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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Samuel Richardson (1689–1761)

IT is a remarkable fact that the writer who may fairly be called the father of the modern analytic novel of society, wrote his first and most famous book with a utilitarian object in view, with no thought of making a novel,—and moreover, was over fifty years of age when this story of ‘Pamela’ was penned. By producing this piece of fiction, Richardson founded a school, and gave a new impulse and direction to modern fiction.

Samuel Richardson was born in a Derbyshire village in 1689, and got his only education at the local school. His father was a joiner. When seventeen he was apprenticed to a London printer, serving his seven years faithfully. This employment was followed by six years more of hard work as journeyman. In 1719 he set up a Fleet Street printing-office of his own, and wrote prefaces and dedications to the works of others. It was in this way that ‘Pamela’ had its origin; for Richardson in 1739 composed a series of ‘Familiar Letters,’ to help those too illiterate to write for themselves,—a sort of Servant-Girl’s Guide,—and the novel was a result.

Richardson was always a diligent worker, a man of thrift and character, whose rise in his profession was well earned. He widened the circle of his friends, and married the daughter of his former employer. He extended his business connections by printing the Daily Journal, the Daily Gazetteer, and the Briton. His friendship with the Duke of Wharton was influential in his advancement. In 1754 he was appointed to the important post of Master of the Stationers’ Company. During his last years he was an invalid, and passed much of his time at his country-seat, reading from his own work to a circle of female admirers. Few men have received more adulation of this sort than Richardson; and while he had his share of amiable vanity, it is to his credit that he remained in character unsophisticated, kind, and generous. He died in his home July 4th, 1761.

As a boy at school Richardson amused his schoolmates by making up extemporaneous romances; and when but thirteen years old, such was his talent as a letter-writer that the village girls employed him to write their love epistles. This is described amusingly in his autobiography.

  • “As a bashful and not forward boy, I was an early favorite with all the young women of taste and reading in the neighborhood. 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, having a 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 of them ever know that I was the secretary of the others. I have been directed to chide, and even repulse, when an offense 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 fervor 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 lest she should incur slight for her kindness.”
  • Excellent training this, it will be seen, for the future novelist and portrayer of the soul feminine. ‘Pamela,’ which appeared in 1742, can be recognized as the child of this youthful employ, and similar experiences in maturity. It narrates the trials of a serving-maid of that name, whose virtue is assailed by the son of the lady who employs her. Through a long series of temptations and efforts, including an abduction, she refuses to yield; until finally, finding he can get her in no other way, the quasi-hero condescends to marry her, and is naïvely lauded by Richardson for the act. The novel’s subtitle, ‘Virtue Rewarded,’ expresses the author’s feeling. Pamela’s hard-headed, practical valuation of her character as a purchasable commodity, as well as the elegant rascality of the lover, give the present-day reader a keen sense of the comparatively low state of social morals in eighteenth-century England. But the story is full of human interest; and one follows the long-suffering, and be it confessed, long-winded Pamela, with genuine sympathy.

    Having depicted the servant-girl type in his first story, Richardson essayed in his second—‘Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady,’ which appeared half a dozen years later, in 1748—to draw with equal accuracy the young woman of gentility, also in sore straits through the love-passion. Clarissa is seduced and ruined by Lovelace—who has given his name to the genus fine-gentleman profligate. Here again, with certain allowances for the change in times and customs, Richardson has succeeded in making a powerful tale, though a very slow-moving one to the modern taste. The lachrymose dénouement is an eighteenth-century prototype of a whole train of latter-day fiction after it became fashionable to end a novel ill. In his final story, ‘The History of Sir Charles Grandison’ (1753), he turns from painting heroines in order to limn a hero, with whom he most egregiously fails. Sir Charles is an impossible prig and pattern-plate; the reader cannot accept him as true, nor stomach him as in any wise admirable. Surrounded by an adoring bevy of women, he struts about like a turkey-cock, and is twice as ridiculous. In George Meredith’s ‘The Egoist,’ Willoughby is Grandison, with the significant difference that the later story-teller consciously satirizes the character, while Richardson takes him in full seriousness. Of these three main works, then, two are masterpieces when viewed in relation to their time and the prior poor estate of English fiction. The third is a comparative failure. All of them, it should be understood, are cast in the epistolary form. Novels in the shape of letters have bred fast since, and the device is now pretty well outworn; but in the middle of the last century this way of telling a story had the charm of novelty. It is a method lending itself well to Richardson’s leisurely, at times tedious, gait.

    Richardson’s popularity with the fair sex was immense after the appearance of his novels; nor was this confined to one class. That brilliant worldling, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, testifies that the chambermaids of all nations wept over Pamela; while ladies of quality knelt sobbing at Richardson’s feet, begging him to spare Clarissa. The situation is not without humor for us to-day; and indeed the modern reader can afford to smile at the mawkish sentimentality and utilitarian morals of a book like ‘Pamela.’ But the story is epoch-making in English fiction. It does a new thing. A girl of the lower class is painted at full length, as if she were worth attention—painted sympathetically; and in this and the subsequent stories the interest is made to depend upon the development of character, rather than upon objective incident as in the case of De Foe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ which came some twenty years earlier. In this Richardson struck the modern note, and started the analytic tendency, which has unceasingly dominated the modern novel since his day. Hence Richardson’s important place in the evolution of fiction of our speech.

    Again, it was in the spirit of parody and satire that Fielding, his greater fellow novelist, began his career by writing ‘Joseph Andrews’; so that Richardson, in a sense, may be regarded as inspiring the author of ‘Tom Jones.’ The former’s influence was felt largely in foreign fiction, particularly in that of Germany and France. A Memoir by Mrs. Barbauld appeared in 1804, and studies by W. L. Phelps, C. L. Thomson and Austin Dobson were published early in the twentieth century.