Samuel Richardson 1689–1761
Considered one of the originators of the modern novel, Richardson is also credited with being the first dramatic novelist and the first of the eighteenth-century "sentimental" writers. His epistolary novels helped popularize the realism movement, a trend which favored accurate description and objectivity. In Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-48), Richardson introduced tragedy into the novel form. In The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54), he substituted social embarrassment for tragic conflict, thus developing the first novel of manners. Richardson's minutely detailed exploration of his character's motives and feelings added a new dimension to the art of fiction. His experiments with point-of-view narration profoundly influenced the development of the novel and helped establish the genre as an intimate record of inner experience. Richardson also developed the novel from its previously single-level structure, consisting primarily of the experiences of a sole protagonist, to a multilevel rendering of the complexity of life with his use of subordinate and parallel plots.
Little is known of Richardson's early life; much of what is known comes from an autobiographical sketch sent to his Dutch translator. Richardson was born in 1689 in Derbyshire, England, to a cabinetmaker and his wife. One of nine children, Richardson was unable to pursue the quality of education needed to fulfill his wish to become a clergyman. He instead opted, in 1706, to be a bound apprentice to a printer, thinking the profession would allow him plenty of opportunity to read. After seven years apprenticeship and time spent as a journeyman, Richardson became a freeman to the Stationers' Company in 1715, and within several years began his own printing business, which became one of the top publishing houses in London. He became friend and patron of many writers, including Samuel Johnson, Sarah Fielding, and Edward Young (whom he published). Richardson married in 1721; all six children by this marriage died by the age of four, and his wife died in 1731. Married again in 1733, Richardson saw his first child with Elizabeth Leak die before age one. It is believed that these tragedies helped to bring on a nervous condition that plagued Richardson's later life. In 1733 Richardson
published The Apprentice's Vade a handbook. He continued to write occasional pamphlets and edit and revise other works including, probably, certain titles by Daniel Defoe. He began his first novel, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) at the age of fiftyone, and continued writing until age seventy. He died a prosperous man in London in 1761.
Richardson was commissioned by two booksellers to write a collection of model letters which could be used by people with little formal education; the result was Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions (1741). While writing this work, Richardson recollected a story he had heard concerning the seduction of a servant girl by her master and decided to develop this incident into a series of letters from the girl to her parents. Thus arose Pamela, and so began Richardson's career as a novelist. Perhaps the most popular novel of the eighteenth-century, Pamela and its sequel crystalized the aspirations of the growing middle class in England. Richardson depicted his heroine through her daily explorations into her own identity, rather than through an omniscient narrator or a first-person narrator speaking in retrospect. This technique of using letters with their, in Richardson's words, "instantaneous Descriptions and Reflections," and the attention to fine detail, tended to make the large work seem realistic. Indeed, Richardson passed himself off as merely the editor of Pamela's letters, rather than the author of them; the first editions of Pamela did not even mention Richardson's name. Clarissa, considered Richardson's masterpiece, concerns itself with a heroine who chooses death over the world of violence, materialism, and sin into which she has been seduced. Read as an indictment of bourgeois materialism and family tyranny, as well as an attack on the aristocratic notion of class supremacy, Clarissa is also notable for its depictions of human emotions during periods of great stress. Richardson further advanced his epistolary technique by using three other points of view besides Clarissa's to explore the implications of events in the story. Richardson's final novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, is believed to have been written in response to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, to demonstrate that a good, moral man, in Richardson's estimation, can be a hero.
Pamela was immediately and extremely popular with the reading public. Richardson initially also enjoyed critical acclaim and was considered one of the most important English novelists. His contemporaries focused almost exclusively on his moral teachings, and most praised the author for his judgment and honesty. Richardson's stated purpose in his works was moral instruction and thus when his sincerity was eventually questioned, and his work attacked by Fielding in parodies including Shamela, Richardson defended himself with explanations and revisions, particularly in the third edition of Pamela. Fielding ridiculed Pamela's obsession with chastity and her tendency to measure the rewards of virtue in material terms. Fielding's interpretation of Pamela established the opposition between "Pamelist" and "anti-Pamelist" which has persisted to the present day. Richardson's popularity rapidly diminished in the nineteenth-century until he was generally neglected. However, critics would on occasion mention him as historically important for advancing the epistolary form. William Hazlitt perceptively wrote that his works combine the romance of fiction with the "literal minuteness of a common diary." Twentieth-century critics have emphasized Richardson's concept of self. His character's extreme self-awareness can be read at different levels; according to both Richardson and critics, the characters are not as bound to the truth as they continually claim. Elements of Richardson's work have often been praised in spite of their author; critics suggested that the depths of his work were present unconsciously or even by accident. Scholar A. D. McKillop argued convincingly to the contrary, that Richardson was a skilled, deliberate craftsman conscious of his work, its layers, and its meanings. Further rehabilitation to Richardson's reputation was gained from W. M. Sale's painstaking bibliographic study and Ian Watt's discussion of background and technique. Richardson is studied today as a psychological novelist and as a social historian for his descriptions and insight in regard to the relationships of the sexes in a patriarchal society, and to sexual themes in general.