[This is taken from Leslie Stephens' Hours in a Library.]
The literary artifice, so often patronised by Lord Macaulay of describing a character by a series of paradoxes, is of course, in one sense, a mere artifice. It is easy enough to make a dark grey black and a light grey white, and to bring the two into unnatural proximity. But it rests also upon the principle which is more of a platitude than a paradox, that our chief faults often lie close to our chief merits. The greatest man is perhaps one who is so equably developed that he has the strongest faculties in the most perfect equilibrium, and is apt to be somewhat uninteresting to the rest of mankind. The man of lower eminence has some one or more faculties developed out of all proportion to the rest, with the natural result of occasionally overbalancing him. Extraordinary memories with weak logical faculties, wonderful imaginative sensibility with a complete absence of self-control, and other defective conformations of mind, supply the raw materials for a luminary of the second order, and imply a predisposition to certain faults, which are natural complements to the conspicuous merits.
Such reflections naturally occur in speaking of one of our greatest literary reputations, whose popularity is almost in an inverse ratio to his celebrity. Every one knows the names of Sir Charles Grandison and Clarissa Harlowe. They are amongst the established types which serve to point a paragraph; but the volumes in which they are described remain for the most part in undisturbed repose, sleeping peacefully amongst Charles Lamb's biblia a-biblia, books which are no books, or, as he explains, those books 'which no gentleman's library should be without.' They never enjoy the honours of cheap reprints; the modern reader shudders at a novel in eight volumes, and declines to dig for amusement in so profound a mine; when some bold inquirer dips into their pages he generally fancies that the sleep of years has been somehow absorbed into the paper; a certain soporific aroma exhales from the endless files of fictitious correspondence. This contrast, however, between popularity and celebrity is not so rare as to deserve special notice. Richardson's slumber may be deeper than that of most men of equal fame, but it is not quite unprecedented. The string of paradoxes, which it would be easy to apply to Richardson, would turn upon a different point. The odd thing is, not that so many people should have forgotten him, but that he should have been remembered by people at first sight so unlike him. Here is a man, we might say, whose special characteristic it was to be a milksop—who provoked Fielding to a coarse hearty burst of ridicule—who was steeped in the incense of useless adulation from a throng of middle-aged lady worshippers—who wrote his novels expressly to recommend little unimpeachable moral maxims, as that evil courses lead to unhappy deaths, that ladies ought to observe the laws of propriety, and generally that it is an excellent thing to be thoroughly respectable; who lived an obscure life in a petty coterie in fourth-rate London society, and was in no respect at a point of view more exalted than that of his companions. What greater contrast can be imagined in its way than that between Richardson, with his second-rate eighteenth-century priggishness and his twopenny-tract morality, and the modern school of French novelists, who are certainly not prigs, and whose morality is by no means that of tracts? We might have expected à priori that they would have summarily put him down, as a hopeless Philistine. Yet Richardson was idolised by some of their best writers; Balzac, for example, and George Sand, speak of him with reverence; and a writer who is, perhaps, as odd a contrast to Richardson as could well be imagined—Alfred de Musset—calls 'Clarissa' le premier roman du monde. What is the secret which enables the steady old printer, with his singular limitation to his own career of time and space, to impose upon the Byronic Parisian of the next century? Amongst his contemporaries Diderot expresses an almost fanatical admiration of Richardson for his purity and power, and declares characteristically that he will place Richardson's works on the same shelf with those of Moses, Homer, Euripides, and other favourite writers; he even goes so far as to excuse Clarissa's belief in Christianity on the ground of her youthful innocence. To continue in the paradoxical vein, we might ask how the quiet tradesman could create the character which has stood ever since for a type of the fine gentleman of the period; or how from the most prosaic of centuries should spring one of the most poetical of feminine ideals? We can hardly fancy a genuine hero with a pigtail, or a heroine in a hoop and high-heeled shoes, nor believe that persons who wore those articles of costume could possess any very exalted virtues. Perhaps our grandchildren may have the same difficulty about the race which wears crinolines and chimney-pot hats.
