IN 1689, a son, christened Samuel, was born to a joiner who practised his trade in London. It is not likely that the father saw in his promising boy the future reformer of English fiction or suspected that he was to make the novel respectable, but the dreams of the industrious joiner were not as inappropriate as the dreams of a parent usually are, for he soon began to observe in his hopeful son traits which suggested a career in the church. In the first place the young Samuel was known to his schoolfellows by the cumbersome nickname of ‘Serious and Gravity.’ In the second place he had already, when not yet eleven years old, written to a widow of fifty a hortatory letter full of quotations from Scripture and directed against her alleged hypocrisy.
Nor were these facts the only ones which seemed to foreshadow success in the ministry, for the youth also exhibited at an early age that capacity for lending a sympathetic ear to female confidences which was later to stand him in good stead in a secular profession, but which has been the making of many a popular clergyman. Though a bashful boy, he was not, he says, more than thirteen years old when he used to frequent the sewing circles of the neighborhood and when three young ladies who had ‘a high opinion of my taciturnity’ came independently to him for aid in composing answers to their lovers’ letters. He served them gladly and so much to their satisfaction that he had evidently already developed a capacity (later conspicuously exhibited) for writing feigned letters which seem authentically female by virtue of a certain modest ardor.
But in spite of these talents so early exhibited, financial difficulties made it necessary for the father to give up the plans he had already formed and to bind out the budding moralist to a printer. To the print shop he accordingly went, and, with a characteristic determination to ‘do the duty nearest him,’ he became, if we may believe his own improving account, the very model of the industrious apprentice. Though he had had only the most elementary of formal educations, his scrupulosity forbade him to use either the time or the candles of his master for any efforts at self-improvement, and thus the ideas which he imbibed in the establishment where he worked were uncorrupted by any thoughts or feelings unsuitable to the place. In due time he appears, as was eminently proper, to have married his master’s daughter, and by easy stages he rose to be owner of his own publishing business. After bearing him six children, none of which survived beyond the age of four years, this wife died, but the loss was promptly made good by a marriage in the following year to the sister of a bookseller.
Richardson was leading what is called ‘a useful life,’ and it must be hastily confessed that he was not in any ordinary sense literary. He cared little for reading, and at the age of fifty he had written nothing for publication except a few prefaces and dedications composed as so many articles of trade. What he had done as financial competence and a certain amount of leisure were achieved was simply to move into a comfortable house just outside of London proper and there to exhibit with considerable satisfaction the virtues of his class.
Despite his eminent success in the city, he believed that he ‘knew his place.’ As innumerable passages in his writings show, he looked upon those whom it had pleased God to make his betters with a suitable respect, and he knew how to value, not only a lord, but a lord’s second cousin as well. Yet he was far from displeased with himself, because he did not see how anybody could deny the exemplary character of his career. He had never, he said, been in a ‘bad house’ in all his life, nor ever, so far as he was aware, even in the company of a loose woman. He was honest, industrious, kindly, Christian, and prosperous. That members of his circle respected him was a matter for satisfaction, but hardly for surprise. He was obviously worthy of respect, and, since he had never set any example except a good one, he saw no reason for trying to seem unaware of the fact that his company and his conversation were of a highly improving sort.
Up to 1739 he had revealed no tendencies or talents not easily predictable by anyone familiar with his boyhood character. He still wrote letters with a fluency and a delight positively abnormal, but beside these harmless epistolary indulgences he was remarkable for nothing except his delight in mild conversations ranging over the narrow field which lies between moral discourse on the one hand and gossip on the other.
Thus at the age of fifty Richardson was the good man appropriately rewarded. He was also, to all appearances at least, both happy and content, and it is not likely that his beneficent influence would ever have extended beyond a narrow circle had it not been for the fact that a publishing firm happened to ask him to compile a sort of ‘Complete Letter-Writer’ for the benefit of semi-literate persons.
Now the Devil himself could not have conceived a trap more appropriately baited, since the proposal was one which invited Mr. Richardson to do the two things which pleased him above all others — namely, to write letters and to give good advice to inferiors. Accordingly, after making the characteristic proposal that the scope of the book be enlarged so that it might instruct the humble readers ‘how they should think and act in common cases as well as indite,’ he threw himself into the task with enthusiasm and produced a collection of one hundred and seventy-three letters, advertised as the work of a man who had given particular attention to the problems of courtship and marriage, and published with the following title: ‘Letters written to and for Particular Friends, on the most Important Occasions. Directing not only the requisite style and forms to be observed in writing Familiar Letters; but how to think and act justly and prudently, in the common concerns of human life.’
