Last reviewed: June 2018
August 19, 1689 (baptized)
Mackworth, Derbyshire, England
July 4, 1761
Samuel Richardson was born in 1689, the son of a Derbyshire joiner and a pious mother. As a boy, his thoughtful and serious nature would have recommended him for the church, but his parents could not afford the requisite education. Instead, after moderate schooling, he was apprenticed to a London printer, John Wilde. He proved a conscientious worker for a demanding master and in due time reaped his reward by marrying his employer’s daughter and succeeding to the business. By dint of hard work and honesty, his became one of the most prosperous and sought-after publishing concerns in London. Samuel Richardson
No evidence exists that Richardson had any youthful ambitions to be a writer; he was over fifty, and a successful businessman, when he stumbled, quite by accident, into his role as “father” of the English novel. From youth to old age, Richardson was unusually fond of what he characteristically called “epistolary correspondence.” As a boy in Derbyshire, he had been commissioned by various young women to compose or embellish their love letters, and in the process he had gained considerable insight into their emotional lives and had developed an imagination that took pleasure in creating detailed fantasies concerned with the distresses of love. Later, as an apprentice, he carried on a long correspondence, often on moral subjects, with a man he describes as being a “master of the epistolary style.” With this background in letter-writing, it was not unusual that two bookseller friends should suggest that he turn his talents to account by publishing a volume of model letters of various sorts. Richardson took up the idea but characteristically amended it by proposing that the letters should teach not only how to write but also “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common concerns of human life.”
The book, Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions (sometimes called, more simply, Familiar Letters), appeared in 1741, but in the meantime Richardson, while writing a connected group of letters “to instruct handsome young girls, who were obliged to go out to service, . . . how to avoid the snares that might be laid against their virtue,” remembered an appropriate story told him some twenty-five years before; thus Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740–41, was born. Perhaps Richardson himself provides the best concise description of this milestone in the development of the novel on the title page: Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents. Now first published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the minds of the Youth of both Sexes. A Narrative which has its Foundation in Truth and Nature; and at the same time that it agreeably entertains, by a Variety of curious and affecting Incidents, is entirely divested of all those Images, which, in too many Pieces calculated for Amusement only, tend to inflame the Minds they should instruct.
Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents. Now first published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the minds of the Youth of both Sexes. A Narrative which has its Foundation in Truth and Nature; and at the same time that it agreeably entertains, by a Variety of curious and affecting Incidents, is entirely divested of all those Images, which, in too many Pieces calculated for Amusement only, tend to inflame the Minds they should instruct.
The book proved not only an immediate and unparalleled success—with the average reader for its detailed descriptions of situations and emotions that at times approach the salacious, and with the pious for its moral rectitude—but also, by adding to the realism of Daniel Defoe a power of minute mental analysis that Defoe did not possess, it set a new fashion in fiction, the novel of sensibility.
For all its success and its importance as both one of the first epistolary novels and the prototype of the novel of sentimental analysis, Pamela is not without its faults. Although Richardson makes dramatic use of the letter-writing technique, the device demands an annoying degree of almost priggish self-righteousness on the part of the heroine. Further, the morality of the “lesson” taught is not above suspicion. Pamela defends her virtue valiantly, but not without an eye to the main chance, and in the end is rewarded handsomely by an offer of marriage from her master and would-be seducer.
Henry Fielding, Richardson’s contemporary, disliked Pamela, partly because he believed that people should comport themselves in a virtuous manner simply because that is the way people should behave—not merely to acquire a financial reward. Fielding consequently responded to Richardson’s novel with two works of his own—Shamela (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742). The former work in particular parodies Richardson’s successful novel, portraying the heroine as a conniving woman (rather than Richardson’s exemplary female). The name “Shamela” manifests the suspicion some critics experience when discussing Pamela, a woman who desires to flee when she knows her master wants to deflower her but remains under his roof to sew his coat, who entices Mr. B. by disguising herself in the clothing of a farmer’s daughter, and who finally marries this wealthy man who has abused her and shown her no respect throughout the novel.
Richardson’s next novel, Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady, avoids both these weaknesses. The story, which tells of the “Distresses that may attend the Misconduct both of Parents and Children in Relation to Marriage,” is a truly tragic one. Not only is the characterization in this novel superbly handled and always believable, but also the central dilemma is more genuinely a moral one than in Pamela; the problem is not whether Clarissa will be seduced, but whether she can forgive her seducer. This heroine is no pale, self-righteous prude. Clarissa disobeys her father by corresponding surreptitiously with Lovelace. She also lusts for the rake and runs away with him. Indeed, in this novel Richardson rises to the zenith of his powers as a novelist, both in his ability to present moving and convincing situations and in his power to describe minutely human emotions at times of extreme stress.
Richardson’s last novel, Sir Charles Grandison, attempts to depict a model good man and fine gentleman combined. Like the others, it is in epistolary form; although the characterization and analysis of emotions are still excellent, it lacks the intense central dilemma that holds the attention in the first two books and tends to make tedious reading.
After Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson wrote little more of any importance. He continued to prosper in business, grew rich, was elected master of the Stationers’ Company, was employed to print the journals of the House of Commons, and was eventually appointed law printer to the king. He died in Parson’s Green, London, in 1761.
Colorless as Richardson was personally, and pedestrian and prolix as his style often became, his importance in the history of the novel should not be underestimated. His books have an extraordinary power which at first attracts and in time holds the reader. Although English fiction that came after him followed slightly different lines, it is impossible to deny Richardson the credit for inaugurating the novel of sensibility, which for a time became the fashion even more on the Continent than in England.