Richardson’s Establishes the Modern Novel

The modern English novel came into its own as a literary form with Samuel Richardson’s writing of Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. With this work, the episodic method employed by the very first English novels gave way to a plot that focused on a main event, a romantic pursuit, and the realities of contemporary marriage and mores.

Summary of Event

The publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) in England marked the establishment of the novel Novels as a literary form. To be sure, the roots of the novel in Western literature can be traced back to fictional narratives in ancient Greece and Rome, to the epic poem and long fictional romances, and in Eastern literature to Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (c. 1001-1013; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933). Later European narratives produced the romances of chivalry, and in Spain, an unknown author in 1554 wrote Lazarillo de Tormes, considered by some to be the first picaresque narrative. Some critics even consider El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) Don Quixote de la Mancha (Cervantes) by Miguel de Cervantes to be the first novel, because his characters resembled real people who were capable of making foolish mistakes; certainly this work of fiction contributed to the development of the modern novel. [kw]Richardson’s Pamela Establishes the Modern Novel (1740-1741)
[kw]Novel, Richardson’s Pamela Establishes the Modern (1740-1741)
[kw]Pamela Establishes the Modern Novel, Richardson’s (1740-1741)
Pamela (Richardson)
Literature;modern novel
[g]England;1740-1741: Richardson’s Pamela Establishes the Modern Novel[1020]
[c]Literature;1740-1741: Richardson’s Pamela Establishes the Modern Novel[1020]
Richardson, Samuel
Defoe, Daniel
Fielding, Henry
Smollett, Tobias

In England, there are several fictional narratives that, in retrospect, have vied for the “first novel” distinction. Among these were Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself (1719; commonly known as Robinson Crusoe), Robinson Crusoe (Defoe) which recounted the adventures of a man who was stranded on an island for twenty-four years, and The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums (1722; commonly known as Moll Flanders), Moll Flanders (Defoe) which followed the life of a woman who turned to thievery and prostitution but who later repented to lead an upright life. Certainly, in many ways Robinson Crusoe deserves the title of the first modern novel, and it is accurate to refer to Defoe as a novelist.

However, the plot of Robinson Crusoe relied on travel and thus separated the hero from a stable setting. While it focused on an individual, moreover, it was episodic (portraying one self-contained event after another), rather than dealing with social relationships in a coherent, unified fashion. By the same token, the plot of Moll Flanders lacked the sort of pattern that would emerge when a writer was skilled in using multiple angles in holding a mirror, so to speak, to reflect reality. The original sort of realism Literature;realism invented by the novel comes from its ability to mirror all aspects of human experience, not just those that reflect one perspective. It is the way the novel presents life, not just the kind of life it presents, that is the prime feature of novelistic realism. It is this feature that differentiates the eighteenth century novel most clearly from earlier prose fiction.

With Pamela, Richardson was successful in avoiding some of the major problems that Defoe had encountered. The most important problem was that of finding a plot that would fit the new form of the novel. Defoe’s episodic plots were better suited to other forms, such as a heroic epic or the picaresque tale. Richardson solved this problem by avoiding the episodic methods of Defoe, basing the novel on a single action, the courtship of Pamela Andrews by Mr. B. Richardson. He used the epistolary Epistolary literature
Literature;epistolary method (that is, the novel takes the form of a series of letters), a method of which he has been acknowledged as a master.

In two volumes of fictional correspondence, Richardson posed as an anonymous editor of found letters to reveal the story of Pamela, a clever and virtuous servant girl who works for a kind mistress, Mr. B’s mother. Her mistress dies, leaving Mr. B. as her master. He then pursues her relentlessly, and, being aware of the disparity in their social classes, Pamela resists just as relentlessly. The more she resists his advances, the more desperately Mr. B. tries to trap her. At last, he consents to let her go home to her parents, but actually Mr. B. sends her to Lincolnshire to a lonely house with two overseers, Mrs. Jewkes and Colgrand. After Pamela makes an unsuccessful attempt to escape and even contemplates suicide, Mr. B. is finally convinced that she will never give in to temptation, and he offers to let her return home. Before Pamela has gone far, Mr. B. appeals to her once more. This time, however, the appeal takes the form of a proper and sincere marriage proposal. Her virtue having finally been rewarded, Pamela returns to Mr. B and gratefully accepts his proposal. The second volume recounts their married life together.

