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.

Richardson might claim to enter into the hearts of his fair correspondents much as he entered into those of the scribbler-heroines of the novels. His sympathy with the sex is less that of an equal than of ‘a sincere well-wisher’. Equality yields to the familiar over-determinations of gallant compliment, which hold that women are ‘the fairer and better Sex’: a tried way of enforcing the idea that they’re not equal while absolving the speaker of churlishness (the emphasis, though, is Richardson’s: he emphasised everything). When Richardson says that in the special field of letter-writing, a delicate lady ‘cannot set pen to paper but a beauty must follow it’, he is adapting to fair scribblers the kind of courtly turn which Pope excelled at simultaneously executing and subverting:

If to her share some Female Errors fall,
Look on her Face, and you’ll forget ’em all.

The irony disappears from Richardson’s use of the formula at precisely the time when good poets were variously registering its bankruptcy, in accents of witty disengagement or (as in Swift) of radical rejection. The uncourtly Richardson’s way with the courtly forms is to reinstate them with a bald literalness. What is shed is not the ‘sexism’ but any critical awareness of its fatuity.

‘If there were Sex in Heaven, good Women would be angels there, as they are here.’ This was written to Sophia Westcomb in 1746, when Richardson was well into the writing of Clarissa, the novel in which the image of the beloved mistress as angel is given imaginative revalidation in the figure of a heroine martyred to virtue. Here too the clichés of poetic gallantry, which Swift probed even in his tenderest declarations –

    Now, this is Stella’s Case in Fact;
An Angel’s Face, a little crack’t;
(Could Poets or could Painters fix
How Angels look at thirty-six)
This drew us in at first to find
In such a Form an Angel’s mind –

are in Richardson upwardly reformulated or unparodied. The courtly compliment to a mistress is given a bourgeois consolidation and applied to all good women. Richardson had a low opinion of Swift’s low opinion of women, though intelligent feminists understand Swift’s position differently. In this passage, at all events, Swift’s play with the ‘angel’ cliché reflects his usual deep distaste for the routines of love poets, but it is not a means of insulting the lady. For once, Swift treats love poetry as Augustan mock-heroic treats epic: not mainly as a mode to be derided, but as a reflection or repository of respected values from which moderns have lapsed, here with the one exception of Stella. The ironic gesture is a way of enforcing Stella’s right to the compliment, despite its customary abuse and in the only sense that matters: ‘an Angel’s mind’.

The idea that Clarissa has ‘an Angel’s mind’ is also subjected to an attempted deconstruction, as Harris shows: ‘Lovelace’s plan is to make her mortal by making her sexual. There are people who remember that she was born, he exults, “that she came not from above, all at once an angel!” ... he reasons that “matrimonial or equal intimacies” will make her less than angel.’ Lovelace fails, but he begins by serving Richardson as irony served Swift, to pre-empt the scepticism of readers resistant to the excesses of amatory hyperbole. It’s a way, perhaps for both authors, of having it both ways. Like Swift’s, Lovelace’s image has its origins in the love poets. He had been a lovelorn sonneteer, who ‘must have a Cynthia, a Stella, a Sacharissa’ of his own, but discovered that ladies are not as pure as sonnets claim, much as Swift’s swain discovers that his Celia shits.

Besides, Lovelace has been jilted by one of them. He is committed to revenge on all women, and in particular to exposing the angelic pretensions he once proclaimed. Clarissa is to be his spectacular exhibit, and the novel proves him wrong. Clarissa’s angelic status is unremittingly asserted and Lovelace in particular in his dying moments speaks of her as ‘dear angel ... Divine Creature ... blessed Spirit’. His deconstruction fails, because he has been reconstructed, and the challenge it posed has the effect of containing or neutralising objections, not of exploding a myth. The angelic metaphor is indeed asserted in terms so emphatic that it acquires literal pretensions, and the non-fictional letter to Miss Westcomb shows that Richardson did not shrink from these. We witness in the novel a peculiar species of overkill, which works not merely through inordinate accretion or repetition, but through a prosiness which finally boils things down to their prose sense. It’s as though Richardon were atoning for his use of figurative language by a dogged determination to prove it true.

