Samuel Richardson

The English novelist Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) brought dramatic intensity and psychological insight to the epistolary novel.>

Fiction, including the novel told in letters, had become popular in England before Samuel Richardson's time, but he was the first English novelist to have the leisure to perfect the form in which he chose to work. Daniel Defoe's travel adventures and pseudobiographies contain gripping individual episodes and an astonishing realism, but they lack, finally, the structural unity and cohesiveness characteristic of Richardson's ngthy novels. Unlike his great contemporary Henry Fielding, who satirized every echelon of English society in such panoramic novels as Tom Jones, Richardson chose to focus his attention on the limited problems of marriage and of the heart, matters to be treated with seriousness. In so doing, however, he also provided his readers with an unparalleled study of the social and economic forces that were bringing the rising, wealthy English merchant class into conflict with the landed aristocracy.

Born in Derbyshire, Richardson was one of nine children of a joiner, or carpenter. He became an apprentice printer to John Wilde and learned his trade well from that hard master for 7 years. After serving as "Overseer and Corrector" in a printing house, he set up shop for himself in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, in 1720, where he married, lived for many years, and carried on his business. Within 20 years he had built up one of the largest and most lucrative printing businesses in London. Although he published a wide variety of books, including his own novels, he depended upon the official printing that he did for the House of Commons for an important source of income.

Richardson claimed to have written indexes, prefaces, and dedications early in his career, but his first known work, published in 1733, was The Apprentice's Vade Mecum; or, Young Man's Pocket Companion, a conduct book addressed to apprentices. A Seasonable Examination … (1735) was a pamphlet supporting a parliamentary bill to regulate the London theaters.


In 1739, while at work on a book of model letters for social occasions proposed to him as a publishing venture by two booksellers, Richardson decided to put together a series of letters that would narrate the tribulations of a young servant girl in a country house. His first epistolary novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, was published in two volumes in November 1740 and became an instantaneous and enormous success. When its popularity led to the publication of a spurious sequel, Richardson countered by publishing a less interesting and, indeed, less popular continuation of his work in December 1741.

Richardson claimed in a letter to the Reverend Johannes Stinstra in 1753 that the idea for the story of Pamela had been suggested to him 15 years before, a claim he repeated to Aaron Hill. Regardless of the source for the story, however, Richardson's audience accepted and praised his simple tale of a pretty 15-year-old servant girl, the victim of the extraordinarily clumsy attempts at seduction by her young master, Squire B—(later named Squire Booby in the novels of Henry Fielding), who sincerely, shrewdly, and successfully holds out for marriage.

Richardson's use of the epistolary form, which made it possible for him to have Pamela writing at the moment, enabled him to give a minutely particular account of his heroine's thoughts, actions, fears, and emotions. Pamela's letters give the reader a continuous and cumulative impression of living through the experience and create a new kind of sympathy with the character whose experiences are being shared. But Richardson's decision to have the entire story told through Pamela's letters to her parents also raised technical problems that he was not to overcome until his second novel. Because she alone must report compliments about her charms, testify to her virtue, and relate her successful attempts to repulse Squire B—'s advances, she often seems coy and self-centered rather than innocent.

Richardson's continuation of Pamela, which describes her attempts to succeed in "high life" after her marriage to Squire B—, is a less interesting story, more pretentiously told and far less moving.

He followed his triumph with Pamela in 1741 by publishing the delayed Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, Directing the Requisite Style and Forms … in Writing Familiar Letters, a collection of little interest to the modern reader.


By the summer of 1742 Richardson had evidently begun work on what was to become his masterpiece. Clarissa Harlowe was published in seven volumes in 1747-1748. Although he had finished the first version of the novel by 1744, he continued to revise it, to solicit the opinions of his friends (and disregard most of their advice), and to worry about its excessive length. The massive work, which runs to more than a million words and stands as one of the longest novels in the English language, contains 547 letters, most written by the heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, her friend, Anna Howe, the dashing villain, Lovelace, and his confidant, John Belford. Letters of enormous length and incredible intensity follow Clarissa's struggle with her family to avoid marriage to the odious Mr. Soames, her desperate flight from her unbending and despicable family into the arms of Lovelace, her drugged rape, her attempts to escape from Lovelace by soliciting the aid of her unforgiving family, and her dramatic death. Before the final volumes of the novel were published, many of Richardson's readers had pleaded with him to give the novel a happy ending by allowing Clarissa to live. Richardson, however, had set out to show that in losing her innocence a girl might be ennobled rather than degraded, but that no matter how much of a paragon of virtue and decorum she might be in this world, she would find true reward for her virtue only in the next. The novel shows clearly the influence of the Christian epic, the English stage, and the funereal literature popular in the period. With specific debts to Nicholas Rowe's Fair Penitent and John Milton's Paradise Lost, it explores the problem of humanity desperately, if futilely, seeking freedom in a society where duty and responsibility are constant limitations upon that search. Although its great length has earned for it the title of "one of the greatest of the unread novels," it maintains a commanding place in the corpus of major English fiction because of its exploration of property marriages in the shifting social milieu of mid-18th-century England, its dramatic and cumulative power, and its clear tie to such other great Western mythical stories as Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde.

Sir Charles Grandison

Richardson toiled for 5 years to depict the perfect Christian gentleman, especially in order to answer criticisms that he had allowed Lovelace to become too attractive a figure in Clarissa. His third and final novel, Sir Charles Grandison, was published in 1753-1754. Richardson's contemporaries, who had found Lovelace a fascinating and dramatic villain, thought Sir Charles chilly and priggish. Richardson's story of the earnest Christian gentleman who must choose between the English maiden, Harriet Byron, and the more attractive and more interesting Clementina della Porretta pleases few readers. Because Sir Charles is too faultless and too moral, he does not win the reader's sympathies.

After this Richardson wrote no more novels. He died in London on July 4, 1761.

Further Reading on Samuel Richardson

The major biography is T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson (1971). Important studies of Richardson include Alan D. McKillop, Samuel Richardson, Printer and Novelist (1936); William M. Sale, Samuel Richardson, Master Printer (1950); Morris Golden, Richardson's Characters (1963); and Ira Konigsberg, Samuel Richardson and the Dramatic Novel (1968). Also useful are the chapters on Richardson in Alan D. McKillop, The Early Masters of English Fiction (1956); Ian P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1957); and Robert A. Donovan, The Shaping Vision: Imagination in the English Novel from Defoe to Dickens (1966). Recommended for general historical and social background are Louis Kronenberger, Kings and Desperate Men: Life in Eighteenth-Century England (1942); J. H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (1951); and A. R. Humphreys, The Augustan World: Life and Letters in Eighteenth-Century England (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Thomson, Clara Linklater, Samuel Richardson: a biographical and critical study, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.