Magazine article The New Yorker

The Man Who Made the Novel

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Man Who Made the Novel

Article excerpt


Loving and loathing Samuel Richardson.

It's hard to imagine a more unlikely novelist than Samuel Richardson. The son of a carpenter, he attended school only intermittently until he was seventeen, when his formal education ended and he was apprenticed to a printer. He didn't publish his first novel until after he turned fifty. The undertaking was almost accidental. He had become the proprietor of a printing press when, in 1739, two London booksellers asked him to put together a "letter-writer," an etiquette manual consisting of letters that "country readers" might use as models for their own correspondence.

Richardson quickly expanded the project's scope. A diligent worker who had risen from tradesman to middle-class property owner, he longed to impart what he had learned. He wanted, he wrote in the book's introduction, to teach readers not only how to write elegant letters but "how to think and act justly and prudently in the common concerns of life." Recollecting a true story he'd heard years earlier, he composed several letters to and from a pious servant girl whose boss was making lewd advances, in order to warn young women of "snares that might be laid against their virtue."

In the fall of 1739, Richardson began to absent himself from his wife in the evenings, after work at the printing press. Instead of proceeding as planned on the letter-writer, he was quietly adding to the stock of letters by the servant girl, bringing her story to a happy conclusion. It took him just two months to produce "Pamela," a book many consider the first modern English novel.

Not that Richardson made this claim. He associated novels with improbable romances, or mere entertainments; "Pamela" was intended to be instructive. But a novel it was. More than the adventure stories of Daniel Defoe or Jonathan Swift, "Pamela" was concerned with the representation of interior life. It is also organized around a single, unified plot, which distinguished it from Defoe's more episodic "Moll Flanders" (1722), a pseudo-memoir that recounts its protagonist's varied and largely illicit pursuits, from her inauspicious beginnings through her late years in the colonies. Flanders's story is told from the complacent perspective of a woman who has achieved wealth and security, and generally adopts the matter-of-fact tone of a case history. Pamela's letters, in contrast, are lively and conversational, their language a reflection of both her native cleverness and her inexperience. Richardson was fond of saying that his characters' letters are written "to the moment"; that is, as the characters experience the events they describe. This lends "Pamela" a palpable sense of immediacy. In its first letter, our fifteen-year-old heroine describes to her parents the attention she has begun to receive from her young, unmarried employer--who "gave me with his own hand four golden guineas, and some silver." Her parents urge Pamela to keep her distance. "We had rather see you all covered with rags, and even follow you to the churchyard, than have it said, a child of ours preferred any worldly conveniences to her virtue," they write--to which Pamela responds, "I will die a thousand deaths, rather than be dishonest in any way."

This can sound like the exaggerated language of farce. It isn't. To read Richardson is to enter a moral universe in which the terms "virtue" and "honesty" are used, unironically, as synonyms for virginity. Richardson's puritanism was extreme even for his period. (Flanders, for example, spoke playfully about her virginity as a "trifle . . . to be had" easily.) But the sanctimonious tone didn't deter many readers. The novel was so popular that "Pamela"-inspired merchandise, from teacups to fans, quickly sprang up, as did spurious sequels, a theatrical version, and even a comic opera. The book also drew praise for its edifying story line. ("Virtue Rewarded" is its apt subtitle.) Alexander Pope gave it a jolt of publicity when he said that it would "do more good than many volumes of sermons," a quote that may have been solicited by Richardson's brother-in-law, a bookseller. …

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