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Samuel Richardson Post by :Mike_McBride Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :2441

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Samuel Richardson

A LECTURE


It is difficult to describe mankind either in a book or in a breath, and none but the most determined of philosophers or the most desperate of cynics have attempted to do so, either in one way or the other. Neither the philosophers nor the cynics can be said to have succeeded. The descriptions of the former are not recognisable and therefore as descriptions at all events, whatever may be their other merits, must be pronounced failures; whilst those of the cynics describe something which bears to ordinary human nature only the same sort of resemblance that chemically polluted waters bear to the stream as it flows higher up than the source of contamination, which in this case is the cynic himself.

But though it is hard to describe mankind, it is easy to distinguish between people. You may do this in a great many different ways: for example, and to approach my subject, there are those who can read Richardson's novels, and those who cannot. The inevitable third-class passenger, no doubt, presents himself and clamours for a ticket: I mean the man or woman who has never tried. But even a lecturer should have courage, and I say boldly that I provide no accommodation for that person tonight. If he feels aggrieved, let him seek his remedy--elsewhere.

* * * * *

Mr. Samuel Richardson, of Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, printer, was, if you have only an eye for the outside, a humdrum person enough. Witlings, writing about him in the magazines, have often, out of consideration for their pretty little styles, and in order to avoid the too frequent repetition of his highly respectable if unromantic name, found it convenient to dub him the 'little printer.'

He undoubtedly was short of stature, and in later life, obese in figure, but had he stood seven feet high in his stockings, these people would never have called him the 'big printer.' Richardson has always been exposed to a strong under-current of ridicule. I have known people to smile at the mention of his name, as if he were a sort of man-milliner--or, did the thing exist, as some day it may do, a male nursery-governess. It is at first difficult to account for this strange colouring of the bubble reputation. Richardson's life, admirable as is Mrs. Barbauld's sketch, cannot be said to have been written--his letters, those I mean, he wrote in his own name, not the nineteen volumes he made his characters write, have not been reprinted for more than eighty years. He of all men might be suffered to live only in his works, and when we turn to those works, what do we find? Pamela and Clarissa are both terribly realistic; they contain passages of horror, and are in parts profoundly pathetic, whilst Clarissa is desperately courageous. Fielding, with all his swagger and bounce, gold lace and strong language, has no more of the boldness than he has of the sublimity of the historian of Clarissa Harlowe. But these qualities avail poor Richardson nothing. The taint of afternoon tea still clings to him. The facts--the harmless, nay, I will say the attractive, facts--that he preferred the society of ladies to that of his own sex, and liked to be surrounded by these, surely not strange creatures, in his gardens and grottos, first at North End, Hammersmith, and afterwards at Parsons Green, are still remembered against him. Life is indeed full of pitfalls, if estimates of a man's genius are to be formed by the garden-parties he gave, and the tea he consumed a century and a quarter ago. The real truth I believe to be this: we are annoyed with Richardson because he violates a tradition. The proper place for an eighteenth-century novelist was either the pot or the sponging house. He ought to be either disguised in liquor or confined for debt. Richardson was never the one or the other. Let us see how this works: take Dr. Johnson; we all know how to describe him. He is our great moralist, the sturdy, the severe, the pious, the man who, as Carlyle puts it in his striking way, worshipped at St. Clement Danes in the era of Voltaire, or, as he again puts it, was our real primate, the true spiritual edifier and soul's teacher of all England? Well, here is one of his reminiscences: 'I remember writing to Richardson from a sponging-house and was so sure of my deliverance through his kindness and liberality, that before his reply was brought I knew I could afford to joke with the rascal who had me in custody, and did so over a pint of adulterated wine for which at that moment I had no money to pay.'

