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.

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd – A Review

Mansfield Park is considered (by some) to be the dark horse of Jane Austen’s oeuvre and her heroine Fanny Price intolerable. Poor Fanny. She really gets the bum’s rush in Austenland. The patron saint of the weak, insipid and downtrodden, she is Jane Austen’s most misunderstood heroine. In fact, many dispute if she is the heroine of Mansfield Park at all, giving that honor to the evil antagonist Mary Crawford.

Much has been debated over why Austen’s dark and moralistic novel has not been embraced as warmly as its sparkling siblings. Personally, I delight in reading Mansfield Park and root for Fanny Price’s principles to prevail. So when I read a book announcement last July that Jane Austen’s classic would be re-imagined as a murder mystery “whereas Fanny is quite a pain in the arse in Austen’s version, Lynn’s [Shepherd] Fanny is an outrageous gold-digger”, my rankles were ired. First it was zombies in my Austen, then vampires and now my gentle Fanny was under attack. What next?

Reading Murder at Mansfield Park with a chip on my shoulder made for a difficult beginning. I was resistant and confused by all the character changes. Shepherd mixes up Austen’s classic story by switching the protagonist and antagonist, morphing other characters and plot points and spotlighting the murder instead of the moralistic undertones that Austen chose to soft shoe her narrative. This was Austen’s setting but in an alternate universe. Meek, poor and principled Fanny Price was egotistical, rich and underhanded. Selfish, coquettish and manipulative Mary Crawford was generous, demure and obliging. Edmund was no longer a Bertram but the son of Rev & Mrs. Norris, now rich gentry. Henry Crawford was no longer an estate owner but a renovator of estates. There were the familiar private theatricals, the gift necklace and ball, the excursion to view a picturesque estate, and the elopement, but all tweaked and scrambled. There are other changes, but you get my drift. If Mansfield Park nay sayers wanted a complete renovation, this was it. The only constant between both novels was the officious and abrasive Mrs. Norris. Obviously Shepherd knew a good/bad thing when she saw it, and let her be.

I was immediately charmed by Shepherd’s command of Regency-era language. Not since Diana Birchall’s Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma have we been treated to such effusions of fanciful Austenesque styling. As the prose eloquently rolled through the first few chapters I set aside my resistance to change and began to appreciate the craft behind the concept of turning everything we knew about Austen’s characters and plot completely asunder. This was a pastiche written with great respect for the original by an author who understood the novel as it was evolving during the early nineteenth-century and had a superior command of the language.

When the insulting and underhanded Fanny Price is finally bumped off half way through the book, few will grieve and many will cheer. She had now become Shepherd’s Fanny and not Austen’s, so it is all forgivable. Enter thief-taker Charles Maddox hired by Tom Bertram to sleuth out the criminal and the novel becomes a murder mystery. Since I have a penchant for handsome and clever gumshoes who swoop in and put the world to right, it was an easy step to acquiescence. Shepherd had achieved the impossible by renovating Jane and totally charming me in the process. Her characterization of Henry Crawford proclaimed that it was his “role is to improve upon nature, to supply her deficiencies, and create the prefect prospect that should have been the imperfect one that is.” I will argue that Lynn Shepherd has accomplished just the same.

5 out 5 Regency Stars

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd
St. Martin’s Press (2010)
Trade paperback (384) pages
ISBN: 978-0312638344

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Austen Book Sleuth: New Books in the Queue for July 2010

The Jane Austen book sleuth is happy to inform Janeites that many Austen inspired books are heading our way in July, so keep your eyes open for these new titles.

