Unlike the previous writers of the Augustan Age, Richardson came from a humble background, he was not very educated and, while still very young, he was sent to London to work as an apprentice by a printer. He soon learned to master the job and started his own successful business; he became printer of the Journal of the House of Commons, Master of the Stationer’s Company and Law Printer to the king.
chardson’s literary career came about almost by accident, in 1739 he was commissioned a collection of model letters that semi-educated country people could use in their correspondence and that might also provide them with guidelines for moral rectitude and etiquette; the volume included, as well, instructions for girls who went to service as to how to avoid those dangerous situations that might induce them to lose their virtue. While he compiled the volume he decided to use part of the material to write a novel based on the true story of a young maidservant who successfully resisted her master’s attempts to seduce her and eventually became his wife. This is the plot of his first novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, which was published in four volumes between 1740 and 1741. His second novel, Clarissa Harlowe, probably the longest work in English Literature, about 1 million words, was published in seven volumes between 1747 and 1748, and centres instead around the loss of virtue of the protagonist who is abducted, raped and by consequence dies of grief and shame. His third and last novel is, Sir Charles Grandison, (1753-54). seven volumes. Still in the epistolary form the author intended to create a model of manly virtues, yet Sir Grandison is so “perfect” that he appears unrealistic and boring.
NOVELS’ STRUCTURE AND LITERARY THEMES
All three of Richardson’s novels are basically moralising treaties disguised as love stories in which we can find all the founding elements of the later “Novel of Manners”; furthermore his purpose is, on the one side, didactic and, on the other, entertaining for his readers who all belong to the middle-class and thus can identify with his characters portrayed as honest members of that emerging class opposed to corrupt aristocrats. Nevertheless, Richardson, also seems to tell his readers that the middle-class individual’s ultimate goal is to belong to the aristocracy in order to fulfil his or her aspiration of social advancement. Pamela seems, in fact, the perfect example to sustain this theory, she marries her seducer out of sheer convenience, just as Moll Flanders uses sex to achieve the same results.
At the same time, in Clarissa, he is also aware that the bourgeois individual is bound to lose his or her innocence when he or she comes in contact with the upper class. As far as social and psychological analysis is concerned, Clarissa Harlowe, is the most complex of the three novels, but it is also more complex in its structure. As a matter of fact, the other two novels are structured around only one group of letters, whereas, in Clarissa Richardson uses two groups providing the reader with more information and with more points of view. The first group contains the letters exchanged between Clarissa and her friend, Anna Howe, whereas the second group is made up of the correspondence between Lovelace (the man Clarissa loves in spite of her parents’ will and who will be the cause of her downfall) and his friend Belford. Moreover, Clarissa deals with some important themes, the first one regards women’s conditions in 18th century English society and their first shy attempts to achieve emancipation, another is the difficult relationships between parents and their offsprings, especially daughters, and, finally, this novel also portrays the middle-class loss of innocence. Clarissa embodies them all through her strenuous struggles but they all turn out to be unsuccessful, in fact, Clarissa’s rebellion against her parents’ wishes and therefore her struggle for emancipation determine her death as if to underline that the harsh moral code applied, especially to women, by the Puritan idea of punishment must be followed scrupulously to avoid its worst consequences and can be interpreted as a warning not to upset the status quo. So, if at first Clarissa seems to personify a new type and a revolutionary idea of heroine she is soon punished for her daring nature and becomes instead the proto-type of the persecuted maiden who needs to be rescued and restored to her parents’ authority so frequently found in most European literature of the time. As for the last issue, in a certain way, Clarissa is the personification of the middle-class that in order to preserve its honesty and innocence it must avoid any contact with the upper class. In other words Richardson celebrates the “status quo” against all those who tried to break precise codes of behaviour.
WRITING STYLE AND TECHNIQUES, PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHT
Richardson is often considered the father of the English novel alongside Defoe, though for very different reasons. The latter was certainly the first to break with traditional writing and developed the realistic current but his characters are static and he lack Richardson’s three essential features which are plot, characterisation and psychological analysis. There are also other elements that ensured Richardson’s novels’ great popularity and success among his contemporary readers even though they all follow the same pattern and present the same features. First of all, as we have already said, he is the first writer to centre his stories around middle-class characters with their everyday private lives, personal problems and their repressed desires; the setting is almost always an interior “confined” domestic environment to highlight the realistic aspect of the surrounding and thus creating a sense of belonging and truthfulness in his readers; at the same time, all this care in outlining detailed situations is often a pretext to investigate complex feelings and emotions showing his best qualities as a writer as he unfolds his characters’ mental processes and emotional development, revealing, as well, his unique psychological insight in human feelings in general, and his understanding of the female heart, especially. All his novels are based on a single love story with happy or moving tragic endings; finally, they all share the moralising purpose, as Richardson himself said that his main concern was “to promote the cause of religion and virtue”.
As far as his style is concerned all three of the novels are written in the epistolary form, this choice allowed him to record faithfully, as they came about, his character’s various sequences of thoughts and feelings, giving the reader the idea of immediacy since each letter mirrors the personality of its “author”, therefore creating a sense of intimacy between characters and readers, in fact this device has the same function of soliloquies in drama and it anticipated the stream-of-consciousness techniques used in modern fiction. It was also an efficient device to promote and advertise virtue, but it soon also became an expression of individuality already fashionable and widely used among many great letter writers of the time, such as Swift and Pope. Finally, it paved the way for other foreign writers, for example Rousseau (La Nouvelle Heloise, 1761), Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774), and Foscolo (Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, 1817).
© L. R. Capuana
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