The subjects of the letters are various and their moral tone as high as is consistent with their compiler’s inveterate inability to dissociate righteousness from prudence. Most of the correspondents, whatever their sex or position, have the editor’s penchant for the hortatory, and the feigned recipients are accordingly advised upon all sorts of subjects — the impropriety of following immodest fashions in clothing, the dangers to which a too ardent courtship exposes the young girl, and the inevitable vexations of all processes at law. There are, besides, letters of condolence which ‘with small variations may be used to a husband on the death of his wife, and on other melancholy occasions of the like nature’; letters from ‘a young lady in town to her aunt in the country’; and letters written back and forth between humble but modest lovers. All the correspondents are assumed to be very much alike in their fondness for commonplaces of all sorts, and hence all are likely at any moment either to launch into a sermon or to indulge themselves in the pleasure of making long observations not particularly original in character. Yet the book is almost fiction and is marked everywhere by a copious though undistinguished imagination.
Richardson did not profess to take much pride in the compilation. It was intended, so he said on a later occasion, ‘for the lower class of people,’ and he advised a friend that it was not worth his perusal. But it gave him an idea. In composing it he had discovered a perhaps unsuspected capacity to imagine incidents and a certain talent for writing in character. These were the gifts of the writer of romance, and, though Richardson had a very low opinion of novels in general, it occurred to him that he might turn the foolish and reprehensible taste of the generality of mankind to good account by preaching to them under the guise of fiction. One or two of the letters already written had been concerned with the conduct of a servant girl improperly importuned by her master, and when Richardson wrote them he began to remember an incident of the same kind which had been related to him many years ago and which had remained in his mind because of the instructive conclusion to which the events had led.
‘ I thought the story, if written in an easy and natural manner, suitable to the simplicity of it, might possibly introduce a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and the parade of romance writing, and, dismissing the improbable and marvelous with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue.’ The case of the serving maid Pamela seemed to him so remarkably edifying that he began to write it in the form which the Familiar Letters suggested.
Certain difficulties were involved, since the unfortunate girl had to be endowed with an almost superhuman capacity for epistolary composition if she was to be supposed, as is actually the case, to recount all her adventures as they occurred, and Richardson was sometimes put to such straits to explain how she obtained time and paper for her letters at certain crucial moments that Pamela is made to guard her pen and ink almost as carefully as she does her virtue, and to plan means for dispatching her letters with more ingenuity than she used in her efforts to escape the violent attentions of her master. But Richardson had never written anything but letters, and throughout his whole career as a novelist he was accordingly compelled to make each of his characters a victim of his own epistolomania.
In this species of composition his fluency was, however, amazing. He began Pamela on the tenth of November, 1739, and finished the second volume (692 printed pages in all) exactly two months later. But from the beginning he had what he could never do without — female approval. ‘While I was writing the two volumes my worthy hearted wife and the young lady who is with us, when I had read them some part of the story, which I had begun without their knowing it, used to come into my little closet every night with: Have you any more of Pamela, Mr. Richardson? We are come to hear a little more of Pamela, etc.5
Thus encouraged, he proceeded with enthusiasm, and the book was published anonymously in November 1740, under the following characteristically explicit title: ‘Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded. In a series of Familiar Letters from a beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents. Now first published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of both Sexes. A Narrative which has its Foundation in Truth and Nature; and at the same time that it agreeably entertains, by a Variety of curious and affecting incidents, is entirely divested of all those Images, which, in too many Pieces calculated for Amusement only, tend to inflame the Minds they should instruct.’
Pamela was not intended for ‘the lower class of people’ exclusively, but it was aimed straight at the great bourgeois public which cared more for respectability than for art, and its success was never for a moment in doubt. Only the existence of a great hunger never before fed can explain the amazed delight with which it was received, and almost from the day of its publication to the day of its author’s death Mr. Richardson, that great and good man, was immersed (though never overwhelmed) in a flood of flattery more deep and soothing than any ever enjoyed before or since by fortunate penman.
Perhaps Rousseau and Voltaire made more noise in the world. Perhaps their renown was greater. But by the generality of mankind they were suspect. One admired their genius while one depreciated their tendency, and even as one applauded one entered caveats unnecessary in the case of the great champion of indubitably virtuous ideas. Here at last was a literary genius as understandable and as sound as he was brilliant — someone who could be taken to the bosom without reserve. He drew tears, not for Hecuba, but for his own readers, and that was much; but it was not all. In principles he agreed with the great public against the wits. He was as right-minded as he was great. And here, for once, was a man who had not been compelled to make the choice generally considered inevitable: he was both clever and good.