Fiction (prequels, sequels, retellings, variations, or Regency inspired)

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd

Mansfield Park is considered (by some) to be the dark horse of Austen’s oeuvre and her heroine Fanny Price weak and insipid. I do not agree, but the majority of readers might find this new novel an improvement since the narrative is “renovated” (not unlike Sotherton) and Fanny gets bumped off. Shepherd mixes up Austen’s classic story by switching the protagonist and antagonist, morphing other characters and plot points and spotlighting the murder instead of the the moralistic undertones that Austen chose to soft shoe her narrative. Personally, secondary to Jane Austen, I enjoy a good murder mystery, so this reader is quite charmed at the possibility of having both together. (Publishers description) In this ingenious new twist on Mansfield Park, the famously meek Fanny Price–whom Jane Austen’s own mother called “insipid”–has been utterly transformed; she is now a rich heiress who is spoiled, condescending, and generally hated throughout the county. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is now as good as Fanny is bad, and suffers great indignities at the hands of her vindictive neighbor. It’s only after Fanny is murdered on the grounds of Mansfield Park that Mary comes into her own, teaming-up with a thief-taker from London to solve the crime. Featuring genuine Austen characters–the same characters, and the same episodes, but each with a new twist – Murder at Mansfield Park is a brilliantly entertaining novel that offers Jane Austen fans an engaging new heroine and story to read again and again. St. Martin’s Griffin, Trade Paperback (384) pages, ISBN: 978-0312638344

Review of Murder at Mansfield Park in the Sterling Observer

Austen’s Oeuvre

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, illustrator Chris Hammond, introduction by Joseph Jacobs

Dover has done it again! They have taken a classic Victorian illustrated edition of a Jane Austen novel and reproduced the interior exactly offering the book lover the next best thing to the original. Their first volume in this series of hardback collector editions was Pride and Prejudice. For any of you who collect vintage Austen editions it is a reproduction of the popular and pricey 1894 ‘Peacock’ edition illustrated by Hugh Thomson. This edition of Sense and Sensibility illustrated by Chris Hammond is even more beautiful and my personal favorite Victorian edition of a Jane Austen novel. Enjoy! (Publishers description) A delightful comedy of manners, this novel concerns the romantic travails of two sisters, who struggle to balance passion and prudence. It abounds in the author’s customary wit and engaging characterizations. This handsome hardcover gift edition features a dust jacket and more than 60 charming drawings by a leading Victorian-era illustrator. Dover Publications, Hardcover (416) pages, ISBN: 978-0486477435.

Audiobooks

The Watsons/Sanditon (Naxos Complete Classics), by Jane Austen, read by Anna Bentinck

Now available outside of the audio collection Jane Austen: the Complete Novels, readers can listen to two of Austen’s unfinished works professionally produced and read by BBC Radio personality Anna Bentinck. They are gems, and you might be pleasantly surprised. (Publishers description) One abandoned, one unfinished, these short works show Austen equally at home with romance (a widowed clergyman with four daughters must needs be in search of a husband or two in The Watsons) and with social change (a new, commercial seaside resort in Sanditon). Typically touching, funny, charming and sharp. Naxos AudioBooks, 4 CDs, 4h 29m, ISBN: 978-9626342817

Read my review of The Watsons/Sanditon

Austen’s Contemporaries & Beyond

Helen, by Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was a major “best selling” novelist of her day, surpassing many of her male counterparts. Jane Austen admired her so much that she sent one of the 12 presentation copies of Emma that she received from her publisher even though they had never corresponded or met. Regretfully, Austen did not have the opportunity to read Helen since she died in 1817, but you can judge for yourself why she and her contemporaries valued Edgeworth and why she merits this re-issue of her 1834 novel. (Publishers description) The last and most psychologically powerful novel by Jane Austen’s leading rival, the newly orphaned Helen Stanley is urged to share the home of her childhood friend Lady Cecilia. This charming socialite, however, is withholding secrets and soon Helen is drawn into a web of ‘white lies’ and evasions that threaten not only her hopes for marriage but her very place in society. A fascinating panorama of Britain’s political and intellectual elite in the early 1800s and a gripping romantic drama, Helen was the inspiration for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Sort of Books, Trade paperback (544) pages, ISBN: 9780956003898

Review of Helen in the Scotland Herald

Until next month, happy reading!

Laurel Ann

Austen Tattler: News and Gossip on the Net: Issue No 9

“All that she wants is gossip, and she only likes me now because I supply it.” Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 31

April 12th – 18th, 2010

Hot News of the Week:

New author Jenni James of Northanger Alibi, a modern retelling of Northanger Abbey influenced by Twilight, lands the Austenesque book publicity coup of the decade! Wow. This might be a first for Austen on TV.

