The novel’s first thirty letters are between Clarissa Harlowe and her best friend, Anna Howe, although some copies of letters to and from other characters are enclosed within these. A dramatic event has just occurred: Clarissa’s brother James has gotten into a fight with the notorious libertine Robert Lovelace, and he lies injured. Anna has heard rumors that the fight was over Clarissa, and she asks her friend to clear up the story. Clarissa explains that Lovelace visited the Harlowes as a suitor to her older sister, Arabella. Arabella admired Lovelace, but he showed a total lack of interest in her and appeared much more attracted to Clarissa. James Harlowe returns from Scotland and learns about the family’s new relationship with Lovelace. James is furious and threatens to disown Clarissa if she ever marries Lovelace.
To explain their history, Clarissa reveals that James and Lovelace had been at college together, where Lovelace had been popular, successful, and something of a bully. James’s pride and bad temper had caused a rift between the two, and Lovelace’s power over his classmates had given him the ability to ruin James’s school experience. Siding with James, the Harlowes (except Clarissa) began to treat Lovelace rudely. James challenges Lovelace, but, as a poor swordsman, loses the fight. Lovelace acts like a gentleman by allowing James to live, and by politely sending inquiries about his recovery, to which the Harlowes respond insultingly.
In the next few weeks the Harlowes become worried that Clarissa will marry the man who is now the family enemy. They forbid her to see Lovelace and propose a new suitor: a rich, ugly man named Roger Solmes. James and Arabella convince Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe to insist on Clarissa’s marrying this man, whom she hates. Clarissa is not allowed to write any letters or leave home until she agrees to marry Solmes. She arranges to carry on a secret correspondence with Anna, and Lovelace convinces Clarissa to also correspond with him by implying that if she does not, he may not be able to contain his anger at the Harlowe’s insults.
Anna writes that Clarissa’s brother and sister are solely motivated by jealousy. From childhood, Clarissa has been admired for her beauty as well as for her virtue and intelligence. When their grandfather died, he left his estate to Clarissa instead of to her older brother and sister. James and especially Arabella have always been in Clarissa’s shadow, and Lovelace’s defeat of James and rejection of Arabella have fueled their resentment.
Anna also suggests that Clarissa is in love with Lovelace. Clarissa is alarmed by this idea and insists that she “would not be in love with him, as it is called, for the world.” Anna mocks Clarissa for her denial, then relates new information she has learned about Lovelace. He is very wild, especially with regard to women. He lives for pleasure but is generous and financially responsible, as well an intelligent and accomplished man of very good family. He is noted for his love of and talent for writing (as is Clarissa).
The Harlowes continue to lobby Clarissa to marry Solmes. His money and his property, which adjoins theirs, will greatly advance the standing of the Harlowes, possibly enabling James to buy a title. Clarissa’s confrontations with her family become increasingly dramatic and she is ever more torn between familial duty and her dislike of Solmes.
Lovelace writes to Clarissa and expresses his anger that she is, by common report, about to marry Solmes. It is clear that Lovelace has a spy in the Harlowe house, because he knows about everything that has been happening there. He tells Clarissa that his family (which is a very noble one) admires her and supports the idea of their marriage. He asks if he can approach Clarissa’s father and uncles to make his proposal, and also if Clarissa will meet him privately one night in the garden. Clarissa feels she should stop writing to Lovelace, but the threat to her brother and the fact that she has few other bargaining chips convince her to continue. She eventually responds to one of Lovelace’s letters, forbidding him to visit her father and uncles and insisting that she wants to stay single.
The Harlowes refuse to let Clarissa go to church and dismiss her maid, Hannah, who has been helping with the secret correspondences. Arabella’s maid, the pert Betty Barnes, is assigned to watch over Clarissa.
Anna’s situation provides a contrast with Clarissa’s. She and her mother have a close but tempestuous relationship, and Anna has none of Clarissa’s scruples about familial piety. Mrs. Howe wants Anna to marry a respectable man named Hickman, whom Anna mocks mercilessly. Mrs. Howe is close friends with Clarissa’s Uncle Antony. Anna recommends that Clarissa take control of her grandfather’s estate, which Clarissa had put into her father’s power. Clarissa refuses, insisting that as a daughter her proper place is in her father’s house and under her father’s control.
Letter 31 is the first written by Lovelace. It is to John Belford, one of his wild pack of friends. Lovelace writes of his hatred for the Harlowes and his love for Clarissa, whom he calls “my angel” and “my charmer.” It is revealed that early in his life Lovelace had been jilted for a man of higher status and had vowed revenge on all women. Lovelace also mentions that he is somehow manipulating Clarissa’s uncle and, through him, Mrs. Howe to turn them against Clarissa so that she will have no choice but to seek protection from Lovelace.