Now, there we have the true, warm-hearted, literary tradition of the eighteenth century. It is very amusing, it is full of good feeling and fellowship, but the morality of the transaction from the great moralist's point of view is surely, like his linen, a trifle dingy. The soul's teacher of all England, laid by the heels in a sponging-house, and cracking jokes with a sheriff's officer over a pint of wine on the chance of another man paying for it, is a situation which calls for explanation. It is not my place to give it. It could, I think, easily be given. Dr. Johnson was, in my judgment, all Carlyle declared him to be, and to have been called upon to set him free was to be proudly privileged, and, after all, why make such a fuss about trifles? The debt and costs together only amounted to £5 18s., so that the six guineas Richardson promptly sent more than sufficed to get our 'real primate' out of prison, and to pay for the pint. All I feel concerned to say here is, that the praise of this anecdote belongs to the little printer, and not to the great lexicographer. The hero of the parable of the Good Samaritan is the Good Samaritan himself, and not the unfortunate, and therefore probably foolish, traveller who must need fall amongst thieves.

But if you violate traditions, and disturb people's notions as to what it is becoming for you to be, to do, or to suffer, you have to pay for it. An eighteenth-century novelist who made a fortune first by honest labour and the practice of frugality, and wrote his novels afterwards; who was fond of the society of ladies, and a vegetarian in later life; who divided his time between his shop and his villa, and became in due course master of a city company, is not what we have a right to expect, and makes a figure which strongly contrasts with that of Richardson's great contemporary, the entirely manly Henry Fielding, whose very name rings in the true tradition; whilst as for his books, to take up Tom Jones is like re-entering in middle life your old college rooms, where, so at least Mr. Lowell assures us,


'You feel o'er you stealing
The old, familiar, warm, champagny, brandy-punchy feeling.'


It may safely be said of Richardson that, after attaining to independence, he did more good every week of his life--for he was a wise and most charitable man--than Fielding was ever able to do throughout the whole of his; but this cannot alter the case or excuse a violated tradition.

The position, therefore, of Richardson in our literature is that of a great Nonconformist. He was not manufactured according to any established process. If I may employ a metaphor borrowed from his own most honourable craft, he was set up in a new kind of type. He was born in 1689 in a Derbyshire village, the name of which, for some undiscovered reason, he would never tell. The son of poor parents--his father was a joiner--he had never any but a village school education, nor did he in later life worry much about learning, or seek, as so many printers have done, to acquire foreign tongues. At fourteen years of age he was bound apprentice to a printer in Aldersgate Street, and for seven years toiled after a fashion which would certainly nowadays be forbidden by Act of Parliament, were there the least likelihood of anybody either demanding or performing drudgery so severe. When out of his apprenticeship, he worked for eight years as a compositor, reader, and overseer, and then, marrying his late master's daughter, set up for himself, and slowly but steadily grew prosperous and respected. His first wife dying, he married again, the daughter of a bookseller of Bath. At the age of fifty he published his first novel, Pamela. John Bunyan's life was not more unlike an Archbishop of Canterbury's than was Richardson's unlike the life of an ordinary English novelist of his period.

This simile to Nonconformity also holds good a little when we seek to ascertain the ambit of Richardson's popularity. To do this we must take wide views. We must not confine our attention to what may be called the high and dry school of literary orthodoxy. There, no doubt, Richardson has his admirers, just as Spurgeon's sermons have been seen peeping out from under a heap of archidiaconal, and even episcopal Charges, although the seat of Spurgeon's popularity is not in bishops' palaces, but in shop parlours. I do not mean by this that Richardson is now a popular novelist, for the fact, I suppose, is otherwise; but I mean that to take the measure of his popularity, you must look over the wide world and not merely at the clans and the cliques, the noble army of writers, and the ever lessening body of readers who together constitute what are called literary circles. Of Richardson's great fame on the Continent, it will be time enough to speak in a few minutes; for the moment I will stop at home. Mr. Leslie Stephen, who has been called to be editor of our first really great Dictionary of National Biography, and has in that capacity to sit like a coroner's jury upon every dead author, and to decide whether his exploits are to be squeezed into one miserable paragraph, or may be allowed proudly to expand over a page--he, I say, pronounces Pamela to be neither moral nor amusing. Poor Pamela, who through two mortal volumes thinks of nothing but her virtue, and how to get married according to law! to be thus dismissed by her most recent, most distinguished editor! But, I repeat, we must take wide views. We must not be content with the verdict of the university; we must seek that of the kitchen: nor is the distance ever great between these institutions. Two months ago a cook in a family of my acquaintance, one Saturday evening, when like old Caspar 'her work was done,' suddenly bethought herself of Pamela, a book she had not read since girlhood. Rest was impossible--get it forthwith she must. The housemaid proffered her The Heir of Redclyffe, and the kitchen-maid, a somewhat oppressed damsel, timidly produced Gates Ajar. The cook was not to be trifled with after any such feeble fashion. The spell of Pamela was upon her, and out she sallied, arrayed in her majesty, to gratify her soul's desire. Had she been a victim of what is called 'Higher Education of Women,' and therefore in the habit of frequenting orthodox bookshops, she would doubtless have found the quest at so late an hour as hopeless as that of the Holy Grail; but she was not that sort of person, and the shop she had in her mind, and whither she straightway bent her steps, was a small stationer's where are vended Family Heralds and Ballads and Pamelas; for the latter, in cheap sixpenny guise--and I hope complete, but for this I cannot vouch--is a book which is constantly reprinted for sale amongst the poor. The cook, having secured her prize, returned to her home in triumph, where a dinner worthy of the name was not to be had until Pamela's virtue was rewarded, which, as you doubtless remember, it only was when her master brings her a license and presses for a day. She desires it may be on a Thursday, and gives her reasons. He rallies her agreeably on that head. The Thursday following is fixed upon. She reflects seriously on the near prospect of her important change of condition, and is diffident of her own worthiness, and prays for humility that her new condition may not be a snare to her, and makes up her mind how to behave herself to the servants, she herself having been one.

