Samuel Richardson Richardson, Samuel - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Samuel Richardson 1689–1761

English novelist.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Apprentice's Vade or, Young Man's Pocket Companion (handbook) 1733

* Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to Her Parents. Now First Published in Order to Cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes. (novel) 1740

Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions; Directing Not Only the Requisite Style and Forms to be Observed in Writing Familiar Letters, but How to Think and Act Justly and Prudently, in the Common Concerns of Human Life, (fictional letters) 1741; also published as Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, 1928

* Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to Her Parents. And Afterwards, in Her Exalted Condition, between Her, and Persons of Figure and Quality, upon the Most Important and Entertaining Subjects, in Genteel Life, (novel) 1741

Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady; Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life. 7 vols. (novel) 1747-48

The History of Sir Charles Grandison. 7 vols. (novel) 1753-54

A Collection of the Moral and Instructive Sentiments, Maxims, Cautions, and Reflexions, Contained in the Histories of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. (aphorisms) 1755

The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson. 6 vols, (letters) 1804

The Novels of Samuel Richardson. 18 vols. (novels) 1929-31

*These works are collectively referred to as Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded.

Leslie Stephen (essay date 1874)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Richardson's Novels," in Hours in a Library, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1874, pp. 59-112.

[In the following essay, Stephen argues that Richardson 's integration of "feminine " characteristics into his stylenamely, propensities for letter-writing, flattery, idle chatter, and "the delicate perception, the sensibility to emotion, and the interest in small details"is responsible for both the merits and defects of his works.]

The literary artifice, so often patronised by Lord Macaulay, of describing a character by a series of paradoxes, is of course, in one sense, a mere artifice. It is easy enough to make a dark grey black and a light grey white,...

(The entire section is 12663 words.)

Alan Dugald McKillop (essay date 1936)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Reputation and Influence," in Samuel Richardson: Printer and Novelist, The University of North Carolina Press, 1936, pp. 266-83.

[In the following excerpt, McKillop surveys eighteenth-century criticism of Richardson's novels.]

Literary history has confirmed the claims of Fielding and Richardson to be considered the founders of a "new species of writing," and sweeping statements about the influence of both men can be made with some show of justification. But it is uncritical to treat later eighteenth century fiction as merely the lengthened shadows of the two great novelists, to credit all the humor and critical realism to Fielding, all the sentimentalism and...

(The entire section is 8300 words.)

Bernard Kreissman (essay date 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "From Pamela Andrews to Joseph Andrews," in Pamela-Shamela: A Study of the Criticisms, Burlesques, Parodies, and Adaptations of Richardsons 's "Pamela, " University of Nebraska Press, 1960, pp. 3-22.

[In the excerpt below, Kreissman evaluates the objections to Pamela brought forward in Henry Fielding's devastating parody of the work, Shamela.]

On Saturday, February 14, 1741, the London Daily Advertiser carried the announcement:

This Day is published (Price bound 6s) In two neat Pocket Volumes The Second Edition (to which are prefix'd Extracts from several curious Letters written to the Editor on the Subject) of...

(The entire section is 7083 words.)

Ira Konigsberg (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Dramatic Novel," in Samuel Richardson & The Dramatic Novel, University of Kentucky Press, 1968, pp. 95-124.

[In the excerpt following, Konigsberg examines several epistolary techniques used by Richardson in his novels and explains how Richardson's handling of dialogue and visual descriptions enabled him to achieve effects typically attained only in the theater.]

… A performed drama is immediately real to our senses; it creates life before our eyes. We see the people and events, hear the voices and clamor of life. These same dramatic qualities are suggested by the playbook: dialogue and stage action are transcribed in words which suggest a pattern of...

(The entire section is 5335 words.)

Leon M. Guilhamet (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "From Pamela to Grandison: Richardson's Moral Revolution in the Novel," in Studies in Change and Revolution: Aspects of English Intellectual History 1640-1800, edited by Paul J. Korshin, Scholar Press, 1972, pp. 191-210.

[In the following essay, Guilhamet contends that undue emphasis has been placed on Richardson's realism. He suggests that, instead, the proper focus should be on the novelist's moral ideals.]