It is a fact, however, that our grandfathers, in spite of their belief in pigtails, and in Pope's poetry, and other matters that have gone out of fashion, had some very excellent qualities, and even some genuine sentiment, in their compositions. Indeed, now that their peculiarities have been finally packed away in various lumber-rooms, and the revolt against the old-fashioned school of thought and manners has become triumphant instead of militant, we are beginning to see the picturesque side of their character. They have gathered something of the halo that comes with the lapse of years; and social habits that looked prosaic enough to contemporaries, and to the generation which had to fight against them, have gained a touch of romance. Richardson's characters wear a costume and speak a language which are indeed queer and old-fashioned, but are now far enough removed from the present to have a certain piquancy; and it is becoming easier to recognise the real genius which created them, as the active aversion to the forms in which it was necessarily clothed tends to disappear. The wigs and the high-heeled shoes are not without a certain pleasing quaintness; and when we have surmounted this cause of disgust, we can see more plainly what was the real power which men of the most opposite schools in art have recognised. Readers whose appetite for ancient fiction is insufficient to impel them to a perusal of 'Clarissa' may yet find some amusement in turning over the curious collection of letters published with a life by Mrs. Barbauld in 1804. Nowhere can we find a more vivid picture of the social stratum to which Richardson belonged. We take a seat in the old gentleman's shop, or drop in to take a dish of tea with him at North End, in Hammersmith. We learn to know them almost as well as we know the literary circle of the next generation from Boswell or the higher social sphere from Horace Walpole—and it is a pleasant relief, after reading the solemn histories which recall the struggles of Walpole and Chesterfield and their like, to drop in upon this quiet little coterie of homely commonplace people leading calm domestic lives and amusingly unconscious of the political and intellectual storms which were raging outside. Richardson himself was the typical industrious apprentice. He was the son of a London tradesman who had witnessed with due horror the Popish machinations of James II. Richardson, born just after the Revolution, had been apprenticed to a printer, married his master's daughter, set up a fairly successful business, was master of the Stationers' Company in 1754, and was prosperous enough to have his country box, first at North End and afterwards at Parson's Green. He never learned any language but his own. He had taken to writing from his infancy; he composed little stories of an edifying tendency and had written love-letters for young women of his acquaintance. From his experience in these departments he acquired the skill which was afterwards displayed in 'Pamela' and his two later and superior novels. We hear dimly of many domestic trials: of the loss of children, some of whom had lived to be 'delightful prattlers,' of 'eleven affecting deaths in two years.' Who were the eleven remains unknown. His sorrows have long passed into oblivion, unless so far as the sentiment was transmuted into his writings. We do not know whether it was from calamity or constitutional infirmity that he became a very nervous and tremulous little man. He never dared to ride, but exercised himself on a 'chamber-horse,' one of which apparently wooden animals he kept at each of his houses. For years he could not raise a glass to his lips without help. His dread of altercations prevented him from going often among his workmen. He gave his orders in writing that he might not have to bawl to a deaf foreman. He gave up 'wine and flesh and fish.' He drew a capital portrait of himself, for the benefit of a lady still unknown to him, who recognised him by its help at a distance of 'above three hundred yards.' His description is minute enough: 'Short; rather plump than emaciated, notwithstanding his complaints; about 5 foot 5 inches; fair wig, lightish cloth coat, all black besides; one hand generally in his bosom, the other, a cane in it, which he leans upon under the skirts of his coat usually, that it may imperceptibly serve him as a support when attacked by sudden tremors or startings and dizziness, which too frequently attack him, but, thank God, not so often as formerly; looking directly foreright, as passers by would imagine, but observing all that stirs on either hand of him without moving his short neck; hardly ever turning back; of a light-brown complexion; teeth not yet failing him; smoothish-faced and ruddy cheeked; at some times looking to be about sixty-five, at others much younger' (really sixty); 'a regular even pace stealing away ground rather than seeming to rid it; a grey eye, too often overclouded by mistinesses from the head; by chance lively—very lively it will be if he have hopes of seeing a lady whom he loves and honours; his eye always on the ladies; if they have very large hoops, he looks down and supercilious and as if he would be thought wise, but perhaps the sillier for that; as he approaches a lady his eye is never fixed first upon her face, but upon her feet and thence he raises it up pretty quickly for a dull eye; and one would think (if we thought him at all worthy of observation) that from her air and the last beheld (her face) he sets her down in his mind as so and so, and then passes on to the next object he meets; only then looking back, if he greatly likes or dislikes, as if he would see if the lady appear to be all of a piece in the one light or the other.' After this admirable likeness we can appreciate better the two coloured engravings in the letters. Richardson looks like a plump white mouse in a wig, at once vivacious and timid. We see him in one picture toddling along the Pantiles at Tunbridge-Wells, in the neighbourhood of the great Mr. Pitt and Speaker Onslow and the bigamous Duchess of Kingston and Colley Cibber and the cracked and shrivelled-up Whiston and a (perhaps not the famous) Mr. Johnson in company with a bishop. In the other, he is sitting in his parlour with its stiff old-fashioned furniture and a glimpse into the garden, reading 'Sir Charles Grandison' to the admirable Miss Mulso, afterwards Mrs. Chapone, and a small party, inclusive of the artist, Miss Highmore, to whom we owe sincere gratitude for this peep into the past. Richardson sits in his 'usual morning dress,' a kind of brown dressing-gown with a skull-cap on his head, filling the chair with his plump little body, and raising one foot (or has the artist found difficulties in planting both upon the ground?) to point his moral with an emphatic stamp.