There are well-authenticated instances of the extraordinary power Pamela possesses of affecting those who are not much in the habit of reading. There is a story of its being read aloud by a blacksmith round his anvil night after night, to a band of eager rustics, all dreadfully anxious good Mr. Richardson would only move on a little faster, and yet unwilling to miss a single one of poor Pamela's misadventures; and of their greeting by hearty rounds of British cheers, the happy issue out of her afflictions that awaits her, namely, her marriage with the cause of every one of them.

There are living writers who have written some admirable novels, and I have known people to be glad when they were finished, but never to the pitch of three times three.

I am not, of course, recommending anyone to read Pamela; to do so would be an impertinence. You have all done so, or tried to do so. 'I do not remember,' says Charles Lamb, 'a more whimsical surprise than having been once detected by a familiar damsel, reclining at my ease upon the grass on Primrose Hill, reading Pamela. There was nothing in the book to make a man seriously ashamed at the exposure; but as she seated herself down by me, and seemed determined to read in company, I could have wished it had been--any other book. We read on very socially for a few pages; and not finding the author much to her taste, she got up and went away. Gentle casuist, I leave it to thee to conjecture whether the blush (for there was one between us) was the property of the nymph or the swain in the dilemma. From me you shall never learn the secret.'(1)


FOOTNOTE:

(1) Last Essays of Elia, 52.


Miss Pamela Andrews was, to tell the truth, a vulgar young person. There is nothing heroic or romantic about her; she has not a touch or a trace of the moral sublimity of Jeannie Deans, who though of the same rank of life, belonged to another country and had had an entirely different up-bringing. What a reply was that of Jeannie's to the Rev. Mr. Staunton, George Robertson's father, when he, entirely misapprehending the purport of her famous journey, lets her perceive that he fancies she is plotting for her own marriage with his son. Says the father to the son: 'Perhaps you intend to fill up the cup of disobedience and profligacy by forming a low and disgraceful marriage; but let me bid you beware.' 'If you were feared for sic a thing happening with me, sir,' said Jeannie, 'I can only say that not for all the land that lies between the twa ends of the rainbow, wad I be the woman that should wed your son.' 'There is something very singular in all this,' said the elder Staunton; and so Pamela would have thought. She, honest girl that she was, was always ready to marry anybody's son, only she must have the marriage lines to keep in her desk and show to her dear parents.

