Samuel Richardson 1689–1761
Humbly born near Derby, Richardson spent most of his life in London, rising from printer’s apprentice to become a major figure in the trade, printer of the House of Commons Journals (1742) and Master of the Stationers’ Company (1754–5). Out of his writing sample letters suitable for various occasions grew his first novel Pamela (1740), a young servant’s account in letters and journal of her imprisonment and temptation by her master, who eventually recognises her merits and marries her. The vivid technique of ‘writing to the moment’ and the socially-challenging subject-matter made the novel one of the sensations of the century, with adaptations and sequels, though its prudential morality and detailing of trivia were attacked by Fielding (p. 295). The centre of a group of female admirers, Richardson was greatly praised by Johnson for his psychological insight. His masterpiece Clarissa (1747–8) takes a million words to recount in letters from various correspondents the heroine’s moral struggles, rape, and triumphant death: a rare example of successful tragedy in this period. Sir Charles Grandison (1753–4), an epistolary novel about a ‘good man’, was adapted for domestic performance by Jane Austen, a later admirer of Richardson’s insight, if not his prolixity. His interest in elaborating emotional conflict at the expense of story has left him the least read of the great novelists.
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