Birthplace: Mackworth, Derbyshire, England
Location of death: Parson's Green, England
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Buried, St. Bride Churchyard, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded
English novelist, a notable example of that "late-flowering" sometimes applied to Oliver Goldsmith. Born under William and Mary, the reign of George II was well advanced before, at fifty years of age, he made his first serious literary effort -- an effort which was not only a success, but the revelation of a new literary form. He was the son of a London joiner, who, for obscure reasons, probably connected with Monmouth's rebellion, had retired to an unidentified town in Derbyshire, where, in 1689, Samuel was born. At first intended for holy orders, and having little but the common learning of a private grammar school -- for the tradition that upon the return of the family to the metropolis he went to Christ's Hospital cannot be sustained -- he was eventually, as some compensation for a literary turn, apprenticed at seventeen to an Aldersgate printer named John Wilde. Here, like the typical "good apprentice" of his century, he prospered; became successively compositor, corrector of the press, and printer on his own account; married his master's daughter according to program; set up newspapers and books; dabbled a little in literature by compiling indexes and "honest dedications", and ultimately proceeded Printer of the Journals of the House of Commons, Master of the Stationers' Company, and Law-Printer to the King. Like all well-to-do citizens, he had his city house of business and his "country box" in the suburbs; and, after a thoroughly "respectable" life, died on the 4th of July 1761, being buried in St. Bride's Church, Fleet Street, close to his shop (now demolished), No. 11 Salisbury Court.
To this uneventful and conventional career one would scarcely look for the birth and growth of a fresh departure in fiction. And yet, although Richardson's manifestation of his literary gift was deferred for half a century, there is no life to which the Horatian "qualis ab incepto" can be more appropriately applied. From his youth this moralist had moralized; from his youth -- nay, from his childhood -- this letter-writer had written letters; from his youth this supreme delineator of the other sex had been the confidant and counsellor of women. In his boyhood he was secretary-general to all the lovesick girls of the neighborhood; at eleven he addressed a hortatory epistle, stuffed with texts, to a scandal-loving widow; and whenever it was possible to correspond with any one he was as "corresponding" as even Horace Walpole could have desired. At last, when he was known to the world only as a steady businessman, who was also a "dab at an index" and an invaluable compiler of the "puff prefatory", it occurred to Mr. Rivington of St. Paul's Churchyard and Mr. Osborn of Paternoster Row, two bookselling friends who were aware of his epistolary gifts, to suggest that he should prepare a little model letter-writer for such "country readers" as "were unable to indite for themselves." Would it be any harm, he suggested in answer, if he should also "instruct them how they should think and act in common cases"? His friends were all the more anxious that he should set to work. And thus originated his first novel of Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded.
But not forthwith, as is sometimes supposed. Proceeding with the compilation of his model letter-writer, and seeking, in his own words, "to instruct handsome girls, who were obliged to go out on service... how to avoid the snares that might be laid against their virtue" -- a danger which appears to have always abnormally preoccupied him -- he came to recollect a story he had heard twenty years earlier, and had often proposed to other persons for fictitious treatment. It occurred to him that it would make a book of itself, and might moreover be told wholly in the fashion most congenial to himself, namely, by letters. Thereupon, with some domestic encouragement, he completed it in a couple of months, between the 10th of November 1739 and the 10th of January 1740. In November 1740 it was issued by Messrs. Rivington & Osborn, who, a few weeks afterwards (January 1741), also published the model letter-writer under the title of Letters written to and for Particular Friends, on the most Important Occasions. Both books were anonymous. The letter-writer was noticed in the Gentleman's Magazine for January, which also contains a brief announcemeat as to Pamela, already rapidly making its way without waiting for the reviewers. A second edition, it was stated, was expected; and such was its popularity, that not to have read it was judged "as great a sign of want of curiosity as not to have seen the French and Italian dancers" -- i.e. Mme. Chateauneuf and the Fausans, who were then delighting the town. In February a second edition duly appeared, followed by a third in March and a fourth in May. At public gardens ladies held up the book to show they had got it; Dr. Benjamin Slocock of Southwark openly commended it from the pulpit; Alexander Pope praised it; and at Slough, when the heroine triumphed, the enraptured villagers rang the church bells for joy. The other volume of "familiar letters" consequently fell into the background in the estimation of its author, who, though it went into several editions during his lifetime, never acknowledged it. Yet it scarcely deserves to be wholly neglected, as it contains many useful details and much shrewd criticism of lower middle-class life.
