1902 Encyclopedia > Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson
English novelist

SAMUEL RICHARDSON (1689-1761), as the inventor or the accidental discoverer of a new literary form, the modern novel of domestic life and manners, is entitled to a more prominent place in history than his powers, whether of thought or style, would justify. He stumbled on novel writing by accident and late in life. The son of a Derbyshire joiner (born in 1689), he had been apprenticed at the age of seventeen to a London printer (Wilde of Stationers' Hall), had spent some years as a press reader or proof corrector—not a bad position for acquiring some knowledge of literature—had married his master's daughter, and acquired an extensive business, trying his hand occasionally in composition as a writer of prefaces and dedications to the books that he printed. When he was near the age of fifty some bookseller friends of his, struck perhaps by the excellence of his letters, had suggested to him that he should compose a "familiar letter-writer"— " a little volume of letters, in common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers who were unable to indite for themselves. " Richardson improved upon the suggestion. As it happened, he had had a singular experience in the way of writing letters for others. When he was a boy of thirteen three young women who could not write had employed him to conduct their correspondence with their sweethearts, which he did, he tells us, much to the satisfaction of his employers and without betraying their confidence. It occurred to him, turning over the project of the booksellers in his mind, and reverting to this early experience, that he might tell a story in a series of letters which would serve equally well as models for letter-writing and at the same time cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes. Accordingly, the publication being for country readers, he chose a country girl, Pamela, in the service of a young squire Mr B. (Fielding afterwards expanded the initial to "Booby"), and made her relate in letters to her friends her experiences from day to day and week to week in very trying circumstances. Friends write to advise Pamela in her difficulties, and so the story is carried on with circumstantial minuteness, Pamela describing with the most careful elaboration every particular of what happens to her, and adding her own reflexions, surmises, and appeals for approbation and counsel. The natural effect of this method is that, if we have any sympathy with the heroine, we get intensely interested in her perplexities,'—the very fulness of the details and the close truth to nature with which the novelist follows every turn in the girl's thoughts compelling us to read on. This effect was fully realized in days when the voluminous moralizing was more in harmony with the general taste than it is now, and the kind of thing was new and fresh. The success of Pamela was immediate and widespread, and extended at once far beyond the circle of country cousins for whom it was designed. It is said that ladies at Ranelagh Gardens were to be seen .holding up one to another their copies of Pamela to show that they had in their possession the most popular book of the day. The industrious antiquary has cast doubt upon this anecdote, pointing out that Ranelagh Gardens were not open to the public till eighteen months after Pamela had begun to run through many editions. Vauxhall, however, was open if Ranelagh was not, and the incident may have been observed there. At any rate the fact expressed by the anecdote is true enough, that the novel was at once and universally popular. Pamela, the first of one long line of novels, was published in November 1740. In January 1741 the following appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine :—'' Several encomiums on a series of Familiar Betters, published but last month, entitled Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, came too late for this magazine, and we believe there will be little occasion for inserting them in our next, because a second edition will then come out to supply the demands of the country, it being judged in town as great a sign of want of curiosity not to have read Pamela as not to have seen the French and Balian Dancers." This testimony is hardly less quaint and significant than the accredited anecdote.

It was thus that this industrious prosperous printer, a stout, rosy, vain, precise little man, carrying himself with sensitive dignity, not at all the kind of man that might have been expected to be a fashionable novelist, stumbled in the natural course of his business upon a new species of composition for which he had an unsuspected genius. The fame of Pamela made him a great personal favourite, especially with women, of whose hearts and fancies he had shown a knowledge so intimate. Several ladies of quality made a pet of him, deluged him with questions and confidences, and urged him to write more. Under this flattering encouragement, the sedate author, still keeping his head and following his own plans amidst a multitude of counsellors, produced Clctrissa Harloive (1749), a model of every virtue in higher life, and Sir Charles Grandison (1753), his ideal of a perfect gentleman. Clarissa is universally acknowledged to be his masterpiece. An anecdote was given by Macaulay which shows how entrancing the story may become to readers once fairly caught by the current of it. He took the whole eight volumes with him, when he was in India, to a hill station during the hot season, and one day lent the first volume to the governor's wife. She read it and lent it to the governor's secretary, and went to Macaulay for the second. Thus all the eight volumes passed from hand to hand, and for a week or more the whole station was in a ferment over the fortunes of Clarissa, the readers anxiously waiting their turn for the successive volumes. Eichardson is long-winded and prolix to a degree; but that, in spite of all his faults, he had the art of interesting his own generation was abundantly proved, and apparently his greatest novel is still capable in favourable circumstances of exerting its spell.

Richardson has long received the honour of being regarded as the founder of the English novel, but of late it has been customary to go a little farther back and trace the beginnings of the novel in the papers of Addison and Steele in the Tatler and the Spectator. The novel, it is said, was developed, not created, by Richardson. Now this is hardly fair to the ingenious printer, if it is meant to deny him any of the credit generally given to originators of new forms
in literature. It is true that the novel was developed and not created, but it is not more true of Richardson's novel than of any other new species of composition, such as Marlowe's tragedy, or Scott's romantic tale, or Byron's personal epic. All alike are not created but developed in this sense that they have strongly marked affinities with kinds of writing immediately anterior to them. Thus in the novel of manners there are two elements—there is description of ordinary character, and there is plot-interest, i.e., there is a story. Both of these elements are found in the generation before Richardson. But not in combination. It was he that combined them in his novel of manners, and therefore he is entitled to the praise of being the father of a new species of composition. There is abundance of description of manners in the Spectator and there are many delicate studies of character. And the general reader in the days of Queen Anne and of George I. had abundance of stories to choose from—tales of scandal, of crime, of high-flown romance. But it had not occurred to anybody before Richardson to make a heroine out of such a character as Jenny Simper, or a hero out of her baronet Sir Anthony Love, or a story out of incidents within the probabilities of ordinary life. The epistolary form in which his stories were cast, and which remains as a memorial of their first suggestion, was abandoned by Richardson's first great follower and satirist, Fielding ; but it was Richardson that led the way into the new field of literature. He lived long enough to see many imitators. Within twelve years of the publication of Pamela, the Monthly Review began to complain of the labour of reading the multitude of novels submitted to its judgment, and the master-pieces of Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne were produced before his death in 1761. His correspondence was published in six volumes in 1804. (W. M.)

The above article was written by: Prof. William Minto.

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