This eminent novelist, the son of a joiner, who had carried on business in London, was born in Derbyshire, in the year 1689; but the exact place of his birth, says Mrs. Barbauld, he, for some reason or other, always avoided mentioning. He was at first intended for the church, in consequence of his sedate and serious disposition, but his father not possessing sufficient means to send him to the university, he was ultimately destined to trade, and never obtained any education beyond that of a common school. It appears, from his own statement, that he was early a general favourite with females, and that, at the age of thirteen, being made the confidant of three young women in their love secrets, he was employed by them to write draughts of letters to their lovers; and such was his fidelity and discretion, that not one of them suspected him to be the secretary of the others.
In 1706, he was put apprentice to Mr. Wilde, a printer, in Stationers' Hall; a business of his own choosing, in order to gratify his thirst for reading. He, however, found this not so easy; for his master, he says, being one who grudged every hour to him that tended not to his profit, he was obliged to steal from the hours allotted to rest and recreation, his times for mental improvement. So conscientious was he on these occasions, that he always purchased his own candle, and he was, at the same time, so diligent in his proper business, that his master used to call him the pillar of his house. After the expiration of his apprenticeship, he worked as a journeyman and corrector in a printing office, until 1719, when he took up his freedom, and set up for himself in a court in Fleet Street, whence he subsequently removed to Salisbury Court. His exertions were not confined to his business; he not only printed but wrote for the booksellers, in composing for them indexes, prefaces, and, as he styles them, honest dedications. His reputation for honourable and generous dealings soon made his trade profitable, and, about 1723, he was employed to print the Duke of Wharton's True Briton, and afterwards, The Daily Journal, The Daily Gazetteer, and The Journals of the House of Commons, of which he completed twenty six volumes. Mr. Speaker Onslow, through whose influence he obtained this last employment, offered, it is said, to promote him to some station at court, but Richardson declined quitting his business. At this time he appears to have been married, but subsequently lost his wife, who was the daughter of his first master, in 1731.
In 1739, he received an application from two booksellers to write for them a volume of letters upon various supposed occasions, which might serve as models for those who had not the talent of inditing for themselves. "He began," says Mrs. Barbauld; "but letter producing letter, it grew into a story, and was given to the public under the title of The History of Pamela." Such was the fluency of his pen and his easiness of invention, that the two volumes, of which the work at first consisted, and beyond which it should not have been prolonged, were completed, amidst other engagements, within two months. The reception it met with from the public was unparalleled; it was recommended from the pulpit by more than one eminent divine; Pope declared it would do more good than many volumes of sermons: and, indeed, all parties concurred in finding it a work of moral entertainment, calculated to serve alike the cause of virtue, religion, and morality. The two additional volumes were written in consequence of the appearance of a spurious continuation of the story, called Pamela in High Life; and are, as Mrs. Barbauld justly observes, superfluous and dull, and filled with heavy sentiment instead of incident and passion.
In 1748, he published the two first volumes of Clarissa, which at once placed him in the first rank of novelists. This, as was the case with Pamela, was translated into Dutch, German, and French, and procured for him a reputation, both at home and abroad, which no novelist perhaps has ever before or since enjoyed. The female character had hitherto been the object of his pen to exalt, and he now determined to give the world an example of a perfect man. Accordingly, in 1753, he produced The History of Sir Charles Grandison: — how far his attempts succeeded will be noticed after the remaining occurrences of his life have been related. It should, however, here be stated, that, while the work was printing, the author underwent great vexation from the piracy of the Dublin booksellers, who bribed his servants to steal the sheets while they were under the press. They even broke open locks to get at the manuscripts; sent over what was prepared for publication; and the booksellers, almost all of whom concurred in this act of robbery, came out with a cheap edition of several of the volumes before the author's English one.
