Richardson, Samuel

views updated May 18 2018

Samuel Richardson

BORN: 1689, Mackworth, Derbyshire, England

DIED: 1761, London, England


GENRE: Novel

Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740)
Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady (1747)
The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753)


Samuel Richardson took familiar romance structures of courtship and gave them a massive new force, direction, and complexity. He is considered the originator of the modern English novel and has also been called the first dramatic novelist as well as the first of the eighteenth-century “sentimental” writers. He introduced tragedy to the novel form and substituted social embarrassment for tragic conflict, thus developing the first novel of manners. Most significantly, Richardson's detailed exploration of his characters' motives and feelings, accomplished through his use of the epistolary method—where the narrative is conveyed through letters written by one or more characters—added a new dimension to the art of fiction.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Successful Printer Little is known of Richardson's early life. He was born in Derbyshire in 1689, the son of a woodworker and his wife. Though his parents had hoped to educate him in the ministry, poverty forced them to abandon such hopes. He received a modest education and was apprenticed to a printer and soon became a freeman.

In 1715 Richardson set up his own business and quickly became one of the leading merchants in London. Through his business, he became a friend and patron of many writers, including Samuel Johnson, Sarah Fielding, and Edward Young. In 1721 he married Martha Wilde, the daughter of his former printing master. His industriousness paid off quickly, and his income and influence rose steadily.

As a printer, his output included works and journals by a number of conservative Tory authors and eventually he became the official printer for the House of Commons. This important commission made Richardson wealthy and professionally secure, and it taught him a great deal about aspects of aristocratic and political life that would become useful in his later novels.

In the eighteenth century, printers were in the center of social transformation: Publications of all sorts were becoming mass-produced and inexpensive enough to reach wide audiences. Consequently, there was a sharp increase in public education and literacy rates. The printing press became an important engine for the emerging Enlightenment throughout Europe. Richardson advocated for useful publications rather than just waiting for business to come to him, and it is not surprising that he became the printer for the Society for the Encouragement of Learning.

Personal Tragedies Richardson's greatest prosperity occurred during the 1730s, but this was also a desolate time, shaping his religious and personal outlook on life. He was married twice, in 1721 and 1732. All six children from his first marriage died by the age of four. Two other children born to his second wife also died in infancy; four daughters survived. During this decade, Richardson also lost his father in an accident along with two brothers and a close friend.

Richardson became ill, suffering from digestive afflictions, nervousness, and dizziness. Based on modern medical knowledge, it appears that Richardson had Parkinson's disease. He was so shaky that sometimes he could walk only with a cane, but he continued with tremendous energy to build up his printing business and in late middle age was to take on an exhausting second career as a writer.

From Letter Writing to Novelist At the age of fifty-one, Richardson began writing what would become his first novel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). This work was the result of a commission he undertook at the request of two booksellers, Charles Rivington and John Osborn. Both Rivington and Osborn felt that a collection of model letters to be used by people with little formal education would be a prosperous venture, and they proposed the idea to Richardson, who enthusiastically accepted. Two years later the volume was published.

While he was writing this work, Richardson elaborated on a story he had heard about the attempted seduction of a young servant girl by her aristocratic master. She held her ground, and the master was so impressed with her virtue that he fell in love with her and proposed an honest marriage. The result was Pamela, and Richardson began his career as a novelist. Pamela was a huge success and became the best-selling novel in Britain and created a sensation throughout Europe.

Another Epistolary Novel, Another Tragic Heroine Richardson extended the novel with a sequel volume in 1741 but fell ill again in 1742. Few outside his close circle of friends knew that he was writing a new novel that would dwarf Pamela in size, popularity, and literary influence. Richardson tested some of his ideas in a remarkable series of letters with his friends, many of them women, but he remained stubborn about the controversial tragic plan of his masterwork. The first volumes of Clarissa appeared in 1747, the last ones in 1748, and substantially different second and third editions were complete by 1751.

