‘I can scarce hold my pen’

Clare Bucknell

  • The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson with Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin edited by Peter Sabor
    Cambridge, three vols, 1200 pp, £275.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 107 14552 8

If you had been in St James’s Park on a fine February day in 1750, you might have seen a short, weary-looking man in his sixties tramping up and down the Mall, looking out for a plump lady of about 45 who was keeping an eye open for him. Lady Dorothy Bradshaigh had travelled to town for the winter from her country seat in Lancashire; the man she was trying to spot in the crowd was Samuel Richardson, who had supplied her with a description and promised to be in the park on sunny days. ‘I passed you four times last Saturday in the Park; knew you by your own description, at least three hundred yards off,’ she wrote to him a few days later. ‘You looked at me every time we passed; but I put on so unconcerned a countenance, that I am almost sure I deceived you.’ Richardson wasn’t amused. ‘Surely, thought I, could not Lady B. have had some mercy on a crazy creature, who was pacing on the verge of the Mall (as of life), conscious of an unfitness to mingle with the gay company in it?’ They met finally in March on Birdcage Walk, almost two years after their correspondence began.

Lady Bradshaigh, ‘middle-aged, middle-sized, a degree above plump, brown as an oak wainscot’, was born Dorothy Bellingham into an established Lancashire family in 1704 or 1705. She told Richardson she had been the ‘worst’ of the family’s three girls, ‘very lively, and very faulty’. In 1731, after a dogged ten-year courtship, she married Roger Bradshaigh, the son of a baronet. The couple took on his family estate of Haigh Hall near Wigan in 1742 and drew a comfortable income from its coal reserves; they remained childless but were busy and happy managing Haigh, and visiting her brother-in-law the Earl of Derby near Liverpool. She heartily disapproved of too much learning in women (‘I believe it rarely turns out to their advantage,’ she told Richardson), but was a frequent visitor to her local bookseller and read a lot of fiction, poetry and theology. Her husband too was a keen reader and they enjoyed discussing which characters they admired and loathed.

One novel gripped them more than all the rest: Richardson’s gigantic Clarissa, published serially (with agonising gaps) between December 1747 and December 1748. At the end of Vol. IV, published in April 1748, Clarissa is left perilously ignorant of the fact that her villainous would-be seducer Lovelace has discovered her hiding place in Hampstead and arrived there in secret himself. Possible tragic conclusions to the story – Clarissa’s rape! Lovelace’s triumph! Clarissa’s suicide! – were eagerly discussed, and Bradshaigh found herself unable to bear the thought that the virtuous heroine she’d grown so attached to might be ruined by Lovelace rather than winning him over to the side of goodness and marrying him. In July 1748 she wrote to Richardson, concealing her identity with the pseudonym ‘Belfour’ and requesting him to inform her via an advertisement in the Whitehall Evening Post if the rumours circulating about the ‘catastrophe’ Clarissa was about to suffer were true. He could not, she implored, mean to ‘leave vice triumphant, and virtue depressed’; and surely he wouldn’t have made Lovelace such a disarmingly likeable character if he had no intention of transforming him into a ‘good man’ in the end. Her letter contained a sprinkling of polite asides about being ashamed of her own temerity (‘I do blush most immoderately’), but at the end of it she threw caution to the winds: ‘If you disappoint me, attend to my curse: – May the hatred of all the young, beautiful, and virtuous, for ever be your portion! … may you meet with applause only from envious old maids, surly bachelors, and tyrannical parents! may you be doomed to the company of such! and, after death, may their ugly souls haunt you!’

Some people might have been put off by this, but not Richardson. There are no surviving copies of the first letter he sent her directly, but by the end of October 1748 Richardson had written a lengthy defence of his decision to have Clarissa die rather than come to terms with Lovelace, and had gone so far as to call his new correspondent ‘a Daughter of my own Mind’. It isn’t immediately clear why he embarked on the correspondence. He wasn’t short of admiring readers, particularly female ones, with whom he could debate the intricacies of Clarissa’s plotting, and from his mixed responses (aloof, defensive, pained) to Aaron Hill, Colley Cibber and other early readers of the novel in manuscript, it’s evident he didn’t always take well to criticism or suggestions for alterations. There must have been something about Bradshaigh that drew him in and kept him writing, long after her query about Clarissa had been dealt with.