It is remarkable how little we know about the work of Samuel Richardson. Of substantial influence during his own time, not only in England but on the Continent and in America, Richardson has continued to suffer from the attacks...

(The entire section is 8061 words.)

William Beatty Warner (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Richardson as Author: Gamester and Master," in Reading "Clarissa ": The Struggles of Interpretation, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 123-42.

[Below, Warner explores Richardson's sometimes counterproductive attempts at asserting authorial control over the readers of Clarissa.]

Richardson's debate with his readers about the true meaning of Clarissa, and the proper ending for the story, is one of the truly bizarre episodes in the annals of the English literary tradition. These debates provide historical evidence for something we have already noticed about the text—its openness to divergent interpretations. Why does this text incite such diverse...

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Kerry Larson (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'Naming the Writer': Exposure, Authority, and Desire in Pamela," in Criticism, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 126-40.

[In the following essay, Larson examines parallels in Pamela between Richardson and B, particularly in regard to their avoidance of self-exposure.]

Among the many letters of praise prefacing the second edition of Richardson's Pamela, one correspondent is particularly anxious to learn the name of the new book's author. "If it is not a Secret," writes the admirer, "oblige me so far as to tell me his Name; for since I feel him to be a Friend of my Soul, it would be a Kind of Violation to retain him a Stranger."1 Less...

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Carol Houlihan Flynn (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Horrid Romancing: Richardson's Use of the Fairy Tale," in Samuel Richardson: A Man of Letters, Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 145-95.

[In the following excerpt, Flynn discusses how Richardson uses elements of the fairy tale in creating a fantastic world and contends thatthrough editorial power and attention to minutiaehe positions readers to accept the extraordinary as normal.]

Was ever the like heard? … But this, to be sure, is horrid romancing!

Pamela (I, 243-44) [I, 156]

In their study of fairy tales, lona and Peter Opie include among their...

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Michael McKeon (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Institutionalization of Conflict (I): Richardson and the Domestication of Service," in The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 357-81.

[In the following excerpt, McKeon considers Pamela's struggles in the context of eighteenth-century domestic service and socialization.]

… The volatile modernization of feudal conceptions of institutional service can be said to take two forms and to proceed in two directions: "outward," as the robe nobility and career bureaucracy of the centralized state; and "inward," as domestic service within the last bastion of feudal patrimonialism, the family. In eighteenth-century...

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John A. Dussinger (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Truth and Storytelling in Clarissa," in Samuel Richardson: Tercentary Essays, edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Peter Sabor, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 40-50.

[In the following essay, Dussinger discusses truth and the semblance of truth in Clarissa's letters, and explains why Clarissa's attempts at sincerity cannot succeed.]

A character who prefers death to a life not on her own terms may speak without guile. Partly owing to her reputation as Christian martyr, Clarissa, who could summon even Fielding's tears, has usually appeared free of the mendacity associated with Pamela's account of herself.1 Yet despite this character's own...

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Lois E. Bueler (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Three into One: Plotting and Epistolary Technique," in Clarissa's Plots, University of Delaware Press, 1994, pp. 141-57.

[In the following excerpt, Bueler describes various plotcombining techniques used in Clarissa, including the sharing of characters and events throughout the novel's three plots, and the use of dramatic elements in letters exchanged between characters.]

[Elsewhere] I have focused in turn on Richardson's three received plots—the Tested Woman Plot, the Don Juan Plot, and the Prudence Plot—in order to sketch the inherent logic of each and Richardson's most significant ways with it. But what makes Clarissa is their combination,...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Brophy, Elizabeth Bergen. Samuel Richardson. Twayne's English Author Series, No. 454. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 137 p.

An "accessible guide" to Richardson's life, minor and major works, reputation, and influence.

Downs, Brian W. Richardson. 1928. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1969, 248 p.

Examines Richardson's life, environment, friends, artistry, and impact on the novel.

Eaves, T. C. Duncan and Ben D. Kimpel. Samuel Richardson: A Biography. Oxford, Eng.: The Clarendon Press, 1971, 728 p.


(The entire section is 684 words.)