Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, adapted by Hattie Naylor

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BBC Radio 4, 14 March - 6 April 2010

There is one thing to remember about an epistolary novel: never trust the narrator. This was certainly the case in Marilyn Imrie’s production, where much of the story was told direct to listeners by Loveless (Richard Armitage). So great was his authority over the narrative that he even had the chance to read out the credits at the end of each part of this four-part adaptation. One could almost imagine him having as much credibility as the other Radio 4 announcers who have presented – and continue to present – classic serials to listeners (my favourite example being Peter Donaldson, whose dulcet tones are still heard on Radio 7 repeats of old Radio 4 programmes).


However in Loveless’ case it is this authority that renders him so dangerous; he possesses so much charm that he can convince anyone of the truth of his motives. Clarissa Harlowe (Zoe Waites) falls into this trap, as she turns her back on a potentially loveless marriage to ageing landowner Solmes (Stephen Crichlow) and elopes with Loveless. Her family immediately disown her; and she is condemned to a life of suffering as she is locked up in a brothel, escapes, and is then recaptured. Despite her protests, Loveless eventually deflowers her.


Clarissa might appear to be another tale of corrupted innocence; but Imrie’s production transformed it into a meditation on words and silence. The epistolary narrative gave each character the chance to communicate their thoughts directly to the listeners: Loveless writes to his friend Jack; Clarissa writes to Anna (Cathy Sara), while Anna replies on a regular basis. However what they say often bears no relationship to what they do: Clarissa hopes that she will eventually be reconciled with her family, while Anna believes that her friend will find security. Nor are other characters to be trusted: Loveless concocts a series of elaborate ruses with his colleagues (ex-lovers?) in the brothel, Mrs. Sinclair (Miriam Margolyes), Dorcas (Lisa Hammond) and Sally (Sophie Thompson), to entrap Clarissa, involving the women impersonating members of the aristocracy. In this dog-eat-dog world words become a means of obfuscation rather than communication.


Despite the indignities heaped upon her, Clarissa remains resolute throughout – so resolute, in fact, that she refuses to allow Loveless to control her. Partly this is due to her dedication to truth; although everyone around her might be corrupt, she will always say what she means. More importantly Clarissa understands the power of silence; she can assume mastery over him simply by refusing to disclose her feelings. This lends a savage irony to Loveless’ repeated protestations that she is “mine, and only mine!”


Evevtually Clarissa’s sufferings prove too great, as she falls victim to a fever. However Imrie shows that at the point of death she achieves contentment – something her erstwhile lover never finds. Her last letter to Anna is read in a peaceful, almost serene tone, as she wishes no vengeance on anyone, claiming that justice is only in God’s hands. Meanwhile Loveless meets a violent death abroad: significantly this is communicated to us by a servant in reported speech, as if Imrie shows that, for all his pretensions to authority in the past, he has now relinquished it. Clarissa has emerged triumphant at the point of death.