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 in company, and commenting upon their style and content—all this takes up an enormous amount of space in the novel.
Pamela’s letters provide Richardson with a subject for melodrama and a theme for pathos (“I cannot hold my pen—How crooked and trembling the lines!”). They outshine Pamela’s virtue and crowd out her devotions—on her wedding night, an example of Richardson’s obsession that is often ridiculed, she first thanks God on her knees but then, “the pen and paper being before me, I amused myself with writing thus far.”
Toward the climax of the novel, the letters themselves are charged with sexuality. The pile of written papers rises thicker and higher, and Pamela grasps them ever more firmly, more closely to her body, a very pregnancy of letters. “I begin to be afraid my writings may be discovered; for they grow large,” she says. “I stitch them hitherto in my undercoat, next my linen.” And Mr. B, after failing at ordinary rape, addresses himself with greater masculine verve to the rape of the letters:
Now tell me where it is you hide your written papers, your saucy journal?—for I will know, and I will see them.—This is very hard, sir, said I; but I must say, you shall not, if I can help it.
We were standing most of this time; but he then sat down, and took me by both my hands, and said, Well said, my pretty Pamela, if you can help it! But I will not let you help it. Tell me, are they in your pocket? …Are they not about your stays? No sir, replied I…. Artful slut! said he—Are they not about you? I never undressed a girl in my life; but I will now begin to strip my pretty Pamela….
I fell a crying…. Pary, sir, said I, (for he began to unpin my handkerchief) consider!—And pray, said he, do you consider. For I will see these papers. But may be, said he, they are tied about your knees, with your garters, and stooped….
This wonderful business comes to a close with Mr. B’s capitulation. Pamela’s final victory is marked by what she calls her “opening” the letters to him in her own time and on her own terms. “So I took out my papers; and said, Here, sir, they are. But if you please to return them, without breaking the seal, I will take it for a great favour and a good omen.—He broke the seal instantly, and opened them”—but Pamela has nothing more to fear. Mr. B finds that reading her “very moving tale” has “rivetted” his affections upon her, and offers marriage. Never has literary criticism been turned to more direct, more practical account: “You are very happy, said he, my beloved girl, in your style and expressions.”
No one who has come this far with Pamela should be able to take Richardson’s ceaseless praise of her letterwriting skills as mere self-puffery. Clearly Richardson was obsessed with the power of letters to change the world, and with the imperative need for the unprotected female to express herself in letter form—the writing woman, for a number of complex reasons, being the focus of his concern. The history of the epistolary novel after Richardson, and of novel-writing women in general, suggests that talented women of his time read the moral of Pamela as “Writing Rewarded.”
Certainly Richardson made the reward a splendid one. For Pamela herself, conceived as an exceptional case (her literary skill is, according to Mr. B, “a blessing almost peculiar to my fairest”), it consists of vast wealth, several well-staffed country mansions, a house in town, fashionable clothes and entertainments, trips to Europe, a carriage, a safe distance from her vulgar relations, and a handsome young husband, as amorous as he is adored. Mere female fantasy perhaps, but one on which the cool-browed Jane Austen could hardly improve. “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began,” says Elizabeth Bennet of her love for Darcy. “But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” (“I know not how it came, nor when it began,” says Pamela, in an eloquent passage; “but crept, crept it has, like a thief, upon me; and before I knew what was the matter, it looked like love.”)
It would be possible to mention other acts of literary creation as momentous as the writing of Pamela, but difficult to think of one that had greater consequences. Without Pamela Andrews there would have been no Joseph Andrews—nor, in all likelihood, any other novel by Henry Fielding. “The Pamela, which he abused in his Shamela, taught him how to write to please,” as Richardson himself noted, with understandable irritation. Without Richardson, there might have been no novels by Jane Austen, who was said on good authority to know whole scenes of his work by heart. The crowd of English and French women novelists whom Austen studied, from whom she distilled her rare quality, were direct descendants of the first circle of Richardson disciples; and he was indirectly responsible for the post-Austen tradition of Anglo-American women who wrote for money and influence.
Without Richardson, Goethe and Rousseau might never have written fiction: he was the first, as Paul Van Tieghem once said, to make the novel “entrer dans la littérature sérieuse.”Richardson has been held responsible not only for the cults of sensibility and gothic horror, but even for all of Romanticism and realism; as Fielding anxiously sensed, Pamela brought the classical tradition to a close. With a stroke of originality for which he has only recently been given credit, Richardson made novel synonymous with love story, and made the classic English love story a tale of the love between a poor girl and a rich man. To the modern, marriage-oriented religion of sex which Ian Watt, leaning on Pareto, calls “the most universal religion of the West,” Richardson’s novel supplies doctrine and ritual, “just as the mediaeval romances had done for courtly love.”
There was nothing medieval about Richardson. The new biography presents him as much more of a secularist than one would have expected: a surprisingly level-headed, middle-of-the-road sort of person in religion as in politics, who got along well with clergymen but didn’t often go to church, who eschewed doctrinal disputes and methodistical enthusiasm, who advocated tolerance of Jews and Catholics, who had his feet firmly planted in this world. But influence in this world, moral influence upon those who stood socially above and socially beneath him, was the single purpose of the literary career upon which Richardson launched himself in middle life. He knew precisely where he stood—in the middle—and what he was doing. “A Time will come, and perhaps it is not far off,” he wrote after the publication of his last novel, “when the Writer of certain moral Pieces will meet with better Quarter from his very Censurers. His Obscurity, a Man in Trade, in Business, pretending to draw Characters for Warning to one Set of People, for Instruction to another—Presumptuous!”
Eaves and Kimpel remind us at every turn how presumptuous, self-indulgent, and free from restraints was Richardson’s career as a novelist. When he began, his printing business was on a sure enough footing to provide every comfort he or his family required. He neither wanted nor attained a higher social position than that he had long since achieved through trade. He was not a social climber: his daughters married suitably into the upper middle class—a minister, a merchant, a surgeon with a good practice in Bath. How different from Henry Fielding, with his aristocratic connections and his social and financial insecurities; or from Samuel Johnson, another poor boy who came up out of the book trade, but whose severe financial crises Richardson had on several occasions the pleasant opportunity to mitigate. (The tally of Richardson’s generosities, as Eaves and Kimpel compile it, is impressive; they leave behind little ground for the old suspicion that Richardson curried literary favor with his largesse. Instead, generosity seems to have been a prime virtue and also a delicious self-indulgence for the Richardson who never forgot what it was to be very poor.)