Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 11. His influence upon French Literature and national sentiment: Prévost, Voltaire, Diderot; Richardson and Rousseau

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

I. Richardson

§ 11. His influence upon French Literature and national sentiment: Prévost, Voltaire, Diderot; Richardson and Rousseau

Whatever estimate may be formed of the relative merits of Richardson and Fielding individually, the significance of the former is seen to be immeasurably superior to that of his great rival, so soon as the wider field of European literature is taken into account. From the author of Clarissa is derived one of those pervading lines of influence out of which was woven the web of international life and thought in the latter half of the eighteenth century. By falling in with the revival of feeling on the continent, Richardson helped the wave of sentimentalism to break loose, and, thus, had a large share in the rise of the cosmopolitan age. In France, his works may be said to have played as great a part as any indigenous production. The admirable disquisition of Joseph Texte has thrown full light on this episode, which is one of paramount importance in the history of French letters. Public taste was then in a state of transition. The latent possibilities of French genius were stirred as by the coming of a new springtime; fresh powers of imagination and emotion were seeking to assert themselves in the dry atmosphere of philosophical rationalism. The decay of classical ideals left room for new subjects and a new treatment; not only the manners of man in the abstract, but the complexity of the individual, not only the dignity of tragic or epic heroes, but the charm of real, everyday scenes and characters, were dimly felt to lie still unexplored—a field of boundless promise for a resolutely modern and original literature. Akin to the craving for sentiment and to the desire for reality in fiction was the moralising propensity; the spirit of the time indulged easily in free enquiries into problems of conduct, since the power of the old beliefs was in all spheres shaken by criticism. Richardson’s novels answered to all those aspirations. The Anglomanie had fairly set in before he became the idol of the French public; but no English writer was more widely read in France during the eighteenth century. He was fortunate in being translated by abbé Prévost, himself a distinguished novelist and a warm admirer of English manners. Pamela was gallicised as early as 1742; Clarissa in 1751; Grandison from 1755 to 1758, with that freedom of adaptation and suppression which is characteristic of the time.

It would be out of place here to attempt more than a summary notice of the fortune with which Richardson’s novels met in France. They were eagerly welcomed and only a very few dissentient voices made themselves heard in the chorus of praise; their author was worshipped by the swelling crowd of the votaries of sensibility. A series of imitations and sequels of the novels, and of plays founded upon them, bore witness to the lasting favour of the public. The reception of Clarissa was still more enthusiastic than that of Pamela; and even the somewhat stiff self-consciousness of Grandison could not blunt the appetites of French readers, forgetful, for once, of their keen susceptibility to the ridiculous. The versatile genius of Voltaire himself was carried away by the fashion of the day, and his Nanine (1749) was a strangely dissimilar dramatisation of Pamela; later, the irrepressible antipathy of his temperament broke out in angry condemnations of the novels. Worthy of special notice is Diderot’s Éloge de Richardson (1761), a somewhat indiscriminate, but, on the whole, penetrating, criticism, laying eloquent stress on some of the main aspects of the English writer’s real greatness, and turning them to account as a confirmation of Diderot’s own dramatic theory. Still more momentous in the history of French and European literature is the admiration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau for Richardson. That his Nouvelle Héloïse (begun 1756, completed 1760) was suggested by Clarissa has, from the first, been a commonplace of literary criticism. The similitude in the theme and in its treatment, indeed, is extremely striking. Rousseau’s heroine conquers her passion for Saint-Preux when virtue claims her under the more pressing form of duty to a husband, as Clarissa subdues her love for Lovelace when he has proved unworthy of her. In both stories, the death of the heroine crowns a pathetic tale with a supreme consummation. The French Claire and the English Miss Howe play pretty much the same part as confidantes. That both novels are written in the form of letters furnishes tangible proof of an influence which Rousseau never attempted to deny. The inner analogies are of still greater importance. A didactic spirit breathes through La Nouvelle Héloïse, a spirit of sober and earnest morality; the book aims at vindicating the sanctity of marriage, and at illustrating the artistic interest of domestic manners; it stands opposed to the artificial, aristocratic tone of older French fiction, as well as to the cynical mockery of Lesage. Needless to say, Rousseau’s genius touched the book with its own originality; a more impassioned fervour of emotion, a poetical worship of nature, a self-indulgent enjoyment of melancholy moods, set upon it the distinct stamp of romanticism, while Richardson’s sensibility kept within the bounds of the inner life, and was checked by his puritanism when half-way to romantic morbidness. It was his fate, nevertheless, to become one of the most active among the literary forces from which was to spring, together with the revival of letters, a state of moral unrest which would have caused his conscience many an anxious qualm. Not only most French novelists after 1760, but the leaders of the new school, from 1790 to 1830, either directly or through Rousseau, felt the inspiring and guiding influence of Richardson.