Many eminent men of his time were polite to Richardson after he had won fame at the mature age of fifty. He was not the man to presume on his position. He was 'very shy of obtruding himself on persons of condition.' He never rose like Pope, whose origin was not very dissimilar, to speak to princes and ministers as an equal. He was always the obsequious and respectful shopkeeper. The great Warburton wrote a letter to his 'good sir'—a phrase equivalent to the two fingers of a dignified greeting—suggesting, in Pope's name and his own, a plan for continuing 'Pamela.' She was to be the ingenuous young person shocked at the conventionalities of good society. Richardson sensibly declined a plan for which he was unfitted; and in 1747 Warburton condescended to write a preface to 'Clarissa Harlowe,' pointing out (very superfluously!) the nature of the intended moral. Warburton afterwards took offence at a passage in the same book which he took to glance at Pope; and Richardson was on friendly terms with two authors, Edwards, of the 'Canons of Criticism,' and Aaron Hill, who were among the multitudinous enemies of Warburton and his patron Pope. Hill's letters in the correspondence are worth reading as illustrations of the old moral of literary vanity. He expresses with unusual naïveté the doctrine, so pleasant to the unsuccessful, that success means the reverse of merit. Pope's fame was due to personal assiduities, and 'a certain bladdery swell of management.' It is already passing away. He does not speak from jealousy, for nobody ever courted fame 'with less solicitude than I.' But for all that, there will come a time! He knows it on a surer ground than vanity. Let us hope that this little salve to self-esteem never lost its efficacy. Surely of all prayers the most injudicious was that of Burns, that we might see ourselves as others see us. What would become of us? Richardson, as we might expect, was highly esteemed by Young of the 'Night Thoughts,' and by Johnson, to both of whom he seems to have given substantial proofs of friendship. He wrote the only number of the 'Rambler' which had a good sale, and helped Johnson when under arrest for debt; Johnson repaid him by the phrase, which long passed for the orthodox decision, that Richardson taught the passions to move at the command of virtue. But the most delightful of Richardson's friends was the irrepressible Colley Cibber. Mrs. Pilkington, a disreputable adventuress, faintly remembered by her relations to Swift, describes Cibber's reception of the unpublished 'Clarissa.' 'The dear gentleman did almost rave. When I told him that she (Clarissa) must die, he said G—— d—— him if she should, and that he should no longer believe Providence or eternal wisdom or goodness governed the world if merit and innocence and beauty were to be so destroyed. "Nay," added he, "my mind is so hurt with the thought of her being violated, that were I to see her in heaven, sitting on the knees of the blessed Virgin and crowned with glory, her sufferings would still make me feel horror, horror distilled." These were his strongly emphatical impressions.' Cibber's own letters are as lively as Mrs. Pilkington's report of his talk. 'The delicious meal I made off Miss Byron on Sunday last,' he says, 'has given me an appetite for another slice of her, off from the spit, before she is served up to the public table; if about five o'clock to-morrow afternoon be not inconvenient, Mrs. Brown and I will come and nibble upon a bit more of her! And we have grace after meat as well as before.' 'The devil take the insolent goodness of your imagination!' exclaims the lively old buck, now past eighty, and as well preserved as if he had never encountered Pope's 'scathing satire' (does satire ever 'scathe'?) or Fielding's rough horseplay. One of Richardson's lady admirers saw Cibber flirting with fine ladies at Tunbridge Wells in 1754 (he was born in 1671), and miserable when he was neglected for a moment by the greatest belle in the society. He professed to be only seventy-seven!