Hence the trickle of praise which had begun with the ‘worthy hearted wife’ gradually swelled into a torrent of admiration as persons farther and farther removed from the domestic circle of the author added their tributes. Shortly after publication Richardson sent a copy to Aaron Hill, — a minor littérateur who deserves to be remembered less for any of his writing than for the fact that he named his three daughters Urania, Astrea, and Minerva, — and to Hill’s credit it must be said that he struck the right tone at once. On December 17, 1740, he begins coyly (while still pretending to have no suspicion as to the identity of the author) with an expression of pleased amazement. Who, he asks, would have dreamed to find under the ‘modest disguise of a novel all the soul of religion, good breeding, discretion, goodnature, wit, fancy, fine thoughts and morality?’ But who, pray, is the author, and ‘how has he been able to hide, hitherto, such an encircling and all-mastering spirit? ... If it is not a secret, oblige me so far as to tell me the author’s name,’ for the book will live and ‘twenty ages to come may be the better and wiser for its influence.’
It is true that Hill expected and received from Richardson some slight return in the form of very moderate praise of his own work. It is also true that Hill was financially obligated to the author of Pamela. But his laudations were hardly less hyperbolical than those of persons who owed the fortunate author nothing whatever. Mr. Pope, to be sure, contented himself with saying rather ambiguously that the book ‘would do more good than many volumes of sermons,’ and indeed it was not as yet from the literary that the author received the highest praise. But ladies of fashion were said to carry the volumes about with them just to show that they too were reading what everybody talked about, and at least one preacher promptly recommended the book from the pulpit.
The further down one went in the intellectual scale the more touching were the evidences of the book’s power to stir hearts and moisten eyes. Without doubt the ‘new species of writing’ had caught on, but the most remarkable feature of its vogue was the fact that the emotions which it aroused were not apparently æsthetic in character, but somehow warmer and more intimate. Richardson was at once overwhelmed with personal letters. Was the story true or false? Who was the original of the incomparable Pamela? Everybody was delighted, but everybody was also disposed to weep tears which seemed to be, in part at least, tears of relief. Something long awaited had been let loose upon the world. A new pattern of feeling had been created.
If the book which thus became not so much a literary event as the occasion of a crisis in the history of human sensibility had subsequently got itself lost, we might well have been excused if we had lamented our loss as one of the saddest in literary annals. But the marvelous romance — which many good judges believed unequaled by anything in its kind until the appearance of Mr. Richardson’s second work — was not lost; it remains, on the contrary, to be read by any reader curious enough to peruse the pages marked by a certain fatuity effectively concealing whatever merits they may possess.
Pamela is a lady’s maid left by the death of her mistress at the mercy of the latter’s rakish son, Mr. B. Mr. B loses no time in proposing to set her up as a sort of maîtresse en litre, and when she retreats under a barrage of virtuous sentiments the young man is so impressed that he redoubles his efforts to obtain a prize made triply valuable by a resistance founded upon such honorable sentiments. An attempted rape is somewhat mysteriously frustrated by the indignation of the intended victim, and the villain (drawn in lurid colors) plans a stratagem. Promising Pamela that she shall be conducted in safety to her poor but virtuous parents, he has her carried instead to a farmhouse managed for him by a sinister female, and, soon putting in his appearance, he resumes his threatening importunity.
Poor Pamela is now in the most desperate straits. Her citadel is assaulted alternately by cajolery, by abuse, and by another attempt at violence nearly successful. Moreover her writing materials are almost exhausted when Mrs. Jewkes (the traitor’s housekeeper) gives her ‘a bottle of ink, eight sheets of paper and six pens, with a piece of sealing wax.’ ‘This,’ says Pamela, ‘looks mighty well,’ and she can now continue to scribble at a desperate rate an epistolary account of her trials and a full exposition of her sentiments. Beset though she is, she will never, she assures her parents, forget either the humbleness of her position or that virtue which is her only glory. With great complacency she describes the admiration which her conduct has aroused among the better sort of people, and she recounts at length the frenzy to which her exemplary inflexibility has driven Mr. B. How great are her trials, but how great is her glory!
Mr. B continues alternately to flatter, to threaten, and to rail. He calls her by every abusive name he can think of. He loads her with obloquies. But this madness is merely the sign of a defeat not quite acknowledged, for suddenly, almost in the midst of his most venomous insult, he surrenders to an impregnable propriety. Will Pamela, who can be neither seduced nor violated, consent to marry him?
