Analysis of Samuel Richardson’s Novels

Perhaps Richardson’s (19 August 1689 – 4 July 1761) most important contribution to the development of the novel was his concern for the nonexceptional problems of daily conduct, the relationships between men and women, and the specific class-and-caste distinctions of mid-eighteenth century England. He sought and found his material from life as he had observed and reflected upon it from childhood and youth as a member of the working class in a highly socially conscious society to his position as an increasingly successful and prosperous printer and publisher. He contemplated this material with passionate interest and recorded it with a kind of genius for verisimilitude that sets him apart from most of his predecessors. What one critic has called Richardson’s “almost rabid concern for the details” of daily life and his continuing “enrichment and complication” of customary human relationship account in large measure for his enormous contemporary popularity: In Pamela, for example, the relationships between Pamela and Squire B. are so persistently grounded in the minutiae of ordinary life as to create a sense of reality seldom achieved in prose fiction prior to Richardson; at the same time, the outcome of the emotional and physical tugs-of-war between the two main characters and the happy outcome of all the intrigue, sensationalism, and hugger-mugger have about them the quality of conventional romantic love.


Richardson learned to know his characters, so intimately, so thoroughly, as to triumph over his prolixity, repetitiveness, moralizing, and sentimentality. Equally important was his development of the epistolary novel. Other writers had used letters as a storytelling device, but few if any of Richardson’s predecessors had approximated his skill in recording the external events and incidents of a narrative along with the intimate and instant revelation of a character’s thought and emotions in the process of their taking place, a method so flowing, so fluid, so flexible, as almost to anticipate the modern technique of stream of consciousness. Richardson’s works, along with those of his three great contemporaries—Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne—prepared the way for the great achievements of the nineteenth century English novel.

Richardson himself stated quite clearly, in his prefaces to Pamela and Clarissa, and in his letters, that his purpose as an author was to depict “real life” and “in a manner probable, natural, and lively.” At the same time, however, he wanted his books to be thought of as instruments of manners and morals intended to “teach great virtues.” Fiction, he insisted, should be useful and instructive; it should edify readers of all ages, but particularly should be relevant and appealing to youth. Richardson observed with passionate interest and recorded with a genius for infinite detail the relationships between men and women, the concerns of daily life, and the particular class and caste distinctions of mid-eighteenth century England. This intense interest in the usual sets him apart from such predecessors as Daniel Defoe or the seventeenth century writers of prose romances. In all of his novels, and particularly, perhaps, in Pamela, the relationship between his main characters has about it the quality of traditional romantic love; at the same time, the novels are so realistically grounded in the accumulation of a mass of day-to-day realistic details as to create a remarkable sense of authenticity. Characteristic of this creation of the illusion of real life is the account, possibly apocryphal, of Pamela’s being read aloud by the local blacksmith to a small group of the village’s inhabitants on the village green; finally, when Pamela’s triumph by her marriage to Squire B. was assured, the villagers indulged in a spree of thanksgiving and merrymaking; it was their Pamela who had conquered.

Richardson, then, was both a conscious, self-avowed realist, and also an equally conscious, self-avowed teacher and moralist. This dualism permeates all three of his novels and is perhaps most apparent—and transparent—in Pamela. It is, indeed, Richardson’s hallmark, and is the source both of his strength and weakness as a novelist.



Reduced to its simplest terms, the “story” or “plot” of the first volume of Pamela is too well known to warrant more than the briefest summary. The heroine, a young servant girl, is pursued by her master, Squire B., but maintains her virginity in spite of his repeated and ingenious efforts, until the would-be seducer, driven to desperation, marries her. Thus is Pamela’s virtue rewarded. The continuation of the novel in volume 2, a decided letdown, is virtually plotless, highly repetitive, and highlighted only by Squire B.’s excursion into infidelity. Volumes 3 and 4, written partly because of Richardson’s indignation with the various parodies of the first volume of Pamela, have even less to recommend them. Labeled as “virtually unreadable” by one modern commentator, even Richardson’s most understanding criticbiographers, T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, have dismissed them as “Richardson at his worst, pompous, proper, proud of himself, and above all dull.”