For the exceptional success of Pamela there was the obvious excuse of novelty. People were tired of the old "mouthy" romances about impossible people doing impossible things. Here was a real-life story, which might happen to any one -- a story which aroused curiosity and arrested attention -- which was not exclusively about "high life", and which had, in addition, a moral purpose, since it was avowedly "published in order to cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes." Whether it had exactly this effect, or owed its good fortune chiefly to this proclamation, may be doubted. The heroine in humble life who resists the licentious advances of her master until he is forced to marry her, does not entirely convince us that her watchful prudence and keen eye for the main chance have not, in the long run, quite as much to do with her successful defense as her boasted innocence and purity. Nor is the book without passages which more than smack of an unpleasant pruriency. Nevertheless, in its extraordinary gift of minute analysis; in its intimate knowledge of feminine character; in the cumulative power of its shuffling, loose-shod style, and, above all, in the unquestionable earnestness and sincerity of the writer, Pamela had qualities which -- particularly in a dead season of letters -- sufficiently account for its favorable reception by the contemporary public.
Such a popularity, of course, was not without its drawbacks. That it would lead to Anti-Pamelas, censures of Pamela and all the spawn of pamphlets which spring around the track of a sudden success, was to be anticipated. One of the results to which its rather sickly morality gave rise was the Joseph Andrews (1742) of Henry Fielding. But there are two other works prompted by Pamela which need brief notice here. One is the Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, a clever and very gross piece of raillery which appeared in April 1741, and by which Fielding is supposed to have preluded to Joseph Andrews. Fielding's own works contain no reference to Shamela. But Richardson in his Correspondence, both printed and unprinted, roundly attributes it to the writer who was to be his rival; and it is also assigned to Fielding by other contemporaries. All that can be said is, that Fielding's authorship cannot be proved. If it could, it would go far to justify the later animosity of Richardson to Fielding -- much farther, indeed, than what Richardson described as the "lewd and ungenerous engraftment" of Joseph Andrews. The second noteworthy result of Pamela was Pamela's Conduct in High Life (September 1741), a spurious sequel by John Kelly of the Universal Spectator. Richardson tried to prevent its appearance, and, having failed, set about two volumes of his own, which followed in December, and professed to depict his heroine "in her exalted condition." But the public interest in Pamela had practically ceased with her marriage, and the author's continuation, like other continuations -- particlarly continuations prompted by extraneous circumstances -- attracted no permanent attention.
About 1744 we begin to hear something of the progress of Richardson's second and greatest novel, Clarissa; or, the History of a Young Lady, usually miscalled Clarissa Harlowe. The first edition was in seven volumes, two of which came out in November 1747, two more in April 1748 and the last three in December. Upon the title page of this, of which the mission was as edifying as that of Pamela, its object was defined as showing the distresses that may attend the misconduct both of parents and children in relation to marriage. Virtue, in Clarissa, is not "rewarded", but hunted down and outraged. The heroine, no longer an opportunist servant-girl, is a most pure, refined and beautiful young woman, invested with every attribute to attract and charm, while her pursuer, Lovelace, the libertine hero of the book -- a personage of singular dash and vivacity, in spite of his worthlessness -- is drawn with extraordinary tenacity of power. The wronged Clarissa eventually dies of grief, and her coldblooded betrayer, whom strict justice would have hanged, is considerately killed in a duel by her soldier cousin. Of the genius of the story there can be no doubt. Nor is there any doubt as to the ability shown in the delineation of the two chief characters, to whom the rest are merely subordinate. The chief drawbacks of Clarissa are its merciless prolixity (seven volumes, which only cover eleven months); the faet that (like Pamela) it is told by letters; and a certain haunting and uneasy feeling that many of the heroine's obstacles are only molehills which should have been readily surmounted. As to its success, accentuated as this was by its piecemeal method of publication, there has never been any question. Clarissa's sorrows set all England sobbing, and her fame and her fate spread rapidly to the Continent.
