reading from screens people tended to scan and skim. In a New Yorker article last year, "Being a Better Online Reader" (July 16, 2014), Maria Konnikova summarized more recent research which found that the medium still matters: people who read onscreen still tend to skim, and retain and comprehend less of what they've read. Some research suggests that may be partly a result of the distractions that are always present when we're online: the temptation to click links, watch videos, text, e-mail, and surf the web. Don't our devices hold the promise that there's always something else out there that's more fun than what we're doing?

But during my commute, I could read on my phone with few distractions: I get calls or texts only occasionally, and I don't use my phone to play games, watch videos, answer e-mail or surf the web. (The question that naturally arises is, if I do none of those things, why do I need a smartphone? Peer pressure triumphs again.)  So reading a book on my phone while commuting was generally no more difficult than reading a print book: the major sources of distraction were the need to block out the screeching, rumbling noise of the subway and to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding urban realities.

I still prefer reading print, and not because of nostalgia. I do find physical books appealing, especially older ones in which you can actually see the impression of the type on the paper, and which are well-bound and fit nicely in the hand. There is something deeply satisfying about a well-produced book; the codex is a beautiful and useful format that has lasted for centuries. So when I'm sitting in a chair at home, with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine at my elbow, I still read printed books. But when I'm being jostled on a crowded train on my way home from work, I'm glad that I now have an alternative. Nonetheless, because of the privacy, licensing and technical issues I outlined in the post "The future of books," I can't imagine actually purchasing an e-book for my phone. And since almost the entire corpus of pre-1923 literature is in the public domain, I don't think I'll ever have to. Thank you, Project Gutenberg and Open Library.

Back to Clarissa, a novel outsized not only in its length but in its impact. It is written as a series of letters exchanged among its characters; while it was far from the first novel to adopt this format, after its success (and that of its predecessor, Pamela (1740)) the epistolary form became a model for other writers for the next half-century. What also became a model was the story of a virtuous but inexperienced heroine beset by the importunate attentions of more worldly men. Both the form and the plot clearly influenced Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), in which the naïve heroine is subject to the aggressive pursuit of Sir Clement Willoughby, and Jane Austen's Elinor and Marianne (ca. 1795, later to be reworked in narrative form as Sense and Sensibility) in which the youthful Marianne is courted by the duplicitous Willoughby.

Because of its immensity, though, Clarissa is daunting for readers. As it turns out, while its length is prodigious, its story can be described in just a few sentences. Be forewarned: the next two paragraphs contain spoilers:

The action of the novel takes place over the course of eleven months, from mid-January to mid-December. [2] Clarissa, a young, beautiful, virtuous woman, well-read and well-spoken, wise beyond her years, is emotionally blackmailed by her parents and siblings to marry a rich suitor she strongly dislikes. She's attracted instead to a handsome, witty gentleman from a wealthy and well-situated family, Robert Lovelace. Lovelace is dogged by scandalous rumors of wild living, but Clarissa believes that she can change him—a belief she comes to realize, too late, is delusory.

Lovelace contrives to separate Clarissa from her family and takes her to London, where he holds her against her will in what Clarissa at first believes is a respectable boarding house, but which turns out to be a brothel. She resists, to the point of threatening suicide, all of Lovelace's attempts to seduce her, until he finally has her drugged into unconsciousness and rapes her. She eventually escapes him, and, impoverished and still alienated from her family, overwhelmed by sorrow, slowly declines until she dies. Although as she nears death she forgives the (semi-)repentant Lovelace, she refuses his offers of marriage. After her death, her cousin Colonel Morden challenges her abductor to a duel in which Lovelace is killed.

—End of spoilers—

Clarissa presents several problems, which were apparent even to its earliest readers. The first is that the epistolary form involves a certain amount of repetition, and enforces a slow narrative pace. It is only at Letter 92 at the end of the novel's second volume that the first crisis in the plot is reached, and we are barely a quarter of the way through the book. Patience is definitely required. Richardson himself asked the friends to whom he showed the draft manuscript for suggestions about what he should cut—but then became offended at anyone who actually offered editing advice. Boswell recorded Samuel Johnson's comment that "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment." [3]

The second problem is that, while Lovelace is indeed a black villain—a schemer and a bully, he has clearly deceived, abducted and raped a series of young women, some of whom have died as a result—he is also the book's liveliest and most dangerously charismatic character. He all but takes over as the narrator for the middle third of the book; in later editions Richardson felt he had to add significant details to remind us of how nasty he is, lest we find him too charming.

And the third problem is Clarissa herself. With all of her virtues and wisdom, she is almost too perfect. Towards the end of the novel, Clarissa's piety and equanimity come to seem excessive (if there can be such a thing as excessive equanimity). Her fate inspires our dismay, perhaps, more readily than it excites our sympathy. It is the idealization of Richardson's heroines that drove Henry Fielding to satirize him so mercilessly in Shamela (1741), and to implicitly decry a morality—accepted unquestioningly by Richardson's heroines—that held an unmarried woman's virginity to be more important than her life.

I'm going on to read Pamela, which has many parallels to Clarissa. However, I can't help but feel that Burney, Austen, and the other women writers who followed Richardson's model improved on it. Clarissa and Pamela are paragons of perfection; Evelina and Marianne are allowed to be flawed, complex, recognizably human in their failings, and as a result, for this reader, at least, more fully sympathetic.


1. The available version seems to be the one prepared for Project Gutenberg by Julie C. Sparks, although the Project Gutenberg credit has been removed.

2. The nearest year to which the days and dates of the letters correspond is 1747; the first two volumes of Clarissa were published in December of that year.

3. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 480.

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