1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Richardson

Nathan Drake, in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:47-73.



SAMUEL RICHARDSON was born in the year 1689, the son of an ingenious and very respectable mechanic in Derbyshire. Of his family he has himself related the following particulars, in a letter to Mr. Stinstra, a Dutch Minister, and the translator of Clarissa. "My father was a very honest man, descended of a family of middling note, in the county of Surry; but which having for several generations a large number of children, the not large possessions were split and divided, so that he and his brothers were put to trades, and the sisters were married to tradesmen. My mother was also a good woman, of a family not ungenteel; but whose father and mother died in her infancy, within half-an-hour of each other, in the London pestilence of 1665.

"My Father's business was that of a joiner, then more distinct from that of a carpenter than now it is with us. He was a good draughtsman, and understood architecture. His skill and ingenuity, and an understanding superior to his business, with his remarkable integrity of heart and manners, made him personally beloved by several persons of rank, among whom were the Duke of Monmouth and the first Earl of Shaftsbury, both so noted in our English history. Their known favour for him having, on the Duke's attempt on the crown, subjected him to be looked upon with a jealous eye, notwithstanding he was noted for a quiet and inoffensive man, he thought proper, on the decollation of the first-named unhappy nobleman, to quit his London business, and to retire to Derbyshire, though to his great detriment; and there I, and three other children out of nine, were born."

It was the intention of the elder Mr. Richardson to have brought up his son Samuel to the Church; but the occurrence of some severe pecuniary losses compelled him to relinquish the design; he was, therefore, restricted to a common school education, and, according to his own confession, was acquainted with no other language than his mother-tongue; a deficiency which is very apparent in the structure of his composition.

He early exhibited, however, the most decisive marks of genius; he was of a serious and contemplative disposition, and fond of exercising his inventive powers, among his play-mates, in the narration of stories, the incidents of which he threw together with extraordinary facility. He was, likewise, remarkably partial to letter-writing, and to the company of his young female friends, with whom he maintained a constant correspondence, and even ventured, though only in his eleventh year, to become their occasional monitor and adviser.

The very intimate knowledge which he afterwards displayed of the female heart, had probably its first source from this juvenile attachment to the sex, which appears to have been returned, whilst he was yet a mere boy, by the most unlimited confidence on the part of his fair friends.

"As a bashful and not forward boy," he relates, "I was an early favourite with all the young women of taste and reading in the neighbourhood. Half-a-dozen of them, when met to work with their needles, used, when they got a book they liked, and thought I should, to borrow me to read to them; their mothers sometimes with them; and both mothers and daughters used to be pleased with the observations they put me upon making.

"I was not more than thirteen, when three of these young women, unknown to each other, having an high opinion of my taciturnity, revealed to me their love-secrets, in order to induce me to give them copies to write after, or correct, for answers to their lovers' letters: nor did any one of them ever know that I was the secretary to the others. I have been directed to chide, and even repulse, when an offence was either taken or given, at the very time that the heart of the chider or repulser was open before me, overflowing with esteem and affection; and the fair repulser, dreading to be taken at her word, directing this word, or that expression, to be softened or changed. One highly gratified with her lover's fervour, and vows of everlasting love, has said, when I have asked her direction, 'I cannot tell you what to write; but (her heart on her lips) you cannot write too kindly;' all her fear was only, that she should incur slight for her kindness."

At the age of sixteen it became necessary that our young secretary should fix upon some occupation for his future life; and, as his father left him to his free option, he decided for the business of a Printer; principally induced to the choice by the opportunities that he imagined it would afford him for reading, to which he was strongly attached. He was accordingly apprenticed in 1706 to Mr. John Wilde, of Stationers Hall; but he soon found that the advantages which he had so sanguinely expected were illusory, and that the only time left for his mental improvement must be snatched from the hours of rest and relaxation. In ardour and perseverance, however, he was not wanting, for he not only secured time for his private studies, but for a long-continued correspondence with a gentleman much his superior in station, in fortune, and in literature. His attention to the interests of his master was never, in the smallest degree, diminished by these stolen engagements; and such was his zeal in the execution of his duty, that he was termed by Mr. Wilde, who was singularly rigid in exacting what he thought capable of being performed, the pillar of his house.