Perhaps even Cibber was beaten in flattery by the 'minister of the gospel' who thought that if some of Clarissa's letters had been found in the Bible they would have been regarded as manifest proofs of divine inspiration. But the more delightful incense came from the circle of admiring young ladies who called him their dear papa; who passed long days at his feet at Parson's Green; allowed him to escape to his summer-house to add a letter to the growing volumes, and after an early dinner persuaded him to read it aloud. Their eager discussions as to the fate of the characters and the little points of morality which arose are continued in his gossiping letters. When a child he had been the confidant of tender-hearted maidens, and now he became a kind of spiritual director. He was, as Miss Collier said, the 'only champion and protector' of her sex. Women, and surely they must be good judges, thought that he understood the feminine heart, as their descendants afterwards attributed the same power to Balzac. The most attractive of his feminine correspondents was Mrs. Klopstock, wife of the 'German Milton,' who tells her only little love story with charming simplicity, and thus lays her homage at the feet of Richardson. 'Honoured sir, will you permit me to take this opportunity, in sending a letter to Dr. Young, to address myself to you? It is very long that I wished to do it. Having finished your "Clarissa" (oh, the heavenly book!), I would have prayed you to write the history of a manly Clarissa, but I had not courage enough at that time. I should have it no more to-day, as this is only my first English letter; but I have it! It may be because I am now Klopstock's wife (I believe you know my husband by Mr. Hohorst), and then I was only the single young girl. You have since written the manly Clarissa without my prayer; oh, you have done it to the great joy and thanks of all your happy readers! Now you can write no more, you must write the history of an angel!'
Mrs. Klopstock died young; having had the happiness to find that Richardson did not resent her intrusion, great author as he was. Another correspondent, Lady Bradshaigh, wife of a Lancashire country gentleman, took precautions which show what a halo then surrounded the author in the eyes of his countrywomen. It was worth while to be an author then! Lady Bradshaigh was a good housewife, it seems, but, having no children, was able to devote some time to reading. She obtained a portrait of Richardson, but altered the name to Dickenson, in order that no one might suspect her of corresponding with an author. After reading the first four volumes of 'Clarissa' (which were separately published), she wrote under a feigned name to beg the author to alter the impending catastrophe. She spoke as the mouthpiece of a 'multitude of admirers' who desired to see Lovelace reformed and married to Clarissa. 'Sure you will think it worth your while, sir, to save his soul!' she exclaims. Richardson was too good an artist to spoil his tragedy; and was rewarded by an account of her emotions on reading the last volumes. She laid the book down in agonies, took it up again, shed a flood of tears, and threw herself upon her couch to compose her mind. Her husband, who was plodding after her, begged her to read no more. But she had promised Richardson to finish the book. She nerved herself for the task; her sleep was broken, she woke in tears during the night, and burst into tears at her meals. Charmed by her delicious sufferings, she became Richardson's friend for life, though it was long before she could muster up courage to meet him face to face.
Yet Lady Bradshaigh seems to have been a sensible woman, and shows vivacity and intelligence in some of her discussions with Richardson. If he was not altogether spoilt by the flattery of so many excellent women, we can only explain it by remembering that he did not become famous till he was past fifty, and therefore past spoiling. One peculiarity, indeed, is rather unpleasant in these letters. Richardson's worshippers evidently felt that their deity was jealous, and made no scruple of offering the base sacrifice of abuse of rival celebrities. Richardson adopts their tone; he is always gibing at Fielding. 'I could not help telling his sister', he observes—a sister, too, whose merits Fielding had praised with his usual generosity—'that I was equally surprised at and concerned for his continuous lowness. Had your brother, said I, been born in a stable or been a runner at a sponging-house we should have thought him a genius,' but now! So another great writer came just in time to be judged by Richardson. A bishop asked him, 'Who is this Yorick,' who has, it seems, been countenanced by an 'ingenious dutchess.' Richardson briefly replies that the bishop cannot have looked into the books, 'execrable I cannot but call them.' Their only merit is that they are 'too gross to be inflaming.' The history of the mutual judgments upon each other of contemporary authors would be more amusing than edifying.
