Women’s Liberator

Samuel Richardson: A Biography

by T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel
Oxford, 746 pp., $21.00

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.)

I never sought out of myself,” he said truthfully, “for patrons.” That Richardson was not only his own patron but, alas, his own printer as well is signified by the deplorable length of his books. And since he cared desperately that his vast works be read thoroughly, attentively, and in the proper spirit, Richardson indulged himself further in correspondence with readers both great and anonymous, sometimes going so far as to advertise in the papers to encourage an anonymous correspondent to continue. He took account of legitimate objections and illegitimate misreadings, and speedily incorporated this literary feedback into the revisions he made in almost all the new editions of his works that he brought out himself. The account of Richardson’s corrections, additions, and refinements is by no means the least interesting material in the new biography: what happened between the first and the fourteenth editions, for example, to Mr. B’s groping in Pamela’s bosom, or to Pamela’s calling on the name of God? And there is already a tangible dividend of the biographers’ research: Eaves’s and Kimpel’s re-edition, the first in 231 years, of the unrevised, the original, the spontaneous Pamela.*

All writers with pretensions to change the world may well envy Richardson’s freedom to gloss his own novels, with no thought of bookseller’s hostility or printer’s charges. How he loved the work! “The particular attention of such of the Fair Sex as are more apt to read for the sake of amusement, than instruction, is requested to this letter of Mr. Lovelace,” runs a footnote added to the second edition of Clarissa—for which Richardson also provided a study guide in the form of a forty-three page table of contents bestrewn with italicized aids to enlightenment.

It is a glorious privilege,” he wrote, “that a middling man enjoys who has preserved his independency, and can occasionally tell the world, what he thinks of the world, in hopes to contribute to mend it.” Richardson’s program was indeed to change the world—but not all of it. A secure, unobtrusive monarchy, a well-behaved parliament, a tidy social order, with the classes neatly arranged one atop the other like so many bound volumes of his own works—all these guarantees of peace and promoters of commercial prosperity Richardson was more than content, was zealous to preserve. (“I am no politician,” he once wrote, “but I cannot help thinking that we feel so many blessings, which must be the effect of an easy good government, that I am always shocked at any attempt to sow sedition and discontent among the people.”) On one issue, however, Richardson burned with an almost fanatical zeal for change, and that was the relationship between the sexes.

That something here was disastrously wrong and sorely in need of mending was the burden of all his fiction. Indeed, Richardson made the English novel the vehicle for sexual reform that it would remain at least to the end of the nineteenth century. There is no need to probe for a psychological warp in Richardson to account for this obsession, for Fielding, who was altogether different socially and temperamentally, shared it. Beneath its brilliant sunshine, Tom Jones presents a stormy catalogue of failed, tragic marriages worse than anything Richardson conceived—and Fielding’s few pages of black humor on the subject of Squire Western’s treatment of Sophia’s mother give the most explicit account of the kind of masculine barbarism from which Pamela’s firm control preserved Mr. B.

That a rot spread into every corner of the realm from open adultery and secret marriages, from bastardy and rape, from obscene language and brutal manners, from the spoiling of sons and the abandonment of daughters, from masquerades, lewd theater, and drunken orgies, from unchaste servant girls and unprosecuted rakes was the premise from which both novelists began. But Fielding’s approach was wholly masculine; that is why, under the comic wisdom for which we love his work, there is deep despondency, and why his final statement in fiction took the surprisingly somber form of the mea culpa of Amelia. Richardson’s approach, of course, was wholly feminine: he regarded the issue of sexual reform from an aggressive, feminist point of view. That is why, under its surface of prim gravity and fluttery sensibility, Richardson’s fiction is rather simple-mindedly assertive, confident, even utopian.

He worked out his program for reform in a straightforward manner. Pamela, first, was to urge chastity upon the lower-class woman and to show the benefits to accrue to herself, and to all society, from a properly chaste, middle-class type of marriage. Clarissa, second, was to show the beauties of chastity in a much higher type of woman than the servant girl, and did so less successfully, for Clarissa herself is not only richer, older, better educated, and far better dressed than Pamela, but also duller witted. Clarissa’s weaknesses as a tragic figure do, however, set off the tragedy of Lovelace and Richardson’s subsidiary theme: the penalties of pursuing love according to the rules of the old, masculine code rather than those of the up-to-date feminine one.

