Samuel Richardson: A Biography
In the fascinating and important new scholarly biography of Samuel Richardson by T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, there is nothing to challenge the familiar legend of Richardson’s beginnings as a novelist—a man already fifty, a successful businessman, citizen, and family man, with nothing very special about him, so far as his friends were aware, except a gift for letterwriting. In 1739 two of those friends, two booksellers, asked him to write for publication a series of Familiar Letters to be used as models by people less gifted than he. Richardson tossed off several dozen such letters—they are splendid, lively productions—but stuck fast at Number 138: A Father to a Daughter in Service, on hearing of her Master’s attempting her Virtue. “Consider, my dear child, your reputation is all you have to trust to. And…come away directly (as you ought to have done on your own motion) at the command of Your grieved and indulgent Father.”
Excellent advice (duly taken by the girl in Number 139) but suppose, Richardson must have thought, suppose such a girl had more than reputation to trust to, had in fact what I have: a gift for letter-writing. Suppose then that she does not “come away directly,” as prudence and morality both dictate, but instead finds some pretext to remain (accounts to finish? a waistcoat to stitch?)—isolated, penniless, unprotected in her master’s house, a mere servant girl of fifteen with nothing but her pen and paper…. How far may she not go, wheedling, teasing, faking, charming, arguing, writing her way to prosperity and power? Richardson put aside the Familiar Letters, and in the space of two months wrote two volumes of Pamela letters.
He subtitled the novel “Virtue Rewarded,” meaning by virtue precisely what he meant in the heading of Familiar Letter 138: the intact preservation of physiological virginity. A silly and narrow subject, Richardson’s readers have often, perhaps thoughtlessly, complained; Fielding, indeed, showed how brusquely that matter could be handled in Shamela, his parody of the novel, where “crosslegged is the Word, faith, with Sham.” But it was not so much Pamela’s merely negative defense of her virtue that seems to have fired Richardson’s imagination as her positive self-assertion through letter-writing. Pamela’s good looks first attract her master, “but they were the beauties of her mind,” says Mr. B, “that made me her husband.”
That mental beauties are best developed, exercised, and displayed through writing letters is Richardson’s insistent lesson in the novel. It begins with Mr. B’s complimenting Pamela on her spelling and handwriting, and ends with Pamela triumphant, now Mrs. B, thanking honest Mr. Longman for his help to her in time of trouble: “You don’t know how much of my present happiness I owe to the sheets of paper, and pens and ink, you furnished me with.” Acquiring these necessary articles, secreting them, writing with and upon them, storing and concealing the written papers, delivering them, reading and rereading them, passing them about to strangers, reading them aloud…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.