Clarissa is remarkable for many reasons, one of the most important of which is the way it established the emerging genre of the novel as a vehicle for psychological insight that can be read on many levels. On one level, it is a somber indictment of bourgeois materialism and family tyranny, as well as an attack on the aristocratic notion of class supremacy. Both the bourgeois Harlowes and the aristocratic Lovelace suffer because they fail to realize the most important values in life. It is also a revealing portrait of a consciousness doomed to enact its life under the continuous threat of destruction. Clarissa's death is a direct result of those qualities that both the characters in the novel and the reader consider saintly—namely, her purity of body and soul. Clarissa's ultimate moral strength resides in her refusal to compromise these qualities to the physical world of violence, materialism, and sin. Instead, she chooses negation and death as her final salvation.

Structurally, Clarissa represents a significant advance over Pamela. Although Richardson utilizes the epistolary method once again, he also uses three other points of view—Anna Howe's, Lovelace's, and Belford's—to explore the various implications of the novel's events.

A Virtuous Male Hero Richardson began his third novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, around 1750. The story is about how a good man, in love with two deserving women, balances questions of loyalty and honor. Richardson also addresses several social issues of the time relating to changing concepts of male virtue, including the ethics of dueling and the nature of masculine sentimentality. While also popular in the period—Jane Austen said it was her favorite novel—literary history has not valued Sir Charles Grandison as much as Pamela or Clarissa, mainly because of its lack of a compelling dramatic situation and psychologically complex characters.

Richardson's health continued to decline, with an increase of trembling and dizziness. By the end of 1755, Richardson's health forced him to give up writing, and he suffered a stroke on June 28, 1761. He died on July 4 and was buried in St. Bride's Church beside his first wife and children.

Works in Literary Context

Richardson builds upon the existing genre of the romance—love stories often featuring forced marriages, abductions, and sometimes rape. But in Clarissa especially, Richardson replaces the idealism of the romance with both the realism of interpersonal relationships and near-perfect Christian virtue. Clarissa and Lovelace are among the very first modern fictional characters with a full capacity for change and self-analysis. Clarissa and Pamela are among the first characters in English fiction who develop slowly, rather than changing suddenly due to an altering experience.


Richardson's famous contemporaries include:

Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779): British furniture designer whose name became synonymous with the most valued home artifacts of his era and whose works are still highly sought after today.

Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni (1707–1793): Playwright and librettist from Venice who wrote many of Italy's best-loved plays. He captured the emerging middle class of his time in the colorful and witty Venetian dialect.

Queen Anne (1665–1714): British queen who took the throne in 1702; she became the first monarch to reign over Great Britain when England and Scotland united as a single nation in 1707.

Frances Moore Brooke (1724–1789): A prolific English novelist, playwright, essayist, and poet who traveled with her husband to Canada. Her novel The History of Emily Montague is said to be the first novel written in North America.

Tobias Smollett (1721–1771): Scottish novelist best known for his comic novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1753), and The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771).

The Longest Novel in English Clarissa is the longest novel in English—a fact loved by some readers, tolerated by most, and mocked by others. Like the works of James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Clarissa is meant for those who like reading, and it also is a work that demands rereading. The characters themselves reread, both metaphorically and literally, their own experiences, which is made vivid for the novel's readers at each point it occurs. Angus Wilson says of the pace of the work, “The journey before the reader will be, for three quarters of the book … drawn out and long, but what he is reading at any given moment is sharply felt and quick.”

Class Struggles The plots of Richardson's novels demonstrate the engagement of literature and culture in the middle of the eighteenth century. Richardson is unique among the many early novelists who build their romance plots around themes of class struggle. The struggle of gender stereotypes in Pamela and Clarissa serve as a parallel to the class struggles of the middle class asserting its emerging powers against the manipulations of the old aristocratic order.