Unlike earlier romance writers, whose narratives were produced in the context of notions of courtly love or Catholic ideals of marriage, Marriage and literature
Literature;marriage Richardson was able to capitalize on a relatively new marriage code: The Puritan conception of marriage had recently become accepted by Anglo-Saxon society. Thus, Richardson’s novel was written to reflect what was actually going on in the society of his time and it portrayed to its readers what purported to be their own values. This portrayal took a new form, moreover, because it expanded a single intrigue, Mr. B’s pursuit of Pamela, into a novel-length work. While lovers’ relationships have all the qualities of romantic love, Richardson was able to incorporate basic issues of life at that time, social class conflict and conflict between the moral code and sexual instincts. This incorporation of contemporary issues and values became a hallmark of novelistic realism.

Discussions of Samuel Richardson and his novels, with relatively few exceptions, have linked him to Henry Fielding, especially in light of the fact that Fielding parodied Pamela in An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews
Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, An (Fielding) (1741) and in The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742; commonly known as Joseph Andrews
Joseph Andrews (Fielding) ). These works were meant to reveal what Fielding considered to be Richardson’s moral ambivalence. Both authors believed themselves to be introducing innovative forms that would reshape prose fiction, but wide differences exist between the two writers.

Fielding, well grounded in the classical literary tradition, had a more scholarly approach to fiction than did Richardson; furthermore, his awareness of historical context resulted in characters that are general types of humankind, unlike Richardson’s characters, with whom a reader can identify as individuals. Fielding’s picaresque type of narrative, as seen in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749; commonly known as Tom Jones), enabled him to make random observations about society, whereas Richardson’s plots focused on emotional pressures in specific situations. While Fielding addressed moral issues by laughing at humanity’s foibles, Richardson preferred to shock his readers into virtuous behavior.

Tobias Smollett, often categorized with Richardson and Fielding as an early English novelist, wrote loosely constructed accounts of incidents in the lives of his heroes. Comical and bitterly satiric, his novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), like Fielding’s Tom Jones, return to the earlier form of the picaresque or rogue-hero type of adventure.


The publication of Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded produced an extraordinary effect. It swept England with a wave of emotion. Some of the novel’s success came from its appeal to female readers at a time when many British women had more leisure time than they had previously enjoyed. Richardson’s expertise at analyzing the feminine mind, moreover, was unequaled. He addressed the concerns of women Women;and literature[literature]
Literature;women for security, marriage, and a proper social role.

Furthermore, Richardson was a genius of plot, and, whereas Fielding was a novelist of nature or of the outdoors, Richardson was a novelist of the interior. His was arguably the first “novel of manners,” Novels;of manners in which the action takes place largely in domestic space—in the drawing room rather than in the streets, the countryside, or the public house. His work embodied the premise that the novel reports human experience fully and authentically, providing minute details and particulars of times, places, and settings. With Pamela, Richardson succeeded in going beyond the episodic and the picaresque methods of his contemporaries Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett. He consolidated the form of the novel and established it as a true literary genre.

Further Reading

  • Beasley, Jerry C. Novels of the 1740’s. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. Examines the backgrounds, topics, and strategies used in novels of the 1740’s, with particular emphasis on the novels of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett.
  • Brown, Homer Obed. Institutions of the English Novel from Defoe to Scott. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Questions the premise that the novel fully attained its generic identity by 1759.
  • Karl, Frederick R. A Reader’s Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. New York: Noonday Press, 1974. Identifies the novel as adversarial literature and discusses the work of Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Laurence Sr. 1 Discusses qualities that constitute a novel.
  • McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Provides a theoretical basis for tracing the historical development of the novel genre.
  • Richetti, John J. The English Novel in History, 1700-1780. New York: Routledge, 1999. Looks at fiction and society in eighteenth century England and the roles of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding in this regard.
  • Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. 2d American ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. A classic work that seeks to identify literary and social situations in England that could account for the emergence of three novelists—Richardson, Defoe, and Fielding—within a single generation.

Defoe Publishes the First Novel

Swift Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels

Fielding’s Joseph Andrews Satirizes English Society

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Daniel Defoe; Henry Fielding; Samuel Richardson; Jonathan Swift. Pamela (Richardson)
Literature;modern novel