Jane Austen and the ‘father of the novel’ – Samuel Richardson

Dear readers, last week I reviewed Lynn Shepherd’s new Austen inspired mystery Murder at Mansfield Park. Not only is she an accomplished novelist, she is a distinguished Samuel Richardson scholar with a new book, Clarissa’s Painter: Portraiture, Illustration, and Representation in the Novels of Samuel Richardson, published by the venerable Oxford University Press. Richardson was Jane Austen’s favorite novelist and I could not pass up the opportunity for Lynn to chat about his impact on her writing and the English novel. This is her generous contribution. Enjoy!

What influence did Samuel Richardson have on novels like Mansfield Park?

Jane Austen’s biographers often have to resort to guesswork and speculation about many aspects of her life, but there’s one thing we do know, and that’s who her favourite author was. According to her nephew, James-Edward Austen-Leigh, her knowledge of Samuel Richardson “was such as no one is likely again to acquire . . . Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of [characters like] Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends.”

Richardson is a literary hero of mine, too, and I always think it’s sad that so few people read him nowadays. Not only because Clarissa, in particular, is one of the great masterpieces of European literature, but because it’s only by reading Richardson that you really understand the tradition Austen was writing in, and where she got some of the inspiration for her books.

So who was Samuel Richardson?

Academics and critics have been arguing for years about who wrote the first English novel. Some argue for Defoe and Robinson Crusoe, others for Fielding, but I’ve always been a firm supporter of Pamela, which Richardson published in 1740.

Pamela is a novel-in-letters, written by a young serving-maid to her parents, in which she describes her master’s attempts to seduce her. But as the subtitle (‘Virtue Rewarded’) suggests, all’s well that ends with a wedding. It sounds pretty standard stuff now, but at the time it was a publishing sensation.  There were 5 editions by the end of 1741, with an estimated 20,000 copies sold. It was also the first book to have what we would now call a ‘promotional campaign’. As a printer himself, Richardson employed all the tricks of the book-trade, including newspaper leaders and celebrity endorsement, and may even have encouraged the publication of a pamphlet that denounced the novel as pornographic, which certainly had a predictably healthy effect on sales!

But if it was Pamela that was ground-breaking, Richardson’s next novel, Clarissa, is the one that really established a new kind of prose fiction in English. This, like all Richardson’s books, is an epistolary novel, and it’s worth remembering that when Austen first put pen to paper seriously herself, she chose exactly this form – first in Lady Susan, and then in Elinor & Marianne, the first version of Sense & Sensibility. Clarissa is the story of a young woman who’s tricked away from her family by the libertine, Robert Lovelace, and eventually raped. The story evolves through two parallel correspondences – Clarissa’s with her friend Anna, and Lovelace’s with his confidant Belford. The depth and subtlety of the psychological characterisation is extraordinary, and you can see immediately why Henry Austen says his sister was such an admirer of “Richardson’s power of creating, and preserving, the consistency of his characters.” However, Clarissa is undeniably a very long read, so if you’d like a taster first, I recommend the BBC adaptation starring Sean Bean. It’s quite old now, but really worth taking a look at.

Sir Charles Grandison

The interesting point about that last quote, though, is that it’s actually about Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson’s last, longest, and least interesting book. All the same it was undeniably Austen’s favourite, and the one that had the most direct influence on her literary technique. As the critic Marilyn Butler has said, “Sir Charles Grandison contributed more than any other single book to the tradition of social comedy… which Jane Austen inherited.” Again and again, you can see Austen using characters and episodes from Richardson, and re-working them for her own purposes. If you’re interested there’s an excellent book on this whole subject by Jocelyn Harris called Jane Austen’s Art of Memory.

The parallels between Grandison and Mansfield Park, in particular, are especially interesting. Both books deal with similar themes, like marriage, education, and the relationships between parents and children, but there are also some striking similarities between many of the characters, notably the respective heroes and heroines – Fanny Price and Harriet Byron, and Edmund Bertram and Sir Charles. For example, both Fanny and Harriet are either literally or effectively orphans, who are adopted by a much richer family: as a result they both acquire two ‘sisters’ and a ‘brother’ they rapidly fall for, even though the man himself is in love with someone else entirely.

There’s no question that Austen loved Sir Charles Grandison, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t prepared to send it up gently. Isabella Tilney famously calls it an ‘amazing horrid book’, and sometime in the 1790s Jane and her niece Anna worked together to turn Richardson’s million-word novel into a ten-minute comic play for the family to perform. Though that’s rather easier than it sounds, because so little actually happens in Grandison: Sir Walter Scott recalled an old lady telling him she always chose to have that book read to her, because “should I drop asleep in course of the reading, I am sure, when I awake, I shall have lost none of the story, but shall find the party, where I left them, conversing in the cedar-parlour.”