The reader is surprised, but Pamela is not. She is immediately mistress of the sentiments which she believes appropriate to the circumstances. She remembers her place and the gulf between her and her master which nothing can really bridge. She is overwhelmed and she is grateful. Can Mr. B, rich and elegant as he is, stoop to her? It seems that he can, and the remaining third of the book, devoted to Pamela’s triumph, includes a full account of both her sentiments and her wedding dress. ‘Mr. Colbrand being returned, my master came up to my closet, and brought me the license. O how my heart fluttered at the sight of it. . . . I made bold to kiss his hand; and, though unable to look up, said, “I know not what to say, Sir, to all your goodness; I would not, for any consideration, that you should believe me capable of receiving negligently an honor, that all the duty of a long life, were it to be lent me, would not suffice me to be grateful for.”’
Such a synopsis — and indeed any possible synopsis — can reveal only the absurdity of the story. Nor is the novel itself — redeemed though it is by Richardson’s remarkable talent for creating a convincing character — likely to produce upon the reader any impression except one of amazed incredulity at the humorless obtuseness of its feeling. Mr. B is so devoid of any reality as to make it impossible to discuss his motives or his character; and if Pamela is real enough, her complacent vulgarity is so completely beyond all description that even promiscuity would seem, beside her calm determination to resist all importunities until the monster consents to buy her off, at least commendably generous.
Moreover, it is possible to account for every detail of her behavior without any reference whatsoever to any principle belonging in the realm of morals. Like all maidens, she had a jewel, and the precious possession was one to be safeguarded with all the watchfulness of a traveler who passes through some bandit-infested waste. The thing — though to all appearances no more than a pretty trifle — has a value, thanks to which it can be bartered or sold; and therefore it must not be lost. He who allows it to be taken from him is criminally careless; he who gives it away is a fool. But in the end it must be sold. Thus, in the spirit of a dealer in precious stones, Pamela goes about her business. It is not the man but his terms she objects to, and when he meets hers she accepts them. She and her parents rail against the wickedness of those who cannot hold out as she has done, but by wickedness they mean folly. Skill in trade is a citizen’s virtue. Pamela held out for a good price, and in the end she got it. Thus is virtue rewarded.
This word ‘virtue’ slipped as easily from Richardson’s pen as it did from the tongue of Pamela, but there is no evidence that it had for him any awful or mysterious meaning. Usually it is merely a synonym for a technical continence mechanically maintained, and it never implied anything not definable in common-sense terms. Honesty, industry, amiability, and even generosity find a place in his creatures as they found a place in his own character, but these qualities are always useful to those who possess them, and no man was ever less capable than he of understanding anything which approached the quixotic. Perhaps he would have refused to equate virtue and prudence, — to admit that honesty and benevolence and continence are virtuous because they bring ease and security and competence, — but the fact that they do so is the outward sign of their character and the way in which God reveals his love for those who practise them.
Unable to distinguish between an inward state of soul and t he conduct to which such a state was conventionally supposed to give rise, he used ‘virtue’ (that is, continence) as a mere synonym for chastity, and he was as incapable of imagining that a continent woman might be unchaste as he was of conceiving the possibility that chastity might be the attribute of a woman neither virginal nor married. Since Pamela resisted the seduction of her master she was inevitably both ‘pure’ and ‘innocent,’ just as a man who gave alms was inevitably ‘benevolent.’ Thus goodness became mechanically determinable and the idea of righteousness shrank into the idea of respectability.
The character of Pamela is one so devoid of any delicacy of feeling as to be inevitably indecent. She seems to have no sense of either her own or any possible human dignity, and she is admirable only if a dogged determination to resist violation is considered to be, by itself, enough to make her admired.
Yet none of the objections which are so patent to any critical reader of Richardson appeared as defects to his enthusiastic admirers, since his moral feeling was distinguished from that of his middle-class fellows only because it was more perfectly typical than that of most. It was the bourgeois respectability of his century purified of all individual eccentricity, uncorrupted by any trace of either mystical enthusiasm or skeptical worldly wisdom. He thought what others thought in their most commonplace moments; he was not Bobus, but Bobissimus; and his readers relaxed with comfortable security in an atmosphere so much like that of their daily lives.
Among writers of robuster intellect, eighteenth-century materialism took other forms. An ironic skepticism developed in minds which had divested themselves of all concern with the transcendental and made them disturbingly critical. But the literal, unimaginative mind of Richardson stripped every idea of the aura which surrounded it and then rested complacently content with the bare formulæ of a dry convention.
