Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 8. Decline of his popularity; Limitations of his art

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

I. Richardson

§ 8. Decline of his popularity; Limitations of his art

At the present day, the interest taken in Richardson’s works is very largely historical. Their popularity, which did not show any symptoms of decline down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, is now, mainly, a thing of the past. Several causes may help to account for the neglect of them, even by cultivated readers, in our liberal-minded age. The length of the novels is, obviously, the first stumbling-block, as is testified by the many abridgments which have, more or less in vain, sought to adapt the cumbrous volumes to the exigencies of a more hurried life. Their epistolary form, probably, is another drawback. If, as has been said above, it permits a fresh and particular presentment of everyday facts to us, yet it is apt to seem hopelessly slow and antiquated; it savours of a time when letters were a work of leisure and love, and people liked to piece together the different threads of a story. More subtle elements in Richardson’s writings, certainly, contribute to envelop them in an atmosphere of faint appreciation and widespread indifference. Together with the limitations of his art, those of his psychology and of his morals have grown more and more apparent, while their real strength is easily forgotten. His essential power was hardly personal; it was that of puritanism. His genius reached as deep as the consciousness of sin and the source of tears; but, in the depth of his emotions and in matters of conscience, he did not pass beyond the bounds of his time and of his class; and his intuitions possessed but little creative originality. With the passing of the sentimental age, and with the toning down of the puritan spirit, he ceased to be a prophet and sank into the part of a representative thinker and writer. The light thrown by him into the obscure undergrowths of the soul does not break from heaven like the flashes of a Shakespeare; it is a humble ray of poring, searching intensity. In these latter days, new shades have been added to our notions of conduct; morality has been revived in new forms and touched with an unwonted delicacy, a more anxious self-diffidence; and Richardson’s hard, plain idea of duty cannot but appear blunt and harsh to us, as his analysis of the soul seems poor when compared with the luxuriant growth of modern psychology. Thus, the wonderful penetration of his genius has not maintained its supremacy, and time has pitilessly revealed its narrowness.