Despite his frequent excursions into bathos and sentimentality, when he is not indulging in sermonizings on ethics and morality, the Richardson of the first volume of Pamela writes vigorously, effectively, and with keen insight and intimate understanding of his characters. Pamela contains many powerful scenes that linger long in the reader’s memory: the intended rape scene, the sequence in which Pamela considers suicide, even parts of the marriage scene (preceded by some prodigious feats of letter-writing to her parents on the day prior to the wedding, from six o’clock in the morning, half an hour past eight o’clock, near three o’clock [ten pages], eight o’clock at night, until eleven o’clock the same night and following the marriage) are the work of a powerful writer with a keen sense for the dramatic.

In the final analysis, however, the novel succeeds or fails because of its characters, particularly and inevitably that of Pamela herself. From the opening letter in which she informs her parents that her mistress has died and Squire B., her mistress’s son, has appeared on the scene, to the long sequence of her journal entries, until her final victory when her would-be seducer, worn out and defeated in all his attempts to have her without marriage, capitulates and makes the “thrice-happy” Pamela his wife, she dominates the novel.

In effect, and seemingly quite beyond Richardson’s conscious intent, Pamela is two quite different characters. On one hand, she is the attractive and convincing young girl who informs her parents that her recently deceased mistress had left her three pairs of shoes that fit her perfectly, adding that “my lady had a very little foot”; or having been transferred to Squire B.’s Lincolnshire estate, laments that she lacks “the courage to stay, neither can I think to go.” On the other hand, she is at times a rather unconvincing puppet who thinks and talks in pious platitudes and values her “honesty” as a very valuable commodity, a character—in Joseph Wood Krutch’s words—“so devoid of any delicacy of feeling as to be inevitably indecent.”

Squire B. is less interesting than Pamela, and his efforts to seduce Pamela tend to become either boring or amusing. Her father, the Old Gaffer, who would disown his daughter “were she not honest,” similarly frequently verges upon caricature, although one distinguished historian of the English novel finds him extremely convincing; and Lady Davers, Squire B.’s arrogant sister, tends to be more unbelievable than convincing, as do Pamela’s captors, the odious Mrs. Jewkes and the equally repulsive Colbrand.

In spite of its shortcomings, Pamela cannot be dismissed, as one critic has commented, as “only a record of a peculiarly loathsome aspect of bourgeois morality.” Pamela has great moments, scenes, and characters that pass the ultimate test of a work of fiction, that of memorableness: scenes that remain in the reader’s consciousness long after many of the events have become blurred or dimmed. It is equally important historically: Among other things, its popularity helped prepare the way for better novelists and better novels, including what Arnold Bennett was to call the “greatest realistic novel in the world,” Richardson’s Clarissa.



Unlike Pamela, Clarissa did not have its origins in “real life”; his characters, Richardson insisted, were “entirely creatures of his fantasy.” He commenced the novel in the spring or summer of 1744; it was three years in the making, two of which were primarily devoted to revision (it has been said that when his old friend Aaron Hill misread Clarissa, Richardson devoted a year to revising the text for publication). Almost a million words in length, the plot of Clarissa is relatively simple. Clarissa Harlowe, daughter of well-to-do, middle-class parents with social aspirations, is urged by her family to marry a man, Solmes, whom she finds repulsive. At the same time, her sister Arabella is being courted by an aristocrat, Robert Lovelace. Lovelace, attracted and fascinated by Clarissa, abandons his lukewarm courtship of Arabella and, after wounding the girl’s brother in a duel, turns his attention to Clarissa, in spite of her family’s objections. Clarissa lets herself be persuaded; she goes off with Lovelace, who imprisons her in a brothel, where he eventually drugs and rapes her; she finally escapes, refuses the contrite Lovelace’s offers of marriage, and eventually dies. Lovelace, repentant and haunted by his evil act, is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden.