Richardson should not have been so hard upon Sterne, for Sterne was in some degree following Richardson's lead. 'What is the meaning,' asks Lady Bradshaigh (about 1749) 'of the word sentimental, so much in vogue among the polite both in town and country? Everything clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word; but I am convinced a wrong interpretation is given, because it is impossible everything clever and agreeable can be so common as that word.' She has heard of a sentimental man; a sentimental party, and a sentimental walk; and has been applauded for calling a letter sentimental. I hope that the philological dictionary may tell us what was the first appearance of a word which, in this sense, marks an epoch in literature, and, indeed, in much else. I find the word used in the old sense in 1752 in a pamphlet upon 'Sentimental differences in point of faith,' that is, differences of sentiment or opinion. When, a few years later, Sterne published his 'Sentimental Journey,' Wesley asks in his journal what is the meaning of the new phrase, and observes (the illustration has lost its point) that you might as well say continental. The appearance of the phrase coincides with the appearance of the thing; for Richardson was the first sentimentalist. We may trace the same movement elsewhere, though we need not here speculate upon the cause. Pope's 'Essay on Man' is the expression in verse of the dominant theology of the Deists and their opponents, which was beginning to be condemned as dry and frigid. A desire for something more 'sentimental' shows itself in Young's 'Night Thoughts,' in Hervey's 'Meditations,' and appears in the religious domain as Methodism. The literary historian has to trace the rise of the same tendency in various places. In Germany, as we see from Mrs. Klopstock's enthusiasm, the flame was only waiting for the spark. Goethe, in his 'Wahrheit und Dichtung,' notices the influence of Richardson's novels in Germany. They were among the predisposing causes of Wertherism. In France, as I have said, Richardson found congenial hearers, and Clarissa's soul doubtless transmigrated into the heroine of the 'Nouvelle Héloïse.' Even in stubborn England, where Fielding's masculine contempt for the whinings of 'Pamela' was more congenial, the students of Richardson were prepared to receive 'Ossian' with enthusiasm, and to be ecstatic over 'Tristram Shandy.' That Richardson would have agreed with Johnson in regarding Rousseau as fit only for a penal settlement, and that he actually considered Sterne to be 'execrable,' does not relieve him of the responsibility or deprive him of the glory. He is not the only writer who has helped to evoke a spirit which he would be the last to sanction. When he encouraged his admirably proper young ladies to indulge in 'sentimentalism,' he could not tell where so vague an impulse would ultimately land them. He was a sound Tory, and an accepter of all established creeds. Sentimentalism with him was merely a delight in cultivating the emotions, without any thought of consequences; or, later, of cultivating them with the assumption that they would continue to move, as he bade them, 'at the command of virtue.' Once set in motion, they chose to take paths of their own; they revolted against conventions, even those which he held most sacred; and by degrees set up 'Nature' as an idol, and admired the ingenuous savage instead of the respectable Clarissa, and denounced all corruption, including, alas, the British constitution, and even the Thirty-nine Articles, and put themselves at the disposal of all manner of revolutionary audacities. But the little printer was safe in his grave, and knew not of what strange developments he had been the ignorant accomplice.
To return, however, it must be granted that Richardson's sympathy with women gives a remarkable power to his works. Nothing is more rare than to find a great novelist who can satisfactorily describe the opposite sex. Women's heroes are women in disguise, or mere lay-figures, walking gentlemen who parade tolerably through their parts, but have no real vitality. On the other hand, the heroines of male writers are for the most part unnaturally strained or quite colourless; male hands are too heavy for the delicate work required. Milton could draw a majestic Satan, but his Eve is no better than a good-managing housekeeper who knows her place. It is, therefore, remarkable that Richardson's greatest triumph should be in describing a woman, and that most of his feminine characters are more life-like and more delicately discriminated than his men. Unluckily, his conspicuous faults result from the same cause. His moral prosings savour of the endless gossip over a dish of chocolate in which his heroines delight; we can imagine the applause with which his admiring feminine circle would receive his demonstration of the fact, that adversity is harder to bear than prosperity, or the sentiment that 'a man of principle, whose love is founded in reason, and whose object is mind rather than person, must make a worthy woman happy.' These are admirable sentiments, but they savour of the serious tea-party. If 'Tom Jones' has about it an occasional suspicion of beer and pipes at the bar, 'Sir Charles Grandison' recalls an indefinite consumption of tea and small-talk. In short, the feminine part of Richardson's character has a little too much affinity to Mrs. Gamp—not that he would ever be guilty of putting gin in his cup, but that he would have the same capacity for spinning out indefinite twaddle of a superior kind. And, of course, he fell into the faults which beset the members of mutual admiration societies in general, but especially those which consist chiefly of women. Men who meet for purposes of mutual flattery become unnaturally solemn and priggish; they never free themselves from the suspicion that the older members of the coterie may be laughing at them behind their backs. But the flattery of women is