‘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.

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[*] 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.