Born in 1689 in Mackworth, Derbyshire, Samuel Richardson was the son of a carpenter and had little formal education. Although his parents hoped he would enter the priesthood, financial troubles forced him to find paid work in the printing business. Richardson joined the trade as an apprentice in 1706, and set up his own printing shop thirteen years later. He printed several periodicals, most of which were political in nature, such as the Tory publication the True Britain, newspapers the Daily Gazeteer and the Daily Journals, as well as the House of Commons’ Journals. Around this time, coffeehouses were becoming popular, and they served as places where men of different professions gathered to read, talk, and argue. Some historians have located the rise of a democratic public sphere in these coffeehouses and in the periodicals that were read in them.

Richardson married in 1721 and, after the deaths of five children, lost his wife ten years later. In 1733, he remarried and had four surviving children with his second wife. That same year, he published The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum, a guide to moral behavior for men who worked as apprentices. Major issues addressed in Richardson’s first writing venture would infuse the rest of his work as an author—namely, the importance of morality in an increasingly debauched society and the new complications of a rising middle class.

Richardson’s first novel was written almost by accident. As a printer, Richardson was asked to construct a set of “familiar letters,” models to help country people write to their families. Some of these letters were supposedly from a servant girl to her parents, asking what she should do when faced with her master’s sexual advances. Richardson’s friends enjoyed this plot and asked for more of it, and he published Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded in 1740. According to Richardson, Pamela was a new form of fiction writing altogether, an exercise in instruction through entertainment. The novel was an instant sensation. Its moral precepts formed the themes of church sermons as well as newspaper debates, while its plot and characters inspired musical adaptations, continuations, operas, and even waxworks. Pamela also received its share of criticism and parodies, most notably Fielding’s Shamela and Haywood’s Anti-Pamela.

Following this success, Richardson undertook a more ambitious project when he began Clarissa. While almost all of the letters in Pamela are written by Pamela, there are four principal writers in Clarissa, resulting in a more complex plot as well as a much longer novel. Richardson also set out to raise the social level of his story. Instead of the voice of a spunky servant girl, he adopts the language of the upper classes and sprinkles the novel with members of the peerage. He takes his goal of moralizing through entertainment further than he had in Pamela, writing a story that is less of a conduct book and more of a Christian parable.

Richardson’s works, along with those of Defoe and Fielding, are widely considered to have helped legitimize novels as serious literature. The rise of the mercantile class of the eighteenth century contributed to increased reading among women and servants, who tended to favor novels more than men did. Novels had a bad reputation at the beginning of the century; they were considered feminine ephemera, silly if not dangerous. Countering this, Richardson’s novels claimed that they entertained in order to instruct and were realistic and decent rather than scandalous fantasies.

Released in serialized form, Clarissa’s first two volumes were published in 1747, and all seven were in print by the end of 1748. The novel won much admiration, but Richardson was disappointed with some aspects of its reception. Before the last volumes were published readers besieged him with letters begging for a happy ending, and after Richardson stuck to his tragic plan, at least one woman, Lady Bradshaigh, wrote a replacement ending. To Richardson, the demand that the story end with a wedding signified that his readers were blind to the novel’s moral structure, and he almost immediately began revising in an effort to control this response. Some readers thought Clarissa was too prudish; others, that she was a tease. Worst of all, readers adored Lovelace, the villainous rake.

The third edition of Clarissa, published in 1751, is two hundred pages longer than the first, including editorial footnotes that interpret the characters’ actions and motivations. Lovelace’s character is also much nastier in the third edition, while Clarissa’s is even purer. Richardson also added a table of contents that summarizes each letter and compiled a “Collection of Moral Sentiments” to add to the final volume. Organized by category, this lengthy index includes extracts and paraphrases of moralistic sayings on topics like “repentance” and “adversity.” Samuel Johnson included many quotations from Clarissa in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, but all of these come from the “Collection” rather than the text. Johnson called Clarissa “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart,” but he also noted that “if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.” For Johnson and many other contemporary readers, the value of Clarissa lay much less in its plot and characters than in the moral sentiments it encoded.

Along with revising Clarissa, Richardson rounded out his novelist’s career by publishing a book with a male protagonist, Sir Charles Grandison, in 1753–1754. This book was admired by such readers as Jane Austen, but it has proved much less influential over time than either Pamela or Clarissa. Richardson died in 1761 in London, leaving a bold mark on the British novel and on European culture as well. In the year of Richardson’s death, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, explicitly modeled on Clarissa, and Diderot an Eloge de Richardson. In Germany, Goethe and Lessing claimed Richardson as an influence, while in America John Adams declared in 1804 that “democracy is Lovelace and the people is Clarissa.” To this date, Clarissa is believed to be the longest novel written in the English language (internationally, it comes in below Proust’s In Search of Lost Time but well above Tolstoy’s War and Peace).