This ingenious writer was born in 1689. He is said to have been the son of a farmer in Derbyshire. Of the earliest part of his life few particulars are preserved. He appears not to have received much instruction in the learned languages; but being brought up to the profession of a printer, he carried on that business for a long series of years, with great reputation and success, in Salisbury court, Fleet-street. When the duke of Wharton, about the year 1723, was active in opposition to the court, and, in order to make himself popular in the city, became a member of the Wax-chandlers' company, Richardson was his printer, and was much favoured by him, though he differed from the duke in his principles. He printed for that nobleman, for a short time, the political paper, called The True Briton, which was published twice a week; but he soon declined having any concern in that publication, from an unwillingness to subject himself to any prosecution from the government. He also printed, for some time, a newspaper, called The Daily Journal, and afterwards The Daily Gazetteer. He was also patronized by Mr. Onslow, speaker of the house of commons. Onslow had a high esteem for him; and, it is said, would have procured for him some honourable and profitable office under the government; but Richardson, whose business was extensive and lucrative, neither desired, nor would accept of any thing of the kind.
In the year 1740, he published his celebrated novel, Pamela, which procured him both fame and profit. It appears from a letter of Aaron Hill's to David Mallet, that the latter had suspected that Hill had a hand in this performance. The passage in Hill's letter, which is dated January 23d, 1741, is worth quoting, as a specimen of the laudatory style of the day: — "You ask me," says he, "in your postscript, whether you are right in guessing there are some traces of my hand in Pamela? No. Sir, upon my faith, I had not any, the minutest share, in that delightful nursery of virtues. The sole and absolute author is Mr. Richardson of Salisbury court, and such an author too he is, that hardly mortal ever matched him for his ease of natural power. He seems to move like a calm summer sea, that, swelling upward with unconscious deepness, lifts the heaviest weights into the skies, and shows no sense of their incumbency. He would, perhaps, in every thing he says or does, be more in nature than all men before him, but that he has one fault to an unnatural excess, and that is modesty. The book was published many months before I saw or heard of it; and when he sent it me among some other pieces, it came without the smallest hint that it was his, and with a grave apology as for a trifle of too light a species I found out whose it was by the resembling turn of Pamela's expressions, weighed with some which I had noted as peculiar in his letters; yet very loath he was, a long time, to confess it. And to say the least I can of qualities, which he conceals with as much fear as if they were ignoble ones, he is so honest, open, generous, and great a thinker, that he cannot, in his writings, paint a virtue that he needs look farther than his heart to find a pattern for. Let me not, therefore, rob him for a moment, in so just a mind as yours, by interception of his praises. The glory is, and ought to be, his only. And I am much mistaken in the promise of his genius, or Pamela — all lovely as she is, in her unheeded, hasty dress — is but a dawning to the day he is to give us."
In 1749 our author published Clarissa, in seven volumes, octavo. In one of Hill's letters to Richardson, on the publication of this work, are the following passages: — "Your Clarissa is full of varied and improving beauties of such striking force, that they monopolize my thoughts, and every thought throughout my family. They give a body and material tangibility to fancy; take possession of the sleep, and dwell like bird-lime on the memory! We are acquainted with, and see and know with the completest intimacy, each man, maid, woman, tree, house, field, step, incident, and place, throughout this exquisite creation! We agree, and every day afresh remark to one another, that we can find no difference at all in the impression of things really done, and past, and recollected by us; and the things we read of in this intellectual world, which you have naturalized us into." "I never open you," he again says, "without new proof of what I have a thousand times asserted, that you are a species in your single self, that never had or will have an equal; such a glowing skill you have to call out life, and paint the features of the soul so speakingly, — to conjure up, into the compass of so small a circle, such innumerable specimens of every humour, every passion, all the representative displays of nature! Instead of viewing you engrossed by a diurnal round of the same business, one would think you have been verifying the story of the wandering Jew, and gathering all the fruits of seventeen active ages in all climates, and through all diversities of conversation. But you have peculiarly a nameless strength in locally impressive imagery, that goes beyond whatever was conceived by a poetic fancy! A certain happy force, of starting life from some quick, transient glance, that opens its whole likeness at a flash, and stamps it with a not to be resisted permanency. Your moral hints are sudden like short lightning, and they strike with the same force and subtilty!"