One reason I mention this is because it’s something I always say to people who say you should never tinker with a literary classic like Austen, whether by writing sequels or pastiches, or creating new versions based on her works, like my own Murder at Mansfield Park. It’s useful to remind ourselves that Jane Austen did exactly the same thing, using Richardson both as the source text for a youthful skit, and – more seriously – as an important inspiration for her mature novels.  On that basis I think she’d be flattered that nearly 200 years after her death, so many of us still turn to her books to find inspiration for new work of our own.

Fast facts about the ‘Father of the Novel’

  • Born near Derby in 1689, Richardson was married twice and had six sons and six daughters, of whom only four girls survived.  His education was limited, but he became an extremely successful printer in London, not putting pen to paper on his own account until he was 50.
  • At the age of 13, Richardson was making money writing love-letters for young women he knew, an experience he claimed gave him his knowledge of the female heart.
  • When the villagers of Slough read of Pamela’s wedding in the newspaper they ran the church bell in celebration.
  • You can actually read Clarissa in ‘real time’, starting on January 10th, and finishing on December 18th.

They said…

“This Richardson is a strange fellow. I heartily despise him, and eagerly read him, nay, sob over his works in a most scandalous manner.” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

“If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment”.  Samuel Johnson

He said…

“I thought [if Pamela were] written in an easy and natural manner… [it] might possibly introduce a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing”

Want to find out more?

There are good basic introductions to Richardson and his novels here:

The site below is also really interesting. Richardson didn’t just publish the first English novel, but the first illustrated novel too. He took advantage of Pamela’s runaway success by issuing a lavish ’collector’s edition’ two years later (though there were pirate illustrated versions before that). Richardson went to great expense to commission his own illustrations from two of the leading book engravers of the time. It’s fascinating to see him using these images as a way of ensuring that readers only saw ‘his’ version of Pamela the demure and virtuous heroine, and not – like many of his contemporaries, including Henry Fielding – “a pert little minx, whom any man of common sense or address might have had on his own terms in a week”!


Lynn Shepherd studied English at Oxford, and later went on to do a doctorate on Samuel Richardson, which has now been published by Oxford University Press. She’s also a passionate Jane Austen fan, and has just published Murder at Mansfield Park. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter as GhostingAusten.

16 thoughts on “Jane Austen and the ‘father of the novel’ – Samuel Richardson

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  1. I’ve never loved Richardson for his prolixity . I totally agree with Dr Johnson :”If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.” Then I can’t bear his strict puritan outlook and his tendency to exaggerated sentimentalism.
    Though, I’ve always found extraordinary both his ability to create psychological depth and his talent to give a multifaceted vision of the same reality through the epistolary novel with different points of view.
    I studied Pamela at university but never read the whole Clarissa nor Sir Charles Grandison.
    I’ve seen the old BBC adaptation of Clarissa with Sean Bean as Lovelace only recently , I’ve read parts of my 3-book edition after watching it and , of course, I listened to the BBC4 radio drama in which Richard Armitage played Lovelace.
    I didn’t change my mind on Richardson’s prose and I still find it impossible to sympathize with his Clarissa. Naturally, I can see how great an influence he had on Jane Austen as a writer , but I think she only took from him the best features in his work, leaving aside the unbearable ones. The result is her brilliant, delightful style.
    Great posting, really interesting. Thank you, Lynn & Laurel Ann.


  2. Thank you both for this lovely and informative post! – I have had a ‘Clarissa’ sitting on my bedside table for years and cannot bring myself to read it – just dust it off occasionally and drag it out to show friends the book I am NOT currently reading – it always draws a great chuckle – it is HUGE! I love the idea of reading it in ‘real time’ and can now look forward to January 10th!


  3. I haven’t read any of Richardson’s work, but I have watched and listened to the adaptations of Clarissa. It is actually a powerful psychological drama, in that the struggles of the protagonists are as much internal as external. And I appreciate the fact that the protagonists are the root of two literary prototypes: the irredeemable rake and the long suffering heroine. But I think my problem is that I didn’t sympathize with any of the characters (in the adaptations, anyway). He was too bad and she was too good… and the family and friends around them were either too antagonistic or unhelpful… ack!

    But your post has renewed my interest, especially regarding his influence on Austen. I had to laugh when we were reading Sanditon and the character Sir Edward Denham fancied himself a Lovelace… when he was so not! =D Oh, Austen and her sharp wit…

    Question: are the black and white illustrations the ones commissioned by Richardson for Pamela?

