Richardson, Samuel

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Richardson, Samuel (1689-1761). English Writer.

Samuel Richardson is best known for his first two novels, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740), which was enormously popular, and Clarissa; or the History of a Young Lady (1747-48), which is enormously long (about a million words)--as well as being what many critics consider to be the finest and most influential English novel of the century. The son of a carpenter, Richardson had little formal education. He was apprenticed to a printer in 1707 and rose to prominence in that business, ultimately becoming printer to the House of Commons. Although sometimes portrayed as effete, preferring as he did the company of women, he was energetic enough to father twelve children.

Richardson’s three novels, Pamela, Clarissa, and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54), are “epistolary”; that is, they take the form of a collection of letters written by the characters, not in tranquil recollection after the fact, but “to the moment,” while the narrative is unfolding. Thus the form of the novels is autobiographical without the benefit or hindrance of the hindsight that most autobiographies assume. Richardson’s first novel, Pamela, appears to have be written through a happy accident: two other printers had asked Richardson, who was known for his interest in letter-writing, to compose a collection of model letters for various occasions. A short sequence in this collection--Familiar Letters (1741)--comprised letters from a serving girl seeking her parents’ advice after her master had made improper sexual advances upon her. These letters seem to have inspired Richardson to develop this theme into a “dramatic narrative,” Pamela, which recounts, mostly in a serving girl’s own voice, how she resists such advances and is ultimately rewarded by a proper offer of marriage and her ultimate acceptance into “high life.”

Richardson’s tragic novel, Clarissa, recounts the destruction of a clever and virtuous young lady, first at the hands of her greedy, tyrannical father (and jealously scheming brother and sister), and then at the hands of an unscrupulous young rake. Like Pamela, Clarissa refuses to sacrifice her chastity to either pleasure or interest, but unlike Pamela, she is not saved by the convenient reformation of the rake. Instead she is raped and achieves in her consequent death a kind of moral and spiritual victory. Clarissa had great influence, both on English and on Continental fiction, particularly in the representation of feminine sensibility. Having presented exemplars of female virtue in Pamela and Clarissa, Richardson provides his readers with an exemplar of male virtue in the protagonist of his final novel, Sir Charles Grandison.

In preferring Richardson to Fielding, Henry, Johnson, Samuel is said to have contrasted Fielding’s “characters of manners” with Richardson’s “characters of nature”: “characters of manners are very entertaining, but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer than characters of nature, where a man must dive into the recesses of the human heart.” The critical controversy between admirers of Richardson’s transparency and sensibility and admirers of Fielding’s literariness and wit continues to the present day.

Further Reading:

Tom Keymer, Richardson and the Eighteenth-Century Reader, 1992.

Ted Ruml

California State University

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