1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Richardson

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:160-61.



SAMUEL RICHARDSON was born in Derbyshire in 1689, and was the son of a joiner, who could not afford to give his son more than the ordinary elements of education. When fifteen years of age, he was put apprentice to a printer in London; and by good conduct rose to be master of an extensive business of his own, and printer of the Journals of the House of Commons. In 1754 he was chosen master of the Stationers' Company, and in 1760 he purchased a moiety of the patent of printer to the king, which greatly increased his emoluments. He was a prosperous and liberal man — mild in his manners and dispositions — and seems to have had only one marked foible — excessive vanity. From a very early period of his life, Richardson was a fluent letter-writer: at thirteen he was the confidant of three young women, whose love correspondence he carried on without any one knowing that he was secretary to the others. Two London publishers having urged him, when he was above the age of fifty, to write them a book of familiar letters on the useful concerns of life, he set about the composition of his "Pamela," as a warning to young people, and with a hope that it would "turn them into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance writing." It was written in about three months, and published in the year 1741, with such success, that five editions were exhausted in the course of one year. "It requires a reader," says Sir Walter Scott, "to be in some degree acquainted with the huge folios of inanity, over which our ancestors yawned themselves to sleep, ere he can estimate the delight they must have experienced from this unexpected return to truth and nature." "Pamela" became the rage of the town; ladies carried the volumes with them to Ranelagh gardens, and held them up to one another in triumph. Pope praised the novel as likely to do more good than twenty volumes of sermons; and Dr Sherlock recommended it from the pulpit! In 1749 appeared Richardson's second and greatest work, "The History of Clarissa Harlowe;" and in 1753 his novel, designed to represent the beau ideal of a gentleman and Christian, "The History of Sir Charles Grandison." The almost unexampled success and popularity of Richardson's life and writings were to himself disturbed and clouded by nervous attacks, which rendered him delicate and feeble in health. He was flattered and soothed by a number of female friends, in whose society he spout most of his time, and after reaching the goodly age of seventy-two, he died on the 4th of July 1761.

The works of Richardson are all pictures of the heart. No man understood human nature better, or could draw with greater distinctness the minute shades of feeling and sentiment, or the final results of our passions. He wrote his novels, it is said, in his back-shop, in the intervals of business; and must have derived exquisite pleasure from the moral anatomy in which he was silently engaged — conducting his characters through the scenes of his ideal world, and giving expression to all the feelings, motives, and impulses, of which our nature is susceptible. He was happiest in female characters. Much of his time had been spent with the gentler sex, and his own retired habits and nervous sensibility approximated to feminine softness. He well repaid the sex for all their attentions by his character of Clarissa, one of the noblest tributes ever paid to female virtue and honour. The moral elevation of this heroine, the saintly purity which she preserves amidst scenes of the deepest depravity and the most seductive gaiety, and the neverfailing sweetness and benevolence of her temper, render Clarisea one of the brightest triumphs of the whole range of imaginative literature. Perhaps the climax of her distress is too overwhelming — too oppressive to the feelings — but it is a healthy sorrow. We see the full radiance of virtue; and no reader ever rose from the perusal of those tragic scenes without feeling his moral nature renovated, and his detestation of vice increased.

"Pamela" is a work of much humbler pretensions than "Clarissa Harlowe:" it is like the domestic tragedy of Lillo compared with Lear or Macbeth. A simple country girl, whom her master attempts to seduce, and afterwards marries, can be no very dignified heroine. But the excellences of Richardson are strikingly apparent in this his first novel. His power of circumstantial painting is evinced in the multitude of small details which he brings to boar on his story — the very wardrobe of poor Pamela, her gown of sad-coloured stuff, and her round-eared caps — her various attempts at escape, and the conveyance of her letters — the hateful character of Mrs. Jewkes, and the fluctuating passions of her master, before the better part of his nature obtains the ascendancy — these are all touched with the hand of a master. The seductive scenes are too highly coloured for modern taste, and Pamela is deficient in natural dignity; she is too calculating, too tame and submissive; but while engaged with the tale, we think only of her general innocence and artlessness; of her sad trials and afflictions, down to her last confinement, when she hid her papers in the rose-bush in the garden, and sat by the side of the pond in titter despair, half-meditating suicide. The elevation of this innocent and lovely young creature to be the bride of her master is an act of justice; but after all, we feel she was too good for him, and wish she had effected her escape, and been afterwards united to some great and wealthy nobleman who had never condescended to oppress the poor and unfortunate The moral of the tale would also have been improved by some such termination. Esquire B— should have been mortified, and waiting maids taught not to tolerate liberties from their young masters, because, like Pamela, they may rise to obtain their hand in marriage.

"Sir Charles Grandison" is inferior in general interest, as well as truth, to either of Richardson's other novels. The "good man" and perfect gentleman, perplexed by the love of two ladies whom he regarded with equal affection, is an anomaly in nature with which we cannot sympathise. The hero of "Clarissa," Lovelace, being a splendid and accomplished, a gay and smiling villain, Richardson wished to make Sir Charles in all respects the very opposite: he has given him too little passion and too much perfection for frail humanity. In this novel, however, is one of the most powerful of all our author's delineations — the madness of Clementina. Shakspeare himself has scarcely drawn a more affecting or harrowing picture of high-souled suffering and blighting calamity. The same accumulation of details as in "Clarissa," all tending to heighten the effect and produce the catastrophe, hurry on the reader with breathless anxiety, till he has learned the last sad event, and is plunged in unavailing grief. This is no exaggerated account of the sensations produced by Richardson's pathetic scenes. He is one of the most powerful and tragic of novelists; and that he is so, in spite of much tediousness of description, much repetition and prolixity of narrative, is the best testimony to his art and genius. The extreme length of our author's novels, the epistolary style in which they are all written, and the number of minute and apparently unimportant circumstances with which they abound, added to the more energetic character of our subsequent literature, have tended to cast Richardson's novels into the shade. Even Lord Byron could not, he said, read "Clarissa." We admit that it requires some resolution to get through a fictitious work of eight volumes; but having once begun, most readers will find it difficult to leave off the perusal of these works. They are eminently original, which is always a powerful recommendation. They show an intimate acquaintance with the human heart, and an absolute command over the passions; they are, in fact, romances of the heart, embellished by sentiment, and as such possess a deep and enchaining interest, and a power of exciting virtuous emotions, which blind us to blemishes in style and composition, and to those errors in taste and manners which are more easily ridiculed than avoided in works so voluminous confined to domestic portraiture.