A little later on he could dare attempt to draw a picture of the perfect gentleman, because gentlemanliness — like purity and virtue — was not to him an illusive quality, not something evanescent and indefinable which emerges as the result of a delicate balance or a spontaneous harmony in the soul, but a simple, mechanical obedience to easily establishable canons of rectitude and decorum. Right thinking (aided a little by the precepts of a revealed but simple religion) could, he believed, determine what a man ought to do — just how generous, how forgiving, how prudent, and, of course, how condescending to his inferiors he ought to be. Hence to create a model gentleman it was necessary only to invent an automaton perfectly obedient to all the rules. For him the flavor, the perfume, and that nameless grace which makes an individual charming, counted for nothing, and he would have been almost as much puzzled by the suggestion that his creation lacked the personality necessary to make him appealing as he would have been shocked by the suggestion that a trace of some human failing may contribute, when nicely placed, to the charm of a character.
And yet Pamela, considered purely as a novel, did have one great intrinsic excellence. The central character is delineated with a dramatic realism quite independent of the moral judgment which either the creator or the reader pass upon her. She is a creature solid enough to be completely dissociated from the personality of the man who described her and to be subjected to analysis again and again as standards change, for Pamela herself is a masterly objectification of unconscious vulgarity, to the completeness of which her vision of Mr. B contributes. Richardson seems to have achieved an imaginative identification with her which is admirably complete, and he knew so exactly how such a person would talk, act, and feel that he drew of her a portrait seldom equaled so far as sheer realism is concerned. Yet it is hardly to be supposed that either the enthusiastic encomiums which were heaped upon it or the international influence which it exerted is to be accounted for by the solitary and purely technical excellence which we have granted it.
Great popularity is seldom if ever the reward of mere fidelity to fact. To win it the writer, passing beyond mere imitation, must achieve some sort of pattern in which fact is balanced against fact, emotion against emotion, and end result against end result, in such a way as to constitute an interpretation of life and its laws satisfactory to his readers. This interpretation may be profound or shallow, and it may be essentially noble or essentially vulgar; but it is the pattern (often felt rather than intellectually comprehended) which takes hold of the imagination of readers and the pattern which is taken over by subsequent writers belonging to the same school.
Now Richardson did achieve such a pattern. It was, moreover, one which had been imperfectly sketched out again and again, particularly by the second-rate playwrights, during the half century preceding the publication of Pamela, and he had, therefore, over and above both the merit of his skill in portraiture of a certain kind and the accidental advantage of his conventional respectability, a great charm for his contemporaries — the charm, that is to say, of a new pattern which had long been struggling into existence without ever having been so nearly achieved before.
But since Richardson, in the most impressive of his novels, was later to achieve a more complete mastery of this emotional pattern, we shall postpone until we have come to that work any attempt to analyze or evaluate it, pausing now only to remark two things: first, that the vague word ‘sentimental’ is the one most generally used to describe the mood which the pattern evokes; and second, that it was destined both to dominate fiction for a long time and to survive very conspicuously into the literature of to-day.
After Pamela had been published and praised, Richardson, like the sober man that he was, made some attempt to return to the humble occupations which had formerly been his. The pen which had depicted the apotheosis of the serving maid consented to employ itself in editing a new edition of Defoe’s Tour through Great Britain, and the brain which had conceived so generally acceptable a reward for virtue busied itself with making analytical summaries for a volume of the diplomatic correspondence of Sir Thomas Roe. But destiny, aided by an inordinate love of praise and an imagination doubly restless because it had been so severely curbed, again drew him irresistibly toward independent authorship.
He was now living, not far from London, in a comfortable house to which his admirers resorted to pay tribute to his genius and to contemplate with an almost religious awe the domestic life of a man whose example was universally admitted to be no less valuable than the precepts which he gave under the guise of agreeable fictions. Here he could make ‘ten beds’ for such fortunate intimates as were permitted to spend the night under his roof, and here in the garden was a summerhouse to which these intimates might repair to hear the latest pages of manuscript read aloud by the author himself.
The time was to come when Richardson, even though at the height of his fame, could fish shamelessly for compliments, and he was ultimately to die, as Dr. Johnson bitterly remarked, ‘for want of change among his flatterers’ — to perish ‘for want of more, like a man obliged to breathe the same air until it is exhausted.’ But now, at the period of his greatest creative activity, he was living not only in a state of perfect domestic bliss, but under conditions which assured him a plentiful supply of the life-giving element.