Pamela, a servant girl, converts the decadent Mr. B. to her more Puritanical strain of working-class virtue. Clarissa exhibits the new conflict between the middle-class gentry, rising by colonial trade and coal mining, and the old nobility. While Lovelace represents the worst abuses of aristocratic power, the Harlowe family represents the vulgarity and selfish materialism of the rising middle class. Only the hero and the heroine transcend the limitations of their class and time.

Works in Critical Context

Richardson's high moral tone was appealing to Victorian readers, although he was often neglected for the length of his novels and his supposedly perverse interest in the sexual persecutions of vulnerable young women. By the early twentieth century, he was largely neglected, but in 1957, Ian Watt's influential book The Rise of the Novel helped restore the reputation of Richardson's novels with an enthusiastic appreciation of their realism and form. More recently, feminist and cultural critics have found a limitless resource in Richadson's works with their subtle explorations of emerging and shifting feminine identities and the ways in which sexual dynamics play themselves out in the context of politics, class, and representation.

Pamela Pamela was the first novel to become a cultural sensation. Scenes from Pamela appeared on fans, ceramic plates, and even in a wax museum. One town rang the church bells when the final volume of Pamela arrived to celebrate the main character's marriage.

It should be noted that Richardson's reception history is bound up in a tight knot with Henry Fielding's. Fielding wrote a parody of Pamela called Shamela, mocking what he saw as the heroine's moral hypocrisy. Fielding's much more ambitious novel Joseph Andrews also begins as a parody of Pamela, and the title character is supposedly her brother. While Fielding did have some kind things to say about Clarissa, and Richardson helped to finance a trip to Lisbon that Fielding took for his health, the two spent most of their writing careers in a bitter public rivalry.

Clarissa Clarissa earned immediate and lasting respect throughout Europe, sometimes bringing readers such as Denis Diderot to say in a eulogy for Richardson, “O Richardson!… Who is it who will dare to wrest away one line from your sublime works? … Centuries, make haste to run and bring with you the honors which are due to Richardson!” Clarissa was popular in England, but it was remarkably so in France and Germany, where many imitations and influenced novels were produced well into the nineteenth century, including Laclos's Dangerous Liaisons.

Clarissa has also attracted many postmodern critics, fascinated by the ways in which Richardson uses the epistolary form to push the boundaries of what the novel can and cannot do—throughout Richardson's long novels, almost everything that can happen to letters happens: They are hidden, burned, forged, exchanged, stolen, and even sewn into the fabric of clothes. Characters are sometimes quite literally literary, writing themselves into power and existence, even after death.


Epistolary novels have a unique relationship with their readers. Without a narrator, characters speak for themselves, often describing events as they are occurring, and the reader is left to decide which of the competing viewpoints is best. Other works that use the epistolary method include:

The Color Purple (1983), a novel by Alice Walker. This work implements a modern take on the epistolary novel. Set in 1930s Georgia, Walker addresses the challenges, injustices, and triumphs that African American women faced in pre–civil rights America.

Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) (1782), a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Directly influenced by Clarissa, Laclos created a novel of letters between the vain libertine Valmont and his partner/competitor, the Marquise de Mereuil, as they plot the sexual conquest and humiliation of several prominent and innocent young women.

Dracula (1897), a novel by Bram Stoker. This Gothic vampire story uses journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, a ship's log, and phonograph recordings to advance the narrative.

Responses to Literature

  1. What are the pros and cons of extraordinary length in a novel like Clarissa? What is potentially gained and lost?
  2. Read Richardson's powerful preface to Clarissa. Discuss Richardson's theory of the novel, and explain what his moral purpose is for his readers. What still seems relevant to readers of Clarissa today?
  3. Using library resources and the Internet, research the important ideas and advancements during the Enlightenment. What are some of the era's attitudes that are prevalent in Richardson's novels?



Castle, Terry. Clarissa's Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson's Clarissa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Doody, Margaret Anne. A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1974.

———. “Samuel Richardson: Fiction and Knowledge,” 90–119. In The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John Richetti. Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge Press, 1996.

Eagleton, Terry. The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982.