so much more delicate, and so much more sincere, that it is far more dangerous. It is a poultice which in time softens the hardest outside. Richardson yielded as entirely as any curate exposed to a shower of slippers. He evidently wrote under the impression that he was not merely an imaginative writer of the highest order, but also a great moralist. He was reforming the world, putting down vice, sending duelling out of fashion, and inculcating the lessons of the pulpit in a far more attractive form. A modern novelist is half-ashamed of his art; he disclaims earnestly any serious purpose; his highest aim is to amuse his readers, and his greatest boast that he amuses them by honourable or at least by harmless means. There are, indeed, novelists who write to inculcate High-Church or Low-Church principles, or to prove that society at large is out of joint; but a direct intention to prove that men ought not to steal or get drunk, or commit any other atrocities, is generally considered to be beside the novelist's function, and its introduction to be a fault of art. Indeed, there is much to be said against it. In our youth we used to read a poem about a cruel little boy who went out to fish and was punished by somehow becoming suspended by his chin from a hook in the larder. It never produced much effect upon us, because we felt that the accident was, to say the least, rather exceptional; at most, we fished on, and were careful about the larder. The same principle applies to the poetic justice distributed by most novelists. When Richardson kills off his villains by violent deaths, we know too well that many villains live to a good old age, leave handsome fortunes, and are buried under the handsomest of tombstones, with the most elegant of epitaphs. This very rough device for inculcating morality is of course ineffectual, and produces some artistic blemishes. The direct exhortations to his readers to be good are still more annoying; no human being can long endure a mixture of preaching and story-telling. For Heaven's sake, we exclaim, tell us what happens to Clarissa, and don't stop to prove that honesty is the best policy! In a wider sense, however, the seriousness of Richardson's purpose is of high value. He is so keenly in earnest, so profoundly interested about his characters, so determined to make us enter into their motives, that we cannot help being carried away; if he never spares an opportunity of giving us a lecture, at least his zeal in setting forth an example never flags for an instant. The effort to give us an ideally perfect character seems to stimulate his imagination, and leads to a certain intensity of realisation which we are apt to miss in the purposeless school of novelists. He is always, as it were, writing at high-pressure and under a sense of responsibility.
The method which he adopts lends itself very conveniently to heighten this effect. Richardson's feminine delight in letter-writing was, as we have seen, the immediate cause of his plunge into authorship. Richardson's novels, indeed, are not so much novels put for convenience under the form of letters, as letters expanded till they become novels. A genuine novelist who should put his work into the unnatural shape of a correspondence would probably find it a very awkward expedient; but Richardson gradually worked up to the novel from the conception of a collection of letters; and his method, therefore, came spontaneously to him. He started from the plan of writing letters to illustrate a certain point of morality, and to make them more effective attributed them to a fictitious character. The result was the gigantic tract called 'Pamela'—distinctly the worst of his works—of which it is enough to say at present that it succeeds neither in being moral nor in amusing. It shows, however, a truly amazing fertility in a specially feminine art. We have all suffered from the propensity of some female minds (the causes of which we will not attempt to analyse) for pouring forth indefinite floods of correspondence. We know the heartless fashion in which some ladies, even in these days of penny postage, will fill a sheet of note-paper and proceed to cross their writing till the page becomes a chequer-work of unintelligible hieroglyphics. But we may feel gratitude in looking back to the days when time hung heavier, and letter-writing was a more serious business. The letters of those times may recall the fearful and wonderful labours of tapestry in which ladies employed their needles by way of killing time. The monuments of both kinds are a fearful indication of the ennui from which the perpetrators must have suffered. We pity those who endured the toil as we pity the prisoners whose patient ingenuity has carved a passage through a stone wall with a rusty nail. Richardson's heroines, and his heroes too, for that matter, would have been portents at any time. We will take an example at hazard. Miss Byron, on March 22, writes a letter of fourteen pages (in the old collective edition). The same day she follows it up by two of six and of twelve pages respectively. On the 23rd she leads off with a letter of eighteen pages, and another of ten. On the 24th she gives us two, filling together thirty pages, at the end of which she remarks that she is forced to lay down her pen, and then adds a postscript of six more; on the 25th she confines herself to two pages; but after a Sunday's rest she makes another start of equal vigour. In three days, therefore, she covers ninety-six pages. Two of the pages are about equal to three in this volume. Consequently, in three days' correspondence, referring to the events of the day, she would fill something like a hundred and forty-four of these pages—a task the magnitude of which may be appreciated by anyone who will try the experiment. We should say that she must have written for nearly eight hours a day, and are not surprised at her remark, that she has on one occasion only managed two hours' sleep.
