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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
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
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).
Ace your assignments with our guide to Clarissa!