Richardson’s third novel, apex and resolution of the new system, was Sir Charles Grandison, the portrait, in seven self-indulgent volumes, of the sexual ideal in masculine form—the perfect, chaste, modern male. This was, in conception, the most programmatic of Richardson’s works, for Sir Charles represented not the novelist’s private ideal (and certainly not a self-portrait) but a consensus of feminist opinion.

It has long been known—Richardson himself made no secret of the fact—that that Grandison was the product of a kind of market research, carried out by Richardson in the large circle of women who, in the years of his celebrity, visited him in his suburban retreat and wrote him letters: some of them novelists, some bluestockings, some pretty young women, some sober married ladies, all strong-minded and very verbal. (Portraits of some of them emerged as the charming and witty ladies, prototypes of Austen’s heroines, in Sir Charles Grandison.) Eaves and Kimpel fill in details of the collaborative effort between the novelist and the “Pigmalionesses,” as Catherine Talbot called them, after finding herself head over heels in love with the ideal hero she and the rest had helped to form. They provide new information, also, about Richardson’s abortive project for a Grandison continuation. It was to be a thoroughgoing collaboration, a collection of letters by different female hands, which Richardson actively solicited.

The wheel had come full circle. Having begun with Pamela, in which he urged young women to save themselves from an anonymous fate by writing letters, he ended surrounded by a large circle of letter-writing women capable of carrying on his own work—as indeed they did, under their own pen names. Several wrote fiction of some importance to literary history: Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Laetitia Pilkington, Hester Chapone. Several more wrote publishable letters and memoirs, like his clever friend Mrs. Delany, who was to sponsor the debut of Fanny Burney, the most talented Richardsonian novelist of the next generation.

These women whom he trained to literature—by making them privy to his own process of creation, by stimulating their criticism, debating their ideas, encouraging their writing and sometimes printing it—he called his adopted “daughters” and “sisters.” There would be “granddaughters” as well, as can be seen in the story of Frances Sheridan, the author (at Richardson’s urging) of one of the more lively epistolary novels. Mrs. Sheridan’s son was the playwright, and her great-granddaughter was Caroline Norton, the celebrated agitator for marital reform. To carry the story down to the end of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Norton was the model for Meredith’s Richardsonian heroine Diana of the Crossways.

Over this “serried phalanx” of women writers (in Van Tieghem’s evocative phrase) Richardson presided, as long as he was active, like a tutelary genius in the shape of an old woman—and what an old woman! “I am a very irregular writer,” he wrote Lady Bradshaigh, soliciting her help with Grandison.

I often compare myself to a poor old woman, who, having no bellows, lays herself down on her hearth, and with her mouth endeavors to blow up into a faint blaze a little handful of sticks, half green, half dry…. This stick lights, that goes out; and she is often obliged to have recourse to her farthing candle, blinking in its shove-up socket; the lighter up of a week’s fires. Excellent housewife, from poverty!—And will you refuse me the help of your waxen taper, when my candle is just burnt out?

One need not go so far in the direction of hyperbole as Frederick Boas, who maintained that Richardson’s little fire eventually brought down the Bastille, to believe that a literary career of such wide and lasting influence merits the most serious scholarly scrutiny, and to rejoice that Eaves and Kimpel have done the job so well. Their biography, as they are the first to say, yields no major surprises. They do not discredit but supplement the fine recent studies by A. D. McKillop and W. M. Sale, even the older works by Clara Thomson and Anna Barbauld, on all of which they lean heavily. But in a hundred details and fine shadings of the sort Richardson himself delighted in, they have changed the rough outlines of the familiar portrait.

By burrowing in parish records, scrutinizing wills and contracts, collating editions, circularizing for Richardson letters (of which they append a full list, first step toward their promised edition of the correspondence)—by all the laborious, mechanical devices of twentieth-century scholarship, here well justified, they give us a fascinatingly different Richardson.

To begin with, they give us Samuel Richardson of Mouse Alley—less a country boy, more the “very Cockney” that he claimed to be. With virtual certainty they assign him a year of schooling at the excellent Merchant Taylors’ School. They sort out his progenitors and siblings; investigate his negotiations with his employees (matters of printers’ wages and productivity which, as they show, affected the form of Richardson’s texts). They convince us that Richardson’s two marriages were alliances of at least as much warmth as prudence, that his second wife and four daughters (the last conceived in the same year as Pamela) were not without spirit or sense, and were sometimes capable of managing the head of the family, to his rueful amusement.

