Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady is an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, published in 1748. It tells the tragic story of a heroine whose quest for virtue is continually thwarted by her family, and is regarded as the longest novel in the English language (based on estimated word count). It is generally regarded as Richardson's masterpiece.

Plot summary

Clarissa Harlowe, the tragic heroine of Clarissa, is a beautiful and virtuous young lady whose family has become wealthy only recently and now desires to become part of the aristocracy. Their original plan was to concentrate the wealth and lands of the Harlowes into the possession of Clarissa's brother James Harlowe, whose wealth and political power will lead to his being granted a title. Clarissa's grandfather leaves her a substantial piece of property upon his death, and a new route to the nobility opens through Clarissa marrying Robert Lovelace, heir to an earldom. James's response is to provoke a duel with Lovelace, who is seen thereafter as the family's enemy. James also proposes that Clarissa marry Roger Solmes, who is willing to trade properties with James to concentrate James's holdings and speed his becoming Lord Harlowe. The family agrees and attempts to force Clarissa to marry Solmes, whom she finds physically disgusting as well as boorish.

Desperate to remain free, she begins a correspondence with Lovelace. When her family's campaign to force her marriage reaches its height, Lovelace tricks her into eloping with him. Joseph Leman, the Harlowes' servant, shouts and makes noise so it may seem like the family has awoken and discovered that Clarissa and Lovelace are about to run away. Frightened of the possible aftermath, Clarissa leaves with Lovelace but becomes his prisoner for many months. She is kept at many lodgings and even a brothel, where the women are disguised as high-class ladies by Lovelace himself. She refuses to marry him on many occasions, longing to live by herself in peace. She eventually runs away but Lovelace finds her and tricks her into returning to the brothel.

Lovelace intends to marry Clarissa to avenge her family's treatment of him and wants to possess her body as well as her mind. He believes if she loses her virtue, she will be forced to marry him on any terms. As he is more and more impressed by Clarissa, he finds it difficult to believe that virtuous women do not exist.

The pressure he finds himself under, combined with his growing passion for Clarissa, drives him to extremes and eventually he rapes her by drugging her. Through this action, he believes that Clarissa must accept and marry him. It is suspected that Mrs. Sinclair (the brothel manager) and the other prostitutes assist Lovelace during the rape.

Lovelace's action backfires and Clarissa is ever more adamantly opposed to marrying a vile and corrupt individual like Lovelace. Eventually, Clarissa manages to escape from the brothel but Lovelace finds her and by deception manages to get her back to the brothel. She escapes a second time, is jailed for a few days following a charge by the brothel owner for unpaid bills, is released and finds sanctuary with a shopkeeper and his wife. She lives in constant fear of again being accosted by Lovelace who, through one of his close associates and also a libertine – John Belford – as well as through his own family members, continues to offer her marriage, to which she is determined not to accede. She becomes dangerously ill due to the mental duress.

As her illness progresses, she and John Belford become friends and she appoints him the executor of her will. She is dying and is determined to accept it and proceeds to get all her affairs in order. Belford is amazed at the way Clarissa handles her approaching death and laments what Lovelace has done. In one of the many letters sent to Lovelace he writes "if the divine Clarissa asks me to slit thy throat, Lovelace, I shall do it in an instance." Eventually, surrounded by strangers and her cousin Col. Morden, Clarissa dies in the full consciousness of her virtue and trusting in a better life after death. Belford manages Clarissa's will and ensures that all her articles and money go into the hands of the individuals she desires should receive them.

Lovelace departs for Europe and his correspondence with his friend Belford continues. During their correspondence Lovelace learns that Col. Morden has suggested he might seek out Lovelace and demand satisfaction on behalf of his cousin. He responds that he is not able to accept threats against himself and arranges an encounter with Col. Morden. They meet in Munich and arrange a duel. The duel takes place, both are injured, Morden slightly, but Lovelace dies of his injuries the following day. Before dying he says "let this expiate!"

Clarissa's relatives finally realise the misery they have caused but discover that they are too late and Clarissa has already died. The story ends with an account of the fate of the other characters.


  • Miss Clarissa Harlowe: title character
  • James Harlowe, Sr.: Clarissa's father
  • Lady Charlotte Harlowe: Clarissa's mother
  • James Harlowe, Jr.: Clarissa's brother, bitter enemy of Robert Lovelace.
  • Miss Arabella Harlowe: Clarissa's older sister
  • John Harlowe: Clarissa's uncle (her father's elder brother)
  • Antony Harlowe: Clarissa's uncle (her father's younger brother)
  • Roger Solmes: a wealthy man whom Clarissa's parents wish her to marry
  • Mrs. Hervey: Clarissa's mother (Lady Charlotte Harlowe)'s half-sister
  • Dolly Hervey: daughter of Mrs. Hervey
  • Mrs. Norton: Clarissa's nurse, an unhappy widow
  • Colonel Morden: a man of fortune, closely related to the Harlowe family
  • Miss Howe: Clarissa's best friend and companion
  • Mrs. Howe: the mother of Miss Howe
  • Mr. Hickman: Miss Howe's suitor
  • Dr. Lewin: one of Clarissa's educators, a divine of great piety and learning
  • Dr. H: a physician
  • Mr. Elias Brand: young clergyman
  • Robert Lovelace: the villain and pursuer of Clarissa
  • John Belford: a close friend of Mr. Lovelace
  • Lord M.: Mr. Lovelace's uncle
  • Lady Sarah Sadleir: half-sister of Lord M., widow, lady of honour and fortune
  • Lady Betty Lawrance: half-sister of Lord M., widow, lady of honour and fortune
  • Miss Charlotte: niece of Lord M., maiden lady of character
  • Patty Montague: niece of Lord M., maiden lady of character
  • Richard Mowbray: libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • Thomas Doleman: libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • James Tourville: libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • Thomas Belton: libertine, gentleman, companion of Mr. Lovelace
  • Capt. Tomlinson: the assumed named of a pander that aids Mr. Lovelace
  • Mrs. Moore: a widowed gentlewoman, keeping a lodging-house at Hampstead
  • Miss Rawlins: a notable young gentlewoman in Hampstead
  • Mrs. Bevis: a lively widow in Hampstead
  • Mrs. Sinclair: the pretended name of a private brothel keeper in London
  • Sally Martin: assistant of, and partner with, Mrs. Sinclair
  • Polly Horton: assistant of, and partner with, Mrs. Sinclair
  • Joseph Leman: servant
  • William Summers: servant
  • Hannah Burton: servant
  • Betty Barnes: servant
  • Dorcas Wykes: servant

Radio and television adaptations

The BBC adapted the novel as a television series in 1991, starring Sean Bean and Saskia Wickham.

BBC Radio 4 released a radio adaptation in March and April 2010, starring Richard Armitage and Zoe Waites.