It might have been her cheekiness. She had little time for the niceties of letter writing and addressed him from the start as if they had known each other for years. Finding Richardson implacable on the matter of Clarissa’s death, she wrote peevishly: ‘I am not at all anxious to know what becomes of her wicked Relations. I wish they had all been dead ten years ago. I am indifferent now about every character in the Book.’ A few years later, awaiting the final volume of Sir Charles Grandison, she told him that if there wasn’t a happy ending, ‘why I shall have a fine flameing Bone-fire, that’s all. except that I shall wish you in the midst of it.’ Richardson enjoyed her fits of pique, especially when they were aimed at other people. On two occasions she told him with some glee that she’d been so irritated by another lady’s misreadings of Sir Charles Grandison that ‘I do assure you, I was tempted to throw the Book at her head.’ He didn’t find this hard to imagine. ‘I should not have wondered had your Ladyship broke with the Throw the teazing Creatures Harpsichord.’

‘I love to argue with your Ladiship, and hardly with any-body else,’ Richardson told her as they began one of their many fights about the ending of Sir Charles Grandison. Their correspondence proceeded as a serialised debate – cases stated, disputed points returned to and elaborated on, stalemates grudgingly twisted into compromises. By the summer of 1754 Richardson had taken to numbering his paragraphs ‘that we may the better refer to them, and the easier see what each omits answering to’. They argued about all kinds of things, from the merits of Pope and Swift (few) to the question of prison reform (thorny), but the subjects that most preoccupied them were gendered and social, concerning the proper behaviour of men and women and the dynamics of attraction and courtship.

Richardson incensed her by arguing that a husband could bring any wife – ‘if she be not a vixen indeed’ – to the required state of humility by impressing on her from the outset his prerogative and the hierarchical nature of their relationship (the one a ‘lord’ and the other a ‘vassal’). ‘I am sorry to say it,’ he wrote, ‘but I have too often observed, that fear, as well as love, is necessary, on the lady’s part, to make wedlock happy.’ As he knew she would, Bradshaigh responded angrily. ‘Without being a vixen, indeed,’ she shot back, ‘a woman may behave with dignity, and yet with duty, and, at the same time, despise the man who is mean enough to remind her of his prerogative, and that she is his vas … – What is the ugly word? – I do not understand it. – Why will you write Greek to the unlearned?’

It’s likely she knew what ‘vassal’ meant, but wanted to suggest that though she was no supporter of undue learning in women (to her mind the tell-tale sign of female intellectual over-ambition was a command of ancient languages), she was even less amenable to the idea of an ‘insolent’ husband lording it over his passive and fearful wife. In any case, she could never have been prevailed on to endure this kind of marriage. Even the thickest-skinned of would-be Petruchios would have found it difficult to subdue the ‘vixen’ in her. ‘The bravest, and the most insolent of your insolent sex, could never have brought me to it.’

