Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
Samuel Richardson (16891761)
[Samuel Richardson was a printer by trade, and was the author of three works: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740); Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (1749); and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753).]
THE CONSCIOUS and ostentatiously avowed end of Richardsons writings was moral edification; and doubtless much of what he wrote can serve no other. In Pamela he designed to recommend virtue to young women through a series of familiar letters; and the result is a monument of vulgarity, and an outrage upon morals. Sir Charles Grandison carries no less heavy a burden of moral purpose; but the picture of the ideal man, whose sole fault is a trifling hastiness of temper, and whom fortune has endowed with vast wealth, an agreeable person, engaging manners, and everything that can make virtue easy and vice detestableif frequently ridiculous and not seldom fatiguing, is never offensive.
But Richardson is to be reckoned in the not inconsiderable number of those artists whose practice has triumphed over their principles. In Clarissa he attempted to compose a tract to prove (apparently) that a sincere belief in religion may consist with the most unbridled profligacy; and he contrived to produce one of the masterpieces of English literature. The characters are discriminated with nicety, and sustained with consistency; of the innumerable details scarce one is irrelevant; of the countless subtle strokes, scarce one superfluous; for Richardson was no niggler. The conduct of the plot is a model of ingenuity and artifice; every incident contributes to the one supreme effect; nor is any other modern tragedy so informed with the sense of the imminent inevitable. The character of Clarissa is noble and affecting. She meets her peril with courage, her ruin with dignity, and her end with cheerfulness. But it is in the portrayal of Lovelace that Richardsons genius reaches its culmination. His plottings may seem, at first sight, too elaborate, his villanies overcharged, his confidences childish. But regarded in their true proportions, they combine to produce one harmonious and triumphant whole, which at once satisfies and captivates the imagination. Among the villains of fiction Lovelace still stands lonely, inimitable, and unapproached.
Richardson has undoubtedly a stronger claim than any other writer to be considered the father of the English novel; and in many of the essentials of his art he has never been surpassed. His convention of a correspondence between the characters is probably as good as a better, though he does nothing to help it out by inventing excuses for such an excess of letter writing. His style, at its worst, is diffuse, clumsy, and involved; and, at its best, is no more than blunt, direct, and unaffected. When his characters are discussing the social problems of their day the diction is no better than the average contemporary pamphleteers. His vocabulary is commonplace, shows no trace of selection, and is disfigured by that abuse of the current poetical phraseology into which even a Thomson was sometimes betrayed, and by force of which tears are transformed into pearly fugitives. We are not, indeed, to look to Richardson for that nameless quality of style which is the property of a scholar and a gentleman, such as Fielding was; for Richardson belonged to neither category. On the other hand, it would be grossly unfair to be blind to the great knack of extremely racy and idiomatic colloquial English which he displays in his dialogue; or to grudge him the merits of straightforwardness and spirit; or to refuse to admit that at times he shows complete command over an instrument of moderate powers and compass. The effects, indeed, which he more than once achieves seem out of all proportion to the poverty of his means. Simple as these are, who that has been thrilled with righteous anger at Lovelaces triumph, or melted with compassion at Clarissas death, will venture to deny that, twice or thrice at all events, he has turned them to the best possible account?