Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson
Samuel Richardson by Mason Chamberlin © National Portrait Gallery, London

Biography

Samuel Richardson is remembered today as one of the most important innovators of the novel form – and yet he did not publish his first novel until he was 51.

Early life and career as a printer

Born into a large family, Richardson was baptised on 19 August 1689 in Derbyshire, England. The country, at this time, was in the midst of the Glorious Revolution. His father worked as a joiner and apprenticed Richardson at age 17 to the printer John Wilde, whose business specialised in almanacs, jest-books and popular fiction. As a child, Richardson was an avid reader and, more unusually, an accomplished letter writer. To the dismay of his mother, Richardson became the able ghostwriter for young lovers in his town, experience that proved valuable when he later crafted a letter-writing manual and his renowned epistolary novels.

After a seven-year apprenticeship, Richardson set up his own print shop near Salisbury Court in London, quickly taking on his own apprentices. In the 1720s he printed The True Briton for the Jacobite Duke of Wharton, who was said to influence one of Richardson’s most famous characters, the libertine Lovelace in Clarissa. In the 1730s Richardson won the contract to print the Journals of the House for the House of Commons.

Nearly a decade after leaving his apprenticeship, Richardson married Martha Wilde, the daughter of his former employer. Their six children did not survive infancy, and Martha died in 1731. In 1733 he married Elizabeth Leake, another printer’s daughter. Four of their daughters reached adulthood.

Richardson built a successful printing shop, going on to print the works of several important novelists, including Daniel Defoe, Jane Collier, Sarah Fielding and Edward Young. Alongside this book work, he printed newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets, among other material. Throughout his career Richardson would continue to associate with writers, politicians and important figures of the day, and he ran his printing business until his death.

Writing fiction: Pamela, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison

Only once he was an established printer did Richardson turn his attention to literary innovation. His first began work on a collection of conduct letters, offering stylistic tips on how to give form to ideas and sentiments (Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the most Important Occasion, 1741). This stylistic volume is considered the seed of Richardson’s first novel, Pamela (1740), which he started to write at the same time. Pamela follows the travails of a young, virtuous maidservant as she seeks to fend off and then reform her rakish employer. Astonishingly for the time, Richardson’s epistolary novel highlighted the inner life and moral principles of a protagonist from a modest background.

In his monumental second novel, Clarissa, which was published in several volumes from 1747–48, Richardson honed his stylistic focus on the complex inner life of his characters, especially the virtuous Clarissa Harlow and the unreformed libertine, Robert Lovelace. The drawn-out serialisation of Clarissa allowed Richardson’s readers to imagine themselves as engaged in the writing process, penning fan letters to him that begged the author to write a happy ending for the tormented protagonist.

In response to demands that Richardson envision a male character as virtuous as Clarissa or Pamela, Richardson wrote The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) in which male moral virtue was lauded. Richardson’s final works were, like his first ones, didactic volumes of moral instruction, but with a twist. His last publication, A Collection of the Moral and Instruction Sentiments, Maxims, Cautions, and Reflexions, contained in the Histories of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison, highlighted how Richardson understood his novels to provide useful moral models for everyday life.

In June 1761 Richardson experienced a stroke. He died on 4 July, at the age of 71.

Influence

Richardson had enormous influence on the development of the novel. His epistolary works transposed the details of ordinary life into high dramas of moral decision-making. In Richardson’s novels, his characters reveal the minutiae of their thoughts, their emotional responses to social conflict and their efforts to understand themselves. This innovative approach to literary form, which Richardson called ‘writing to the moment’, would spur later novelists to attempt to bring fictional narrative even closer to everyday life.


Further information about the life of Samuel Richardson can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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