They differed as strongly on the qualities that made men agreeable husbands. Richardson, one of whose ends in writing Clarissa had been to dispense with the ‘dangerous but too commonly received notion’ that ‘a reformed rake makes the best husband,’ was resolute in his conviction that a man who had always been well-intentioned and good-hearted was infinitely preferable to one who had once been wicked but was now fixed on a course of moral improvement. It would not do, he told Bradshaigh, to reward Lovelace with Clarissa’s hand in marriage; what sort of example would it set to other profligate young men, and to the young women who might now waver before rejecting them? Clarissa needed to present a more thoroughgoing Christian argument than Pamela, in which the heroine’s trials at the hands of the lascivious rake Mr B. conclude with his late change of heart and a wedding. Bradshaigh, meanwhile, in common with a number of other readers who had made similar representations to Richardson, had invested all her hopes in an uplifting conclusion. She had it all worked out: Lovelace, ‘overwhelmed with grief, remorse, and self condemnation’, would fall into a ‘dangerous fever’ and be attended by Clarissa on his deathbed; charitably, she would agree to his dying wish to have their hands joined in marriage; invigorated by the promise of her affections, he would make a full recovery in time to guarantee a long life of ‘mutual and uninterrupted happiness’. Richardson, she was sure, would relish the opportunity this scheme provided of sketching several ‘moving tender scenes’ centred on Lovelace’s deathbed; and she as a reader would look forward to shedding a pleasurable ‘deluge of tears’ at the lovers’ reconciliation.

There were other reasons for saving Lovelace from eternal damnation. Bradshaigh was, she admitted, past her ‘romantic time of life’, but when she picked up a novel she wanted frissons as well as moral instruction. This was difficult to explain to Richardson, who consistently noted his ‘Surprize’ and ‘Concern’ when told that his readers enjoyed his novels for different reasons from the ones he intended, or said he intended. During an exchange in 1751 about the character of the hero in Sir Charles Grandison – Richardson explained Grandison was intended to be an exemplary ‘good man’ – Bradshaigh made it clear that for a hero to appeal to her he needed what she called ‘personal Qualifications’. Worldliness, easy sophisticated manners and elegance in ‘Person and Address’ were attractive outward qualities that could be joined to the requisite inner virtues. ‘Lord, Sir!’ she exclaimed, ‘is there no such thing as a moderate rake? A man may deserve the name of a rake, without being quite an abandoned profligate; as a man may sometimes drink a little too much, without being a sot.’ A few weeks later she was still pushing the point: ‘Lord! Sir, cannot you take the Dress and Address, without the Rake?’

Richardson, ignoring how much a part of her charms Clarissa’s beauty and poise had been, asked Bradshaigh whether she really meant that a hero had to be a libertine in order to ‘qualify himself for the ladies’ favour’. ‘I wish,’ he wrote infuriatingly, ‘we could fix upon the number of times a man might be allowed to be overcome with wine, without being thought a sot. Once a week? Once a fortnight? Once a month?’ Bradshaigh, as usual, took the bait (‘To be sure, I have been provoked beyond my Strength’), but they agreed to disagree, and on receipt of an early instalment of Sir Charles Grandison in manuscript a couple of months later, she wrote that she had found its hero a very agreeable new acquaintance: ‘I make him one of my very best courtesies.’

Bradshaigh was given to identifying with female characters in particular.[*] When Richardson finally dropped the pretence that he was planning to kill off Harriet Byron in order to allow Sir Charles to marry his other love interest, Clementina Porretta, Bradshaigh was full of joy and relief, but couldn’t see the funny side: ‘The joke was nothing more nor less than this, “I’ll write to a friend of mine and tell her by way of amuseing her, that a near, and dear friend of hers is dead.”’ Discussing the novel’s plot with him, she wrote as if she were relaying gossip about mutual friends rather than engaging with a fictional construct. ‘To say the truth Harriet just now looks rather little, I am affraid Sir Charles thinks so. I do not see how he can ever marry.’ The character she identified with most closely was Sir Charles’s badly behaved sister Charlotte, usually referred to as ‘Naughty Charlotte!’ or ‘Wicked Charlotte!’ by her exasperated family. Charlotte was loyal to Harriet but crushingly rude to all those she considered of inferior intelligence, her long-suffering suitor and eventual husband Lord G. in particular.