Between Clarissa and Richardson's next work appeared the Tom Jones of Fielding -- a rival by no means welcome to the elder writer, although a rival who generously (and perhaps penitently) acknowledged Clarissa's rare merits. "Pectus inaniter angit / Irritat, mulcet, falsis terroribus implet / Ut Magus", Fielding had written in the Jacobite's Journal. But even this could not console Richardson for the popularity of the "spurious brat" whom Fielding had made his hero, and his next effort was the depicting of a genuine fine gentleman -- a task to which he was incited by a chorus of feminine worshippers. In the History of Sir Charles Grandison, "by the Editor of Pamela and Clarissa" (for he still preserved the fiction of anonymity), he essayed to draw a perfect model of manly character and conduct. In the pattern presented there is, however, too much buckram, too much ceremonial -- in plain words, too much priggishness -- to make him the desired exemplar of propriety in excelsis. Yet he is not entirely a failure, still less is he to be regarded as no more than "the condescending suit of clothes" by which William Hazlitt unfairly defines Miss Burney's Lord Orville. When Richardson delineated Sir Charles Grandison he was at his best, and his experiences and opportunities for inventing such a character were infinitely greater than they had ever been before. And he lost nothing of his gift for portraying the other sex. Harriet Byron, Clementina della Porretta and even Charlotte Grandison, are no whit behind Clarissa and her friend Miss Howe. Sir Charles Grandison is a far better book than Pamela, although Hippolyte Taine regarded the hero as only fit to be stuffed and put in a museum.
Grandison was published in 1753, and by this time Richardson was sixty-four. Although the book was welcomed as warmly as its predecessors, he wrote no other novel, contenting himself instead with indexing his works, and compiling an anthology of the "maxims", "cautions" and "instructive sentiments" they contained. To these things, as a professed moralist, he had always attached the greatest importance. He continued to correspond relentlessly with a large circle of worshippers, mostly women, whose counsels and fertilizing sympathy had not a little contributed to the success of his last two books. He was a nervous, highly strung little man, intensely preoccupied with his health and his feelings, hungry for praise when he had once tasted it, and afterwards unable to exist without it; but apart from these things, well meaning, benevolent, honest, industrious and religious. Seven vast folio volumes of his correspondence with his lady friends, and with a few men of the Young and Aaron Hill type, are preserved in the Forster Library at South Kensington. Parts of it only have been printed. There are several good portraits of him by Joseph Highmore, two of which are in the National Portrait Gallery.
Richardson is sometimes styled the "Father of the English Novel", a title which has also been claimed for Daniel Defoe. It would be more accurate to call him the father of the novel of sentimental analysis. As Sir Walter Scott has said, no one before had dived so deeply into the human heart. No one, moreover, had brought to the study of feminine character so much prolonged research, so much patience of observation, so much interested and indulgent apprehension, as this twittering little printer of Salisbury Court. That he did not more materially control the course of fiction in his own country was probably owing to the new direction which was given to that fiction by Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, whose method, roughly speaking, was synthetic rather than analytic. Still, his influence is to be traced in Laurence Sterne and Henry Mackenzie, as well as in Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, both of whom, it may be noted, at first adopted the epistolary form. But it was in France, where the sentimental soil was ready for the dressing, that the analytic process was most warmly welcomed. Extravagantly eulogized by the great critic, Diderot, modified with splendid variation by Rousseau, copied (unwillingly) by Voltaire, the vogue of Richardson was so great as to tempt some modern French critics to seek his original in the Marianne of a contemporary analyst, Pierre Marivaux. As a matter of fact, though there is some unconscious consonance of manner, there is nothing whatever to show that the little-lettered author of Pamela, who was also ignorant of French, had the slightest knowledge of Marivaux or Marianne. In Germany Richardson was even more popular than in France. Gellert, the fabulist, translated him; Wieland, Lessing, Hermes, all imitated him, and Coleridge detects him even in the Robbers of Schiller. What was stranger still, he returned to England again under another form. Having given a fillip to the French comédie larmoyante, that comedy crossed the channel as the sentimental comedy of Cumberland and Kelly, which, after a brief career of prosperity, received its death-blow at the hands of Goldsmith and Sheridan.
Author of books:
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740, novel)
Letters written to and for Particular Friends, on the most Important Occasions (1741, letters)
Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-48, novel)
The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753–54, novel)
Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile
Copyright ©2016 Soylent Communications