The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 1. Antecedents of the change introduced by Richardson into the history of the English Novel
AFTER a protracted period of tentative effort, the English novel in the eighteenth century sprang into complete being from a soil not upturned by any violent social upheaval, but in which a deep movement of vitality had been secretly at work. The moral revolution sometimes called the renascence of sentiment cannot be said to have preceded the birth of Richardson’s masterpieces; but their success, to some extent, was favoured by it, while they contributed to give it weight. The literary growth into which the sap that had permeated the Elizabethan drama was again to flow could thus be sustained by a radical energy equal in depth, if not in breadth, to that by means of which Shakespeare’s plays had flourished. From the age of Milton to that of Wesley, puritanism, to all appearance, had been struck out of art, as it had out of the brilliant, superficial life of the world. Yet, Bunyan had dreamt his dream, and visualised for ever his imaginings; Addison had reconciled literature with the earnest purposes of human life; Defoe had grasped the concrete substance of things and breathed truth into fiction. From the beginning of the Georgian era, the rise of the trading class had been slowly infusing into public opinion a new spirit of probity and fervour. About 1740, the methodist movement was in full activity, and the sentimental reaction was gathering an impetus destined to contribute to no less a result than the romantic revival. A contemporary as he was of Wesley and of Young, Richardson signalises the advent of a momentous change, the full extent of which was never to become perceptible to himself. But the new birth of puritanism, together with the resurrection of emotion as a native energy, bore along his naturally narrow genius with something of the amplitude and force of a tidal wave. He was the poet, as he was one of the prophets, of middle-class religious faith, and united in himself much of the literary significance of Bunyan, Addison and Defoe. Like Bunyan, he owed a vivid strength of imagination to spiritual intensity; like Addison, he turned to account for dramatic purposes a wealth of psychological observation and insight into human character; like Defoe, he established the greatness of the English novel on its unique faculty of graphic realism. With him, the moral purpose of art reigned supreme, and, from it, he derived alike his wonderful power and his most obvious limitations. The score of edifying volumes in which he conveyed instruction through emotion make up a triple allegory, a thrice-told Pilgrim’s Progress, illustrating the road to salvation by both positive and negative examples. Pamela’s trials, Clarissa’s sufferings, Sir Charles Grandison’s difficulties, all open the way to final happiness; and the inner drift and purpose of the three novels is no other than the traditional impulse which had driven Bunyan’s naïve fancy, together with the pilgrim soul, from the slough of despond to the eternal city. But Richardson’s faith and hope fall short of Bunyan’s rapt singlemindedness. In Clarissa only, the higher regions and finer air of religious enthusiasm are approached; in the other books, a more grossly utilitarian atmosphere prevails, and it is in this world that Sir Charles’s, like Pamela’s, conscious expectations meet with their reward.