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

I. Richardson

§ 2. Richardson’s life before 1741

Of Samuel Richardson’s life, not much is interesting, and little need be said here. Though his family resided in London before, and soon after, his birth, he was born in Devonshire, as the son of a well-to-do joiner. It is characteristic of leanings which were natural to him that, of his early history, he left what he could in the dark, while what he mentioned he tried to idealise. He seems to have received but a slight education, and certainly was without any university training. Recent investigation has not materially added to the scant knowledge of his boyhood and youth derived from eighteenth century sources. His father’s wish was, first, to make him a clergyman; but, owing to money losses, young Richardson remained unprovided with the usual accomplishments; and, eventually, he chose to be apprenticed to a printer. Due emphasis is commonly laid on the early symptoms of his later literary temperament, as revealed in the boy’s love of letter-writing and propensity to preaching, as well as on the experience which the moralist was enabled to gather from his employment by girl friends as penman and inditer in their love affairs. He set up a printing business in 1719, and, in 1721, married the daughter of his old master; she bore him six children, five of whom died in infancy. A year after her death, in 1731, Richardson married a second time; and, again, he had to undergo sad family bereavements. The tenor of his blameless but humdrum existence was broken only by a few unimportant incidents, while his steady rise in the world can be gauged from his employment as printer to the House of Commons, and from his taking on lease a country residence at Hammersmith, in 1739.

By this time, Richardson was fifty years of age; he had long shown signs of declining health, was much troubled with nervousness and adopted the diet of a valetudinarian. He had not produced anything of consequence in the way of literature, when, in the same year, he was asked by two friends, printers like himself, to prepare for them “a little volume of letters, in a common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers who were unable to indite for themselves.” These letters came out in January, 1741, and, as was intimated on the title-page, furnished not only a pattern in style and form, but, also, directions “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common Concerns of Human Life.” One of the subjects emphasised in this collection was the danger surrounding the position of a young woman—especially when goodlooking—as a family servant. How Richardson’s first novel grew out of the treatment of this theme is pretty generally known. That the book should have been written in the form of letters was thus due to the accident of its origin; but, underlying all mere chance and circumstances were a deep-seated habit and the irresistible bent of genius. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, was published in two volumes (November, 1740), and immediately met with an eager reception; two further volumes, describing Pamela’s life after her marriage, were given to the public in December, 1741.