Outlines of English and American Literature Samuel Richardson byLong, William J.
One morning in 1740 the readers of London found a new work for
sale in the bookshops. It was made up of alleged letters from a girl to her
parents, a sentimental girl who opened her heart freely, explaining its
hopes, fears, griefs, temptations, and especially its moral sensibilities.
Such a work of fiction was unique at that time. Delighted readers waited
for another and yet another volume of the same story, till more than a year
had passed and Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded reached its happy ending.
The First Novel
The book made a sensation in England; it was speedily translated, and
repeated its triumph on the other side of the Channel. Comparatively few
people could read it now without being bored, but it is famous in the
history of literature as the first English novel; that is, a story of a
human life under stress of emotion, told by one who understood the tastes
of his own age, and who strove to keep his work true to human nature in all
The author of Pamela, Samuel Richardson (1689--1761), was a very
proper person, well satisfied with himself, who conducted a modest business
as printer and bookseller. For years he had practiced writing, and had
often been employed by sentimental young women who came to him for model
love letters. Hence the extraordinary knowledge of feminine feelings which
Richardson displayed; hence also the epistolary form in which his novels
were written. His aim in all his work was to teach morality and correct
deportment. His strength was in his power to analyze and portray emotions.
His weakness lay in his vanity, which led him to shun masculine society and
to foregather at tea tables with women who flattered him.
Led by the success of Pamela, which portrayed the feelings of a
servant girl, the author began another series of letters which ended in the
eight-volume novel Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady (1748).
The story appeared in installments, which were awaited with feverish
impatience till the agony drew to an end, and the heroine died amid the
sobs of ten thousand readers. Yet the story had power, and the central
figure of Clarissa was impressive in its pathos and tragedy. The novel
would still be readable if it were stripped of the stilted conversations
and sentimental gush in which Richardson delighted; but that would leave
precious little of the story.