The voluminous tale of virtuous Clarissa and her aristocratic rogue of a suitor, Lovelace, encompassed 1,550 pages and captivated England’s 18th century readers.
But “Clarissa,” the longest novel ever written in the English language—and among the first told entirely through letters exchanged by its characters—fell victim to its girth and became a neglected classic. A shame, too, bemoaned Florida State University English Professor Sheila Ortiz-Taylor, given gender and power themes that resonate today.
“I’d only met one person who read the entire original, and he was insufferably proud of having done so,” she said. “I’d read it, too, but only if bedridden for three months.”
Then, in 2003, publisher Penguin Books asked the noted novelist to help “Clarissa” lighten up. Now, two years later and nearly 1,000 pages thinner, Ortiz-Taylor’s abridged “Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady” will glide into bookstores Oct. 4 wearing Penguin’s Signet Classics label.
Beginning in early 2004, the FSU scholar of women’s literature and 18th century British novels put author Samuel Richardson’s tome on a strict word diet. She trimmed extraneous characters, subplots and repetitive moralizing to produce a still-ample but embraceable 576-page edition.
Meanwhile, she meticulously preserved “Clarissa’s” language, paragraph placement and breaks, and order of significant events. The transparent result includes ellipses wherever isolated words were excised from sentences. Characters’ letters still bear Richardson’s original numbering so that deletions are discernable.
Initially, there was heavy lifting involved. Assorted weights held a copy of the original text open until an assistant scanned the giant classic into computer files.
Ortiz-Taylor acknowledges a model for her methods in the out-of-print 1971 abridgement by Philip Stevick. But she suggests her svelte “Clarissa” retains best the good bones and intricate heart of the original for new life in the classroom.
“I think of myself as the gardener who came behind Richardson,” said Ortiz-Taylor, noting that the author readily described himself as “a sorry pruner.” In fact, though a printer by trade and only marginally educated, he was a major influence upon such writers as Virginia Woolf and Henry James.
Back in 18th century London, Richardson released his novel between 1748 and 1749 as a “publication in part,” delivered to book shops and public libraries in a yearlong series of cliff-hanging installments that mirrored the same tumultuous span of time in his characters’ lives.
“‘Clarissa’ may be the grandmother of all soap operas,” said Ortiz-Taylor.
The book’s first readers eagerly awaited each new chapter in a complex courtship bracketed by duels and demises; 19-year-old Clarissa even orders her own coffin and uses it as a writing table.
In a narrative told through intimate letters, it’s a veritable “he said, she said” filled with ruminations on class, love, virtue tested then taken, and honor lost—or salvaged after all. Power shifts unexpectedly and dissecting the truth can be tricky. Myriad witnesses recount and judge events from disparate perspectives.
And woven through it all, contends Ortiz-Taylor, is an emotional triangle formed by Clarissa, her confidante Anne Howe and a conflicted Lovelace that draws a more intriguing angle than the central courtship alone.
A thousand pages thinner, it’s still heavy stuff.
Author of four novels and other published works, Ortiz-Taylor is the associate chair and Francis G. Townsend Professor in FSU’s nationally recognized English department, where currently she teaches fiction writing. A recipient of numerous fellowships—including the Fulbright—and university teaching awards, her next book will be “OutRageous,” the third in a trilogy. It is an academic satire, due out in 2006 and entirely fictional, she said.