The book's origin ought not to be overlooked. Some London booksellers, knowing Mr. Richardson to be a grave man of decorous life, and with a talent for moralising, desired him to write a series of familiar letters on the behaviour of young women going out to service for the first time; they never intended a novel: they wanted a manual of conduct--that conduct which, according to a precise Arithmetician is three-fourths, or some other fraction, of human life. It was in this spirit that Richardson sat down to write Pamela and make himself famous. He had a facile pen, and the book, as it grew under his hand, outstripped its design, but never lost sight of it. It was intended for Pamelas, and is bourgeois to the very last degree. The language is simple, but its simplicity is not the noble, soul-stirring simplicity of Bunyan, nor is it the manly simplicity of Cobbett or Hugh Miller: it is the ignoble, and at times almost the odious, simplicity of a merely uncultured life. It abounds in vulgar phrases and vulgar thoughts; still, it reflects powerfully the scenes it portrays, and you feel as you read a fine affinity between the communicating medium, the language, and the thing communicated, the story. When people said, in the flush of their first enthusiasm, as they did say, that there were but two good books in the world, the Bible, and Pamela, this is what, perhaps unconsciously they were thinking of; otherwise they were talking nonsense. Pamela spoke a language still understood of many, and if she was not romantic or high-flown, there are others like her. We are always well pleased, and it is perhaps lucky for the majority of novelists that it should be so, to read about people who do not in the least resemble us; still, anyone who describes us as we are, 'strikes the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound,' and makes humanity quiver right down the centuries. Pamela was a vulgar little thing, and saucy withal: her notions of honour and dishonour were neither lofty nor profound; but she had them and stuck to them in perilous paths along which the defenceless of her sex are too often called to tread; and when finally her virtue is rewarded, and she is driven off in a chariot drawn by the four long-tailed mares upon whom she had been cruelly twitted for setting her affections, I for one am quite prepared to join with the rustics round the blacksmith's anvil in loud cheers for Pamela.

Ten years after Pamela came Clarissa. It is not too much to say that not only Great Britain and Ireland, (the latter country not yet deprived of her liberties by the Act of Union, and therefore in a position to pirate popular authors, after the agreeable fashion of our American cousins,(2)) but also France, Germany, and Holland, simply gulped Clarissa down; and she was in seven volumes. It was a kind of gospel, something good and something new. Its author was a stout tradesman of sixty, but he was not in the very least degree what is now called--perhaps to the point of nausea--a Philistine. By a Philistine I suppose we must understand someone who lives and moves and has his being in the realm of ordinary stock conventional ideas--a man who is as blind to the future as he is deaf to the past. For example, that Dr. Drummond, Archbishop of York, who just about this very time told the Rev. Mr. Conyers, one of his clergy, 'that he would be better employed preaching the morality of Socrates than canting about the New Birth,' was a Philistine--I doubt not a very amiable one, but, being a Philistine, he had no chance of recognising what this nascent methodism was, and as for dreaming what it might become--had he been capable of this--he would not have been a Philistine or, probably, Archbishop of York!

FOOTNOTE:

(2) Since abandoned, Laus Deo!

Richardson on the other hand had his quiver full of new ideas; he had his face to the east; he was no mere inheritor, he was a progenitor. He is, in short, as has been often said, our Rousseau; his characters were not stock characters. Think of Fielding's characters, his Tom Joneses and Booths, his Amelias and Sophias. They are stage properties as old as the Plantagenets. They are quite unidea'd, if I may use a word which, as applied to girls, has the authority of Dr. Johnson. Fielding's men are either good fellows with large appetites, which they gratify openly, or sneaks with equally large appetites, which they gratify on the sly; whilst the characters of his women are made to hinge solely upon their willingness or unwillingness to turn a blind eye. If they are ready to do this, they are angels; Sophia comes upon the stage in a chapter headed 'A short hint of what we can do in the sublime, and a description of Miss Sophia Western.' Poor neglected Amelia, whenever she is forgiving her husband, is described as 'all one blaze of beauty;' but if they are not willing to play this rôle, why then they are unsexed and held up to the ridicule and reprobation of all good fellows and pretty women. This sort of thing was abhorrent to the soul of the little printer; he hated Fielding's boisterous drunkards with an entire hatred. I believe he would have hated them almost as much if Fielding had not been a rival of his fame. He said he was not able to read any more than the first volume of Amelia, and as for Tom Jones, in the year 1750, he was audacious enough to say that its run was over. Regarded merely as writers, there can, I suppose, be no real rivalry between Fielding and Richardson. The superiority of Fielding is apparent on every page. Wit, good-humour, a superb lusty style which carries you along like a pair of horses over a level moorland road, incidents, adventures, inns, and all the glory of motion, high spirits, huge appetites, pretty women--what a catalogue it makes of things no doubt smacking of this world and the kingdom thereof, but none the less delightful on that account! No wonder Tom Jones is still running; where, I should like to know, is the man bold enough to stop him. But for all this, Richardson was the more remarkable and really interesting man of the two; and for the reason that he was the evangel of the new sentimentalism, that word which so puzzled one of his most charming correspondents that she wrote to ask him what it meant--this new word sentimental which was just beginning to be in everybody's mouth. We have heard a good deal of it since.