Richardson’s manner may be seen as an overturning of Augustan ironies in Swift or in ‘The Rape of the Lock’ (which Clarissa evokes in various ways, including the name of its heroine). Such overturning is hostile but un-derisive, for the mocking graces of Augustan wit, the glancing obliquity of Pope’s critique of gallantry, are themselves the objects of his hostility, along with Lovelace’s high-born arrogance and patrician profligacy. Richardson’s literalness, like that of his friend Johnson, naturally shrank from ironic utterance. But it differed from Johnson’s in both its mechanics and motivation. Johnson seems to have avoided irony because it distorted plain truth and specifically because, in its aggressive forms, it hid from view those aspects of the case which made possible a completer and more charitable understanding: this is the positive sense in which he is sometimes spoken of as a satirist manqué. But, for all his specific reservations about Swift or Pope, Johnson was rooted in the same tradition of Classical learning and polite letters, which Richardson viewed with resentment and a touch of class-envy. He was consistently censorious of the Scriblerian circle (deploring the ‘Dunciad, and its Scriblerus-Prolegomena-Stuff’), not least, one supposes, because Fielding had early assumed the mantle of Scriblerus Secundus. From Shamela onwards, Fielding submitted Richardson to a form of patrician putdown which earlier wits had applied to cits and which the Scriblerians transferred to the burghers and scribblers of the Dunciad or A Tale of a Tub. It rankled, as though the Scriblerian enterprise had been designed to ridicule him in advance. Richardson’s fond references to his own ‘scribbling’ are not simply assimilations to his heroine-authoresses. Sometimes (‘myself, the Scribbler’, ‘a low-classed scribbler’) they read like a self-conscious as well as self-approving acceptance of Scriblerian slurs in the teeth of their proleptic derision.

Both assimilations, to sentimental scribblers and derided ones, are in turn proleptically Shandean. Tristram Shandy, who thought his book should ‘swim down the gutter of Time’ with A Tale of a Tub, had a clear sense of being derided in advance. He outfaced the derision by as it were outdoing it, by feats of jokey digressiveness and egotistic self-indulgence which exceeded anything Swift’s Tale might have invented in repudiation: characteristically, when the time came, Richardson disapproved of Tristram Shandy, partly because Sterne answered derision with derision and worse still self-derision. Sullen harping on his low-classed scribbling was as far as Richardson was prepared to go in sarcastic response, and the spectacle of Sterne committing his whole enterprise to mimicry of Scriblerian mimicry was calculated to displease him.

By a sad irony, the very letter in which he reproves Sterne’s book is one in which, as often in his later years, he was ‘sensible of failure in my fingers’. The Shandean autonomy of the scribbling pen has gone into reverse, like phalluses in Rochester which rise and fall independently of their owners: ‘Too, too often my Pen will not touch the Paper, – nor stay in my Fingers.’ The intrusion of physical infirmity was the result of ageing. But it had long been part of his epistolary mythology that he was endlessly engaged in quasi-adversarial dealings with his headstrong pen, in tones which range from the Shandean whimsical (he would have written ‘sooner ... had I not quarrelled with my Pen’) to the Shandean pathetick: ‘Another there was whom his soul loved; but with a reverence – Hush! – Pen, lie thee down!’

These examples help to remind us how much Shandeism was the heir of Richardsonian ‘sentiment’ as well as of that alternative and antagonistic tradition of ‘learned wit’ which came to Sterne by way of Fielding and Swift. But the Richardsonian topos of the self-willed and self-propelling pen had itself already come up for derision long before Richardson, when the scribbler-author of A Tale of a Tub announced that he was ‘trying an Experiment very frequent among Modern Authors; ... When the Subject is utterly exhausted, to let the Pen still move on.’ And when that same scribbler declared that what he wrote was ‘literally true this Minute I am writing’ he was pre-parodying the ideal of ‘to the Moment’ writing in its primary Richardsonian form as well as its Shandean self-ironic transformation. What Sterne went on to out-parody, Richardson was content to unparody.