On the termination of his apprenticeship, which had lasted seven years, young Richardson became a compositor and corrector of the press; an office which he continued to fill for nearly six years, and on declining which, he acquired his freedom and entered into business for himself. His first residence was small, and in an obscure court, but, his employment rapidly encreasing, he exchanged it for a larger in Salisbury-court, Fleet-street.

The industry, punctuality, and integrity of Richardson as a tradesman, were in due time followed by the usual result, a wide-extending reputation and accumulating wealth. He was the printer, for a short period, of the Duke of Wharton's "True Briton," a publication that appeared in 1723, and the purport of which was to excite an opposition in the city to the measures of Government. The politics of this paper, however, were so violent, that at the close of the sixth number he declined any further connexion with it, having indeed narrowly escaped a prosecution; for, four of the six essays being deemed libels, Mr. Payne the publisher was found guilty, while Richardson, although intimate with the Duke, was passed over, owing to the non-appearance of his name on the title-page. He was likewise occupied, about this time, in printing two newspapers, "The Daily Journal" and "The Daily Gazetteer," and he soon after obtained, through his interest with the Speaker Onslow, the lucrative situation of printer to the House of Commons. From his press issued the first edition of the "Journals of the House of Commons," in twenty-six folio volumes, an undertaking for which he at length obtained upwards of three thousand pounds.

He suffered not, however, the pressure of his business, though great, and requiring much superintendence, to preclude his mental progress; he was fond of exercising his pen, and frequently employed it, at the requisition of the booksellers, in composing for them prefaces and dedications. With these they were so much pleased, that, knowing his partiality to letter-writing, they requested him to furnish them with a volume of Familiar Letters, which might serve as a kind of manual or director for persons in inferior life. In attempting a compliance with this request was "Pamela" produced, the history of whose birth shall be given in the author's words addressed to his friend Aaron Hill.

"Mr. Rivington and Mr. Osborne, whose names are on the title-page, (of Pamela,) had long been urging me to give them a little book (which they said they were often asked after) of familiar letters on the useful concerns of common life; and at last I yielded to their importunity, and began to recollect such subjects as I thought would be useful in such a design, and formed several letters accordingly. And, among the rest, I thought of giving one or two as cautions to young folks circumstanced as Pamela was. Little did I think, at first, of making one, much less two volumes of it. But, when I began, I thought the story, if written in an easy and natural manner, suitably to the simplicity of it, might possibly introduce a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing, and, dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue. I therefore gave way to enlargement; and so Pamela became as you see her. But so little did I hope for the approbation of judges, that I had not the courage to send the two volumes to your ladies, until I found the book well received by the public.

"While I was writing the two volumes, my worthy-hearted wife, and the young lady who is with us, when I had read them some part of the story, which I had begun without their knowing it, used to come into my little closet every night with 'Have you any more of Pamela, Mr. R.? We are come to hear a little more of Pamela,' &c. This encouraged me to prosecute it, which I did so diligently, through all my other business, that, by a memorandum on my copy, I began it Nov. 10, 1739, and finished it Jan. 10, 1739-40. And I have often, censurable as I might be thought for my vanity for it, and lessening to the taste of my two female friends, had the story of Moliere's Old Woman in my thoughts upon the occasion."

Pamela was published in 1740, and immediately attracted a most extraordinary degree of attention. It presented the public, indeed, with a work truly original in its plan, uniting the interest arising from well-combined incident with the moral purposes of a sermon; to these were added so much touching simplicity and pathos, so many admirable draughts from nature, that the fascination became general. Though the novel was brought forward anonymously, it was impossible that the author should be long concealed, and no sooner was he known than compliments and commendations were poured in upon him in profusion. The admiration, in fact, of his readers was such as to lead them into the most enthusiastic and even preposterous commendations. Mr. Lucas, the author of "The Search after Happiness," in writing to a friend, says, "I am informed that the author of Pamela, the best book ever published, and calculated to do most good, is one Mr. Richardson, Printer; and, to carry the extravagance still higher, Mr. Chetwynd declared, that if all other books were to be burnt, Pamela, next to the Bible, ought to be preserved."

