The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 9. His momentous influence upon English and European Literature
But his novels deserve more than the disinterested curiosity of students; their significance is other than relative. Taken by themselves, they constitute a literary achievement of enduring worth. The moral passion with which they are instinct may not appeal to us unreservedly; yet the forceful grasp of the stories holds us fast so soon as we have become reconciled to the atmosphere; and those regions of the human heart in which nature and grace, selfishness and love are always at war slowly and pitilessly open themselves to us, while we read, together with some part, at least, of the free, individual, spontaneous life of the shallow self. Richardson’s realism is great in its handling of minute details, its imaginative power, its concatenation of events. Though the picturesque aspects of the world are hardly ever called up by him, the material circumstances of the drama in which his characters are engaged stand depicted with diligent fulness, and the inner incidents of the sentient, struggling soul have never been more graphically or abundantly narrated. His style is a self-created instrument of small intrinsic merit but of excellent utility; it shows variety enough to adjust itself to the personalities of different correspondents; it moves on with a certain elaborate ease, but knows how to rise, at times, to a straightforward, telling energy. It is not free from artistic, or even from grammatical, flaws, but, considering Richardson’s personal lack of culture, it bears witness to a remarkable natural gift. Its tone is most often slightly self-conscious, with a preference for Latin, genteel words and phrases; but it not unfrequently displays the strength of racy idioms and the charm of native English simplicity.
Richardson’s influence upon the course of English and European literature cannot be overestimated. To understand the extent and meaning of the effect exercised by him at home, the state of the English novel before and after him should be borne in mind. The assertion, frequently made, that he put an end to the romance of fancy, after the pattern of The Grand Cyrus, should not be repeated without qualification; the vogue of the D’Urfé and Scudéry school had long been on the wane, and the tendency to realism had already come to the front, principally through Defoe and Swift. But it is certain that Pamela, besides being the first notable English novel of sentimental analysis, heralded the advent of everyday manners and common people to artistic acceptance. The claims of Richardson to the favour of contemporary readers were, thus, manifold; he stirred their emotions, and gave definite satisfaction to their latent thirst for sentiment; he presented them with living, actual, flesh-and-bone heroes and heroines, and responded to their longing for reality and substance in fiction; he imparted a moral lesson, and, thus, found himself at one with the rising reaction against the sceptical levity of the preceding age. One more point should be emphasised: at the very moment when the social power of the middle classes was growing apace, Richardson, himself one of them, exactly expressed their grievances and prejudices. His novels are filled with a spirit of bourgeois—it might almost be said, popular—criticism of the privileges and the corruption of the great; and, at the same time, they are flavoured with the essence of snobbishness. It is easy to exaggerate the fondness with which Richardson dwells on the manners of servants or “low” people; the class with which he deals, that forming, so to say, the social plane of his novels, is the gentry. To him, the right of birth is an all but impassable barrier, and Pamela is no exception; she remains an inferior in her own eyes, if not exactly in those of her husband. No doubt, the higher circles of society in which Sir Charles Grandison moves were not known to Richardson from personal experience, and it is unnecessary to dwell on the mistakes with which he has been charged in his description of aristocratic life; still, he took a secret delight in holding intercourse, though it were of a more or less imaginary sort, with the nobility, and his conception of a gentleman was certainly not in advance of his time. Both the impatient self-assertion of the middle class, and its quiet settling down into conservative grooves of feeling, are thus foreshadowed. The story of Pamela is an illustration of the Christian equality of souls, quite in keeping with the widespread modern tendency to exalt a sentimental, theoretical democracy; it breathes, on the other hand, an involuntary subservience to the intrinsic dignity of rank and riches. In both ways, the social tone of Richardson’s novels was that of a class, which, thenceforth, contributed its own elements to the formation of the literary atmosphere.