That Swift’s parody is perhaps closer to these later writers than to any he was actually attacking (Dryden, among others) implies that these forms of modern self-consciousness were a matter of deep tendency before they attained overt fruition, and early available for exposure or expression by hostile and sympathetic figures alike. A feature of them was the blurring of judgmental demarcations between the hostile and the sympathetic, in a domain where disclosure of the disreputable might be cherished for its sincerity or acumen, or as evidence of an enhanced valuation of confession and self-expression as such. The disreputabilities which Swift exposes in his modern spokesmen are things which they for their part take pride in reporting, and it’s clear that Swift dislikes the confessional gusto as much as the things confessed, much as Sterne’s narrators cherish both.

Richardson was somewhere in between, as can be seen from a letter of 1748 in which he urges Susanna Highmore to come to Tunbridge Wells, where she might see the aged Mr Nash and Mr Cibber ‘hunting after new beauties, and with faces of high importance traversing the walks’, and goes on to describe himself:

And if you do, I will shew you a still more grotesque figure than either. A sly sinner, creeping along the very edges of the walks, getting behind benches: one hand in his bosom, the other held up to his chin, as if to keep it in its place: afraid of being seen, as a thief of detection. The people of fashion, if he happen to cross a walk (which he always does with precipitation) unsmiling their faces, as if they thought him in their way; and he as sensible of so being, stealing in and out of the bookseller’s shop, as if he had one of their glass-cases under his coat. Come and see this odd figure! You never will see him, unless I shew him to you.

Sterne could never have written this. It reminds us of a sometimes neglected feature of Richardson’s writing, that his set-pieces sometimes attain the strong obsessive power of the great 19th-century masters. The ‘sly sinner, creeping along the very edges of the walks, getting behind benches’, has the unctuous surreptitiousness of a Dickensian villain. The furtive grimness seems surprising in a self-portrait. It’s evidently meant as affectionately self-depreciating, but reveals a degree of self-contempt, which nevertheless quickly dissolves into, or co-exists with, a more indulgent portraiture. Although Sterne could not have written it, it is indeed Shandean in its self-cherishing sense of its own eccentricity (‘this odd figure’) and its mock-mystification (‘you never will see him, unless I shew him to you’). The use of the third person belongs with this, though also superficially unlike Sterne. There is a kind of self-consciousness that luxuriates in third-person presentations, which set Number One into relief and provide a mock-distance for effects of exhibition close in spirit to Shandy’s coy aplomb. The specialist in our time of this species of histrionic self-foregrounding, with its teasing delusion of enhanced objectivity and its opportunities for a smirking inwardly-directed irony, is Norman Mailer.

Richardson wouldn’t have relished Mailer and didn’t like Sterne. He was incapable of the flippancy with which they expressed their egos, though there’s an attempt at comedy in his self-portrait. And neither Mailer nor Sterne shows the peculiar class-consciousness of Richardson’s writing, though Sterne had his own way of loving a lord. Richardson’s way of loving a lord is to believe he doesn’t, an almost statutory ambivalence of the British bourgeois. His avoidance of the ‘people of fashion ... unsmiling their faces, as if they thought him in their way’ is both sheepishly ‘sensible of so being’ and sourly offended by the imagined slight. The hurt accents of the excluded tradesman against ‘that upper life [which] is low enough to despise the metropolis, which furnishes them with all their beloved luxury’, is a steady undercurrent in his writing. On the other hand, he saw his acquisition of a female little senate as a form of social advancement, a penetration of the gentry, so to speak, through its soft underbelly: he expressed satisfaction at being ‘envied ... for the Favour I stand in with near a Score of very admirable Women, some of them of Condition’.

