readingheloiseBernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

Oh, no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love letters of two of the finest minds of the Middle Ages. What effect would the gratuitous sex and gore of Game of Thrones have on her?

What will she read next that will cause images to rise like heat in her mind and release forbidden chemicals in her blood? If we believe the picture, reading is a Dionysian ritual for this young woman, in which she abandons self through arousal of desires and emotions she had never guessed she had.

What isn’t shown is that when she reads, she identifies with all the characters; like Tiresias, the first recorded human transsexual, she now knows what it is like to love as a man and a woman. Through imagination, we become angels. A similar orgasmic expression was given by painters of religious subjects to saints in ecstasy, with the approval of the Church.

The next book she will pick up is one of the seven volumes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, first published in 1748. It was Number Four in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list in 2013.

Before by Hogarth, 1730 -31 © Tate Gallery London

Clarissa is an enormous book of approximately 970,000 words – the author himself was worried about the length. The size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition is a deterrent to picking it up to throw, let alone read.

It is an epistolary novel – 537 letters followed by a postscript – and the word epistolary is itself a turn-off in this emailing, Tweeting world. It should be adopted as a swear word: I’m having an epistolary day today.

But our young lady doesn’t want to read Clarissa on Kindle, or in extracts of 140 characters on an impersonal screen; she likes the intimacy of a physical book, which belongs to her; she enjoys the mystery and suspense of opening each page as if she is unlocking a jewel chest.


Antoine Pesne Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden 1744. Image: Wikipedia. The sitter was a younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her ensemble is studded with diamonds on her black cap and the bow on her choker, an ostentatious aristocratic style of fashion emulated by the impostors who arrive at Clarissa’s safe house “richly dressed and stuck out with jewels.” (Clarissa, Letter 312)

And the young woman likes jewels, and clothes, just like Clarissa does. Even when her virtue is being tested, even when her heart is broken, and she is overcome with shame and indignation at her treatment by her ruthless lover, Lovelace, Clarissa has time to note another woman’s fashionable dress, stuck out with jewels:

Listen to: Audio extract from Letter 312, in which fashion and class-conscious Clarissa is visited by Lovelace and two female accomplices, impersonating two of his rich, aristocratic relatives.

Clarissa is a middle-class girlie-girl, like Cher in Clueless (1995), who is momentarily distracted from her remorseful, Jane Austenesque epiphany by a shop window display: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”

That’s the point, you see: multi-faceted, capable of thinking and feeling several different things at the same time – and knowing it; being female; being human. You can wear high heels, and be a feminist; you can be a lesbian and wear lipstick.

The obsessive materialism of the aspirational middle-classes, whose new wealth was often founded on sugar and slavery, is presented as the source of society’s moral corruption in Clarissa. We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..


13 comments on “Epistolary

  1. […] novel’s development spanned the same number of years as poor Clarissa Harlowe‘s entire life. She was eighteen when her ordeals as recorded in epistolary form by Samuel […]


  2. […] novel’s gestation period was almost as long as poor Clarissa Harlowe‘s lifespan. She was eighteen when her ordeals as recorded in epistolary form by Samuel […]


  3. erickeyswriter says:

    Sorry, comment posted before I was done.

    I want to read that!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. erickeyswriter says:

    ” because, hell, who wants to read it?”

    Adrienne, didn’t I say something in a thread on one of your blog posts about how Pippa’s claims to not be a fascinating writer were total and utter lies? Because –

    Liked by 1 person

  5. PJR says:

    They are our natural god-given rights, aren’t they, Pete? Champagne, good wine, caviar, free entry to public art galleries and museums….Doesn’t your blood boil when you hear/read people saying that free entry is a new thing, a modern luxury endowed by St Blair? I’ve come across the lie twice in 6 momthsThe Thatcher government’s shameful introduction of charges, an aberration from 18th and 19th century principles of universal access to culture, is being erased from history, in the way Orwell & Huxley foretold….(What has this to do with Clarissa?)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. beetleypete says:

    I would have liked to have read about Socialism, and Caviar. (Which I like by the way)
    Perhaps you will write it again, another time…x

    Liked by 1 person

  7. PJR says:

    Adrienne, getting a compliment from a writer, historian and intellectual as fine as you is always humbling, and exciting. And that’s NOT BS.

    I love it when you come here to play variations on a theme that I’ve stumbled on, and you turn into a deeper composition. Looking forward to reading both books BTW (and won’t offer to record them because they really do need authentic American accents!)

    All sorts of different lines to ramble on – and the main one leads to Pemberley, of course, the ultimate aspirational home and set of moral values, an ideal of benevolent Toryism that never existed in reality.

    I wrote a lot just now – about English and American “middle class” definitions, which, might, I think, be different? – my favourite brand of champagne socialism, the way you can’t get caviar in ordinary supermarkets in UK the way you can in northern Germany and Scandinavia where it’s accessible to all, how the pursuit of beauty is a natural, not an elitist, urge which is under threat in UK today – and I’ve deleted it all, because, hell, who wants to read it?

    All I’ll retain is this relevant bit: To try and keep post short, I left out vital details that Clarissa is a victim of middle class materialism because, after she rather than her brother inherits her grandfather’s estates, her family try and force her into marrying a man she physically loathes for money, not love, as part of a deal that would transfer the properties and prospects of an aristocratic title to the horrid brother. So there’s a strong feminist angle, too. She is tempted by Lovelace (an aristocrat) partly as a way of defying her family’s patriarchy.

    Best wishes to you and your family, and thank you again. XX

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I wonder about the materialist middle class. Aren’t we a bit hard on them? Every so often the average, hard working person gets a taste of what the rich and powerful always have–freedom and spending money. For whatever corruption the middle class brings to society they hardly have the wealth or power of the often vain and stupid elite who send other people’s children to war for reasons many of the middle and lower classes hardly ever imagine.

    A street fight or public drunkenness though ugly and small is far healthier than kings and queens fighting over land or in America ignorant and pompous politicians (tied in with pedophilia) garnering huge amounts of money for speaking.

    As always you write beautifully and make me think, Pippa.

    Have a lovely weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. erickeyswriter says:

    I have to agree with Pete. I’d love to here you read some Wilde.

    “We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..” As always, your historical contextualizing makes me see things in a new way.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. segmation says:

    Love the expression on Before by Hogarth!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. […] We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary invent… […]

    Liked by 1 person

  12. PJR says:

    I am always grateful for your kind comments and that one is particularly consoling. I’ve tried keeping my blogging and professional life separate, but now one has leaked into the other. Being told someone wants to hear and see you is the raison d’etre of actors; believe it or not, we don’t all like hearing the sound of our own voices – but we are dependent on YOU liking them. X

    Liked by 2 people

  13. beetleypete says:

    You are right to highlight the fact that so little has changed over the centuries.
    Hearing you read the letter, I am struck by how much I would like to see you in a film or play. Perhaps one of the works of Oscar Wilde? Your tone is perfect for the era.
    Always a joy to hear you reading Pippa. Have you recorded any complete ‘talking books’? If not, they should sign you up immediately. ‘Rebecca’, ‘Anna Karenina’, Pride and Prejudice’, I can ‘hear’ you in so many classic novels.
    Best wishes from Norfolk as always, Pete. x

    Liked by 2 people

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