Samuel Richardson and His Clarissa


AT the distance of one and three-quarters centuries it may seem that the company of Richardson’s adorers was more numerous than distinguished, for, though his genius was generally admitted, his intimate circle never came to include a single one of the men and women who made the eighteenth century glorious, and to us it may appear that the absence of Fielding, Hume, Johnson, Sterne, and the rest is not entirely compensated for by the presence of any or all of those second-rate littérateurs and now forgotten bluestockings who clustered about him. But Richardson was fortunate in possessing a temperament which made it unnecessary for him to consider the source of a compliment and which enabled him to judge it entirely by its magnitude. Since he readily assumed that the intelligence and virtue of any man or woman were exactly proportioned to the admiration which that person felt for him, the value of any fragment of adulation was precisely as great as it was extravagant.

Only one person seems to have seriously disturbed his complacency and that person was Henry Fielding, who was generally credited with the authorship of a burlesque which mercilessly exposed the weaknesses of Pamela, and who later returned to the attack by beginning his own first novel as a parody of the same edifying work. Richardson never forgave a slight or an insult, but so perfect was the mechanism which protected his vanity that he could indulge his rancor without any impairment of his Christian spirit, for the simple reason that he never failed to discover in anyone who offended him follies or vices which deserved chastisement on their own account. Hence he never lost an opportunity to denounce both the moral and the literary sins of Fielding’s Tom Jones, because its author had dared to satirize him, and he never, indeed, seemed to suspect how little this nervous depreciation of his greatest rival became one who had been elevated to a height which demanded of him some suggestion of dignity.

Yet it is not, for all this, by any means certain that Richardson did not learn something from Fielding. He was not incapable of realizing from experience that the lewd were given certain unnecessary pretexts for laughter, and he was determined that these pretexts should be wanting when he came to compose a second mirror for virtuous minds. Clarissa — for such was to be the name of his new heroine — should be placed a good deal higher in the social scale than Pamela had been, but this was not all. She should exhibit a delicacy which would have been out of place in a serving maid and she should be inspired by the hope of a reward more appropriate to her station in life.

Richardson, no less than Dr. Johnson, considered that the ‘great scheme of subordination’ constituted the groundwork of God’s plan. He saw no reason, therefore, why anybody should aspire to anything higher than the rank and privileges belonging to the station just above his own. But while Pamela had appropriately set her heart upon rising in this world through the instrumentality of her would-be betrayer, Clarissa — whom Providence had, so to speak, been pleased to start where her humble sister had left off — might legitimately aim at higher things and be rewarded, not with marriage to a gentleman, but with Eternal Bliss.

The last volumes of the new novel were not to appear until 1748 and, since Hill had begun to speak of the work in 1745, it must have been much longer than its predecessor in the writing, but the most remarkable of the circumstances which surround it is the fact that the writing and the printing became public events. Richardson, no longer compelled to remain content with the encouragement of ‘my worthy hearted wife’ and her female companions, could now call upon the members of a numerous circle for admiration, encouragement, and the assurance that nothing in all he had written could possibly be changed for the better. Nor was this all, since between the publication of the first four and the last three volumes he was still further delighted by various correspondents (to whom of course he replied at length) who not only described the ecstasy with which they were reading, but either engaged in long discussions of the morality involved or implored him to arrange an outcome agreeable to the affection which they had conceived for this character or that.

While the ultimate fate of Clarissa still hung in the balance, while it was still impossible to know whether her creator intended to save her for some suitable reward, as he had formerly saved Pamela, or to allow her, as the most inexorable supposed, to die at last, there were many who hardly dared to draw breath, and those who enjoyed the privilege of Mr. Richardson’s acquaintance hung about his study as though it were the death chamber of a queen. Even Cibber, now seventy-seven years old and, as he set off in pursuit of a reigning beauty, still incapable of practising the virtue which he had begun to recommend in his plays more than half a century before, was no less touched by a mere foreboding of catastrophe, as is witnessed by an account fortunately left by Mrs. Pilkington: —

I passed two hours this morning with Mr. Cibber, who I found in such real anxiety for Clarissa, as none but so perfect a master of nature could have excited. . . . When he heard what a dreadful lot was to be hers, he lost all patience, threw down the book, and vowed he would not read another line. To express one part of his passion, would require such masterly hands as yours or his own; he shuddered; nay, the tears stood in his eyes.