In 1754, Richardson, who was amassing a handsome fortune, from his works and his business, was made master of the Stationers' Company; on which occasion one of his friends told him that though he did not doubt his going very well through every other part of the duty, he feared his habitual abstemiousness would allow him to make but a very poor figure at the city feasts. In 1760, he purchased a moiety of the patent of law printer to the king, and, about the same time, he removed from his country residence at North End, Hammersmith, to a house which he had built for himself at Parson's Green. Here he passed the latter part of his life, surrounded by his family, and an amiable and accomplished circle of visitors, principally females, to whom he used to read his works in the progress of composition. "In this mental seraglio, as it may be called," says Mrs. Barbauld, "he had great facilities for that knowledge of the female heart which he has so eminently shown in his works; but it cannot be denied that it had a tendency to feed that self-importance which was perhaps his reigning foible." A paralytic disorder at length terminating in apoplexy, deprived him of life, on the 4th of July, 1761; previously to which he had added to his reputation by the publication of Familiar Letters, being the scheme he had laid aside for Pamela; an edition of Aesop's Fables; and Number Ninety-seven in the Rambler; besides some fugitive pieces in different periodical publications. By his first wife, Richardson had one daughter and five sons; and by his second, a Miss Leake, one son and five daughters: the former children all died young; and of the latter, he was survived by four daughters.
The character of Richardson did not disappoint the expectation of those who looked to the author of Clarissa and Grandison for example as well as precept. He was virtuous, friendly, benevolent, humane, and hospitable; and it is an amiable picture, observes Dr. Aikin, that one of his correspondents draws of him, when he says, "I think I see you sitting at your door, like an old patriarch, and inviting all who pass by to come in." Flattery, praise, and adulation, than which no man received more, threw no taint upon his independence, and the acquaintance of his superiors he never deemed of sufficient value to court. In company, he was silent and reserved, and never altogether got over that bashfulness incident to a man of sensibility who has risen to notice beyond what his original rank in society could claim.
As an author, his fame rests on Clarissa and Grandison; had he written Pamela only, he would have been remembered as a novelist, but nothing more. Exquisitely as is the character of the heroine portrayed, up to the time she resists the licentious overtures of her master and admirer, the moment she becomes his wife, a death-blow is given to the consistency of her character and the moral tendency of the work. But the author has made amends for this fatal error in Clarissa; Lovelace is not superior in villiany to the husband of Pamela, and yet the hand of Lovelace is disdained; the one offers marriage to his victim in the character of an unsatiated violator, the other in that of a foiled seducer; both despicable enough it must be owned; and by such a woman as Richardson professed to represent, both should have been rejected. Richardson is more highly estimated by the French than by his own countrymen; and Rousseau has observed of Clarissa, "that no book was ever written equal to it in any language." It is, indeed, a masterly and original production of genius; and Mrs. Barbauld justly remarks, that it will transmit his name to posterity as one of the first geniuses of the age in which he lived. In this novel, observes his female biographer, "it was reserved for Richardson to overcome all circumstances of dishonour and disgrace, and to throw a splendour round the violated virgin more radiant than she possessed in her first bloom." Dr. Johnson, in comparing the Lothario of Rowe with the Lovelace of Richardson, says, that the one was probably taken from the other; but gives the preference, for moral effect, to our author, observing that Lothario retains too much of the spectator's kindness. "It was in the power of Richardson alone," he continues, "to teach us at once esteem and detestation; to make virtuous resentment overpower all the benevolence which wit and elegance and courage naturally excite; and to lose, at last, the hero in the villain." In Sir Charles Grandison, the character of Clementina is the best drawn; but it has been observed that, after the refusal of Sir Charles, the reader should hear no more of her. "It is the fault of Richardson," says Mrs. Barbauld, "that he never knew when to have done with a character. Grandison created less interest than either of his preceding novels, although surpassing them both in compass, invention, and entertainment. Indeed the hero was not a character calculated to please or to impress, notwithstanding the superior qualities with which his author invests him. Sir Charles is an excellent example of self-control, but the passionless uniformity of his actions finds no sympathy with the generality of mankind in whatever degree it may attract their admiration. Nor is the consistency of his conduct always preserved; in the duel scene it is unquestionably destroyed; and his going so far into a matrimonial treaty with a bigoted catholic is at variance with all propriety, and particularly with the principles of the stiff and scrupulous Sir Charles. The faults of Richardson's style are his prolixity and inelegance of diction; few readers therefore, of the present day, possess the patience to read him. In Pamela, many of the scenes are extremely indelicate; and Dr. Watts, instead of complimenting him upon this novel, told him he understood that the ladies could not read it without blushing. It was in ridicule of Pamela, that Fielding wrote Joseph Andrews, an injury which was never forgiven by Richardson, who affected to despise Tom Jones, and predicted that the author would soon be no more heard of.