In 1753 he published the History of Sir Charles Grandison, in eight volumes. This work possesses a very high degree of merit, but it is generally thought not quite equal to Clarissa. Dr. Warton says, "Of all representations of madness, that of Clementina, in the History of Sir Charles Grandison, is the most deeply interesting. I know not whether even the madness of Lear is wrought up, and expressed by so many little strictures of nature and genuine passion. Shall I say it is pedantry to prefer and compare the madness of Orestes in Euripides to this of Clementina?"
The year after the publication of this work, Richardson became master of the Stationers' company. In 1760 he purchased a moiety of the patent of law-printer, and carried on that department of business in partnership with Mrs. Catherine Lintot. His country retirement was first at Northend, near Hammersmith, and afterwards at Parson's-green; and his house was generally filled with the company of his friends of both sexes, for he was extremely hospitable, and fond of the company of his friends. He died on the 4th of July, 1761, at the age of seventy-two, and was buried in St. Bride's church, London.
He was twice married, and by his first wife had five sons and a daughter, who all died young. His second wife survived him more than twelve years. By her he had a son and five daughters. This son died young; but four of the daughters survived him.
"It is not, in our opinion," says Mr. Jeffrey, in the 24th volume of the Edinburgh Review, "a very difficult attempt to class Fielding or Smollett; — the one as an observer of the characters of human life, the other as a describer of its various eccentricities; but it is by no means so easy to dispose of Richardson, who was neither an observer of the one, nor a describer of the other, but who seemed to spin his materials entirely out of his own brain, as if there had been nothing existing in the world beyond the little shop in which he sat writing. There is an artificial reality about his works, which is nowhere to be met with. They have the romantic air of a pure fiction, with the literal minuteness of a common diary. The author had the strangest matter-of-fact imagination that ever existed, and wrote the oddest mixture of poetry and prose. He does not appear to have taken advantage of any thing in actual nature, from one end of his works to the other; and yet, throughout all his works, (voluminous as they are, and this, to be sure, is one reason why they are so,) he sets about describing every object and transaction, as if the whole had been given in on evidence by an eye-witness. This kind of high finishing from imagination is an anomaly in the history of human genius, and certainly nothing so fine was ever produced by the same accumulation of minute parts. There is not the least distraction, the least forgetfulness of the end: every circumstance is made to tell. We cannot agree that this exactness of detail produces heaviness; on the contrary, it gives an appearance of truth, and a positive interest to the story; and we listen with the same attention as we should to the particulars of a confidential communication. We at one time used to think some parts of Sir Charles Grandison rather trifling and tedious, especially the long description of Miss Harriet Byron's wedding-clothes, till we met with two young ladies who had severally copied out the whole of that very description for their own private gratification. After this, we could not blame the author.
"The effect of reading this work is like an increase of kindred; you find yourself all of a sudden introduced into the midst of a large family, with aunts and cousins to the third and fourth generation, and grand-mothers both by the father's and mother's side, — and a very odd set of people too, but people whose real existence and personal identity you can no more dispute than your own senses, — for you see and hear all that they do or say. What is still more extraordinary, all this extreme elaborateness in working out the story, seems to have cost the author nothing: for it is said, that the published works are mere abridgments. We have heard (though this, we suppose, must be a pleasant exaggeration), that Sir Charles Grandison was originally written in eight and twenty volumes.