’What! (said he) shall I, who have loved and revered the virtuous, the beautiful Clarissa, from the same motives I loved Mr. Richardson, bear to stand a patient spectator to her ruin, her final destruction? No! — my heart suffers as strongly for her as if a word was brought me that his house was on fire, and himself, his wife, and little ones, likely to perish in the flame.’ I never saw passion higher wrought than his. When I told him she must die, he said, ‘God d—n him, if she should’; and that he no longer believed Providence or eternal Wisdom, or Goodness governed the world, if merit, innocence, and beauty were to be so destroyed: nay, (added he) my mind is so hurt with the thought of her being violated, that were I to see her in Heaven, sitting on the knees of the blessed Virgin, and crowned with glory, her sufferings would still make me feel horror, horror distilled.

These, adds Mrs. Pilkington, ‘were his strongly emphatic words,’ and she continues, in order to add her mite of persuasion: —

I cannot bear the thought of the lady’s person being contaminated. If she must die; if her heart must break for being so deceived, let her make a triumphant exit arrayed in white-robed purity. . . . Spare her virgin purity, dear Sir, spare it! Consider, if this wounds both Mr. Cibber and me (who neither of us set up for immaculate chastity) what must it do with those who possess that inestimable treasure? And if the bare imagination of it is so terrible, what must it be when arrayed in the full pomp of such words as on this occasion must flow from such a heart, and such a pen as yours.

It is true that some few, who had, unlike the aged poet laureate, abandoned virtuous sentiments as well as virtuous conduct, professed to feel that a tremendous pother was being made about nothing. It is true also that certain fashionable persons like Horace Walpole and Lord Chesterfield were less unqualified in their praises than simpler souls, and that these judges, offended by the inordinate length of the work, failed to agree with Hill in finding the redundancy of Richardson’s style a virtue. But Clarissa had become, even more conspicuously than Pamela, a public event, and its heroine a personage to be discussed more fully and more ardently than any living person.


Richardson’s spirit had been always undernourished. He had been confined to the print shop during the years when more fortunate youths were undergoing experiences far richer in their emotional content, and the effect of the dull routine had been to increase the preternatural sobriety already remarked in the child. Moreover, since he read little and frequented only the tamest of all possible societies, even the nourishment which he offered himself in the form of vicarious experience was of the most watery sort, and no doubt this emotional starvation accounts for both the eager copiousness of his correspondence and the unwillingness which he exhibited to bring Clarissa to a conclusion. He clung pathetically to whatever contacts he managed to establish and he was in no hurry to conclude the imaginary adventures which were enabling him to live more richly than he had ever lived before. But if his verbosity was that of a man who prolongs any conversation rather than return to the undisguised emptiness of his own existence, this keen though unacknowledged hunger for some sort of emotional life was responsible for the fact that the book took on a vividness and color not only unintended but unwanted.

Richardson still professed to believe that the art of fiction was, in itself, morally unjustifiable. ‘Instruction,’ he said, ‘is the pill; amusement the gilding,’ and he was genuinely concerned lest his characters should become so interesting as human beings that the reader would attend rather to them than to the lesson which he was intent upon preaching. Hence he provided the book with a title designed to call attention to its moral; he sprinkled the text with footnotes explanatory of the same; and he added at the end a disquisition nearly as long as the present essay. But these efforts were in vain. He could not prevent himself from becoming interested in the story he had to tell or from making it glow with a life of its own.

Clarissa is no longer much read, because its inordinate length repels no less than the priggish formalism of its author’s frequently obtruded judgments. But an astonishing power to captivate the occasional person who will surrender himself to it even yet remains in the seldom-turned pages.