Counterpointing and contrasting with these two major characters are Anna Howe, Clarissa’s closest friend and confidante, and John Belford, Lovelace’s closest friend. Around these four are a number of contrasting minor characters, each of whom contributes to the minutely recorded series of events and climaxes, events which in their barest forms verge upon melodrama, and at times even farce. Even so, the novel in its totality is greater than the sum of its parts: It has about it the ultimate power of Greek tragedy, and Clarissa herself, like the major characters of Greek drama, rises above the occasionally melodramatic or improbable sequences to attain a stature not seen in English prose fiction before, and seldom surpassed since.

Much of the power and the drama of Clarissa grows out of the author’s effective use of contrast—between Clarissa and Anna Howe; between Lovelace and Belford; and between the country life of the upper middle class and the dark, rank side of urban England. This and the richness and variety of incident redeem the sometimes improbable events and lapses into didacticism and give the novel a sense of reality larger than life itself.

In the final analysis, the great strength of the novel is the creation of its two main characters. Clarissa, with her pride and self-reliance, “so secure in her virtue,” whose feelings of shame and self-hatred are such that she begs Lovelace “to send her to Bedlam or a private madhouse” (no less a master than Henry Fielding praised Clarissa’s letter after the rape as “beyond anything I had ever read”), could have degenerated into bathos or caricature but instead attains a level of intensity and reality unique in the novel prior to 1740.

Though Clarissa dominates the novel, Richardson is almost as successful with Lovelace, despite the fact that in the early portions of the novel he seems for the most part like Squire B., just another Restoration rake. His transformation, following his violation of Clarissa, grows and deepens: “One day, I fancy,” he reflects, “I shall hate myself on recollecting what I am about at this instant. But I must stay till then. We must all of us have something to repent of.” Repent he does, after his terse letter announcing the consummation of the rape: “And now, Belford, I can go no further. The affair is over. Clarissa lives.”

Belford, like the reader, is horror-stricken. By the rape, Lovelace has acted not as a man, but as an animal, and his expiation is, in its own way, much more terrible than that of Clarissa, who at times somewhat complacently contemplates her own innocence and eventual heavenly reward. Lovelace remains a haunted man (“sick of myself! sick of my remembrance of my vile act!”) until his death in a duel with Colonel Morden, a death which is really a kind of suicide. The final scene of the novel, and Lovelace’s last words, “Let this Expiate!,” are among the most memorable of the entire novel, and Richardson’s portrayal of a character soiled and tarnished, an eternally damaged soul, is unforgettable.

Sir Charles Grandison

As early as February, 1741, an anonymous correspondent had asked Richardson to write the “history of a Man, whose Life would be the path that we should follow.” By the end of the decade, with Pamela and Clarissa behind him, and influenced by old friends, including Lady Bradshaigh, Richardson began thinking seriously about such a novel. Despite increasing ill health and the continuing demands of his business, he was soon immersed in the project, a novel designed to “present” the character of a “Good Man,” and to show the influence such a character exerted “on society in general and his intimates in particular.” Although he had at one time decided not to publish the novel during his lifetime, the first volumes of Sir Charles Grandison came out in 1753. Even before the seventh and last volume was in print the following year, some critics were stating their dissatisfaction with Sir Charles’s “Unbelievable Perfection,” a criticism Richardson repudiated in a concluding note to the last volume: “The Editor (that is, Richardson himself) thinks human nature has often, of late, been shown in a light too degrading; and he hopes from this series of letters it will be seen that characters may be good without being unnatural.”