Eulogy such as this, defeats its own purpose, and appears, indeed, in the present day, absolutely ludicrous; for though Pamela, as the first attempt in a new style of composition, and as exhibiting much skill in the delineation of character, accompanied with much power over the tender passions, and much attention to promote the cause of piety and morality, possesses great merit, it displays also great defects, of which the most prominent is the frequent indelicacy of its scenes. These, though the ultimate purport of the novel be to inculcate virtue, are dangerous and seductive; and whilst Dr. Slocock recommended Pamela from the pulpit, Dr. Watts more wisely told the author that the ladies could not read it without blushing.

Pamela originally consisted but of two volumes, which formed a perfect whole, and terminated with the marriage of the lovers. Stimulated, however, by the success with which it had been received, and still further excited by an attempt to give a spurious continuation of it, the author commenced a second part, in which the conduct of Pamela is displayed in the married state, and in the higher ranks of society. This second part is, likewise, in two volumes, but, both in point of conception and execution, is greatly inferior to the first.

The most galling event that occurred to our author from the publication of this work, was occasioned by the ridicule of Fielding, who soon after its appearance published his "Joseph Andrews," an ingenious parody of Pamela, in which Joseph is represented as her brother, and Mr. B. is degraded into 'Squire Booby. The consequence of this attempt was an irreconcileable enmity between the two novellists, and a mutual disparagement of each other's productions. Fielding laughed at the verbiage and stiffness of Richardson, who, in return, treated the inimitable story of Tom Jones with pretended contempt, declaring that its run was over, and that it would soon be completely forgotten!

No two writers, indeed, could be more contrasted in their style and manner than were Richardson and Fielding; the first, grave, sententious, and diffusive; the second, vivacious, easy, and comparatively rapid; the former excelling in deep pathos, the latter in rich and varied humour. If the construction of a well-connected fable be, as it has frequently been deemed, the first of all literary achievements, Fielding will claim the supremacy; but should the pathetic in composition be considered, as it assuredly ought to be, especially when connected with moral excellence, as of greater value and higher rank in the scale of intellect than the display of comic character, or the skilful combination of incident, the palm must be given to Richardson.

Undismayed by the satire of Fielding, which was more than balanced by the applauses of the public, our author resumed his pen, and in the year 1748 produced the first two volumes of Clarissa; these were soon succeeded by a third and fourth volume; and then, after an interval of some months, four more volumes completed the narrative.

The production of Clarissa, perhaps the most pathetic tale ever published, at once elevated its author to the highest rank among Novellists, and has secured him an immortality to which very few writers in the department which he cultivated can ever hope to aspire.

The fable, though extremely simple in its texture, displays a vast variety of character supported with singular consistency and truth; and, notwithstanding the great bulk of the work, no episodical digression is admitted, but the story proceeds in a direct undeviating course. "With Clarissa it begins," observes Mrs. Barbauld, "with Clarissa it ends. We do not come upon unexpected adventures and wonderful recognitions, by quick turns and surprizes: we see her fate from afar, as it were through a long avenue, the gradual approach to which, without ever losing sight of the object, has more of simplicity and grandeur than the most cunning labyrinth that can be contrived by art. In the approach to the modern country seat we are made to catch transiently a side-view of it through an opening of the trees, or to burst upon it from a sudden turning in the road; but the old mansion stood full in the eye of the traveller, as he drew near it, contemplating its turrets, which grew larger and more distinct every step that he advanced, and leisurely filling his eye and his imagination with still increasing ideas of its magnificence. As the work advances the character rises; the distress is deepened; our hearts are torn with pity and indignation; bursts of grief succeed one another, till at length the mind is composed and harmonized with emotions of milder sorrow; we are calmed into resignation, elevated with pious hope, and dismissed glowing with the conscious triumphs of virtue." [Author's note: Life, p. 83, 84.]

In the character of Clarissa, Richardson has presented us with a picture of nearly female perfection, a delineation which, unless in the hands of a great master, would be apt to produce a formal insipidity; but the heroine of our author passes through such severe trials, through distresses so minutely described, yet so faithfully true to nature, that the interest excited in her behalf rises in every scene, and at length becomes poignantly keen. It is probable that no book, in any language, ever occasioned so many tears to flow, as the Clarissa of Richardson.

