Letters on Literature, by Andrew Lang

Richardson

By Mrs. Andrew Lang.

Dear Miss Somerville — I was much interested in your fruitless struggle to read “Sir Charles Grandison,”— the book whose separate numbers were awaited with such impatience by Richardson’s endless lady friends and correspondents, and even by the rakish world — even by Colley Cibber himself. I sympathize entirely with your estimate of its dulness; yet, dull as it is, it is worth wading through to understand the kind of literature which could flutter the dove-cotes of the last century in a generation earlier than the one that was moved to tears by the wearisome dramas of Hannah More.

There is only one character in the whole of “Sir Charles Grandison” where Richardson is in the least like himself — in the least like the Richardson of “Pamela” and “Clarissa.” This character is Miss Charlotte Grandison, the sister of Sir Charles, and later (after many vicissitudes) the wife of Lord G. Miss Grandison’s conduct falls infinitely beneath the high standard attained to by the rest of Sir Charles’s chosen friends. She is petulant and loves to tease; is uncertain of what she wants; she is lively and sarcastic, and, worse than all, abandons the rounded periods of her brother and Miss Byron for free, not to say slang, expressions. “Hang ceremony!” she often exclaims, with much reason, while “What a deuce!” is her favourite expletive.

The conscientious reader heaves a sigh of relief when this young lady and her many indiscretions appear on the scene; when Miss Grandison, like Nature, “takes the pen from Richardson and writes for him.” But I gather that you, my dear Miss Somerville, never got far enough to make her acquaintance, and therefore are still ignorant of the singular qualities of her brother, Sir Charles — Richardson’s idea of a perfect man, for both brother and sister are introduced at almost the same moment.

Now it is nearly as difficult to realize that Sir Charles is a young man of twenty-six, as it is to feel that his antithesis, the adorable Pepys of the “Diary,” was of that precise age. Sir Charles might be borne with good-naturedly for a short time as an old gentleman who had become garrulous from want of contradiction, but in any other aspect he would be shunned conscientiously. Yet Richardson is not content with putting into his mouth lengthy discourses tending chiefly, though expressed with mock humility, to his own glorification; but he keeps all the other characters perpetually dancing round the Baronet in a chorus of praise. “Was there ever such a man, my Harriet, so good, so just, so noble in his sentiments?” “Ah, my Lucy, dare I hope for the affection of the best of men?” Some people would have begged their friends to cease making them ridiculous, but not so Sir Charles.

But, my dear, trying as Sir Charles is at all moments, he is infinitely at his worst when he attempts to be jocose, when he rallies the step-mother of his friend Beauchamp in a sprightly manner, or exchanges quips with Harriet’s cousins at the house of “that excellent ancient,” her grandmother. It is a mammoth posing as a kitten, though whatever he says or does, his audience throw up their hands and eyes and ask: “Was there ever such a man?” “Thank Heaven, never!” the nineteenth century replies unanimously.

Secure as he is of the contemporary public verdict, Sir Charles does not attempt to repress his love of “pawing” all his female acquaintances. He is eternally taking their hands, putting his arm round their waists, leading them up and down, and permitting himself liberties that in a less perfect character would be considered intolerable. It is also interesting to note that he never addresses any of his female friends without the prefix “my.” “My Harriet,” “my Emily,” “my Charlotte,” are his usual forms, and he is likewise very much addicted to the use of the third person, which may, however, have been the result of his long residence in Italy.

Little as you read of the book, no doubt you were struck — you must have been — by the singular practice in this very matter of Christian names, and also by the enormous satisfaction with which every one promptly adopts every one else as his brother or sister. As regards names, no sooner has Sir Charles rescued Harriet from the clutches of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, than he calls her “his Harriet,” though, when he is once engaged to her, then this is changed into “infinitely obliging Miss Byron.” His eldest sister, one year his senior, is always “Lady L.” to him, and on her marriage “his Charlotte,” aged twenty-four, becomes “Lady G.;” but no one ever ventures to address him with anything more familiar than “Sir Charles.” Harriet, indeed, once gets as far as “my Cha-” but this was in a moment of extreme emotion — one of the excesses of youth.

Of course the method of telling his story in letters necessitates the acceptance of various improbabilities; reticence has sometimes to be violated, and confidences to be unduly made. Still, with all these allowances, the gossip of every one with regard to the likelihood of Sir Charles returning Harriet’s very thinly veiled attachment is highly undignified, and often indecent. The Object himself, for whom no less than seven ladies were at that time openly sighing, alone ignores Harriet’s love, or, at any rate, appears to do so. But his sisters freely and frequently charge her with having fallen in love with him. She writes pages to her whole family as to his behaviour on particular occasions, while his ward, Emily Jervois, begs permission to take up her abode with Harriet when she and Sir Charles are married.

Miss Jervois, who is Richardson’s idea of a jeune personne bien elevee, is a compound of tears, of servility, and of undisguised love for her guardian. She is much more like the heroine of a French drama than an English girl of fourteen, and I dread to think what effect she would have on a free-born American! Harriet, as you know, is not quite hopeless at first, but the descent is easy, and, in the end, we quite agree with all the admiring circle, that they were made for each other. They were equally pompous, and used stilts of equal height.