What makes Clarissa difficult, as well as interesting, is that it takes a very long time to relate a very small number of actions. Although the first section covers three months and more than a hundred plus pages, hardly anything occurs that could be called an event. The only major plot point, the duel between James and Lovelace, has happened before the book begins. The event that provides the conflict for this section, Clarissa’s forced marriage, has not happened yet and may not happen. From this first section we can gather that reading the book for plot will likely be disappointing. The action mainly goes on in characters’ minds and in their written and spoken conversations with one another.
Clarissa’s letter (or epistolary) form lends itself to a psychological, rather than plot-driven, novel. As Richardson notes in the Preface, a novel in letters is bound to be longer than one written as a narrative, because the letters will include the characters’ thoughts about and speculations on the events that happen. Since the letters in Clarissa are written by four different characters, we are given multiple points of view on single events, which also contribute to the length of the work and relative lack of action. This storytelling device was an innovation for Richardson. While his first novel, Pamela, is also in the form of letters, almost all of the letters are written by Pamela. Clarissa is more ambitious: the different points of view make the novel richer and allow us to relate with more than one character.
The letter format, especially when it uses more than one narrator, leaves a lot up to the reader. Multiple voices add depth to Clarissa’s story, but they might also lead to confusion: how can we tell which characters are telling the truth? With no narrator to warn readers that the rakes’ behavior is immoral, and that their perspectives may not be trustworthy, each character and event is open to interpretation. As it happens, Richardson’s readers did not interpret the work as he would have wanted them to. He was upset that many readers admired Lovelace and even picked up some of his slangy expressions.
The first section of the book introduces most of the major characters, beginning with Clarissa Harlowe, who is described by the people who know her as exemplary. She is exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally intelligent, and devoted to virtue. She is a credit to the Harlowe family, but her superiority is also a threat to them. Clarissa’s brother and sister resent her for her good fortunes, as indicated by their reactions to Clarissa’s inheritance and to Lovelace’s courtship. The beautiful and virtuous Clarissa is out of place amongst the Harlowes, who demonstrate a variety of negative personality traits. Mr. Harlowe is characterized as domineering, Mrs. Harlowe is passive and fearful, Arabella is mean-spirited, and James is hotheaded and cruel.
As noted by Anna, the main vice and motivation of the family is avarice: their aggressive plans to marry Clarissa off to the wealthy Mr. Solmes reveal that wealth and status are of the utmost importance to them. The Harlowes are members of the English gentry, a class of people in the eighteenth century who were newly wealthy and did not have social status. There was a stigma attached to being from an up-and-coming family like the Harlowes. Mr. Solmes is one of this group as well: he has made a great deal of money but has not acquired the social graces of the aristocracy. The Harlowes, too, are wealthy, but not noble. As such, they are socially inferior to Lovelace, who will inherit a peerage when his uncle dies. To marry Clarissa would be a step down for Lovelace, but her individual exceptionality makes her an acceptable choice in the eyes of his family (at least according to Lovelace).
Clarissa and Anna’s correspondences highlight their very different dispositions and the ambiguities of Clarissa’s feelings for Lovelace. While she claims that Clarissa is too serious, Anna characterizes herself as too flippant, and she freely makes fun of her mother and her potential fiancé, Hickman. In contrast, Clarissa feels obliged to speak respectfully of her family even when they are mistreating her. Anna teases Clarissa about the “throbs” she might feel when she reads Lovelace’s letters, although Clarissa insists that she is simply treating him with ordinary respect, and that it’s her family’s hatred that has sparked her interest in him. The difference between their accounts of Clarissa’s feelings for Lovelace makes it unclear how much Clarissa’s desire, or unconscious desire, for Lovelace might motivate her actions. Once again, the letter form leaves us to decide who is telling the truth.
Although Clarissa does not approve of Lovelace, she finds him intriguing. In Clarissa and Anna’s letters, we learn that Lovelace is an inappropriate match in one important way: she is virtuous and he is wicked. In other ways, however, the two seem to make a nice couple. As Clarissa is superior to other women, Lovelace surpasses other men in looks, bravery, intelligence, and charm. A major contributing factor to Lovelace’s bad reputation is his mistreatment of women, which, according to him, is a result of an early rejection. However, it is clear that Lovelace thoroughly enjoys the game of seducing and abandoning women and is capable of weaving elaborate webs of deceit. Clarissa, however, is not an ordinary target of Lovelace’s game: he claims to be in love for the first time, yet he still relishes his ability to turn her family against her and drive her into his arms. A tension is created between Lovelace’s love of Clarissa and his love of intrigue and revenge.
Clarissa, meanwhile, is occupied with the knotty struggle between familial duty and her individual happiness. The tension that arises here is between the individual and the social organization. Clarissa seems to believe in both: she considers it unthinkable to accept unhappiness for the rest of her life, but she also believes that as a daughter she is, and ought to be, subjected to her father’s will. Clarissa’s conception of virtue is therefore rather complicated: while following rules is important, a person still has responsibility for his or her own happiness. She believes in obedience to one’s parents, as indicated by her willingness to hand over the inherited estate to her father. But she is also unwilling to obey her parents’ commands to marry a despicable man and compromise her personal freedom.