Samuel Richardson - World Literature

World Literature

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. Hulton Archive / Getty Images



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.



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 bestloved 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).


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.

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.



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.


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.


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.