Experiencing Historic Literature

One of the classes I am taking is entirely devoted to the 18th Century novel Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady, by Samuel Richardson, published by the author in installments from 1747-1748. At over a million words it is perhaps the longest novel written in the English language, written as an epistolary novel, meaning as a series of letters between the characters in the story. The decision to take the class was a big one because in the past I have not often undertook ‘literature’ as a hobby. Sure, I’ve read my way through Moby Dick and a number of other classics, and I’ve always been a big reader, but nothing like Clarissa had ever made its way into my hands. I took the class thinking it would be a great way to gain a better understanding of how literature can be used as a tool in historic research. Plus, it sounded fun.

At first I littered the pages of my copy of the book with sticky notes on ideas about this or that connection with other things that were happening at the time the book was being written, or questions for further research on things like architecture or fashion or language. But about a quarter of the way through the book I realized I hadn’t put any notes down in a while, I realized I was experiencing the book. I was absorbed by the story, and I wanted to be!

Clarissa has been continually published since its first edition, and for over 250 years people have been experiencing the story and the characters just as I am. I sit in my modern flat with the sounds of modern city life – including incessant jackhammering at a building site across the street from mine – coming in through the windows, but I am transported to a quiet, stuffy room in which an ill treated young lady sits with ink and quill, scribbling letters to her friend. I don’t hear the jackhammers, I don’t notice when the pipes groan, I am simply reading. Experiencing. I am, as Carl Sagan said, “some when-else in time.”

Clarissa and me.

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