Samuel Richardson, 1689–1761

Biographical note

Novelist, son of a joiner, was born at Derby. His father had intended him for the Church, but means failed, and at the age of 17 he went to London, and was apprenticed to a printer. Careful and diligent, he prospered in business, became printer of the Journals of the House of Commons, and in the year before his death purchased the moiety of the patent of King’s Printer. He was twice married, and each of his wives brought him six children, of whom, however, only four daughters were living at his death.

Richardson, who was the originator of the modern novel, did not take seriously to literature until he was past 50 when, in 1740, Pamela appeared. It originated in a proposal by two printers that Richardson should write a collection of model letters for the use of persons unaccustomed to correspondence, but it soon developed in his hands into a novel in which the story is carried on in the form of a correspondence. With faults and absurdities, it struck a true note of sentiment, and exploded the prevalent idea that dukes and princesses were the only suitable heroes and heroines (Pamela was a maid-servant), and it won immediate and phenomenal popularity.

In 1748 Clarissa Harlow, his masterpiece, was published, and in 1753 Sir Charles Grandison, in which the author embodies his ideal of a Christian gentleman. All these suffer from an elaboration of detail which often becomes tedious; but in deep acquaintance with the motives of conduct, and especially of the workings of the female heart, they are almost unrivalled; their pathos also is genuine and deep. Richardson had an unusual faculty as the platonic friend and counsellor of women, and was the centre of an admiring circle of the sex, who ministered to a vanity which became somewhat excessive.

Richardson has also the distinction of evoking the genius of Fielding, whose first novel, Joseph Andrews, was begun as a skit or parody upon Pamela. Richardson is described as “a stout, rosy, vain, prosy little man.”

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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