BookTok challenge: Reading Clarissa, the longest novel written in English



When it comes to aspirational reading — those books we think we should read but never get around to cracking open — many people think of epic novels like “War and Peace” or “Infinite Jest.” But those two doorstoppers are still no match, at least in terms of length, for Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa: Or The History of a Young Lady.” That 1748 classic, at 1,494 pages (a variety of appendixes in my edition, including a page of relevant sheet music, round the whole thing out to 1,534 pages), is, by most measures, the longest English-language novel in a single volume. As Judith Pascoe, an English professor at Florida State University who has studied and taught “Clarissa,” says, “Once you’ve read it, you join a fairly small club of other people who’ve made it all the way through.”

That club is getting bigger. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reason is TikTok. It is there that Henry Eliot, a freelance editor and podcaster for Penguin books, is hosting a year-long read-along of “Clarissa.” Through December, Eliot is posting frequent videos to his account, recapping the book’s most recent events as they unfold and responding to readers’ questions and comments.

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On Jan. 12, Eliot uploaded his first video, filmed in a bookcase-lined corner of his West London home. He thought perhaps a few dozen people might decide to join him. Unlike much of TikTok’s content, this wasn’t a quick-fix life hack but a 12-month commitment to reading a novel that is very weighty, in all senses.

Surprisingly, though, Eliot’s initial installment garnered some 270,000 views and nearly 1,000 comments from eager readers. Asked one participant: “All I want to know, is the style of content ‘proper’ or is it ‘scandalous.’” (I’d say a little of both.)

I joined the group in January, and while tackling a book of this size and complexity might have daunted me in the past, this read-along has made the task more digestible and, well, fun. As a writer, I love to read — and talk about — books, and there’s a real infectious joy in Eliot’s “Clarissa” recaps, which offer insight and encouragement along with context. For me, an unabashed lover of the great female novelists of the 19th century, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot, it’s also a chance to experience a book that would have influenced their writings.

The novel, written in the form of letters between the various characters, begins with the first letter on Jan. 10 and ends with the final letter (No. 537) on Dec. 18. Eliot’s videos focus on the letters in chronological order, providing a neat way for readers to make their way through the book.

In the early stages of reading “Clarissa,” it seems that the biggest difficulty for 21st-century TikTokers is simply getting used to Richardson’s 18th-century style of writing.

“This book is very dense,” says Akouto Vonwogbe, 32, a participant in Los Angeles. “I have to reread a few sentences just to understand a scene, but it’s interesting to read about the life of Clarissa in the 18th century.” (Her most recent favorite read was Prince Harry’s “Spare,” which arguably covers similar themes around familial duty.)

Llewelyn Griffiths, 28, reading from Stockholm, concurs, saying, “It takes more concentration to read, the long sentences are a bit tricky.” Growing up watching adaptations of Jane Austen novels, however, laid the groundwork for his interest in devoting time this year to focusing on earlier literary works such as “Clarissa.”

Griffiths also hit on a clever way to grasp the unfamiliar writing style of the period, by listening to an audiobook version while simultaneously reading the print edition. “I’ve found listening has really improved my understanding,” he explains. “The acting makes the language much easier to digest.” A great idea, though at nearly 100 hours, the audiobook is also a major undertaking.

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As for myself, I knew it would be a big book, but I was still surprised at its heft when I finally got my hands on it. Weighing in at nearly three pounds, “Clarissa” is not the kind of book that you can easily carry on a morning subway commute or take to the park on a sunny spring day. Pascoe suggests taking a knife to the book and cutting through the spine to divide it into the original seven volumes — a handy chart in the back of the book even provides the corresponding page numbers for each volume — or downloading a digital version to an e-reader or your phone.

I haven’t yet sliced my volume, although it’s tempting. I typically reserve my recreational reading hours for the end of the day, but I’ve decided to be more intentional with “Clarissa” — I’ve gone so far as to note the dates of the upcoming letters on my calendar, and I sit down to read earlier in the day, often during lunch.

The plot is engrossing and has something for just about everyone, especially those who love drama. “Clarissa” is an operatic tale of sibling rivalry, feminine virtue, prostitution, drug-induced rape, anorexia, insanity and duels to the death, all revolving around a beautiful young heroine — Clarissa Harlowe — who refuses to allow either her greedy, social-climbing family or Robert Lovelace, her dashing and evil suitor, to force her into a life she does not choose. Richardson inhabits his characters, both male and female, fully; they are, by turns, obedient, defiant, supportive, calculating, cruel and, quite often, laugh-out-loud funny.

“There’s such an immersive quality to the book,” Pascoe says, citing “the complexity of emotional response that Richardson was able to convey over the course of the novel, requiring the reader to work out who is being a good friend to Clarissa and who is not. The family dynamic and the power plays are great.”

Published between 1747 and 1748, the novel was a wildly popular sensation in its time. Richardson, a printer by trade, had already had success with his first novel, “Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded,” published in 1740. “Clarissa” was quickly translated into several other languages, including French, German and Dutch; Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein,” read the book in both English and Italian while living in Italy between 1818 and 1822. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was actually christened Clarissa Harlowe Barton, after the novel’s title character.

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While the book had legions of fans around the world, its ending did not sit well with all of Richardson’s readers, and some campaigned for a happier result. Richardson, however, was steadfast in remaining true to the original conclusion, although he did make considerable revisions in later editions. In particular, he removed Letter 208, in which Lovelace outlines to a friend his rather shocking plan to kidnap and rape Clarissa’s best friend and her mother, along with their maidservant, holding them captive on a ship for several days. It is, as Pascoe wrote in a 2003 essay in the Hudson Review, the “most lurid letter in the novel” — but Richardson still left plenty of lurid drama intact.

In fact, even though Eliot is a first-time reader of “Clarissa,” he had heard enough about the tragedies that would befall its heroine that he felt compelled to post a trigger-warning video, alerting readers that upcoming scenes might be painful for some to read.

“There are parts of this book,” Eliot says, “that may be quite difficult and quite bleak. I felt a kind of responsibility, especially because I invited people to read along with me.”

Indeed, Sarah Burr, 42, an assistant director for the National Trust who lives in West Sussex, England, and was inspired to join the read-along when she saw Eliot’s first video, says, “I read a review on Good Reads that said ‘Don’t read this book because it will break your heart.’ ” She couldn’t resist anyway. And for her, only the mammoth volume will do, in all its heavy paperback glory. “There’s something about the physicality of the book,” she says. “I look forward to having ‘Clarissa’ taking up space on my shelf one day and being able to say I read the whole thing.”

I know how she feels. “Clarissa” will certainly take pride of place on my own bookcase at the end of the year — but I may devote 2024 to reading haiku.

Kristen Hartke is a journalist and children’s book author living in New York.

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