It was commonly noted among relatives and friends how closely Charlotte’s character seemed to resemble Bradshaigh’s own. ‘I love Charlott, with some few exceptions. I can see you in several of her letters, it is my opinion they are your own words,’ her older sister Lady Echlin told her in 1754. Her childhood friend Diana Ashhurst thought there had never been ‘two Characters so alike’. ‘Charlotte is your very self, till she marry’d … and some of her letters I cou’d almost have sworn had been yours, written in your younger days.’ Richardson was fascinated by various hints – mostly from Lady Echlin – that in her youth Bradshaigh had been so wild as to be practically ungovernable, and demanded she send him ‘a little history’ of her ‘Juvenilities’. ‘I wanted to see what a charming Lady Miss Charlotte Grandison was under Twenty.’ The similarities in character weren’t coincidental. From their letters it’s clear he drew on comic observations she’d made about her circle in Lancashire to provide the basis for mocking comments of Charlotte’s. This put Bradshaigh in the awkward position of having to deny complicity when her friends came across versions of themselves or their foibles being lavishly ridiculed. During a communal reading of the sixth volume of Sir Charles Grandison, she came to a passage she heartily wished she could avoid. Charlotte’s mockery of Aunt Nell’s treasured but rather pathetic letter-case (containing ‘but a few letters’, and filled instead with faded coloured ribbons, patterns and ‘plaisters for a cut finger’) was a suspiciously precise description of an object one of the company possessed. ‘I thought I shou’d have died upon the spot when the letter-case was produced,’ she wrote to Richardson afterwards. ‘“Here (said one of my auditors,) is the very thing, but how he came to have an Inventory of my private stores, I cannot imagine,” and she look’d at me.’

*

Richardson had no intention of writing any more novels after the final volume of Sir Charles Grandison was published, despite loud clamours for more on the Grandisons and the Porrettas from readers who felt cheated by the untied ends of the story. (‘I assure you Sir I do not look upon the History as unfinish’d and have great disputes with those that do,’ Bradshaigh told him, conveying in a roundabout way that this was exactly the way she thought of it.) Richardson instead suggested that his favourite correspondents might work together to produce a composite epilogue volume to the novel. Each of them would ‘assume one of the surviving Characters in the Story’ and write a letter in his or her voice; Richardson would then ‘pick and choose, alter, connect and accommodate’ the patchwork pieces until he had something like a complete narrative. It was no great stretch to decide which character Bradshaigh should be assigned. She had in fact begun an imitation letter in the guise of Charlotte some months earlier but refused to show it to him. The Charlotte letter she now completed, dashed off in a few weeks during the summer of 1754, makes you wish she’d done more. Though heavy-handed in places, it is also funny, characterful and precise, full of curious little descriptive phrases that Richardson picked up and remarked on by return of post (a doted over baby is ‘a little slabbering, flabby substance, not unlike an unfledg’d Rook’; fashionable French shoes produce ‘a Toe, unnaturally fixt to the end of her leg, instead of a foot’). Bradshaigh’s Charlotte, though bent on reformation, is even less well behaved than she is in the published novel, receiving company with her best ‘vinegar face’ and ‘revengeing’ herself on her husband for intruding on her peace with a peremptory ‘box on the ear’.

This letter made formal and explicit a kind of role-play that until this point Bradshaigh and Richardson had engaged in only implicitly. She in particular, but Richardson too, found it difficult to exchange letters about Clarissa or Sir Charles Grandison without getting caught up in the formal equivalences between what they were doing and the epistolary world of the novel – without projecting themselves into the plot, say, or identifying more or less consciously with a particular character’s letter-writing activity. One of the earliest letters she sent him reads like a curious set of allusions to Clarissa’s predicament:

I am in a house full of company, who are wondering at my frequent retirements; so that I can only now and then snatch half an hour to write what at that time comes into my head. Wonder not, therefore, at the incoherence of this tedious epistle; but write I must, or die, for I can neither eat nor sleep till I am disburdened of my load.

Never mind that this ‘house full of company’ was Knowsley Hall, home of her kindly relations, who only ‘wondered’ about her ‘frequent retirements’ because they missed her: in her telling, Knowsley becomes the sinister and claustrophobic Harlowe Place, filled with hostile family members; Richardson takes the place of Clarissa’s intimate confidante, Anna Howe; and ‘write I must, or die’ is the novel’s tragic possibility scrawled casually as sentimental hyperbole.