Clarissa Harlowe has a place not merely amongst English novels, but amongst English women.

It was a new thing for a woman to be described as being not only in herself but by herself commendable and altogether lovely, as triumphing in her own right over the cruelest dishonour, and rejecting, with a noble scorn new to literature, the hand in marriage of the villain who had done her wrong. The book opened the flood-gates of human tears. The waters covered the earth. We cannot weep as they used to do in 'the brave days of old.'

Listen to the wife of a Lancashire baronet: 'I verily believe I have shed a pint of tears, my heart is still bursting though they cease not to flow at this moment, nor will I fear for some time.... Had you seen me I surely should have moved your pity. When alone in agonies would I lay down the book, take it up again, walk about the room, let fall a flood of tears, wipe my eyes, read again, perhaps not three lines, throw away the book, crying out: "Excuse me, good Mr. Richardson, I cannot go on, it is your fault, you have done more than I can bear;" threw myself upon my couch to compose; again I read, again I acted the same part, sometimes agreeably interrupted by my dear man, who was at that time labouring through the sixth volume with a heart capable of impressions equal to my own--tho' the effects shown in a more justifiable manner--which I believe may be compared to what Mr. Belfort felt when he found the beauteous sufferer in her prison-room. Something rose in my throat, I knew not what, which made me guggle as it were for speech.'

Nor did the men escape; a most grave and learned man writes:

'That Pamela and Clarissa have again "obtained the honour of my perusal," do you say, my dear Mr. Richardson. I assure you I think it an honour to be able to say I have read, and as long as I have eyes will read, all your three most excellent pieces at least once a year, that I am capable of doing it with increasing pleasure which is perpetually doubled by the reflection, that this good man, this charming author, is my friend. I have been this day weeping over the seventh volume of Clarissa as if I had attended her dying bed and assisted at her funeral procession. Oh may my latter end be like hers!'

It is no wonder the author of Clarissa had soon a great correspondence with ladies, married and single, young and old, virtuous and the reverse. Had he not written seven volumes, all about a girl? had he not made her beautiful, wise and witty and learned withal? had he not depicted with extraordinary skill the character of the fascinating--the hitherto resistless Lovelace, who, though accomplishing Clarissa's ruin does thereby but establish her triumph and confound himself? It is no doubt unhappily the case that far too many of Richardson's fair correspondents lacked the splendid courage of their master, and to his infinite annoyance fell in love with his arch-scamp, and prayed his creator that Lovelace might first be led to see the error of his ways, and then to the altar with the divine Clarissa. But the heroic printer was adamant to their cries, and he was right if ever man was. As well might King Lear end happily as Clarissa Harlowe.

The seven volumes caused immense talk and discussion, and it was all Clarissa, Clarissa, Clarissa. Sophia Western was, as we have seen, a comely girl enough, but she was as much like Clarissa as a ship in dock is like a ship at sea and on fire. What can you find to say of her or to her?(3) When you have dug Tom Jones in the ribs, and called him a lucky dog, and wished her happy, you turn away with a yawn; but Clarissa is immense. Do you remember Thackeray's account in the Roundabout Papers of Macaulay's rhapsody in the Athenæum Club? 'I spoke to him once about Clarissa. "Not read Clarissa?" he cried out. "If you have once thoroughly entered on Clarissa and are infected by it, you can't leave off. When I was in India I passed one hot season at the hills, and there were the governor-general, the secretary of government, the commander-in-chief and their wives. I had Clarissa with me, and as soon as they began to read the whole station was in a passion of excitement about Miss Harlowe and her misfortunes, and her scoundrelly Lovelace. The governor's wife seized the book, and the secretary waited for it, and the chief justice could not read it for tears." He acted the whole scene, he paced up and down the Athenæum Library. I dare say he could have spoken pages of the book, of that book, and of what countless piles of others.'