It is true that his wife was generally supposed to be of a rather unusually self-effacing disposition, and true also that one of his intimates even brought herself to observe that the daughters behaved in a manner which suggested that they might be less at ease than would have been anticipated with so perfect a father. But Richardson hastened to assure them that even this was also well. ‘A mixture of fear with love’ was, he said, necessary to make an obliging wife, and as for the ‘stiffness ’ of the daughters he could only reply that ‘too much reverence is not the vice of the age.’
Nor did any of these friends fail to accept as more than adequate such explanations. ‘Most of the ladies that resided much at his home acquired,’ it was remarked, ‘a certain degree of fastidiousness and delicate refinement which, though amiable in itself, rather disqualified them from appearing in general society.’ And if this was the result of a formal association, it was not surprising that the wife who shared his bed and the daughters who had had, from earliest infancy, the benefit of his corrections exhibited to an even greater degree this amiable inability to feel at home among more frivolous companions. But surely the constant presence of the author of Pamela was more than enough to compensate for the absence of less improving associates. Give ‘my love to Mrs. Richardson and to all who have the happiness to be under your roof,’ wrote Miss Fielding, sister of the author of Tom Jones. ‘Methinks, in such a house, each word that is uttered must sink into the hearer’s mind, as the kindly falling showers in April sink into the teeming earth, and enlarge and ripen every idea, as the friendly drops do the new-sown grass, or the water-wanting plant.’
Mr. Richardson now began, however, to extend somewhat the range of his acquaintance, and sometimes consented to absent himself from domestic bliss for the sake of a short exploratory tour into that world of fashion of which he felt himself more ignorant than was wise for one who hoped ultimately to instruct it with tales of virtue in a higher place than that from which Pamela had been so deservedly lifted. Into his circle he admitted the rakish laureate, Colley Cibber, because of Cibber it could at least be said that he professed an admiration for the virtues which he admitted his inability to practise. More surprisingly still, the laureate was allowed to remain even after he had scandalized his friend by finding the latteradmiration for male virginity irresistibly risible. And upon at least one occasion Richardson paid a visit to Tunbridge Wells, where he strolled with a timorous delight in the midst of a gay company and did not remember (until near the end of the letter in which the visit was described) his duty to remark that ‘modesty, humility, graciousness, are now all banished from the behavior of these publicplace frequenters of the sex.’ ‘ Women,’ he concluded, ‘are not what they were,’ and he seems to have been so struck with the observation that he made it the subject of a paper which he contributed, some three years later, to Dr. Johnson’s Rambler.
It has been shrewdly suspected that Cibber supplied some of the traits for the portrait of the fashionable rake who was to play a prominent part in the new novel, and so much superior is this portrait to the previous one that the mere critic is impelled to wish that Richardson had abandoned himself more freely than he did to the society of people less ready than the members of his inner circle to agree with everything he said and to adjust their manners as nearly as possible to what he considered the ideal. But his love of a sort of flattery which only inferiors could give, his need to be immersed constantly in an atmosphere which could only be generated by the soft, almost sensual adoration of ardently inexperienced females, drew him always back to t he charmed and isolated group of his intimate worshipers.
From the outside world he could get recognition as a writer, and the approval of t he rich and fashionable must have been sweet to one who never ceased to be acutely aware of all class distinction. Yet what he enjoyed most and needed most was not recognition of the sort appropriate to a man of letters, but the assurance that his excellence was primarily the result, not of merely literary talents, but of the perfection of that character which he had no doubt begun to console himself by cultivating while still playing the role of industrious apprentice. Avid for flattery of any sort, he liked best the compliments which implied that the conspicuous virtue of his heroine was drawn from some inexhaustible reservoir of goodness within his own heart, and the inhabitants of his private little world were experts in this sort of thing.
Nor is it, under the circumstances, very surprising that he sometimes turned from precept to practice when his benevolence was repaid as amply as it was, for example, in the case of one Letitia Pilkington, a literary adventuress, who came to no good end, but who could repay a charity with a poem, which included, among other similar tributes, the following couplet:
Their own divine perfections live in thee.
(‘Samuel Richardson and His Clarissa’ follows in August)
- The most important single source for the facts of Richardson’s life is the six volumes of Correspondence edited with a biographical account by Mrs. Barbauld in 1804. I am also indebted to the two best modern biographical studies — those by Austin Dobson and Clara Linklater Thomson. — AUTHOR↩