Clarissa Harlowe is the model and idolized daughter of a genteel family living in the country. Addresses are paid to her by a dashing rake named Lovelace, but her father, fearful lest she should become involved with him, insists upon her marrying a dull, mean-spirited man of his choice. Clarissa, steadily maintaining her right of refusal but never asserting any right of choice, rejects her father’s candidate, and when the duty of obedience is urged upon her in vain a family persecution develops.

At this point Lovelace reappears to beg a secret interview. Clarissa consents and he urges that, since there seems no other way in which she can escape the hated marriage, she throw herself upon his protection. At last she consents and departs with him for London, where he promises to respect absolutely her freedom. What he actually does do, however, is to place her in lodgings (after informing the landlady that Clarissa is his secret bride) and then begin to put into operation an elaborate plan of seduction. Clarissa perceives it and is thrown into a panic of despair.

Now Lovelace is genuinely and desperately enamored of Clarissa. Despite his rooted contempt for matrimony, he really intends ultimately to marry her. But he is the victim of a peculiar psychology which Richardson sometimes depicts with a surprising acuteness; although, at other times, he allows his villain to become, like Mr. B, a purely mythological monster. Lovelace is determined to exhaust all his wiles before consenting to take his adored victim to the altar, either because (as he sometimes thinks) he wants to be sure that she is genuinely enamored of him rather than of the safety he can assure her, or because (as he at other times explains) he wants to apply the ultimate test to that virtue which must be absolutely impregnable if it is to justify the bowing of his neck to the yoke of wedlock.

Meanwhile Clarissa has come to feel a kind of love for the man whom she also despises and fears; but, though he does actually ask her to marry him, she refuses, partly because she cannot trust his character, and partly because it seems to her delicacy that he does not sue with either the ardor or the humility which a man ought to exhibit before the woman whom he is asking to become, forever after, essentially his subordinate. Thus the two play at cross-purposes until Lovelace, maddened by disappointed and humiliated pride, tries violence, and the rape (so long imminent in Pamela) is actually accomplished.

It was at this point that the excitement of Richardson’s readers reached its height. They thrilled with horror at the violation of the heroine and they begged that she should be made to triumph at last by bringing the villain to see the error of his ways. But Richardson steadfastly resisted their importunities, and he did so for several reasons. In the first place he had come (as several specific utterances show) to doubt the propriety of representing the overnight reformation of a confirmed sinner, and he did not propose to have scoffers again remark with scornful glee that he had rewarded virtue by giving it the hand of a rake. In the second place he insisted that Clarissa had committed a fault when she removed herself from the authority of her parents and he did not wish to show that ultimate happiness could be the result of such an initial misstep.

Moreover there was a still more cogent reason, for in the third place he had, though forever incapable of understanding the spirit of true tragedy, come to realize that the sentimental effect of virtue rewarded is less striking than that of virtue carried from one edifying distress to another. The moral would be purer and the emotion would be greater if Clarissa were compelled to die; and hence die she did, perishing of what one of the characters calls, in a rather unfortunate phrase, ‘an incurable fracture of the heart,’ and leaving behind her a testament which supplies the final evidence of her purity, her sweetness, and the Christian humility of her heart.

Such is the plot of the tale which Richardson requires some eight hundred thousand words to tell and which fills, in a modern edition, nearly two thousand closely printed, double-column pages. Any man, said Dr. Johnson, who tried to read it ‘for the story . . . would hang himself.’ But Dr. Johnson yielded to no one in admiration for the work, and it is by no means primarily ‘for the story’ that it exists.

Every important event is told two or three times over in the epistles written by the different persons involved, who give accounts of it from their own individual points of view. Letters pass back and forth in all directions between the thirty-eight principal characters, and the motives and feelings of each chief actor are not only described by himself but analyzed and commented upon by others. Every conceivable opinion is canvassed, every transitory feeling dissected. What is the real character of the man whom the parents of Clarissa have chosen for her? How far was she justified in resisting their wishes? Should she or should she not have accepted under any conditions the honorable proposals of Lovelace, once he had become her violator? May a respectable girl consort with a man of bad character in the hope of exerting upon him a good influence? To what extent is the heart a dependable guide? How far should a young lady consult her own taste in accepting or rejecting a suitor, and what should she feel upon this occasion or that? Upon these and a hundred other questions the characters all differ. Lovelace speaks for the rake, Clarissa for enlightened propriety, her confidante Ann Howe for the rebellious younger generation, and her father for all old-fashioned parents who are sound upon the subject of daughterly obedience.


