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

Gentle 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.

Remarkably Jane: Notable Quotations on Jane Austen, by Jennifer Adams: The Sunday Salon Review

Remarkably Jane: Notable Quotations on Jane Austen, by Jennifer Adams (2009)What makes Jane Austen’s writing so extraordinary? Why is she considered by many to be one of the greatest authors in the English language? What does our esteem, or our abhorrence of her reveal about ourselves, and our culture?  

In Remarkably Jane: Notable Quotations on Jane Austen, one hundred personalities from actors to intellectuals have their say on literature’s queen of wit and style offering their own pithy, impassioned and often candid insights on what makes Jane Austen so special and how she influenced their own writing and lives. If you thought that you had already read most of the famous quotes on Austen over the years, then you just might be surprised by what author and editor Jennifer Adams has selected. Here are a few of my favorites to give you a teaser.  

Admirers 

There are some writers who wrote too much. There are others who wrote enough. There are yet others who wrote nothing like enough to satisfy their admirers, and Jane Austen is certainly one of these.” Margaret Drabble, 1974, Novelist 

How did this early-nineteenth-century novelist become the chick-lit, chick-flick queen for today? It is not only because she is an enduring writer. So is Melville, but bumper stickers and T-shirts read “What would Jane do?” not “What would Herman do?” Caryn James, 2007, Film Critic of the New York Times 

I think, the fact that we have fallen in love with Elizabeth Bennet … means, in effect, that we have fallen in love with Jane Austen; and once we do that we are lovers for life.” Frank Swinnerton, 1940, Literary Critic and Novelist 

Nay-sayers 

Edmund and Fanny are both morally detestable and the endorsement of their feelings and behaviour by the author … makes Mansfield Park an immoral book.” Kingsley Amis, 1957, Novelist and Poet 

Jane Austen? I feel I am approaching dangerous ground. The reputation of Jane Austen is surrounded by cohorts of defenders who are ready to do murder for their sacred cause.” Arnold Bennett, 1927, Literary Critic 

The function of the British army in the novels of Jane Austen is to look cute at parties.” Salmon Rushdie, 2005, Novelist, Political Figure 

Since the first reviews of Austen’s novels appeared in the early nineteenth-century, people have been talking about her – good and bad – leaving a rich field of research for author and editor Jennifer Adams to select from. Here she gives us a glimpse of the most famous and well quoted remarks over the centuries and some totally modern and fresh views from contemporary sources that I was not aware of. Included are an interesting mix of prominent scholars, actors, directors and fellow writers such as Helen Fielding, Ang Lee, Colin Firth, Andrew Davies, Emma Thompson, Karen Joy Fowler, Oscar Wilde, Stephanie Meyer, Mark Twain, Andy Rooney, and Charlotte Bronte. The list is quite impressive, giving due deference to this talented writer. Interestingly, I also found a new nugget of wisdom included in the forward by the author herself. 

To those of us who love Jane Austen, she is like the brightness of burnished silver. Something lovely, with sparkle, that makes our world more beautiful. I adore her. I love the pleasure she gives with a well-turned line, the way she can make you actually laugh out loud, the bite of her sarcasm, how she lets you fall in love again and again.” Jennifer Adams 

Not only is Remarkably Jane packed full of illuminating insights, it is presented in a stunningly beautiful gift quality volume with exquisite black and white illustrations reminiscent of Regency drawings, skillfully honoring and acknowledging one of the most beloved and influential English novelists of all time. For sheer joy of laughter and awe, Jennifer Adams has given us a treasure.

Laurel Ann 

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Remarkably Jane: Notable Quotations on Jane Austen, by Jennifer Adams
Gibbs Smith, Layton, UT (2009)
Hardcover, (128) pages
ISBN: 978-1423604785

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Sense and Sensibility: Marianne Dashwood – blushing maiden or feminist?

Closeup of an Illustration by C.E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J.M. Dent & Sons, London (1908)Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object, she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached, and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance. She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments, and had enjoyed the advantage of raising the blushes and the vanity of many a young lady by insinuations of her power over such a young man; and this kind of discernment enabled her soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to pronounce that Colonel Brandon was very much in love with Marianne Dashwood. She rather suspected it to be so, on the very first evening of their being together, from his listening so attentively while she sang to them; and when the visit was returned by the Middletons dining at the cottage, the fact was ascertained by his listening to her again. It must be so. She was perfectly convinced of it. It would be an excellent match, for he was rich and she was handsome. Mrs. Jennings had been anxious to see Colonel Brandon well married, ever since her connection with Sir John first brought him to her knowledge; and she was always anxious to get a good husband for every pretty girl. The Narrator, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 8 

This 1908 watercolor illustration by Charles E. Brock of Mrs. Jennings making Marianne Dashwood blush has always seemed contrary to my vision of her true personality. If she is indeed blushing, it is not from embarrassment of Mrs. Jennings matchmaking, but from aggravation. She is just too much of a lady to look her in the eye and tell her where to go. 