The accomplished villain is drawn at full length in the person of Lovelace, and finished with a warmth and glow of colouring that is perfectly unrivalled. It is a character, however, that, in some respects, steps beyond the modesty of nature, and, most assuredly, in all its features never had an original, either in this or any other country. It is a rich creation of the imagination, built, probably, upon the sketch of Rowe, but transcendantly superior to the outline of the poet.

"The character of Lothario," remarks Johnson, "seems to have been expanded by Richardson into that of Lovelace; but he has excelled his original in the moral effect of the fiction. Lothario, with gaiety which cannot be hated, and bravery which cannot be despised, retains too much of the spectator's kindness. It was in the power of Richardson alone, 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." [Author's note: Life of Rowe.]

The impression in favour of virtue, however subjected to the lowest depth of misery; the detestation of vice, however gifted and triumphant; are enforced in this novel through a medium so interesting and powerful, that its perusal has been productive of as much utility as amusement; and there is every reason to think that female morals in this island have, owing to its popularity, been rendered more chaste and pure.

Such was the interest excited, in the minds of many individuals, by the character and sufferings of Clarissa, that Richardson, during the progress of the work which, as we have related, was published in portions, received a multitude of letters expressing the highest solicitude relative to the fate of his heroine, and requesting that her ultimate destiny might be fortunate. "I should read the account of her death," says one of his correspondents, "with as much anguish of mind as I should feel at the loss of my dearest friend." An anxiety so intense must have afforded the author a very high degree of pleasure, as it was an unequivocal proof of the best merit which a work of the kind could possess, that of securing the hearts of its readers.

The reception of Clarissa upon the Continent was not inferior to that which it had experienced on its native soil. It was honoured with two versions into French; one by the Abbe Prevost, and another by Le Tourneur; and what was of still greater importance, Rousseau, than whom, on such a subject, there could not be a better judge, declared that nothing ever equal, or approaching to it, had been produced in any country. Diderot, likewise, in his "Essay on Dramatic Poetry," speaking of the talents of Richardson, exclaims, "How strong, how sensible, how pathetic are his descriptions! his personages, though silent, are alive before me; and of those who speak, the actions are still more affecting than the words." A translation of Clarissa into Dutch was also executed by Mr. Stinstra, and another, under the superintendence of Dr. Haller, was published in the German language.

With the reputation which he had now acquired, it might have been imagined that the ambition of Richardson would have been satisfied; he was, however, not only fond of writing, but he was stimulated to undertake another work of fiction by the representation of his female friends, who complained that he had not given them a single male character whom on principle they could love or approve. To obviate this defect, and to present the world with a delineation which should combine the brilliant qualifications of the fine gentleman with the faith and the practice of a christian, he produced, in the year 1753, the History of Sir Charles Grandison.

This novel, which occupies seven volumes, is not inferior, either in fable or character, to Clarissa; it is not, indeed, so pathetic as his former work, but it discovers, perhaps, more knowledge of life and manners, and is perfectly free from that indelicacy and high colouring which occasionally render the scenery of Clarissa dangerous to young minds.

The noblest effort of genius which our author has any where displayed is to be found in this production; I need not say that I allude to the picture of the effects of love on the mind of Clementina, a picture whose minute finishing and fidelity to nature are, I believe, unparalleled. "Of all representations of madness," remarks an elegant critic, "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 strokes 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?" [Author's note: Warton on the Genius and Writings of Pope, vol. 1. P. 286, 4th edition.]

On the style which Richardson has displayed, in his three capital works, no encomium can be passed; it betrays his want of a classical education, and is ungrammatical, incompact, and slovenly. It conveys his meaning, it is true, with sufficient vividity; but his clearness is acquired by the most tiresome circumlocution, and the epithet most appropriate to the phraseology of many of his pages will be best expressed by the term "gossiping."