FOOTNOTE:

(3) Richardson in a letter says this of her, 'the weak, the insipid, the runaway, the inn-frequenting Sophia;' and calls her lover 'her illegitimate Tom.' But nobody else need say this of Sophia, and as for Tom he was declared to be a foundling from the first.


I must be permitted to observe that lawyers have been great Richardsonians. The Rev. Mr. Loftus, writing to our author from Ireland, says: 'I will tell you a story about your sweet girl Pamela. Our late lord chancellor,(4) who was a man more remarkable for the goodness of his heart than even for the abilities of his head, which were of the most exalted kind, was so struck with her history that he sat up reading it the whole night, although it was then the middle of term, and declared to his family he could not find it in his heart to quit his book, nor imagined it to be so late by many hours.'


FOOTNOTE:

(4) Jocelyn, founder of the Roden peerage.


The eminent Sergeant Hill, though averse to literature, used to set Clarissa's will before his pupils, and bid them determine how many of its uses and trusts could be supported in court. I am sorry to have to add that in the learned sergeant's opinion, poor Clarissa, in addition to all her other misfortunes, died intestate.

All this commotion and excitement and Clarissa-worship meant that something was brewing, and that good Mr. Richardson, with his fat, round face flushed with the fire, had his ladle in the pan and was busy stirring it about. What is called the correspondence of Samuel Richardson, which was edited by that admirable woman, Mrs. Barbauld, and published in six volumes in 1804, is mostly made up, not of letters from, but to, the author of Clarissa. All the more effectually on that account does it let us into the manufactory of his mind. The letters a man receives are perhaps more significant of his real character than those he writes. People did not write to Mr. Richardson about themselves or about their business, or about literature, unless it were to say they did not like Tom Jones, or about politics, or other sports, but they wrote to him about himself and his ideas, his good woman, Clarissa, his good man, Sir Charles, and the true relation between the sexes. They are immense fun, these letters, but they ought also to be taken seriously; Mr. Richardson took them as seriously as he always took himself. There was, perhaps, only one subject Richardson regarded as of equal importance with himself, and that was the position of woman. This is why he hated Fielding, the triumphant, orthodox Fielding, to whom man was a rollicking sinner, and woman a loving slave. He pondered on this subject, until the anger within him imparts to his style a virility and piquancy not usually belonging to it. The satire in the following extract from a letter he wrote to the good lady who shed a pint of tears over Clarissa, is pungent: 'Man is an animal that must bustle in the world, go abroad, converse, fight battles, encounter other dangers of seas, winds, and I know not what, in order to protect, provide for, maintain in ease and plenty, women. Bravery, anger, fierceness are made familiar to them. They buffet and are buffeted by the world; are impatient and uncontrollable; they talk of honour, run their heads against stone walls to make good their pretensions to it, and often quarrel with one another and fight duels upon any other silly thing that happens to raise their choler--their shadows if you please; while women are meek, passive, good creatures, who used to stay at home, set their maids at work, and formerly themselves, get their houses in order to receive, comfort, oblige, give joy to their fierce, fighting, bustling, active protectors, providers, maintainers, divert him with pretty pug's tricks, tell him soft tales of love, and of who and who's together, what has been done in his absence, bring to him little master, so like his own dear papa, and little pretty miss, a soft, sweet, smiling soul, with her sampler in her hand, so like what her meek mamma was at her years.'