I may be transferring my 21st century sensibilities into the stew, but I have always thought of Marianne as a bit of feminist. She could easily have been a suffragette in the 1890’s or burned her bra in the 1960’s and been proud of it. Her mother and sister Elinor may not approve of her objections to Mrs. Jennings well intended conclusion that she and Colonel Brandon are an excellent match because “he is rich and she is handsome”, but hello, she is 16 and he is 35! I agree with her concerns. He is over the hill in her young romantic idealistic eyes. Jane Austen is of course driving the point through her family that she has no money and should be grateful for such an alliance. Marianne wants love, not a marriage of convenience, a theme that runs through each of Austen’s novels, and her own life. 

In the end, her pursuit of love over social stricture breaks her of her spirit – her romantic ideals. After Willoughby’s rejection, she succumbs to the socially appropriate match – Colonel Brandon. Her sister Elinor who always acted within propriety lucks out and is rewarded by marrying the man that she loves. We are happy for her, but not for Marianne who wanted more and settled for less. If Sense and Sensibility was intended as a moral fable for young ladies lacking sensibility, social sense is also a cruel task master.

*Illustrastion by Charles E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J.M. Dent & Sons, London (1908)

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Jane Austen and the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride and Vanity

Illustration by CE Brock, Persuasion (1894)Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did; nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. The Narrator on Sir Walter Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 1 

As a clergyman’s daughter Jane Austen would have been well aware of the significance of the seven deadly sins, those cardinal vices identified by the Catholic church in the 6th- century and later adopted by other Christian religions as the most offensive and serious of sins against god and humanity.  Listed as luxuria (extravagance, later lust), gula (gluttony), avaritia (greed), acedia (sloth), ira (wrath), invidia (envy), and superbia (pride), they were all egregious offenses that would qualify the sinner to at least one foot in hell unless they confessed and were penitent. This collection, though not identified in the Bible, was in the eyes of the church the foundation of moral corruption and considered mortal sins, a most serious offense threatening eternal damnation. Pretty serious stuff.   

Throughout Jane Austen’s novels, her characters exhibit a wide range of qualities from integrity to dissipation and vice making them very realistic, and not unlike people of our own acquaintance or popular renown. One could say that the struggle against the seven deadly sins is the driving force in her plots and one of the main reasons why people connect with them so readily. Her most popular characters Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice are prime examples of two of the deadly sins, the offence of pride and wrath. Though Austen does not condemn them for it (as the church might), their vices are the whole axis of the story.  

Today we shall look at the sin of pride, also known as vanity which was one of Jane Austen’s most popular choices of the seven deadly sins in her novels. Vanity appears 85 times and pride 111 times. Here are a few choice quotations: 

Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief. Emma 

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny. Emma 

Their vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behaviour, secured and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults. Mansfield Park 

Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Mansfield Park 

Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Northanger Abbey 

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. Northanger Abbey 

In vanity, therefore, she gained but little; her chief profit was in wonder. Northanger Abbey 

It was a struggle between propriety and vanity; but vanity got the better, and then Elizabeth was happy again. Persuasion 

“That is very true,” replied Elizabeth, “and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.” Pride and Prejudice 

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonimously. Pride and Prejudice 

“Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” Pride and Prejudice 

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed.” Pride and Prejudice 

If his own vanity, however, did not mislead him, he was the cause, his pride and caprice were the cause. Pride and Prejudice 

The world had made him extravagant and vain — extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Sense and Sensibility 

Vanity while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Sense and Sensibility 

Of all of Austen’s characters guilty of vanity, Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion is definitely the leading offender. Austen leaves us in no doubt of his priorities in life toward his appearance and how it impacted his family. Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey arrives at a distant second being excessively fond of her clothing and constantly commenting on the inferiority of others choice of fabrics and garments. Who would dare dispute that Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice has the most pride since an entire novel stems from it. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility in my mind is second in offence of pride after Mr. Darcy. She is so arrogant and prideful that she basically evicts her mother-in-law Mrs. Dashwood out of her home after the death of her father-in-law and talks her own husband out of giving them a decent living –  all for her vanity. There are others who come to mind: Miss Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion who is definitely her father’s daughter, Mrs. Elton in Emma who is arrogance and puffery personified, Miss Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park who thinks herself above the truth, and that tactfully bereft General Tilney in Northanger Abbey who ejects poor Catherine Morland out of his house when he learns that she is not as flush as he thought. The list goes on and on with different degrees of offence, but in the end, we can rest assured that Austen does not treat these offenders lightly, passing her judgment according to propriety and her Christian principles.

Which characters do you find prideful and vain, and do you think that Austen portrayed them correctly?