Subsequent critical opinion of the novel has varied widely, a few critics considering it Richardson’s masterpiece, while many regard it as his least successful novel. Sir Charles Grandison differs dramatically from its predecessors in its concern with the English upper class and aristocracy, a world which Richardson freely acknowledged he had never known or understood: “How shall a man obscurely situated . . . pretend to describe and enter into characters in upper life?” In setting, too, the novel was a new departure, ranging as it does from England to Italy and including a large number of Italians, highlighted by Clementina, certainly the most memorable character in the novel. The conflict in Clementina’s heart and soul, her subsequent refusal to marry Sir Charles because he is a Protestant, and her ensuing madness are as effective as anything Richardson ever wrote, and far more convincing than Sir Charles’s rescue of Harriett Byron following her abduction by Sir Hargrove Pollexfen and their eventual marriage. Harriett, though not as interesting a character as either Pamela or Clarissa, shares with them one basic habit: She is an indefatigable letter writer, perhaps the most prolific in the history of English prose fiction, at times sleeping only two hours a night and, when not admiring Grandison from afar, writing letters to him (not uncharacteristic of her style is her appeal to the clergyman who is supposed to marry her to Sir Hargrove: “Worthy man . . . save a poor creature. I would not hurt a worm! I love everybody! Save me from violence!”).

Sir Charles himself is similarly less interesting than either Squire B. or Lovelace, and it is difficult today for even the most sympathetic reader to find a great deal to admire in the man who is against masquerades, dresses neatly but not gaudily, is time and time again described as a “prince of the Almighty’s creation,” an “angel of a man,” and “one of the finest dancers in England.” Most of the other characters, including the Italians (with the notable exception of Clementina), are similarly either unconvincing or uninteresting, except for two small masterpieces of characterization: Aunt Nell, Grandison’s maiden aunt; and Lord G., Charlotte Grandison’s husband, a gentle and quiet man, in love with his temperamental wife, often hurt and bewildered by her sharp tongue and brusque actions.

Horace Walpole is said to have written off Sir Charles Grandison as a “romance as it would be spiritualized by a Methodist preacher”; and Lord Chesterfield also dismissed it, adding that whenever Richardson “goes, ultra crepidem, into high life, he grossly escapes the modes.” On the other hand, Jane Austen specifically “singled . . . [it] out for special praise,” and Richardson’s major biographers believe that in Sir Charles Grandison, his “surface realism and his analysis of social situations are at their height.”

Whatever his weaknesses, Richardson was one of the seminal influences in the development of the novel. His impact upon his contemporaries and their immediate successors was profound, not only in England but on the Continent as well, and eventually on the beginnings of the novel in the United States. He popularized the novel of manners as a major genre for several decades, and his use of the epistolary method added another dimension to the art of narrative. Though his novels have frequently suffered in comparison with those of his major contemporary, Henry Fielding, in recent years a renewed interest in and appraisal of Richardson and his work have placed him securely in the ranks of the major English novelists.


Principal long fiction
Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, 1740-1741; Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady, 1747-1748; Sir Charles Grandison, 1753-1754.

Other major works
Nonfiction: The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum: Or, Young Man’s Pocket Companion, 1733; Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions, 1741; A Collection of the Moral and Instructive Sentiments, Maxims, Cautions, and Reflections, Contained in the Histories of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison, 1755; The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, 1804 (Anna Barbauld, editor).

Bloom, Harold, ed. Samuel Richardson. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Brophy, Elizabeth Bergen. Samuel Richardson: The Triumph of Craft. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974
.Bueler, Lois E. Clarissa’s Plots. London: Associated University Presses, 1994.
Doody, Margaret Anne. A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Eaves, T. C. Duncan, and Ben D. Kimpel. Samuel Richardson: A Biography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971.
Golden, Morris. Richardson’s Characters. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963.
Kinkead-Weakes, Mark. Samuel Richardson: Dramatic Novelist. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.
McKillop, Alan Dugald. Samuel Richardson, Printer and Novelist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936.
Myer, Valerie Grosvenor, ed. Samuel Richardson: Passion and Prudence. London: Vision Press, 1986.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Samuel Richardson and the Eighteenth-Century Puritan Character. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972.

Categories: Epistolary Novels, Literature, Novel Analysis

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