Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson (August 19, 1689 – July 4, 1761) was an eighteenth century writer best known for his three epistolary novels: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753).

Richardson had been an established printer and publisher for most of his life when, at the age of 51, he wrote his first novel – and immediately became one of the most popular and admired writers of his time.

Pamela describes virtue in an 18th century way that is foreign to our times. Pamela Andrews is a young maidservant in a wealthy household. The son of the household, Mr B., conceives a passion for her and repeatedly schemes with his servants to have his way with her. She protects her virtue successfully and B., moved in her favour when he reads the journal she has been keeping in secret, is forced to propose to her if he is to have her.

The popularity of Pamela was mainly the effect of the very effective letter-writing technique (on the invention of which Richardson greatly prided himself), combined with the moralistic nature of the story that made novel-reading acceptable for a wide audience (thus re-inventing a literary genre that thus far had had a very questionable reputation). Despite this, many contemporary readers were shocked by the more graphic scenes and by the sometimes questionable behaviour of the characters – it was easy to regard Pamela as a scheming young woman trying to gain a higher social status by making a nobleman marry her. In particular, Henry Fielding parodied Pamela twice, once in the same epistolary form, as Shamela, and again with Joseph Andrews, which tells the story of Pamela's brother Joseph and his manly efforts to protect his virtue.

Richardson also wrote two later epistolary novels, Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753). Of the three, Clarissa has generally been the most highly regarded by critics. No longer does Richardson struggle with the epistolary form, like he did in Pamela; he uses it with great effectiveness to create characters that are psychologically convincing, while reflecting on some of the most important moral questions of the 18th century.

Clarissa Harlowe, the tragic heroine of Clarissa, is a beautiful and virtuous young lady of a family that has become very wealthy only in recent years, and is now eager to become part of the aristocracy by acquiring estates and titles through advantageous matches. She is forced by her relatives to marry a rich but heartless man against her will, and more importantly, against her own sense of virtue. Desperate to remain 'free', she lets a young gentleman of her acquaintance, Lovelace, scare her into escaping with him. However, she refuses to marry him, longing – unusually for a girl in her time – to live by herself in peace. Lovelace, in the meantime, has been trying to arrange a fake marriage all along, and considers it a sport to add Clarissa to his long list of 'conquests'. However, as he is more and more impressed by Clarissa, he finds it difficult to keep convincing himself that truly virtuous women do not exist. The continuous pressure he finds himself under, combined with his growing passion for Clarissa, forces him to extremes and eventually he rapes her. Clarissa manages to escape him, but remains dangerously ill. When she dies, however, it is in the full consciousness of her own virtue, and trusting in a better life after death. Lovelace, tormented by what he has done, but still unable to change, dies in a duel with Clarissa's uncle, and Clarissa's relatives finally realise what they have caused, but only to discover that they are too late and Clarissa has already died.

Sir Charles Grandison is Richardson's attempt to create a male model of virtue. Many modern critics have found that he was less succesful here. Sir Charles is not a very interesting or sympathetic character and to modern tastes can be quite annoying in his confident sense of virtue. Also, the plot is not very eventful, and the moral lessons in the book are very clearly present without the ambiguousness they have in Clarissa, where being truly virtuous seems to be an impossibility for anyone less heroic than Clarissa. However, in its own time, Sir Charles Grandison was again a success, like its two predecessors.

Richardson was widely considered one of the most important novelists of his age, influencing writers such as Goethe and Rousseau.

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