    Perhaps like Deb, I will attempt the ‘real time’ challenge on Jan 10! =)


    1. Hi Joanna – Yes, the black and white illustrations are from the 1740 edition of Pamela engraved by Hubert Francois Bourguignon, (1699-1773) aka Gravelot. Got them off the net. :-) They are just a sampling. Many others.


  4. Clarissa was recently dramatized on BBC radio in 4 episodes. I have not read the book, and I have only seen parts of Sean Beans performance as Robert Lovelace. The BBC radio drama was wonderful. I really enjoyed Richard Armitage as Robert Lovelace, Zoe Waites as Clarissa. Each week brought you further into their story that Samuel Richardson created. It had a wonderful cast. It was my first exposure to Samuel Richardson and his work. You can hear excerpts from the play online.


  5. Great write-up on Richardson,ladies! For years,I’ve been trying to find a copy of Sir Charles Grandison to read,mainly because it was Austen’s favorite but the only editions around are “beyond my means” there.

    Clarissa should be satisfying enough,I suppose,but it is a huge undertaking-maybe checking out the miniseries first will help to encourage me to dive into such a massive work.


  6. Absolutley wonderful post! I did not know of Richardson’s influence on Austen and like many admit to not reading his books. How big of a tome is Calrissa, War & Peace size or larger? I have not seen the Sean Bean version and being in the U.S. sadly means no BBC radio either. Was the Bean version ever shown in the states and is it available on DVD? I also second RegencyRomantic’s question regarding the illustrations.

    I am so glad to have recently found the Austenprose blog earlier this month and I have already added Lynn Sheperd’s Austenesque mysteries to my list.


    1. Hi Dawn, the illustrations are from Pamela. Clarissa staring Sean Bean is available on DVD. I rented my recent viewing from Netflix.

      I have to agree with RegencyRomantic in that I did not sympathize with either of the main characters, but I have only seen the movie. Like Janeite Deb, my edition is unread, but farther than my nightstand and on a low bookshelf so as not to tip my bookcase which must weigh an additional ten pounds because of it! I am tempted to read Pamela. Its not so daunting.

      The rape scene in Clarissa must have scandalized society at the time. I have the BBC radio production with Richard Armitage on the back burner too. Eventually, I will get to all of these and am tempted to read Clarissa in real time as Lynn suggests.


  7. Thank you so much for this post! Surely I must be one of the few non-English majors alive who has read both Clarissa and Pamela (though not Sir Charles Grandison.) I’ve always loved the 18th c. epistolary novels for their insights and language, if not for the plots. Can you imagine the same stories told as tweets today? A fifty-page novella….

    Thank you, too, for linking Richardson to Austen. So many readers see her as having sprung as a fully-born genius on her own, without any antecedents. Understanding her influences – and how she transformed them – makes her gift all the more special.


  8. I enjoyed reading how Richardson’s works influenced Austen. I haven’t read any of the novels. I have watched the BBC Clarissa after renting it. I guess I look at it with a much simplified approach. I found Lovelace a disgusting reprobate. Rape can truly cause a young woman to have some serious issues. I don’t know how accurate the movie to the book, but basically she caused her own death. How sad an outcome for some fools greed and desire. Her reputation meant a lot to her and in the movie she seems to be trying to find a way out of this abominable situation. I enjoyed that Lovelace’s friend seems to turn on him in the end. Romance today just as then truly can be heart wrenching. Just because we live in different times doesn’t make it any less emotional an issue. I did enjoy the drama due to the explicit depth of the characters. But I’ve found with enough depressing and frustrating, irritating situations in life (watch the news) I enjoy Austen’s novels because normally there is some sort of happy ending at the close.


  9. Richardson is that writer who I always mean to read but never seem to actually do it. I know the stories but can’t seem to plow through the books. Maybe I’ll make it a new Year’s resolution for 2011 (is August to early to think like that?). Thanks for the very informative post. I’m looking forward to reading Murder at Mansfield Park, which is sitting on my desk now.


  10. When I was young and had lots of time, I set myself on a quest to find and read the longest novel ever written. I don’t know whether Clarissa is it, but it must come close!

    So glad I did because I loved all three of these novels. I have to admit I’m with Jane – Sir Charles was my favorite. (Despite the fact his secondary heroine tried my patience severely.) I think probably because I’m a sucker for an HEA.

    This is the first time I’m hearing about the connection between these two authors. Thank you for the illuminating post, Lynn!



  11. I never knew that Jane was so inspired by Samuel Richardson! I may have to take a look at Sir Charles Grandison. Thank you for the wonderfully informative post, Lynn! :)


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