In other letters, she drew more explicit – and clumsier – parallels. Her husband’s emotional turmoil as he struggled through the miserable sixth volume might, she thought, fairly ‘be compared to what Mr Belford felt when he found the beauteous Sufferer in her Prison Room’. Her own wretchedness easily compared to Clarissa’s. ‘My hand trembles, for I can scarce hold my pen. I am as mad as the poor injured Clarissa,’ she announced in November 1748, after forcing herself to read the grim passage in which Clarissa, waking up from a drug-induced stupor to find herself raped by Lovelace, runs mad and writes ten ‘papers’ – incoherent, allegorical scraps of letters scrawled at wild diagonals up and down the page. Even granting Bradshaigh something of the depth of feeling she claimed, it’s hard to imagine her identifying with Clarissa without a touch of embarrassment; or perhaps it isn’t. ‘I really have done with my fruitless persuasions,’ she told Richardson a couple of weeks later. ‘The deadly blow is struck, as Lovelace says, after the most villainous of acts; you now can go no farther; my dear Clarissa is gone!’ Alluding to the text of the novel (‘you now can go no farther,’ aimed at Richardson, is a version of Lovelace’s ‘And now … I can go no farther’ immediately after the rape) she draws author and rake, reader and heroine together, effectively claiming that Richardson’s storyline has proved just as ‘villainous’ and ‘deadly’ in its effects as Lovelace’s attack on Clarissa, and that the ‘blow’ to her nerves is comparable to Clarissa’s suffering.

Letters in Clarissa aren’t just carriers of plot: they are the plot, serving to change a course of action or accelerate events. Lovelace’s failure to pick up a letter Clarissa leaves for him outside the Harlowes’ house, for instance, compels her to meet him in person and leads to the charade of her abduction; his determination to make the ultimate test of her virtue is steeled when he intercepts a defiant letter from Anna Howe attempting to warn her of his plans and deceptions. In the case of Richardson and Bradshaigh, too, the exchange of letters wasn’t just a vehicle for friendship or a mechanism of politeness; it was their friendship, the substance and plot of the relationship they developed. Richardson hoped to include it as part of a vast edition of his correspondence to be completed before his death, working with Bradshaigh during 1757 and 1758 to amend or excise sensitive passages in the vast bundle of letters they’d exchanged over the previous decade.

In the end he dropped the idea over concerns about confidentiality, and the letters finally came out in 1804, in a collection edited by the poet Anna Letitia Barbauld. Though incomplete (it contains barely a quarter of Richardson’s total correspondence) and full of silent alterations and abridgements, it has until very recently been the only available basis for scholarly work. It is now being replaced by Thomas Keymer and Peter Sabor’s magnificent 12-volume edition of the correspondence, three volumes of which, edited by Sabor, collect Richardson’s letters with Bradshaigh. Their pages represent an extraordinary amount of work – in sorting through and piecing together the muddle of manuscript correspondence, handling Barbauld’s editorial interventions, restoring obliterated passages, redating letters and decoding Bradshaigh’s often eccentric spelling. The annotation is precise and sympathetic; the volumes are beautifully presented. Reading them in sequence, the impression you come away with (and probably the one Richardson would have tried to produce, if he had gone through with his plans for publication) is that author and correspondent liked each other greatly, and were the better for having been friends – better informed, better tempered, better at reading, writing and arguing. Bradshaigh wasn’t often demonstrative (it was novels that brought out the sentimental side of her), but she did once tell Richardson that ‘from my Correspondence with you, & from your excellent writeings, I find my self improved into a much better woman.’

[*] Affective identification, as Abigail Williams suggests in The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the 18th-Century Home (Yale, 368 pp., £30, August, 978 0 300 20829 0), was a predicament that women readers were thought especially susceptible to, and occasioned ‘much moral hand-wringing’ in religious circles.