Their splendid summary chapters—on Richardson’s ideas, reading friendships, and so on—are vigorous and lucid. (The dry and raspy quality of their style may owe something to the climate of the University of Arkansas, where both are professors of English, but it seems agreeably appropriate to their subject.) But their most minute biographical finds are sometimes the most interesting, because they have come to light in the pursuit of important questions. To give one example: a suggestive detail, obscure for centuries, in the circumstances of the composition of Pamela. According to Richardson’s own account, he was encouraged to proceed with the writing of the novel by two ladies of his household, who day by day heard his production and clamored for more—two significant precursors of the eventually vast female audience for which Richardson would always desire to write. “My worthy-hearted wife” was one of them; the other he identified only as “the young lady who is with us.” Who was she? Eaves and Kimpel tell us that she was the daughter of a good friend, recently deceased, a bookseller, and a man who had had an illegitimate son by a serving maid in his household—a fact certainly known to both the author and the young lady auditor of Pamela.

Inevitably, some of the answers have not been found, and some of the Richardson questions have not been asked. To give a small example: is it possible that he did not know, made no comment upon another bookseller, Joseph Collyer, and his talented wife Mary? Collyer, probably with his wife’s assistance, translated Marivaux’s Marianne, a work whose problematic historical relationship to Pamela was for generations a subject of heated scholarly debate. Mary Collyer translated some pre-Romantic German works, and wrote one curious epistolary novel that appears to carry the ideas in Pamela—on marriage, religion, education, the family, and country life—part way toward their full Romantic development in Rousseau. Apparently Mary Collyer never corresponded with Richardson, though she comes into the letters of several of the women he knew and admired. She and her husband have long interested Richardson scholars—McKillop has discussed their double role, both literary and commercial, in the expansion of the reading public—but neither Collyer is mentioned by Eaves and Kimpel.

They do, in fact, have a blind spot. Richardson as the novelist of sensibility and the precursor of Romanticism repels them; and his liberating influence upon literary women—a closely related matter—they would wish away if they could. Jane Austen, of course, they cannot wholly avoid, and they grudgingly mention Richardson’s role in her formation, but—“we are not much concerned with his influence on a few second-rate sentimental females.” This must be a reference to Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Maria Edgeworth, whose very existence as novelists they ignore. Les Liaisons dangereuses they call “perhaps the happiest example” of the direct influence of Richardson, who would have gagged at the adjective; and nineteenth-century French fiction, by some odd calculation, they find more Richardsonian than the home product. His special subject, the love story, they say cannot be found, before James and Hardy, “in those English novels which were written by men,” a relative clause that deftly consigns to oblivion Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot, Richardsonians all.

But it is hardly for their reading of the history of the English novel, or indeed of Richardson’s novels, that we must turn to Eaves and Kimpel. As critics of Richardson, they spend an unmannerly amount of time assuring us that most of his work is unreadable. They hold to the old-fashioned (early twentieth-century) view that only Clarissa really matters, and seem unaware of the signs that Pamela is coming into her glory (a phenomenon to which their edition of the ur-Pamela can only contribute)—and that the nineteenth-century favorite, Grandison, may find favor with a generation of readers now also reviving beards, handicrafts, feminism, and other Victorian fancies.

Even Pamela Part II may find readers, for it is not so much a boring production (the Eaves and Kimpel view) as a disagreeable one. Inevitably, Pamela develops into an autocratic and opinionated wife, whose views on such matters as breast-feeding and adultery are unfailingly, irritatingly correct. Readers may find their sympathies veering toward Mr. B, when Pamela’s shrill outrage nips his one innocuous gesture toward an extramarital affair—for “you,” says the poor fellow, “had made home less delightful to me than it used to be.”


Pamela & Anti-Pamela April 20, 1972

  1. *

    Pamela or, Virtue Rewarded, edited with an introduction and notes by T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Houghton Mifflin (Riverside Editions), 1971. The text (of Pamela Part I only) is the first edition, published in November, 1740. The Pamela everyone knows, different in small ways and large on almost every page, is the text of the sixth edition (May, 1742), which, as Eaves and Kimpel argue convincingly, was not the final and need not be the standard edition of the novel.