Richardson was thus the first to make the novel an exhaustive commentary upon the minutiæ of daily conduct, and Clarissa marks more clearly than any other work the turn as the result of which the interest in a piece of fiction comes to be focused not so much upon events as upon the causes which lead up to and the reverberations which follow them. The older story-tellers hurry on from happening to happening. Richardson is concerned less with adventures than with the discussion of them. He does not let one event take place without examining all the antecedent causes, nor does he ever pass to another until the emotional reaction of every party concerned has been fully examined. And since his mind was as conventional as it was active, the result is something at once vivid and commonplace.

In it readers could recognize themselves to an extent which was impossible in any previous novel. Experiences such as might possibly happen to them were here happening to people like themselves, and they could live with Clarissa on the terms of an intimacy impossible in the case of any other heroine of fiction. No one could possibly behave like Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, but thousands must have asked themselves what Clarissa (or Lovelace!) would have done under these circumstances or those.

Thus their creator at once restricted and enlarged the field of fiction. He eliminated all extraordinary adventures and all passions more exalted than those within the range of the more ordinary sort of person, but he examined the emotions appropriate to bourgeois existence with a minuteness never known before and he did for the middle-class heart what Defoe had done for the externals of daily life — he examined, that is to say, all its little hopes, scruples, and perturbations, with an eye which delighted to note and to respect them. Hence it was thanks more to his influence than to that of any other man that the novel could become, as it has, a dominant influence in moulding the opinions, the manners, and the modes of feeling cultivated by a very large section of any literate public.

For the upper middle class of the eighteenth century Clarissa became, as a matter of fact, a book of etiquette, a mirror of manners and morals. It is impossible to say how much Richardson actually imposed himself upon his contemporaries and how much his system of ethics and sensibility was something merely crystallized from the atmosphere which had been generated in the course of social development. But the fact remains that his book seems to have established, as it were, the norm which came to be accepted by the members of the upper middle class. In Clarissa one saw reflected an ideal; one recognized in its characters models which instructed by example how one ought to act, to speak, to think, and to feel in social life.

The fact that its author happened to be, in temperament at least, an absolute Bobissimus was not for him a disadvantage, but an advantage, since his task was to coördinate the various elements which composed the spiritual universe of his fellows. He could codify conventional manners and he could do something still more difficult: he could give the dignity of art or pseudo-art to life as it was led by vulgar people. He could bring to its full development the sentimental pattern.

Tragedy is the form given to existence in the contemplation of great spirits. But the common man has neither the exaltation of character nor the strength of soul necessary to achieve it, even if his story should ever happen to be on a scale which would justify any such grandiose interpretation of its meaning. He must see lives like his own under a form which is not that of tragedy, but of something exacting less of the actors and more easily comprehended. If he must give up, as Richardson did, the idea that the motif known as ‘virtue rewarded’ is dominant in the universal symphony, he must find in its place some conception of what constitutes success in life compatible with his timidity, his prudence, his materialism, and his ingrained regard for conventional respectability. Richardson found it, and the fact that he did so is the greatest single cause of his enormous popularity.

Hence Clarissa became, above all else, the model for sentimental fiction, by which term we mean here to denominate that vulgar sort of demitragedy produced when goodness is substituted for greatness as the necessary qualification of the hero, and when, as a result, the catastrophe reveals him, not going down in rebellious defeat, but tamely acquiescent to the forces which destroy him.

All the supremely great artists have instinctively avoided this pattern and distrusted the sort of satisfaction which it gives to an audience, but the essentially vulgar soul of Richardson felt its way slowly though unerringly toward it. To Clarissa he gave no positive or active virtues, nor even, indeed, any personality. She is no more than a slightly idealized portrait of the conventional ‘nice’ girl of the period, and the whole course of her life is determined by negative principles. Her dominant desire is the desire to achieve, despite the difficulties which surround her, a completely conventional existence, and the virtue which her contemporaries so much admired is not something which leads to any action, but something which shines forth only when it resists the forces permitted to ‘test’ it. Since her greatness is of the sort which only unusual trials can reveal, almost anyone might be generously presumed to possess it, and her contemporaries took a satisfaction in her story greater than in any of the genuine masterpieces of literature, for two reasons.