It would, of course, be the height of pedantry to dwell upon this, as though a fictitious personage were to be in all respects bounded by the narrow limits of human capacity. It is not the object of a really good novelist, nor does it come within the legitimate means of high art in any department, to produce an actual illusion. Showmen in some foreign palaces call upon us to admire paintings which we cannot distinguish from bas-reliefs; the deception is, of course, a mere trick, and the paintings are simply childish. On the stage we do not require to believe that the scenery is really what it imitates, and the attempt to introduce scraps of real life is a clear proof of a low artistic aim. Similarly a novelist is not only justified in writing so as to prove that his work is fictitious, but he almost necessarily hampers himself, to the prejudice of his work, if he imposes upon himself the condition that his book shall be capable of being mistaken for a genuine narrative. Every good novelist lets us into secrets about the private thoughts of his characters which it would be impossible to obtain in real life. We do not, therefore, blame Richardson because his characters have a power of writing which no mortal could ever attain. His fault, indeed, is exactly the contrary. He very erroneously fancies that he is bound to convince us of the possibility of all his machinery, and often produces the very shock to our belief which he seeks to avoid. He is constantly trying to account by elaborate devices for the fertile correspondence of his characters, when it is perfectly plain that they are simply writing a novel. We should never have asked a question as to the authenticity of the letters, if he did not force the question upon us; and no art can induce us for a moment to accept the proffered illusion. For example, Miss Byron gives us a long account of conversations between persons whom she did not know, which took place ten years before. It is much better that the impossibility should be frankly accepted, on the clear ground that authors of novels, and consequently their creatures, have the prerogative of omniscience. At least, the slightest account of the way in which she came by the knowledge would be enough to satisfy us for all purposes of fiction. Richardson is not content with this, and elaborately demonstrates that she might have known a number of minute details which it is perfectly plain that a real Miss Byron could never have known, and thus dashes into our faces an improbability which we should have been quite content to pass unnoticed.
The method, however, of telling the story by the correspondence of the actors produces more important effects. The hundred and forty-four pages in question are all devoted to the proceedings of three days. They are filled, for the most part, with interminable conversations. The story advances by a very few steps; but we know all that every one of the persons concerned has to say about the matter. We discover what was Sir Charles Grandison's relation at a particular time to a certain Italian lady, Clementina. We are told exactly what view he took of his own position; what view Clementina took of it; what Miss Byron had to say to Sir Charles on the subject, and what advice her relations bestowed upon Miss Byron. Then we have all the sentiments of Sir Charles Grandison's sisters, and of his brothers-in-law, and of his reverend old tutor; and the sentiments of all the Lady Clementina's family, and the incidental remarks of a number of subordinate actors. In short, we see the characters all round in all their relations to each other, in every possible variation and permutation; we are present at all the discussions which take place before every step, and watch the gradual variation of all the phases of the positions. We get the same sort of elaborate familiarity with every aspect of affairs that we should receive from reading a blue-book full of some prolix diplomatic correspondence; indeed, Sir Charles Grandison closely resembles such a blue-book, for the plot is carried on mainly by elaborate negotiations between three different families, with proposals, and counter-proposals, and amended proposals, and a final settlement of the very complicated business by a deliberate signing of two different sets of articles. One of them, we need hardly say, is a marriage settlement; the other is a definite treaty between the lady who is not married and her family, the discussion of which occupies many pages. The extent to which we are drawn into the minutest details may be inferred from the fact that nearly a volume is given to marrying Sir Charles Grandison to Miss Byron, after all difficulties have been surmounted. We have at full length all the discussions by which the day is fixed, and all the remarks of the unfortunate lovers of both parties, and all the criticisms of both families, and finally an elaborate account of the ceremony, with the names of the persons who went in the separate coaches, the dresses of the bride and bridesmaids, and the sums which Sir Charles gave away to the village girls who strewed flowers on the pathway. Surely the feminine element in Richardson's character was a little in excess.