The fictional expression of these mixed feelings is to be found in his treatment of Lovelace and his family in Clarissa, and indeed in the portrayals of the nobility and upper gentry in all the novels. His fascinated fixation on these social strata and his outsider’s lack of knowledge of them were a matter for early comment. Horace Walpole called the novels ‘pictures of high life as conceived by a bookseller’, and the sentiment was echoed in softer or more considered forms by friend and foe alike. Richardson repeatedly excused himself by appealing to his early ‘narrowness of fortune’, his temperament ‘naturally shy and sheepish (he made a habit of calling himself sheepish), and similar obstacles: ‘How, I say, shall such a man pretend to describe and enter into characters in upper life?’ It’s characteristic of him not to notice that what called for explanation was not his ignorance of ‘high life’ but his determination to write about it.

Richardson was fond of calling high people low when they behaved uppishly: ‘upper life is low enough to despise the metropolis.’ It’s a classic putdown, readily available in a lordly culture and found in quasi-aristocrats like Fielding as well as in a commoner like Pope (both of whom did, however, ‘despise the metropolis’ in their own way). Richardson sometimes sports their grandee manner, as when, responding to some remarks against him in Fulke Greville’s Maxims, Characters and Reflections (1756), he works himself into a veritable lather of gentlemanly wit-writing, to the effect ‘that Mr G. was perhaps as much too high-bred, as the other was too low: But that, with his Superior Advantages, it is as much a Wonder, that he wrote no better, as that the other wrote no worse.’ ‘The other’, ‘a certain Author’ (Greville had used the phrase but again the emphasis is Richardson’s), is himself, and the third person here is fraught with all the haughty indignation of a Mrs Honour even as he strains to mimic the uppish accents of her creator.

About Fielding himself he said this: ‘Poor Fielding! I could not help telling his sister, that I was equally surprised at and concerned for his continued lowness. Had your brother, said I, been born in a stable, or been a runner at a sponging-house, we should have thought him a genius, and wished he had had the advantage of a liberal education, and of being admitted into good company.’ It’s one of the unwitting symmetries of literary history that another now famous private letter, by Fielding’s cousin Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, expresses the conviction that Richardson ‘was never admitted into higher Company, and should confine his Pen to the Amours of Housemaids’, just as her surmise in the same letter that ‘Richardson never had (probably) money enough to purchase ... a Ticket for a Masquerade’ echoes his own account of the ‘narrowness of fortune’ which prevented his frequenting ‘public entertainments’ and other haunts of ‘upper life’.

Richardson had a great readiness to condemn Fielding’s work in the most specific detail while pretending not to have had time to read it. There is a Leavisian flavour in the sour haughtiness with which he disliked admitting that he had bestowed his attention on a book he was simultaneously willing to vilify, as well as in the tortuous explanations, always involving third parties, of how he came to know about it. He was similarly ‘inclined to deny that he has read’ other authors, perhaps truthfully, as his biographers Eaves and Kimpel report. If lack of time was the problem, he could have read many books in the time that it took him to write the letters in which he complained of lack of time, or penned the acidulous dissertations explaining his dislike of the books and his reasons for not reading them. In this way he re-enacted in his own life comments made by readers of his novels, to the effect that his characters’ letters were so long that they hardly left time for the occurence of the events they described. Richardson actually went one better: his own longest letters are frequently about his characters’ letters, enlarging upon them, citing them as authorities on points of wisdom or conduct.

Richardson comes nearest of all great writers to enacting his friend Johnson’s mot about the dramatist Hugh Kelly, that he had ‘written more than he has read’. He was, sometimes quite movingly, conscious of this. He found writing easier than reading, and spoke of this as a neurotic disability: ‘My nervous disorders will permit me to write with more impunity than to read.’ If ‘impunity’ suggests that reading induced ‘guilt’, as a passive or idle activity, that attitude in turn induced its own form of guilt. He wrote in October 1753: ‘Now I have done Writing, if Life be lent me, I must endeavour to recover the Power of Reading: Yet, what will be the End of it, if I do, but to shew me that I ought to have read more, and writt less?’

[*] 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.