The literary exertions of our author were not altogether confined to novel-writing; besides a regular share in the composition of "The Christian Magazine," he published in 1740, "The Negotiation of Sir Thomas Roe, in his Embassy to the Ottoman Porte, from the year 1621 to 1628 inclusive," folio. He also printed an edition of "Aesop's Fables, with Reflections," and the volume of "Familiar Letters," which he had laid by for a season, in order to prosecute his Pamela. To these we may add, "A Collection of the moral Sentences in Pamela, Clarissa, and Grandison," printed in 1755; a large single sheet on "The Duties of Wives and Husbands;" a pamphlet, entituled "The Case of Samuel Richardson, of London, Printer, on the Invasion of his Property in the History of Sir Charles Grandison, before publication, by certain Booksellers in Dublin;" and "Six Original Letters upon Duelling," printed after his decease in the Literary Repository for 1765.

In the year 1804 was published "the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, Author of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. Selected from the Original Manuscripts, bequeathed by him to his Family; to which are prefixed, a Biographical Account of that Author, and Observations on his Writings. By Anna Laetitia Barbauld." In six volumes 8vo. The collection, from which these Letters have been selected, was for many years in the possession of Mrs. Anne Richardson, of Higham in Suffolk, his last surviving daughter; and after her death, which took place in January, 1804, it was purchased of our author's grandchildren by Sir Richard Phillips.

The Life of Richardson, written by Mrs. Barbauld for this work, is a very interesting piece of biography, and gives an elegant and copious analysis of the author's novels. It abounds also in original information, drawn from the correspondence, relative to the family and connections, the manners, character, and writings, of Richardson; and the introductory pages present us with an ingenious and amusing disquisition on romance and novel writing, and on the various forms which have been adopted for this species of composition.

The correspondence, though occupying so much space, comprises but a small portion of the numerous manuscripts that were entrusted to Mrs. Barbauld, who informs us that the letters alone of lady Bradshaigh, "together with Richardson's answers, would alone make several volumes; I believe," she says," as many as the whole of this publication; a proof, by the way, that the bookseller and the editor have had some mercy on the public."

Of the judgment which directed this selection, there can, I think, be little doubt; I regret, however, that Mrs. Barbauld had not richer materials to cull from. The letters of Richardson are, in fact, tedious and unvaried; they exhibit no literary wealth, no literary anecdote or disquisition, and are too generally occupied by the consideration of his own novels; while those of his friends are as often filled with a flattery which is not seldom hyperbolical and absurd; egotism, therefore, on the one hand, and encomium on the other, form the chief characteristics of this selection; features which no editor, however skilful and judicious, could hope to conceal.

That Richardson possessed little taste or judgment in literature, is evident from many parts of this correspondence; what he thought of Fielding we have seen; and, from the following extraordinary passage in a letter by Aaron Hill, there is much reason to suppose, that he held Pope in no estimation.

"Mr. Pope, as you with equal keenness and propriety express it, is gone out. I told a friend of his, who sent me the first news of it, that I was very sorry for his death, because I doubted whether he would live to recover the accident. Indeed it gives me no surprize to find you thinking he was in the wane of his popularity. It arose, originally, but from meditated little personal assiduities, and a certain bladdery swell of management. He did not blush to have the cunning to blow himself up, by help of dull, unconscious instruments, whenever he would seem to sail as if his own wind moved him.

"In fact, if any thing was fine, or truly powerful, in Mr. Pope, it was chiefly centered in expression; and that rarely, when not grafted on some other writer's preconceptions. His own sentiments were low and narrow, because always interested; darkly touched, because conceived imperfectly; and sour and acrid, because writ in envy. He had a turn for verse without a soul for poetry. He stuck himself into his subjects, and his muse partook his maladies; which, with a kind of peevish and vindictive consciousness, maligned the healthy and the satisfied.

"One of his worst mistakes was, that unnecessary noise he used to make in boast of his morality. It seemed to me almost a call upon suspicion, that a man should rate the duties of plain honesty, as if they had been qualities extraordinary! And, in fact, I saw, on some occasions, that he found those duties too severe for practice; and but prized himself upon the character, in proportion to the pains it cost him to support it.

"But rest his memory in peace! It will very rarely be disturbed by that time he himself is ashes!"

