Samuel Richardson by Mason Chamberlin, c1754, oil on copper. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Scribbler with a gift for women

Tibor Fischer reviews ‘The Cambridge Edition of the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson’

“I was always an early riser,” Samuel Richardson states in one of his letters gathered in Correspondence of Richardson’s Final Years 1755-1763. And he lambasts his daughters for being “shameful in their Love of their Beds in Mornings”. In typical Richardson style he adds: “Yet I would fain persuade them all, that Early-Rising is a great promoter of Health.”

Richardson is a writer you can count on for advice. If you’re seeking guidance you’ll find it aplenty in his works. And no one who has delved into his Clarissa, the longest novel of note in the English language (around a million words), will be surprised to learn that Richardson was an early riser. It’s hard to imagine him sleeping at all.
Is Richardson much read these days? And if he is read, is it with much pleasure? He’s certainly in print, always a good start, but is he only being inflicted on English Lit students, mere syllabus fodder? A quick tour of Twitter reveals both praise for Clarissa and regret from one student that she had purchased the ebook since that deprived her of the pleasure of burning it.

Samuel Richardson was a European bestseller. Diderot, the most talented of the philosophes, was a hardcore fan. Goethe too. Richardson was Jane Austen’s favourite novelist and essentially she stole his act. In the same way that Irvine Welsh pillaged James Kelman for the good bits, Austen ripped out the vital parts. She did it shorter, better and with an added spoonful of humour.

The Cambridge Edition of the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson By Samuel Richardson, Edited by Shelley King and by John B. Pierce. Cambridge University Press £90

I don’t think any professional writer can read Richardson without admiration, although I have to confess on my first attempt at Clarissa I put the book down halfway, partly because the massive Penguin edition is unwieldy and actually tiring to hold. It was only years later that I dealt with the rest. This wasn’t so much because Richardson was flagging, it was just the sheer scale.

You might be dazzled to watch someone juggle a dozen balls, but that doesn’t mean you want to watch the juggler for three hours. Or three weeks.

And it’s not just contemporary readers who might not have the stamina to tackle Richardson. Even during the long, electricity-less winter evenings of the eighteenth century there was grumbling about the magnitude of Richardson’s package, something Richardson was well aware of.

He addresses the complaints in both the preface and postscript to Clarissa. “Length will necessarily be expected,” he asserts. Necessarily? In one of his last letters Richardson is sniffy about Tristram Shandy, like Samuel Johnson seeing it as an ephemeral novelty, and berating its “whimsical digressions”. You can’t dispute Sterne’s whimsy, but there’s something hilarious about Richardson balking at an extra paragraph or two.

In these letters Richardson touts a modest demeanour, although Samuel Taylor Coleridge denounced him as “praise-mad”. Richardson refers to himself as a “scribbler”, laments his lack of formal education and professes his esteem for Cambridge University. Richardson, like most of the great names in English Literature — Shakespeare, Defoe, Austen, Dickens — didn’t go to university. He worked as a printer.

But of course you don’t produce something like Clarissa unless you mean business. The novel, as an art form, didn’t have a very high standing in Richardson’s day. But for Richardson, the novel wasn’t amusement. It was instruction. It was improvement. And, moreover Richardson fell back on a popular defence for writers. Nature. I had no choice. I had to tell the truth, to show human nature in all its complexity. I had to paint nature as it is. And it’s big. I was only obeying nature. That’s how it is.

Aside from the questions of dimensions and vocabulary, there is another factor that may keep Richardson at a distance from the recreational reader of today: the instruction, the very preachy moralising and the morals of his era.

Pamela, his first bestseller and a more pocket-sized hit, is, essentially, regardless of other elements, about a young serving maid keeping her legs crossed despite her employer’s amorous advances and being rewarded for her hymen-bunkering with matrimony. The subtitle of the novel is “Virtue Rewarded”. It’s funny how so much of the canon of English Literature is about the legitimate entry of a penis into a vagina, whereas so much of the French canon is about adultery.

His fervent pulpit-like championing of chastity to some extent transports Richardson further away from the twenty-first century reader than, say, Chaucer or Shakespeare. Even some of Richardson’s contemporaries found the sermonising over the top. Henry Fielding made his name with a parody entitled Shamela, and nine years after the publication of Pamela there was another European bestseller published in London, John Cleland’s porn classic Fanny Hill. Cleland attracted the ire and attention of clergymen, partly, he claimed, because they were some of his most avid readers.

Richardson has a great deal of reverential correspondence from men of the cloth, some of whom, like Peter Peckard, a curate of King’s Ripton, eulogised him and then asked him to publish a tract on how the terrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was a fulfillment of one of the prophecies of the Book of Revelations.

This is an early example of the “you’re a genius, help me” letter that writers still receive today, although the wonderfully named Eusebius Silvester did better than Peckard and conned a pile of cash out of Richardson. Indeed, the correspondence confirms how little literary life has changed over the centuries. Richardson complains that builders are annoying, Dr Johnson asks for a loan, Tobias Smollett wants to make it clear he had nothing to do with a hostile review of Richardson, and that he’s sick of being a writer and having no money, and a young novice writer, Anna Meades, pleads for editorial wisdom.


Richardson is famed for his advocacy of women writers and women’s rights, and women feature largely in this selection of correspondence. Anna Meades, who clearly could have been a model for Becky Sharp, lays it on thick: “But to the protection of you Sir, who have with so much justice gain’d the title of Guardian to the Female Sex; I am determined to offer my work.”

Perhaps the most notable quality in Richardson’s writing is how well he depicts women. Indeed, his women are much more convincing and lifelike than the men. The lecher, the Squire of Pamela, is only named as Mr B, almost as if Richardson couldn’t be bothered to think up a full name for a character that lacked real depth.

Lovelace, the dangerous rake in Clarissa, is a more engaging and dynamic character, but is still somewhat wooden compared to Clarissa herself. Richardson’s gift with women was noted at the time of publication, and was ascribed by some academics in the 1970s as possibly due to a hormone deficiency.

I have to say I was half-expecting some letters from dressmakers in this volume since, for anyone reading Richardson these days, it’s hard not to consider the possibility that Richardson was trans avant la lettre or a sort of drag act. Or maybe he simply preferred the company of women. Richardson reports to the hustling Anna Meades that he has to congratulate her on “the felicity of your pen”. This felicity of the pen is also what marks Richardson out. His command of language and ear for dialogue give him extraordinary power and compensate for the bulky edification and Christian doctrine weighing down on his work.

I’ve always believed that the main reason Jane Austen’s oeuvre has been made into so many successful screen adaptations is that the novels are pretty much film scripts that need a bit of pruning. Austen, perhaps because of her love of drama, is good at blocking (you often have a sense of where everyone is standing in a room) and dialogue, but I can’t believe she didn’t learn from Richardson.

We’re often told that television and film influence the way we see things, but I’d argue it’s the other way around. Film is a reflection of how we see, recall or imagine things, what the Germans term the kopfkino (headcinema), except that the kopf was doing it long before the kino. It’s far from obvious because of the extreme verbiage, but lurking in Clarissa are the tricks of the visual trade: the cutaways, the reaction shots, the close-ups. Clarissa hasn’t fared well on the screen, probably because there isn’t a happy ending, something Austen was savvy enough to provide, although, ironically, I’d argue she’s a darker writer than Richardson.

The editors, Shelley King and John B. Pierce, have laboured hard tracking down almost all the names and references in Richardson’s letters and they have provided extensive and illuminating notes and an entertaining introduction. My guess is the fastidious master printer Samuel Richardson would have approved of this volume.

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