Anna Howe writes to her friend Clarissa Harlowe that a squabble between James Harlowe and Robert Lovelace is widely discussed. But the tragedy is that James, Clarissa’s elder brother, is wounded, and Anna asks Clarissa to tell her about that event, and on behalf of her mother asks to send her a copy of Clarissa’s grandfather’s will, where he has decided to give all his property to Clarissa, but none of his sons or another grandchildren.
Clarissa in her answer describes in detail everything that has happened, starting with how Lovelace appeared in their house. Clarissa was not present at the events described; she got to know everything from her elder sister Arabella, who has decided that a distinguished aristocrat has put an eye on her. Without ceremony she tells Clarissa about her plans. But later she understood that young man’s restrain and silent civility shows no interest to Arabella. The delights changed into an open hostility, which was supported by her their brother. James always was jealous of Lovelace (as Clarissa noticed unmistakably), and his aristocratic refinement and ease at communication, which cannot be gained with the help of money, but only by the origin. So, James started a quarrel, and Lovelace only defended himself. But even though, Lovelace was refused to be welcomed in their house.
The promised copy attached to the letter, it becomes obvious that the Hallows is a rather wealthy family. The deceased’s three sons, including Clarissa’s father, dispose of considerable means – mines, commercial capitals, and other. Clarissa’s brother is secured by his godmother. Clarissa, in her turn, who since her childhood has been taking care after the old gentleman, thus prolonged his days, is pronounced the only heiress. From the next letters one can learn about the other items in the will. In particular, that when Clarissa is 18 years old, she can order the inherited property as she thinks best.
The Harlowes are indignant. Anthony, her father’s brother, tells his niece (in his answer to her letter) that the rights on Clarissa’s acres all the members of the family received before she has been born. Her mother, carrying out her husband’s will, threatened that the girl would not be able to use her property. All the threats were to make Clarissa reject the inheritance and marry Roger Solmes. The Harlowes know about Solmes’ stinginess, greed and cruelty. It is not a secret that he has refused his own sister a help, because he got married without his agreement.
The Lovelace’s family possesses a considerable influence, so the Harlowe family decides not to break off with them at once, in order not to spoil their relationships with Lord M. at any case, Clarissa’s correspondence with Lovelace began on the her family’s request. The young man could not help falling in love in a 16-year-old girl possessing the beautiful writing style, and differs in the correctness of her judgments. Later, from the Lovelace’s letters to his friend John Belfold the reader learns about the true feelings of a young man, and how they have been changing under the moral virtues of a young girl.
Clarissa persists in her intention not to marry Solmes, and rejects any accusations for being involved with Lovelace. The family tries to suppress Clarissa’s obstinacy in a rather cruel way. Her room is searched for the letters to establish her guilt, and her entrusted maid is sent away. Her attempts to find support in any member of the family have no success. Clarissa’s family is ready for any pretence to deprive their daughter of any support from the people around her. As later Lovelace wrote to his comrade, that all the Harlowes had done enough for the girl to respond to his attentions. He settled not far from the Harlows’ mansion under an assumed name. Lovelace provided himself with a spy in the Harlows’ house, who reported him on everything what happened there. Clarissa did not suspect about the Lovelace’s true intentions, who had chosen her as a tool of revenge. Her destiny did not concern him at all.
At the coaching inn, where settled down a young gentleman, lives a young girl, whose youth and naivety Lovelace admired. He noticed, that she was in love with a next door boy, but there were no chances for this marriage to happen, as the boy was promised a considerable sum if he married a girl chosen by his family. Charming girl without a dowry cannot count on anything. This all Lovelace informs to his friend and asks him to be respectful to the poor on his arrival.
Anna Howe, when learnt about Lovelace living with a young girl, warns Clarissa not to keen on the shameless lady-killer. Clarissa wants to be sure of the truthfulness of the rumors, and asks Anna to talk with a supposed beloved. With a great delight Anna reports to Clarissa that the gossips are false, and that Lovelace did not seduce an innocent girl, but even provided her with a dowry of a size of one hundred guineas, which were promised to her groom.
The relatives watching that none of the persuasions and oppressions have effect on Clarissa, decide to send her to their uncle, and the only visitor will be Mr. Solmes. It means that Clarissa is doomed. She tells about it, and Lovelace proposes to run away. Clarissa is sure it is not a right way, but being moved by one of his letters decides to tell him this in person. With great difficulty she gets to the agreed place, as her walks in the garden are watched by all the members of the family. There she meets, as she supposes, her devoted friend. He tries to surmount her resistance and carries her to the previously prepared carriage. He manages to fulfill his plan, as Clarissa is sure they are chased. She hears the voice beside the garden gate sees a persecutor and then instinctively yields; Lovelace continues repeating that her departure means marriage with Solmes. Only from Lovelace’s letter the reader learns that imaginary persecutor began to break in by Lovelace’s agreed signal.
Clarissa did not at once understand that she had been kidnapped, as everything was in a way Lovelace had described her before. They were awaited by two gentleman’s noble kinswomen, who turned out to be his accomplices, and helped him to keep Clarissa in an awful den.
At first Lovelace continues to pretend, proposing to Clarissa and forgetting about it, making Clarissa feel between hope and doubt. Having left her parents’ house Clarissa in fully under Lovelace’s power as the social opinion was on his side.
Both Clarissa and Lovelace describe the same events, but interpreting them differently, and the reader understands that they both are mistaken as to the true intentions and feelings of each other.
Lovelace himself in his letters to Bolford describes in details Clarissa’s words and deeds. He reasons a lot on the relationship between men and women. He is sure that in their decline nine out of ten women are themselves to be blamed, and that having once subdued a woman, one can wait from her obedience in the further. His letters are full with historic examples and unexpected comparisons. Clarissa’s persistence annoys him, none of the tricks work on her, she stays indifferent to any temptation. The girl is not sure in the sincerity and seriousness of his feelings. Then Lovelace decides to rape Clarissa, having poisoned her with a sleeping potion. Now Clarissa is deprived of any kind of illusions, however she manages to save the former hardness and rejects all the Lovelace’s tries to make up for what he had done. Her attempt to run away fails. Lovelace at last enlighten and what he has done terrifies him, but nothing can be changed.
Clarissa prefers death to the marriage with a dishonorable man. She sells her clothes to buy herself a coffin, writes farewell letters, makes a will and dies. The will witnesses that Clarissa has forgiven everyone, who had committed her evil. She starts with a wish to be buried next to her grandfather. She forgets none of her relatives, and asks not to pursue Lovelace.
In despair Lovelace leaves England. From the letter to Balford it becomes known that Lovelace died, after being wounded after the duel, in great torments and with the words of atonement on his lips.