Eaves, T. C. Duncan and Ben D. Kimpel. Samuel Richardson: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Flyn, Carol Houlihan. Samuel Richardson: A Man of Letters. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Gillis, Christina Marsden. The Paradox of Privacy: Epistolary Form in Clarissa. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1984.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. Samuel Richardson: Dramatic Novelist. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

McKillop, Alan Dugald. Samuel Richardson, Printer and Novelist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936.

Michie, Allen. Richardson and Fielding: The Dynamics of a Critical Rivalry. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Preston, John. The Created Self: The Reader's Role in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. London: Heinemann, 1970.

Warner, William Beatty. Reading Clarissa: The Struggles of Interpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley.: University of California Press, 1957.

Richardson, Samuel (1689–1761)

views updated May 23 2018


RICHARDSON, SAMUEL (16891761), English novelist. Samuel Richardson was born at Mackworth in Derbyshire. His father was a joiner, and his family were farmers. Richardson's poverty precluded a classical education, and he went to a common school. Apprenticed for seven years to a printer, John Wilde, Richardson became a Freeman of the Stationers' Company and of the City of London in 1715. He married his employer's daughter, Martha, in 1721, and they had six children, all of whom died in childhood.

Hardworking and diligent, Richardson established himself as a prosperous stationer and printer in 1721 near St. Bride's Church off Fleet Street, London. Renowned for his charity and generosity, he printed the novels Moll Flanders and Roxana by Daniel Defoe, the duke of Wharton's periodical the True Briton, and works by the philosopher Francis Hutcheson. Characterized as an extreme Tory printer, he was impeached by the secretary of state in 1722. Two years after his wife's death in 1733, Richardson married Elizabeth Leake; they had four daughters, Mary, Martha, Anne, and Sarah. He moved his business to Salisbury Square, which became his home until his death, and did not travel far outside of London.

Richardson's first work was The Apprentice's Vade Mecum; or, Young Man's Pocket Companion (1733), a book of letters of advice on model behavior for apprentices. Addressed to his own nephew and apprentice, Thomas Richardson, the book expounds on the importance of the moral duties between employer and employee, especially obedience and mutual respect. In 1735 he printed the progovernment Daily Gazetter. Richardson's revisions and prefaces to Defoe's The Complete English Tradesman and Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain display his interest in the cultural aspects of Britishness. Richardson was asked by the Society for the Encouragement of Learning to write a book of model letters on how to act morally in different situations.

Richardson's first novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (17401741) developed from a further morally improving project called Letters Written to and for Particular Friends on the Most Important Occasions (known as Familiar Letters and published in 1741). One of the letters, "A Father to a Daughter in Service, on Hearing of Her Master's Attempting Her Virtue," inspired Richardson to explore "practical examples, worthy to be followed in the most critical and affecting cases" (Pamela, Preface). Pamela writes to her parents about her master, Mr. B., who locks her up and tries to rape her. She evades this fate by marrying him. A critical success and praised for its heroine's steadfast virtue, Pamela was reprinted four times in 1741 and inspired imitations, a play by Henry Gifford, and Pamela merchandise including wax dolls. Novelist Henry Fielding, however, denounced Pamela as an opportunistic example of virtue and parodied the novel with Shamela (1741). Responding to this criticism, Richardson published Pamela in Her Exalted Condition (1741), but the sequel was less successful. That year also saw Richardson elected to the Court of Assistants of Stationers' Company.

Written "in a double yet separate correspondence," (Clarissa, Preface) Richardson's epic novel Clarissa (published in installments between 1747 and 1748) allows him as self-styled editor to effectively depict the subtleties of the voices of the four principal characters, reflecting their unfolding emotional states. Begun in 1744, the novel explores the interior life of the bourgeois paragon Clarissa Harlowe, who is disowned by her family after not marrying the man of their choosing. Duped by the aristocratic rake Robert Lovelace, whom she loves, she believes she can "rescue" him to virtue, but he deceives her, imprisoning her in a brothel and raping her. Her hopelessness causes her death, and Lovelace dies in a duel with her cousin. Instantly successful, the novel was translated into French by writer and priest Abbé Antoine François Prévost d'Exiles; with Pamela, Richardson founded the sentimental novel.