The correspondents of Richardson are, besides the very sagacious critic from whom we have just quoted, Mr. Warburton, Mr. Strahan, Mr. Harris, Mr. Cave, Lord Orrery, Rev. S. Lobb, Mr. W. Lobb, jun. Dr. Young, Miss M. Collier, Miss Fielding, Colley Cibber, Mrs. Pilkington, Rev. James Hervey, Rev, B. Kennicott, Mr. Duncombe, Miss Highmore, Miss Mulso, Mr. Charming, Mr. Spence, Mr. Edwards, Mrs. Klopstock, Miss Westcomb, Mrs. Scudamore, Dr. and Mrs. Delaney, Mrs. Donnellan, Mrs. Dewes, Miss Sutton, Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan, Lady Echlin, Rev. Mr. Pickard, Rev. Mark Hildesly, Rev. Mr. Loftus, Rev. Mr. Shelton, Rev. J. Stinstra, Mr. Depreval, Dr. Johnson, Miss Sack, Mr. Reich, and Lady Bradshaigh.

Of the mass of letters to which these person ages contributed, those written by Mrs. Klopstock, the amiable wife of the great German poet, are, by many degrees, the most interesting, and possess, indeed, a peculiar naivete from their broken English. A volume of such letters would have been a treasure.

One valuable and very pleasing inference may be drawn from the perusal of these letters; that Richardson was as good as a man, as he was, in a certain line, great as an author; that he was, in short, pious, benevolent, humane, and charitable!

His industry and integrity in business were rewarded with an elegant competency. In 1754 he was appointed master of the company of stationers, a situation as lucrative as it was honourable; and in the year 1760 he purchased a moiety of the patent of law-printer. He had a country-house first at North End, near Hammersmith, and afterwards at Parson's Green, where he lived with much hospitality, and was, as far as his means would permit, a blessing to his neighbourhood.

Mr. Richardson was twice married; by his first wife, who was the daughter of his master, and died in 1731, he had five sons and one daughter; and by his second, Elizabeth Leake, sister of Mr. James Leake, a bookseller at Bath, five girls and one boy. Of this numerous progeny he had the misfortune to lose six sons and two daughters. Of the four remaining girls three were respectably married, and Anne, the last survivor, died single.

For some years previous to his death, our author had been much afflicted with nervous attacks, the consequence of family deprivations, of intense application, and great mental susceptibility; these at length terminated in an apoplectic stroke, which proved fatal on July 4th, 1761, in the seventy-third year of his age. He was buried, at his own request, near the body of his first wife, adjoining the pulpit in the middle aisle of St. Bride's church.

It is no slight encomium, when speaking of the moral character of a man, that a too great love of praise should be enumerated as its only foible. Of the vanity of Richardson he who peruses his Correspondence and his Life can have no doubt; but let it be remembered, that he was an object of almost perpetual flattery, and that he had a host of virtues to counterbalance the defect.

As a writer he possessed original genius, and an unlimited command over the tender passions; yet, owing to the prolixity of his productions and the poverty of his style, his works are decreasing in popularity; and it is possible, though an event to be deplored, that these deficiencies may ultimately consign him to obscurity! So important is style to the preservation of literary labour!

The contribution of Richardson to the Rambler, which has given rise to this biographical sketch, occupies No. 97, and contains advice to unmarried ladies on the subject of courtship. It is prefaced by Dr. Johnson, who informs his readers that they are indebted for the day's entertainment "to an author from whom the age has received greater favours, who has enlarged the knowledge of human nature, and taught the passions to move at the command of virtue."

This essay, the sale of which was much greater than of any other number of the Rambler, contrasts the manners and the morals of the ladies, and the modes of courtship, as they existed in the days of the Spectator, with those that prevailed under the immediate cognizance of the author, who should have recollected that the complaint of degeneracy in these respects, which forms the chief burthen of his communication, had been more than once brought forward by the writers of the very paper to which he refers.

The introduction of this speculation, the style of which is so inferior and dissimilar to that of the essays that precede and follow it, forms a much more striking contrast than that which Richardson has attempted to draw. That it should have been the only popular paper during the circulation of the Rambler in numbers, is a fact not very creditable to the judgment of the age in which it appeared.