At the beginning of the year 1740 the English novel was in its infancy: fifteen years later three great novelists, Richardson, Fielding and Smollett, had published almost all their major works. This transformation is remarkable in that the novel as it took shape in those years was virtually a new form, yet was extremely diverse in character. In particular the contrast between Richardson and Fielding, as exponents of what imaginative literature is about, matches the contrast in our own century between Lawrence and Joyce.
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), a successful printer, took to novel-writing by accident when two booksellers invited him to compile a volume of letters for the guidance of people inexperienced with their pens. In working on this project, Richardson’s imagination was caught by the idea of using the epistolary technique to tell a story he had once heard of a young servant girl who resisted the seductive assaults of her young master, much as she liked him, and thus won not only his respect but also his person in marriage. Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded (1740) was an immediate success. Pamela’s letters to her parents at home tell how her master, Mr B, forcefully presses his advances upon her with such energy and ingenuity that she has to flee the house. Mr B pursues her and ultimately makes amends by marrying her. The vitality of the book resides in Pamela’s strength of character, her bold self-defence, and her rigorous distinction between those areas in which a maid owes dutiful obedience to her master and those in which personal integrity demands an equality of relationship between individuals whatever their respective social status. The fine vigour of Pamela’s moral certitude and her ingenuity in resistance blend spicily with the undercurrent of real affection for her master and of tacit sexual sensitivity.