Noteworthy:

Author and Janeite Catherine Delors features Jane Austen’s juvenilia The History of England and directs us to the original manuscript viewable online at The British Museum website.

The beautiful new hardback editions of Penguin Classics are featured in a Elle Decor article including Jane Austen’s Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.

Interview of Monica Fairview, author of The Darcy Cousins at Austenprose. Swag contest ends 23 April 2010.

Author Jane Odiwe of Austen Sequels Blog features a preview of the new debut novel First Impressions, by Alexa Adams.

Regency Mourning Fashions in England by Vic Sanborn of Jane Austen’s World is featured in the Suite 101.com online repository of insightful writers and informed readers.

Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe’s favorite Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho that they read together in Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey is highlighted on Jane Greensmith’s blog Reading, Writing, Playing in a great post on The Gothic Novel.

Shameless self promotion here, but Maria Grazia has interviewed moi for her lovely blog Fly High. Leave a comment and enter a chance to win your choice of selected Austenesque books. Ends 25 April, 2010.

Another interview of note is of Vera Nazarian, author of Mansfield Park and Mummies at Jane Austen’s World.

Vote for your favorite Pride and Prejudice book cover from my top ten favorites. As of today, there is a dead tie between White’s Publishings lovely new release showing a graphic rep of Regency dancers from the waist down and the classic cover design by Hugh Thomson for the 1894 peacock edition of P&P.

Deb at Jane Austen in Vermont blog posts info on Soethby’s The English Country House auction results. Oh my. Beautiful Regency-era items, but the prices Lousia!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane invented baseball since she mentioned it in her novel Northanger Abbey. Doubtful? Read further proof in the third installment of posts by Mags at AustenBlog.

Entertainment:

British actor Elliot Cowan (Mr. Darcy in Lost in Austen 2009) opens in The Scottish Play in London next week. Read about the lore and superstition behind the Shakespeare play that we dare not mention.

The Jane Austen Story opened at Winchester Cathedral on 10 April, 2010. Read more about this new exhibit spotlighting Jane Austen’s burial place and life in Hampshire that will run until 20 September 2010.

The Los Angeles Times Book Festival has always been a lively affair and this year one of the guest speakers is author/editor Susannah Carson of the Austen anthology A Truth Universally Acknowledged that we reviewed and enjoyed. Jane Austen Today has a featured article on the the LA  festival which makes me homesick for outdoor book fairs that I frequented while I lived in California. *sigh*

New Austenesque Book Announcements:

A Weekend with Mr. Darcy, by Victoria Connelly — 16 Sep 2010

Book Reviews:

Until next week, happy Jane sighting.

Laurel Ann

Share

Murder at Mansfield Park: Fanny Price Now an Outrageous Gold-digger in a new Austen Re-imaging

Mansfield Park (Barnes & Noble Classics), by Jane AustenJane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park will be next up for a literary mash-up.

Bookseller.com reports that Beautiful Books, a London based publisher announced today that they have purchased Murder at Mansfield Park, a whodunit by Lynn Shepherd.

Based on Jane Austen’s classic novel Mansfield Park, the murder mystery re-imagines Austen’s classic story re-casting gentle and principled heroine Fanny Price as “ambitious, scheming and relentlessly focused”, while anti-heroine Mary Crawford “suffers great indignities from her mean neighbour”.

And now, a bit of self hype by the publisher.

Simon Petherick, managing director of Beautiful Books, described the book as “fantastic” and “tremendous fun”. He added: “The really good thing about it is that linguistically, it’s very accurate, and she picks up on all the key themes that appeared in the original . . . But whereas Fanny is quite a pain in the arse in Austen’s version, Lynn’s Fanny is an outrageous gold-digger.”

From what we can gather, this is an original manuscript and not a true mash-up inserting new bits into Jane Austen’s original text like we saw in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Calling Fanny Price a pain in the arse is a bit crude, but honestly, we are just relieved that there are no monster or alien invasions in it.