(1689–1761) English novelist and printer. As a novelist, Samuel Richardson was catapulted to celebrity in England when he was already in his fifties. From the publication of Pamela in 1740, until his death 21 years later, his activities are widely known. Considerably less information is available concerning the earlier years of his life. It is known that hewas born in rural Derby, although his family was from London. His father was a joiner, and soon returned with his family to the capital. The young Richardson apparently received little schooling, although he seems to have been a voracious reader as a child.
Although his parents might have preferred to send him into the church, they did not have the resources to tend to his education, and Richardson was apprenticed to a printer in London when he was seventeen. He completed his apprenticeship and was enrolled in the Stationer’s Company, the guild of London printers, in 1715. By 1721, he had begun his own business, having married the daughter of his onetime employer. Like most London printers in the era, he produced a vast array of publications, printing books, journals, handbills, and other kinds of material for those who were willing to pay his fees. He seems soon, however, to have become a prominent member of the capital’ sprinting establishment. In 1723, for instance, he became the printer entrusted with producing the True Briton, a Tory publication. A few years later he became an officer in the Stationer’s Company.
A String of Tragedies
Although these were years of professional advancement, they were marked by great personal tragedies. In the years between his marriage in 1721 and the early 1730s, he lost all six of his children as well as his wife, a fact that he credited later in life with producing a tendency toward nervous disorders. In 1733, Richardson’s tide of bad luck apparently turned, however; he remarried, this time to another printer’s daughter, and the couple had four girls that survived. In the same year as his second marriage, Richardson printed his first book, The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum, a conduct book. In these years his prosperity grew, largely because he won several lucrative government printing contracts. He purchased a country house just outside London, and seems to have had more leisure time. As aresult, he began to write more in the later years of the 1730s.
One project, which he began in 1739, was his first novel, Pamela. Most of the novels written in England to this time had made use of the autobiographical first-person narrative pioneered by Daniel Defoe around1720. Richardson abandoned this form, which had been based on seventeenth-century spiritual autobiographies and confessions, and in Pamela he pioneered the “epistolarystyle,” in which the action is told through a seriesof letters. Richardson was drawn to this form, in part, by some of his printer friends who had recommendedthat he write on the problems of daily life. Out of these experiments, he began to compose a series of letters that he eventually published as Letters to Particular Friends. But at the same time as he was composing these works, he also began to experiment with using letters to tell a story. When he turned to write Pamela in earnest, it took him only a matter of months to complete the enormous book.
The story tells of a serving maid who preserves her virtue despite the advances of a young nobleman in the house in which she is employed. As a result of her basic goodness, she is rewarded at the end of the novel by her advantageous marriage. The admiration the work inspired was almost instantaneous. From throughout Britain readers praised its celebration of sexual virtue. But soon more critical appraisals of the novel attacked its implications, particularly its celebration of marriagea cross the classes. Within a short time, Henry Fielding, for instance, satirized the story in his Shamela, a work that transformed the heroine Pamela into a snob and upstart anxious to make her way up the social ladder.
In the years that followed, Richardson took the criticisms voiced against his Pamela to heart,and attempted to fashion a second novel that would be unassailable on moral grounds. The result was Clarissa, the longest novel ever to appear in the English language. The first two volumes of the work appeared in 1747 and were a critical success. In the months that followed, Richardson was barraged by correspondents anxious to know the conclusion of his work. Some, who sensed that the plot was drifting toward the heroine Clarissa’s ultimate death, even pleaded with Richardson to spare her life. In 1748, Richardson published the final five volumes of the work.
The completed novel told a tale of aristocratic trickery and deceit in which the despicable yet attractive Lovelace doggedly pursues Clarissa. Eventually, he lures her to a London bawdy house, where he drugs her and brutally rapes her. As a result, Clarissa resolves to die and makes elaborate preparations for her funeral. The work produced widespread admiration, although some criticized the tale’s amorality. In the decades that followed, though, it inspired a string of “sentimental novels,” with plots fashioned on Richardson’s, with its emphasis on the powerful effect that thee motions might have on the human psyche. It was soon translated into Dutch, French, and German, and in these countries it also inspired many subsequent works.
During the years that followed the publication of Clarissa, Richardson continued to write, publishing Sir Charles Grandison in 1753 and 1754. While the work was successful, it also inspired criticism because of its length and boring plot. A year later he also produced A Collection of the Moral and Instructive Sentiments … in the Histories of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison; in this work he attempted to distill the moral wisdom that he believed his works contained. In the later years of his life, Richardson continued to edit his works, and he was something of a fixture in London’s literary scene, becoming a close associate in these years of Samuel Johnson and other luminaries in the capital’s worlds of art and literature. His chief achievement, though, remains his Clarissa, a work that is not without flaws, but which established a form for the English novel that allowed writers to develop characters and psychological portraits in a grand fashion.