“Sir Charles Grandison” was the last, the most socially ambitious, and much the worst of Richardson’s novel’s. Smollett came to his best in his last, “Humphrey Clinker.” Fielding sobered down into the kind excellence of his last, “Amelia.” Neither had been flattered and coddled by literary ladies, like Richardson. What of “Pamela” and “Clarissa”? May a maiden read the book that the young lady studied over Charles Lamb’s shoulder? Well, I think, as you have now passed your quarter of a century, it would do you no harm to read the other two, which are infinitely better than “Sir Charles.” The worthy Miss Byron, aged only twenty, indeed, writes to her Lucy to remind her that “their grandmother had told them twenty and twenty frightful stories of the vile enterprises of men against innocent creatures,” and that they can both “call to mind stories which had ended much worse than hers (the affair with Sir Hargrave Pollexfen) had done.”

Grandmothers now choose other topics of conversation for their descendants, but in those old days when sedan-chairs made enlevements so very easy, it was considered necessary to caution girls against all the possible wiles of man. Even little boys, strange as it may sound, were given “Pamela” to read after the Bible. More than this, one small creature, Harry Campbell by name, so young that he always spoke of himself as “little Harry,” obtained the book by stealth in his guardian’s house, and never stopped till he finished it. When Richardson, on being told of this, sent him a copy for his own, he nearly went out of his senses with delight.

Of course you know the outline of Pamela’s story. How at eleven she was taken and educated by a lady, who on her death, when Pamela was sixteen, left her not only more beautiful, but more accomplished than any girl of her years. How Pamela’s young master fell in love with her, persecuted her, and after moving adventures of all kinds, being convinced that she was not to be overcome, married her, and they lived happy, with one brief exception, ever after. The proper frame of mind in which to read “Pamela” is to consider it in the light of an historical joke.

The absolute want of dignity that is almost as marked a characteristic in Richardson as his lack of humour, shows itself again and again. After all, Mr. B. would never have married Pamela if he could have persuaded her to live with him in any other way; so the cringing gratitude expressed by Pamela and her parents to the “good gentleman” and the “dear obliger” is only revolting. No woman with any delicacy of feeling could have sat complacently at her own table, while her husband entertained his company with prolonged and minute accounts of his attempts on her virtue. Can you fancy Fielding composing such a scene, Fielding whom Richardson scouts as a profligate? It is impossible not to laugh at the bare idea; and no less funny are Pamela’s poetical flights, especially when, like Hamilton of Bangour in exile, she paraphrases the paraphrase of the 137th Psalm, about her captivity in Lincolnshire. All through one has to remind one’s self perpetually that Pamela must not be expected to behave like a lady, and that if her father had done as he ought and removed her from her place when she first told him of her uneasiness, there would have been no story at all, and some other book would have had to rank in the opinion of Richardson’s adorers “next to the Bible.”

Still, whatever may have to be said as to Richardson’s subjects, he is never coarse in his treatment of them. The pursuit of Pamela by Mr. B., or of Clarissa by Lovelace, through eight volumes, may weary; it does not corrupt. No man or maid on earth could lay it to his charge that he or she had been corrupted by these books, while no man on earth could read “Clarissa” without being touched by the noble ending. If “Clarissa” had never been written we should have said that the good-natured, fussy, essentially middle-class bookseller, Samuel Richardson, was unable to draw a lady; and it is curious to see how Clarissa stands out, not only among Richardson’s female characters, but among the female characters of all time; eminent she is for purity of soul, and nobility of feeling. There is no cant about her anywhere, no effort to pose or to strain after a state of mind which she cannot naturally experience. The business-like manner in which she makes her preparations for death have nothing sentimental about them, nothing that even faintly suggests the pretty death-beds with which Mr. Dickens and others have made us familiar; but I doubt if the most practical money-maker in Wall Street could read it without feeling uncomfortable.

How, after describing such a character as Clarissa, Richardson could turn to the whale-bone figures in “Sir Charles Grandison” is quite incomprehensible. Had he been ruined by his numerous female admirers and correspondents, or by his desire to become fashionable, or, as is most likely, by the wish to create in Sir Charles a virtuous foil to him whom he thought the wicked, witty, delightful, and detestable Lovelace? Whatever the reason, it is a thousand pities that he gave way to his impulse.

It would interest you as well as me to note little points of manners that are to be gathered from the three books. I have not time to write much more, but will tell you two or three that have struck me. If you read them, as I still hope you may, you will see what early risers they all are, even the wicked Mr. B.; while Clarissa, when in Dover Street, usually gives Lovelace his interviews at six in the morning. One hears of two-o’clock-inthe-morning courage. How much more wonderful is love that rises at six!

Richardson was a woman’s novelist, as Fielding was a man’s. I sometimes think of Dr. Johnson’s mot: “Claret for boys, port for men, and,” smiling, “brandy for heroes.” So one might fancy him saying: “Richardson for women, Fielding for men, Smollett for ruffians,” though some of his rough customers were heroes, too. But we now confine ourselves so closely to “the later writers” of Russia, France, England, America, that the woman who reads Richardson may be called heroic. “To the unknown heroine” I dedicate my respect, as the Athenians dedicated an altar to “the unknown hero.” Will you be the heroine? I am afraid you won’t!

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03