Few men would have seemed less likely than Samuel Richardson to be influential in the history of the novel. A successful printer, he did not publish his first work until after he was fifty years old. Because of a reputation as an accomplished letter writer, he was encouraged to write a book of sample letters. Even before the publication of this volume, Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions (1741), he turned his epistolary talent to didactic purposes in fiction with the publication of Pamela (1740-1741), which was greeted with popular approval and critical disdain. By 1744, he had prepared a summary of his epistolary masterpiece, Clarissa. The massive novel was published in three installments between December, 1747, and December, 1748, and was subsequently printed in eight volumes. The length of the novel (about one million words) was probably not a great impediment for the more leisurely reading class of the mid-eighteenth century, but Clarissa eventually came to be read mostly in an abridged version by George Sherburn.
Richardson’s main literary contribution is his mastery of the epistolary style. The use of letters as a means of narration has obvious drawbacks. Certainly the flow of the narrative is repeatedly interrupted, and it takes all the strength of the reader’s will to suspend disbelief concerning the writing of thoughtful and informative letters by characters during periods of extraordinary stress. Conventions aside, it is difficult to sustain a continuous and progressive narrative in this form. The method frustrated Samuel Johnson, a friend of Richardson, who concluded that the work should be read for its sentiment. Richardson himself worried that his narrative technique had let his characters do too much in too short a period of time.
Richardson did, however, capitalize on the correlative advantages of the epistolary method. The immediacy of writing at the moment in which events are occurring is an excellent means of creating concerned attention in the reader. Moreover, Richardson’s talent for dialogue transforms many of the lengthier letters into poignant scenes, and the text of each letter is most decorously cast in a style appropriate to the correspondent. There is the further...
(The entire section is 940 words.)