In the first place her excellence is of a sort which can disturb no one; and in the second place her end, brought about by her one violation of the conventional code, in no way challenges the pleasing assumption that all is fundamentally well both in human society and in the universe at large. True tragedy shames and frightens. The greatness of its passions makes us blush for our own comfortable littleness, and there is something terrifyingly anarchical in the refusal of its hero to admit defeat. But sentimental romance produces effects which are exactly the reverse. It flatters us by pretending that timid little virtues like our own are really great and that the submission which draws a pleasant tear from the eye of the beholder is the proper end of a hero.

Delighting to contemplate a purely passive and suffering virtue, Richardson established the vogue of a new kind of heroine whose chief distinction lies in the fact that she is ill-used, and in contradistinction to the tonic sorrow of tragedy he set up an easy pathos by placing all the emphasis, not upon the strength of the hero, but upon the blameless and pitiful helplessness of the heroine who takes his place.

Sentiment is merely the feminine equivalent of passion. Through its influence romantic love, mjstical religion, and the thirst for righteousness are diluted and tamed. They are subordinated to prudence and respectability and thus they are made comprehensible to lesser spirits. Juliets are no less rare than Othellos, but a bourgeois society cannot be other than glad of the fact. Fathers must like to believe that their own more manageable daughters are more admirable as well, and the daughters themselves, uncomfortably aware that their souls have scarcely achieved Shakespearean proportions, must like to feel that the domestic virtues are, by their very blamelessness, superior to heroism. Who could hope to live up to a Juliet’s passion? Who could maintain, indeed, that the shameless and disconcerting example of her vehemence is exactly edifying? But the conduct of Clarissa is as impeccable as her sentiments are comprehensible. In the very presence of death she forgives everybody. Moreover she sketches out a design for her monument and pays the undertaker’s bill in advance in order that her friends may not be incommoded.

Well may her creator boast that the moral of his work is pure and that

the notion of poetical justice, founded upon the modern rules has hardly ever been more strictly observed in works of this nature, than in the present performance. For, is not Mr. Lovelace, who could persevere in his villainous views, against the strongest and most frequent convictions and remorses that ever were sent to awaken and reclaim a wicked man — is not this great, this wilful transgressor, condignly punished and his punishment brought on through the intelligence of the very Joseph Leman whom he had corrupted. . . . On the other hand, is not Miss Howe, for her noble friendship to the exalted lady in calamities — is not Mr. Hickman — for his unexceptionable morals, and integrity of life — is not the repentant and not ungenerous Belford, is not the worthy Norton — made signally happy?

And who that are earnest in their profession of Christianity, but will rather envy than regret the triumphant death of Clarissa; whose piety, from her early childhood; whose diffusive charity; whose steady virtue; whose Christian humility; whose forgiving spirit; whose meekness and resignation, HEAVEN only could reward.


Richardson was now fifty-nine years old. A mere artist might have permitted himself to rest secure in the conviction that he had accomplished all he could ever hope for. But the moralist has an obligation more stern than that of the man whose talents are no more than entertaining. Richardson, convinced that he was living in the midst of ‘general depravity,’had contributed his ‘mite towards introducing a reformation so much wanted.’ Though his age was one ‘given up to diversion and entertainment,’though the pulpit had ‘lost a great part of its weight,’he had, as he said, managed ‘to steal in and investigate the great doctrine of Christianity under the fashionable guise of an amusement.’ Hence he could not lay down his pen until it had done all the good of which it was capable.

In 1749, Lady Bradshaigh wrote to urge upon him the duty of completing the work he had begun by giving to the world a male counterpart of Clarissa — a gentleman who should be the model of masculine virtue as she had been of feminine. And though he expressed some understandable doubt concerning his fitness for the task of describing that fashionable world of which he was almost totally ignorant, he evidently concluded that the goodness of his heart ought to make up for the ignorance of his mind, since he was soon busy with the plan which was to be executed in the seven volumes of The History of Sir Charles Grandison.