Richardson encouraged women's writing among his fellow novelists and friends, Sarah Fielding, Frances Sheridan, and Charlotte Lennox, and engaged in extensive literary and moral debate with women. Shocked by female readers' attraction to the character of Lovelace, he revised the novel in the 1750s and extracted "instructive" passages from it for publication.

The History of Sir Charles Grandison (17531754), his last novel, creates a virtuous male equivalent of Clarissa, who is desired by two very different women. The novel's light satire of "vicious" individuals influenced novelist Jane Austen. Richardson died in July 1761 and is buried in St. Bride's Church in London.

See also Advice and Etiquette Books ; Defoe, Daniel ; English Literature and Language ; Printing and Publishing .


Primary Sources

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady. Edited by Angus Ross. Harmondsworth, U.K.; New York, 1985.

. Pamela. Edited by Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely. Oxford and New York, 2001.

Secondary Sources

Blewett, David. Passion and Virtue: Essays on the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Toronto and Buffalo, 2001. Fourteen essays on two of the most central concerns of Richardson's fiction by leading Richardsonian scholars.

Eaves Duncan, T. C., and Ben D. Kimpel. Samuel Richardson: A Biography. Oxford, 1971. The most comprehensive and standard biography.

Gwilliam, Tassie. Samuel Richardson's Fictions of Gender. Stanford, 1993. A stimulating investigation of how Richardson's fiction exposes the instability of eighteenth-century gender models.

Keymer, Tom. The Life of Samuel Richardson. Oxford, 2002. A biography contextualizing Richardson's life and works within literary and political developments and examining the relationship between literary form and unresolved ideological conflicts in Richardson's beliefs.

Max Fincher

Samuel Richardson

views updated May 23 2018

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

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 Sources

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

Richardson, Samuel

views updated Jun 08 2018

Samuel Richardson



Early Years.

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 he was 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's printing 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 a result, 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 around 1720. Richardson abandoned this form, which had been based on seventeenth-century spiritual autobiographies and confessions, and in Pamela he pioneered the "epistolary style," in which the action is told through a series of letters. Richardson was drawn to this form, in part, by some of his printer friends who had recommended that 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 marriage across 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 up-start 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 the emotions 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.


E. B. Brophy, Samuel Richardson (Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1987).

J. Harris, Samuel Richardson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

M. Kinkead-Weekes, Samuel Richardson, Dramatic Novelist (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973).

C. Wolff, Samuel Richardson and the Eighteenth-Century Puritan Character (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972).

Richardson, Samuel

views updated May 29 2018

Richardson, Samuel (1689–1761). Novelist. Born in Derbyshire, Richardson settled in London and became a master printer. His first novel Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740–2) was published when he was 51. Clarissa Harlowe and Sir Charles Grandison followed in 1744 and 1753. They were instant successes. They dealt with the manners and morals of relatively ordinary people attempting to survive in a naughty world with some degree of happiness and self-respect. They were salacious enough to make excellent reading. As such they caught a taste for a contemporary interest in manners and morals started by Addison and Steele's Tatler and Spectator. They established the value of epistolary writing as a vehicle for fiction. Richardson was much read in France where Marivaux had already established sentimental fiction; Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse is indebted to him.

Nicholas Phillipson

Richardson, Samuel

views updated Jun 11 2018

Richardson, Samuel (1689–1761) English novelist and printer. Richardson wrote his first work of fiction, the novel Pamela (1740–41), after the age of 50. It was followed by two more novels of letters, Clarissa (1747–48), and Sir Charles Grandison (1753–54). His work prompted Fielding's parodies An Apology for the Life of Shamela Andrews (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742).

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