You cannot, indeed, lay hold of many specific things which Richardson advocated. Ignorant of the classics himself, he was by no means disposed to advocate the teaching of them to women. Clarissa, indeed, knew Latin, but Harriet Byron did not. The second Mrs. Richardson was just a little bit too much for her husband, and he was consequently led to hold what may be called 'high doctrine' as to the duty of wives obeying their husbands. Though never was man less of a revolutionary than Richardson, still he was on the side of the revolution. He had an ethical system different from that which stood beside him. This did not escape the notice of a keen-witted contemporary, the great Smollett, whose own Roderick Randoms and Peregrine Pickles are such unmitigated, high-coloured ruffians as to induce Sir Walter Scott to call him the Rubens of fiction, but who none the less had an eye for the future; he in his history speaks in terms of high admiration of the sublime code of ethics of the author of Clarissa. Richardson was fierce against duelling, and also against corporal punishment. He had the courage to deplore the evil effects produced by the works of Homer, 'that fierce, fighting Iliad,' as he called it. We may be sure his children were never allowed to play with tin soldiers, at least, not with their father's consent.

Having written Clarissa it became inevitable that Richardson should proceed further and write Grandison. In reading his correspondence we hail Sir Charles afar off. Richardson had deeply grieved to see how many of his ladies had fallen in love with the scoundrelly Lovelace. It wounded him to the quick, for he could not but feel that he was not in the least like Lovelace himself. He turns almost savagely upon some of his fair correspondents and upbraids them, telling them indeed plainly that he feared they were no better than they should be. They had but one answer: 'Ah, dear Mr. Richardson, in Clarissa you have shown us the good woman we all would be. Now show us the good man we all should love.' And he set about doing so seriously, aye and humbly, too. He writes with a sad sincerity a hundred years cannot hide:

'How shall a man obscurely situated, never in his life delighting in public entertainments, nor in his youth able to frequent them from narrowness of fortune; one of the most attentive of men to the calls of business--his situation for many years producing little but prospects of a numerous family--a business that seldom called him abroad when he might in the course of it see and know a little of the world, as some employments give opportunities to do--naturally shy and sheepish, and wanting more encouragement by smiles to draw him out than anybody thought it worth their while to give him--and blest (in this he will say blest) with a mind that set him above dependence, and making an absolute reliance on Providence and his own endeavours--how I say, shall such a man pretend to describe and enter into characters in upper life?'

However, he set about it, and in 1754 produced Sir Charles Grandison, or as he had originally intended to call it, the Good Man, in six octavo volumes.

I am not going to say he entirely succeeded with his good man, who I know has been called an odious prig. I have read Sir Charles Grandison once--I cannot promise ever to read it again, and yet who knows what may happen? Sir Walter Scott, in his delightful, good-humoured fashion, tells a tale of a venerable lady of his acquaintance, who, when she became subject to drowsy fits, chose to have Sir Charles read to her as she sat in her elbow chair in preference to any other work; because, said she, 'should I drop asleep in the course of the reading, I am sure when I awake I shall have lost none of the story, but shall find the party where I left them, conversing in the cedar-parlour.'

After Sir Charles, Richardson wrote no more. Indeed, there was nothing to write about, unless he had taken the advice of a morose clerical friend who wrote to him: 'I hope you intend to give us a bad woman--expensive, imperious, lewd, and, at last, a drammer. This is a fruitful and necessary subject which will strike and entertain to a miracle.' Mr. Richardson replied jocosely that if the Rev. Mr. Skelton would only sketch the she-devil for him, he would find room for her somewhere, and the subject dropped. The wife of the celebrated German poet, Klopstock, wrote to him in her broken English: 'Having finished your Clarissa (oh, the heavenly book!) I would prayed you to write the history of a manly Clarissa, but I had not courage enough at that time. I should have it no more to-day, as this is only my first English letter; but I am now Klopstock's wife, and then I was only the single young girl. You have since written the manly Clarissa without my prayer. Oh, you have done it to the great joy and thanks of all your happy readers! Now you can write no more. You must write the history of an Angel.'

The poor lady died the following year under melancholy circumstances, but her prophecy proved true. Richardson wrote no more. He died in 1761, seventy-two years of age. His will, after directing numerous mourning-rings to be given to certain friends, proceeds as follows: 'Had I given rings to all the ladies who have honoured me with their correspondence, and whom I sincerely venerate for their amiable qualities, it would even in this last solemn act appear like ostentation.'