As early as 1751 one of the ladies privileged to hear fragments read aloud as they were composed wrote to a friend: ‘We have this day had the satisfaction of hearing Miss Grandison extricate herself from those difficulties you left her involved in. Oh! my dear, Sir Charles will be all we wish him — I am sure he will — and is destined to show the world what the purest love should be, when inspired by an object irresistibly amiable, like Miss Byron.'

At last the enormous work was published in three installments issued between November 1753 and March 1754. Richardson had been, while he wrote, in constant communication with female friends from whose reactions he could judge what was likely to be the effect of every proposed sentiment, and the reception given by the public to his new novel was all he could wish. ‘Mr. Urban,’ reviewing it in the Gentleman’s Magazine, expressed the opinion that ‘such a knowledge of the polite world, of men and manners, may be acquired from an attentive perusal of this work as may in a great measure supply the place of the tutor and boarding school.’ Mr. Cibber, again in raptures over the goodness of heart which the author exhibits, declared that he would rather have the fame due Mr. Richardson’s ‘amiable zeal’ for virtue than that due Pope as a poet. A debtor confirmed to prison wrote to say that his principles, unaffected by the rigors of confinement, had been reformed by a perusal of Grandison; Lady Bradshaigh expressed the opinion that the author ‘ought to have been a bishop’; and — what is, under the circumstances, perhaps the most impressive of all — at least one reader begged for an eighth volume.

Yet, despite the enthusiasm which greeted it, we shall not devote much space to the last of Richardson’s novels, for the simple reason that it marks no advance over Clarissa and that it has been, on the contrary, for a long time almost universally admitted to be in every respect less interesting than its predecessor. In the first place Sir Charles is a complete prig, deserving only, as Taine put it, ‘to be canonized and stuffed.’ In the second place the didactic purpose almost always prevails over the interest aroused in the characters and their sentiments.

Richardson was sixty-four years old when Grandison was published, and, though he had some eight more years to live, his chief subsequent work was to be a compilation entitled ‘A Collection of the Moral and Instructive Sentiments, Maxims, Cautions and Reflections, contained in the Histories of Pamela, Clarissa Harlowe, and Sir Charles Grandison, Digested under Proper Heads.’ Friends, to be sure, continued to importune him. It was suggested by a person who must have had a very improper idea of the nature of his genius that he might draw the portrait of a bad woman to serve as a foil to his two good ones; and Lady Echlin dropped a much more acceptable hint when she expressed her ‘wish to see an exemplary widow drop from your pen.’ But Richardson was not to be persuaded to embark upon any more vast projects. He complained of an increase of the nervous disorders which had long served as an excuse for not reading and which now, so he said, prevented him from writing as well. All obligations had been fulfilled; he no doubt felt that he had, in the words which Dr. Johnson used of himself, done enough for his contemporaries; and he gradually permitted himself to relax into an all but undisturbed enjoyment of his fame.

But while the author of Clarissa was busy with the prolixities of Grandison and while, a little later, he was equally busy with the harmless occupations of his declining years, the influence of his masterpiece was spreading throughout Europe. It was translated into French, German, and Dutch. Rousseau read it and wrote The New Héloïse; Goethe read both Richardson and Rousseau and wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther. Thus Clarissa became responsible for an international school of fiction and helped turn the whole course of literature. Everywhere the refined were looking for virtue distressed; everywhere they were luxuriating in a pleasing melancholy. Each person endeavored to outdo the other in sensibility, and it was not so much any of Richardson’s specific teachings as it was the overtones of his work — the mood generated by his ardent yet languishing contemplation of minor domestic emotions — which had the widest influence.

On the occasion of our author’s death, Diderot sat down and in twenty-four hours composed in a burst of enthusiasm the famous Éloge, in which, by reflection, we can perceive far better than we can by an effort at direct comprehension what Clarissa meant for the eighteenth century.