"Pamela is the first of his productions, and the very child of his brain. Taking the general idea of the character of a modest and beautiful country girl, and of the situation in which she is placed, he makes out all the rest, even to the smallest circumstances by the mere force of a reasoning imagination. It would seem as if a step lost should be as fatal here as in a mathematical demonstration. The development of the character is the most simple, and comes the nearest to nature that it can do, without being the same thing. The interest of the story increases with the dawn of understanding and reflection in the heroine. Her sentiments gradually expand themselves, like opening flowers. She writes better every time, and acquires a confidence in herself, just as a girl would do, writing such letters in such circumstances; and yet it is certain that no girl would write such letters in such circumstances. What we mean is this. Richardson's nature is always the nature of sentiment and reflection, not of impulse or situation. He furnishes his characters, on every occasion, with the presence of mind of the author. He makes them act, not as they would from the impulse of the moment, but as they might upon reflection, and upon a careful review of every motive and circumstance in their situation. They regularly sit down to write letters: and if the business of life consisted in letter-writing, and was carried on by the post, (like a Spanish game at chess,) human nature would be what Richardson represents it. All actual objects and feelings are blunted and deadened by being represented through a medium which may be true to reason, but is false to nature. He confounds his own point of view with that of the immediate actors in the scene; and hence presents you with a conventional and factitious nature, instead of that which is real. Dr. Johnson seems to have preferred this truth of reflection to the truth of nature, when he said that there was more knowledge of the human heart in a page of Richardson than in all Fielding. Fielding, however, saw more of the practical results, and understood the principles as well; but he had not the same power of speculating upon their possible results, and combining them in certain ideal forms of passion and imagination, which was Richardson's real excellence.
"It must be observed, however, that it is this mutual good understanding, and comparing of notes between the author and the persons he describes; his infinite circumspection, his exact process of ratiocination and calculation, which gives such an appearance of coldness and formality to most of his characters, — which makes prudes of his women, and coxcombs of his men. Every thing is too conscious in his works. Every thing is distinctly brought home to the mind of the actors in the scene, which is a fault undoubtedly: but then, it must be confessed, every thing is brought home in its full force to the mind of the reader also, and we feel the same interest in the story as if it were our own. Can any thing be more beautiful or affecting than Pamela's reproaches to her 'lumpish heart,' when she is sent away from her master's at her own request — its lightness, when she is sent for back — the joy which the conviction of the sincerity of his love diffuses in her heart, like the coming-on of spring — the artifice of the stuff gown — the meeting with Lady Davers after her marriage — and the trial scene with her husband? Who ever remained insensible to the passion of Lady Clementina, except Sir Charles Grandison himself, who was the object of it? Clarissa is, however, his masterpiece, if we except Lovelace. If she is fine in herself, she is still finer in his account of her. With that foil, her purity is dazzling indeed: and she who could triumph by her virtue, and the force of her love, over the regality of Lovelace's mind, his wit, his person, his accomplishments, and his spirit, conquers all hearts. We should suppose that never sympathy more deep or sincere was excited than by the heroine of Richardson's romance, except by the calamities of real life. The links in this wonderful chain of interest are not more finely wrought, than their whole weight is overwhelming and irresistible. Who can forget the exquisite gradations of her long dying scene, or the closing of the coffin-lid, when Miss Howe comes to take her last leave of her friend; or the heart-breaking reflection that Clarissa makes on what was to have been her wedding-day? Well does a modern writer exclaim—
Books are a real world, both pure and good,
Round which, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness may grow!
Richardson's wit was unlike that of any other writer; — his humour was so too. Both were the effect of intense activity of mind; — laboured, and yet completely effectual. We might refer to Lovelace's reception and description of Hickman, when he calls out Death in his ear, as the name of the person with whom Clarissa had fallen in love; and to the scene at the glove shop. What can be more magnificent than his enumeration of his companions — Belton so pert and so pimply — Tourville so fair and so foppish! &c. In casuistry, he is quite at home; and, with a boldness greater even than his puritanical severity, has exhausted every topic on virtue and vice. There is another peculiarity in Richardson, not perhaps so uncommon, which is, his systematically preferring his most insipid characters to his finest, though both were equally his own invention, and he must be supposed to have understood something of their qualities. Thus he preferred the little, selfish, affected, insignificant Miss Byron, to the divine Clementina, and again, Sir Charles Grandison, to the nobler Lovelace. We have nothing to say in favour of Lovelace's morality; but Sir Charles is the prince of coxcombs, — whose eye was never once taken from his own person, and his own virtues; and there is nothing which excites so little sympathy as this excessive egotism."