The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 6. Sir Charles Grandison: its shortcomings and its psychological value
As Clarissa had grown out of Pamela, so Sir Charles Grandison grew out of Clarissa. Richardson’s female friends would not rest satisfied with his portrait of a good woman; he must now give them a good man. Moreover, had not Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) insolently, and, as Richardson thought, most unfairly, encroached upon his own province of holding up examples and depicting heroes, and, immediately, found many readers for itself? The easy morals and “low” tone of his rival’s book were all the more odious to Richardson’s sense of propriety, because his vanity, ever a weak point with him, was sorely tried. Before the end of 1749, he had, though reluctantly, undertaken the difficult task which his admirers and his conscience were, alike, pressing upon him. The slow progress of the novel bears witness to the particularly arduous nature of the task; it came out, in seven volumes, between November, 1753, and March, 1754. The History of Sir Charles Grandison; in a Series of Letters published from the Originals professed to be “by the Editor of Pamela and Clarissa”; but, in the preface, Richardson practically admitted his authorship.
None of his three novels has set modern criticism so much at variance as Grandison. The student of literature must, primarily, bear in mind that the success of the last effort was not unequal to that of its predecessors. At the same time, the aim and conception of the book show a marked falling off from the higher artistic level of Clarissa. The didactic purpose is as glaring as it is in the previous novels, without being, in the present instance, relieved by the wealth of human pathos which made the story of Clarissa, in itself, a moving tragedy. Sir Charles’s trials are but slight, as befits the good fortune of a man not less beloved by Providence than by a consensus of mere mortals; and the embarrassing predicament in which he finds himself between half-a-dozen women admirers—even the annoying prospect of being obliged, on principle, to marry Clementina, while, at heart, preferring Miss Byron—cannot ruffle the well-founded composure of his mind. Richardson, of course, took care that the Italian signorina should be very attractive indeed, though we feel sure that where Sir Charles’s duty lies his affections will soon enough follow. Those readers—and they are not few—who find Harriet Byron lacking in genuine delicacy and unaffected charm, are, of course, not privileged to take an interest in her doubts and anxieties. The disappointed ladies—Clementina and Emily—certainly appeal more strongly to our sympathies; though Clementina’s madness is not so successfully devised that the touch of cheap romanticism in it can be passed over. Thus, our emotions, on the whole, are little stirred. Apart from the first incidents, which concern Miss Byron’s abduction and her rescue by Sir Charles, the development of the story is not very exciting to blunted tastes; while the Italian episodes, and the lengthy negotiations with the della Porretta family, are wholly tedious.
The despairing reader falls back upon the psychological value of the book. Here, indeed, lies its greatness—if great it can, indeed, be said to be. The characters are more numerous than in either Pamela or Clarissa; they are more varied, and more of them are interesting. Sir Hargrave and the wicked personages in general are merely awkward performers who play at being naughty while remaining very conscious of the difference between good and evil; so that their conversion, in due time, by Sir Charles’s triumphant example, seems to us merely a matter of course. But there is a vein of fresh observation in such comic figures as that of Sir Rowland Meredith, and an almost delicate intuition of girlish feeling in Miss Jervois; as for Charlotte Grandison, she is not less true to life than she is perversely and abnormally provoking. It seems as if the artist in Richardson had availed himself of this character to wreak some obscure unavowed revenge on the constraint which the moralist was imposing upon him in the rigid self-consistency of Sir Charles. Of the hero and overwhelmingly predominant personage of the book, it is difficult to speak in cold blood—so irritating to our noblest (and to some of our worst) instincts is his self-possessed, ready-made, infallible sense of virtue. The most we can say in his favour is that, considering the difficulties of the task, Richardson has managed to create a remarkably acceptable “beau idéal” of a gentleman, more genuine in his ways, and freer from the most objectionable features of puritanic priggishness, than might reasonably have been expected.