‘O Richardson, Richardson,’ he wrote, ‘first of men in my eyes, you shall be my reading at all times! Pursued by pressing need; if my friend should fall into poverty; if the limitations of my fortune should prevent me from giving fit attention to the education of my children, I will sell my books; but you shall remain on the same shelf as Moses, Euripides and Sophocles, and I will read you by turns.’


Whole volumes have been written in the effort to define the sentimental attitude which Richardson thus helped to crystallize. In the course of time the adjective itself, once used only in complimentary senses, has come to have only a derogatory significance. But the strangest thing in all the history of both the word and the thing is the fact that the ideological content of sentimental fiction came rapidly to be wholly different from that which its creator had striven to body forth.

Through the influence of Diderot, Rousseau, and Goethe, sentiment, became the handmaiden of democratic idealism and natural theology, in spite of the fact that its popularizer, intent upon ‘promoting the cause of Religion,’ and snob to the core, was horrified by both. He had permitted Pamela to marry a gentleman, not because he wanted to suggest that rank was of no importance, but because a social elevation was the only adequate reward for transcendent virtue; and he had never dreamed of making the ‘dictates of the human heart’ superior to the conventional code of morality. He distrusted romantic love so profoundly that he had never permitted it to play a dominant rôle in dictating the actions of any one of his heroes or heroines, and so far was he from agreeing with Rousseau concerning the nature of virtue that upon the margin of The New Héloïse he inscribed the devastating opinion that its author had ‘taught the passions to move at the command of vice.’

But Richardson, in all innocence, had looked into this ‘human heart.’ By the very act of noting with a morbid concern each throb and flutter he had implicitly suggested that the organ thus meticulously examined was of supreme importance. He never intended any apology for romantic ideas; he never meant to hint either that love is the greatest of goods or that the dictates of feeling should be put above those of law. But the cult which he founded quite naturally drew its own conclusions. If the heart of the peasant or the serving maid is as sensitive as that of the lord, then rank is a sham. If love is the tenderest of emotions, then it is, of all possible human experiences, the one most eagerly to be sought; and if the innocent soul is the most nearly heavenly of all earthly things, then it is in the impulses of such a soul rather than in the conventions of a corrupt society that true goodness is to be found.

Ultimately these convictions disrupted the sentimental pattern. They are incompatible with that concern with a fixed idea of the nature of virtue with which Richardson starts and around which, as a centre, he constructs his design. Hence romanticism gradually emerges, because the romantic pattern is one formed by making the intensity of an individual experience (rather than its conformity to a standard) the measure of its worth, and because this view of things is the one naturally to be deduced once the supreme importance of the feelings is accepted as a premise. Thus the disciples of Richardson bridge the gulf between his conventionally moral fables and the anarchy of a Stendhal. He had intended to do no more than ‘recommend virtue’ as virtue was conceived by the respectable citizen. But he stumbled upon ‘the human heart’ and first taught men that technique for examining it which was destined to result in a complete contempt for those standards of rectitude which he had wished above all else to support.

Fortunately for his own peace of mind Richardson did not, however, suspect that he was to be the encouragement of anything so pernicious.

He died of apoplexy on the fourth of July, 1761, and before that event age seems to have rendered him rather more difficult to get along with than he had been in the days when deference, if sufficiently marked, was certain to keep him amiable. But if Richardson was aware of the fact he must have comforted himself with the assurance that he had at least never failed to give amiability (along with all the other virtues) that ‘recommendation’ which he considered so important. And it is only fitting that an analysis like the present should conclude with some reference to his influence upon the moral tone of fiction. He was only a respectable printer, but it was his conception of both propriety and morals which triumphed over that of the Gibbons, the Walpoles, and the Chesterfields. After the opening of the nineteenth century, no important English novel ever described a scene or drew an inference likely to be offensive to middle-class propriety until books from France and Russia once more reminded startled readers of fiction that there does exist a world of passions which are undeniably human, even though not usually discoverable in the well-regulated household of a prosperous tradesman.

  1. A discussion of Richardson’s earlier life and work appeared in July. — EDITOR