Richardson, alas

Claude Rawson

  • Samuel Richardson by Jocelyn Harris
    Cambridge, 179 pp, £22.50, February 1987, ISBN 0 521 30501 2

Richardson is the Hugo, hélas! of the 18th-century English novel, as Coleridge might have said: ‘I confess that it has cost – still costs my philosophy some exertion not to be vexed that I must admire – aye, greatly, very greatly, admire Richardson/his mind is so very vile a mind – so oozy, hypocritical, praise-mad, canting, envious, concupiscent.’ These sentiments of 1805 echo and reverberate through Coleridge’s Notebooks and Marginalia and Table Talk, as well as the Biographia Literaria, to the closing weeks of his life in July 1834. He brooded with fascinated revulsion on ‘the loaded sensibility, the minute detail, the morbid consciousness of every thought and feeling ... the self-involution and dreamlike continuity’, like ‘a sick room heated by stoves’ contrasted with Fielding, who resembles ‘an open lawn, on a breezy day in May’.

Most of the themes of Richardson criticism, before and since, are contained in Coleridge’s comments, and the blend of admiration and repugnance belonged to the case from the start. Contemptuous adversaries like Fielding himself paid glowing tributes to Clarissa. Johnson, a devoted admirer, derided Richardson’s self-importance, remarking that he ‘died merely for want of change among his flatterers’: Johnson meant that his own praises ‘would have added two or three years to his life’ had Richardson lived ‘till I came out’, implying presumably that Johnson hadn’t yet become famous enough for his praises to please. Such ambivalence was no simple separation of the man from the books. Johnson praised the novels almost unstintingly but said that ‘if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.’ Fielding, who might be expected to be personally hostile, probably didn’t know who the author of Pamela was when he wrote Shamela, but did know when he praised Clarissa. When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu said ‘I heartily despise [Richardson] and eagerly read him, nay, sob over his works in a most scandalous manner,’ she was responding simultaneously to the power of the novels and to a personality felt through the work to be repugnant. For her as for Coleridge, Richardson was the most ‘despised’ of ‘admired’ writers, or vice versa. Either way, he has always been someone we love to hate.

Perhaps this explains how it comes about that this self-righteous burgherly patriarch, presiding unctuously over his little senate of admiring ladies, has been adopted as an adversarial hero by some campus ideologues, both Marxist and feminist. He doesn’t, on the face of it, seem the type. It’s a merit of Jocelyn Harris’s book nevertheless to demonstrate sensitively and without pretentious haranguing that Richardson ‘speaks ... to feminist concerns’ and played an honourable part in ‘the “fair sex debate” ’ (the phrase suggests how anachronistic it is, as Mrs Harris concedes, to use the word ‘feminist’ in this context). He expressed views on education and marriage close to those of Mary Astell, who may have been a model for Clarissa. Astell has been called ‘England’s first feminist’ in a good book by Ruth Perry, where she is also shown to have been (like Richardson) generally conservative in religion and politics.[*]

Like some other critics, Mrs Harris reads Richardson’s novels in the context of Locke’s rebuttal of Filmer’s theories of government, and of traditional extensions of constitutional debate to the sphere of domestic life. Both Astell and Richardson liked to apply principles of Lockeian liberalism to personal and family relations, and the male villains in Richardson’s novels tend to be associated with a Filmerian authoritarian-patriarchal position. Harris sometimes seems unduly specific on the point, as when she says that ‘Lovelace the Filmerian maintains that the female sex “is made to bear pain” ’ as a consequence of Eve’s transgression, and ‘that women love those best who pain them most.’ Such male mythologising seems pretty timeless, more folkloric than Filmerian. But it is true that the male characters, and especially Lovelace, make use of the terminology of government (king, emperor, throne, rebel, authority, bestowal of preferments, prerogative) as well as of military conquest (a traditional source of metaphors in transactions between the sexes, also touched on in a new book by Robert Erickson) in their exercises or boasts of sexual tyranny, in ways which sometimes go beyond the idiomatic or poetic commonplace and acquire an air of formal ideologising.[†] Richardson was driven by a restless over-explicitness which sometimes builds into the novels themselves the kind of ‘thematic’ gloss normally practised, on another plane, by academic explicators. Harris is too good an academic to write like a bad one, but too generous to her author to acknowledge that he has pedantries of his own.

Richardson’s ‘feminism’ is summed up in the tone as well as the substance of comments like ‘You must see that the Tendency of all I have written is to exalt the Sex.’ He urges young ladies to write him letters, precisely because that is what ‘young ladies, delicate by sex, by education’, are ‘qualified by genius and imagination to excell in’. When he intimates equality of relationship, it is only after condescending to lower himself to a coyly assumed role of ‘undesigning scribbler’, a specialised counterpart of his relegation of the women to an equally specialised sphere of the feeling heart and sensitive pen. Within these limits, fantasies of sympathetic rapport may flourish, usually through the mediation of his fictional heroines, whom he and his correspondents endlessly discuss, feel for, and relate to themselves and each other. As Harris says, his correspondence with women ‘intersected excitingly with his fictional worlds’. The ladies are for the most part urged to write only to other ladies, men being (as the novels demonstrate) ‘hardly ever void of design’ – except himself, since he’s older, of good character, already married, and wholly ‘paternal in my views’. The heroines, in these heavily hedged transactions, offer an additional protective element, acting as invisible chaperones, as texts for the elaboration of fine sentiments, and as de-realising agents, as if to say – it’s only a story, a scribble engendering more scribbling.

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[*] The Celebrated Mary Astell by Ruth Perry. University of Chicago Press, 1986.

[†] Mother Midnight: Birth, Sex and Fate in 18th-Century Fiction (Defoe, Richardson and Sterne) by Robert Erickson. AMS Press, 1986.