It now only remains to say two or three words about Richardson's great popularity abroad. Until quite recently, he and Sterne may be said to have been the only popular English authors abroad; perhaps Goldsmith should be added to the party. Foreigners never felt any difficulty about him or about the tradition he violated. The celebrated author of Manon Lescaut translated Clarissa into French, though it was subsequently better done by a less famous hand. She was also turned into German and Dutch. Foreigners, of course, could not be expected to appreciate the hopeless absurdity of a man who lived at Parson's Green attempting to describe the upper classes. Horace Walpole when in Paris did his best to make this plain, but he failed. Say what he might, Clarissa lay on the toilet tables of the French Princesses, and everybody was raving about her. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was also very angry. 'Richardson,' says she, writing to the Countess of Bute, 'has no idea of the manners of high life. Such liberties as pass between Mr. Lovelace and his cousins are not to be excused by the relation. I should have been much astonished if Lord Denbigh should have offered to kiss me; and, I dare swear Lord Trentham never attempted such impertinence to you.' To the English reader these criticisms of Lady Mary's have immense value; but the French sentimentalist, with his continental insolence, did not care a sou what impertinences Lord Denbigh and Lord Trentham might or might not have attempted towards their female cousins. He simply read his Clarissa and lifted up his voice and wept: and so, to do her justice, did Lady Mary herself. 'This Richardson,' she writes, 'is a strange fellow. I heartily despise him and eagerly read him, nay, sob over his works in a most scandalous manner.'

The effect produced upon Rousseau by Richardson is historical. Without Clarissa there would have been no Nouvelle Heloïse, and had there been no Nouvelle Heloïse everyone of us would have been somewhat different from what we are.

The elaborate eulogy of Diderot is well-known, and though extravagant in parts is full of true criticism. One sentence only I will quote: 'I have observed,' he says, 'that in a company where the works of Richardson were reading either privately or aloud the conversation at once became more interesting and animating.' This, surely, is a legitimate test to which to submit a novel. You sometimes hear people say of a book, 'Oh, it is not worth talking about! I was only reading it.'

The great Napoleon was a true Richardsonian. Only once did he ever seem to take any interest in an Englishman. It was whilst he was first consul and when he was introduced to an officer called Lovelace, 'Why,' he exclaimed with emotion, 'that is the name of the man in Clarissa!' When our own great critic, Hazlitt, heard of this incident he fell in love with Napoleon on the spot, and subsequently wrote his life in numerous volumes.

In Germany Clarissa had a great sale, and those of you who are acquainted with German sentiment, will have no difficulty in tracing a good deal of it to its original fountain in Fleet Street.

As a man, Richardson had perhaps only two faults. He was very nervous on the subject of his health and he was very vain. His first fault gave a great deal of trouble to his wives and families, his second afforded nobody anything but pleasure. The vanity of a distinguished man, if at the same time he happens to be a good man, is a quality so agreeable in its manifestations that to look for it and not to find it would be to miss a pleasure. When the French poet Boileau was invited to Versailles by Louis Quatorze, he was much annoyed by the vanity of that monarch. 'Whenever,' said he, 'the conversation left the king's doings'--and, let us guess, just approached the poet's verses--'his majesty always had a yawning-fit, or suggested a walk on the terrace.' The fact is, it is not vanity, but contending vanities, that give pain.

As for those of you who cannot read Richardson's nineteen volumes, it can only be said you are a large and intelligent class of persons. You number amongst you poets like Byron--for I presume Byron is still among the poets--and philosophers like d'Alembert, who, when asked whether Richardson was not right in imitating Nature, replied, 'Yes, but not to the point of ennui.' We must not bear you malice or blacken your private characters. On the other hand, you must not sneer at us or call us milksops. There is nothing to be proud of, I can assure you, in not being able to read Clarissa Harlowe, or to appreciate the genius which created Lovelace.

A French critic, M. Scherer, has had the audacity to doubt whether Tristram Shandy is much read in England, and it is commonly asserted in France that Clarissa is too good for us. Tristram may be left to his sworn admirers who could at any moment take the field with all the pomp and circumstance of war, but with Clarissa it is different. Her bodyguard is small and often in need of recruits. This indeed is my apology for the trouble I have put you to.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Samuel Richardson

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