The result of all this is a sort of Dutch painting of extraordinary minuteness. The art reminds us of the patient labour of a line-engraver, who works for days at making out one little bit of minute stippling and cross-hatching. The characters are displayed to us step by step and line by line. We are gradually forced into familiarity with them by a process resembling that by which we learn to know people in real life. We are treated to few set analyses or summary descriptions, but by constantly reading their letters and listening to their talk we gradually form an opinion of the actors. We see them, too, all round; instead of, as is usual in modern novels, regarding them steadily from one point of view; we know what each person thinks of everyone else, and what everyone else thinks of him; they are brought into a stereoscopic distinctness by combining the different aspects of their character. Of course, a method of this kind involves much labour on the part both of writer and reader. It is evident that Richardson did not think of amusing a stray half-hour in a railway-carriage or in a club smoking-room; he counted upon readers who would apply themselves seriously to a task, in the hope of improving their morals as much as of gaining some harmless amusement. This theory is explicitly set forth in Warburton's preface to 'Clarissa.' But it must also be said that, considering the cumbrous nature of the process, the spirit with which it is applied is wonderful. Richardson's own interest in his actors never flags. The distinct style of every correspondent is faithfully preserved with singular vivacity. When we have read a few letters we are never at a loss to tell, from the style alone of any short passage, who is the imaginary author. Consequently, readers who can bear to have their amusement diluted, who are content with an imperceptibly slow development of plot, and can watch without impatience the approach of a foreseen incident through a couple of volumes, may find the prolixity less intolerable than might be expected. If they will be content to skip when they are bored, even less patient students may be entertained with a series of pictures of character and manners skilfully contrasted and brilliantly coloured, though with a limited allowance of incident. Within his own sphere, no writer exceeds him in clearness and delicacy of conception.
In another way, the machinery of a fictitious correspondence is rather troublesome. As the author never appears in his own person, he is often obliged to trust his characters with trumpeting their own virtues. Sir Charles Grandison has to tell us himself of his own virtuous deeds; how he disarms ruffians who attack him in overwhelming numbers, and converts evil-doers by impressive advice; and, still more awkwardly, he has to repeat the amazing compliments which everybody is always paying him. Richardson does his best to evade the necessity; he couples all his virtuous heroes with friendly confidants, who relieve the virtuous heroes of the tiresome task of self-adulation; he supplies the heroes themselves with elaborate reasons for overcoming their modesty, and makes them apologise profusely for the unwelcome task. Still, ingenious as his expedients may be, and willing as we are to make allowance for the necessities of his task, we cannot quite free ourselves from an unpleasant suspicion as to the simplicity of his characters. 'Clarissa' is comparatively free from this fault, though Clarissa takes a questionable pleasure in uttering the finest sentiments and posing herself as a model of virtue. But in 'Sir Charles Grandison' the fulsome interchange of flattery becomes offensive even in fiction. The virtuous characters give and receive an amount of eulogy enough to turn the strongest stomachs. How amiable is A! says B; how virtuous is C, and how marvellously witty is D! And then A, C, and D go through the same performance, adding a proper compliment to B in place of the exclamation appropriate to themselves. The only parallel in modern times is to be found at some of the public dinners, where every man proposes his neighbour's health with a tacit understanding that he is himself to furnish the text for a similar oration. But then at dinners people have the excuse of a state of modified sobriety.
This fault is, as we have said, aggravated by the epistolary method. That method makes it necessary that each person should display his or her own virtues, as in an exhibition of gymnastics the performers walk round and show their muscles. But the fault lies a good deal deeper. Every writer, consciously or unconsciously, puts himself into his novels, and exhibits his own character even more distinctly than that of his heroes. And Richardson, the head of a little circle of conscientious admirers of each other's virtues, could not but reproduce on a different scale the tone of his own society. The Grandisons, and the families of Miss Byron and Clementina, merely repeat a practice with which he was tolerably familiar at home; whilst his characters represent to some extent the idealised Richardson himself;—and this leads us to the most essential characteristic of his novels. The greatest woman in France, according to Napoleon's brutal remark, was the woman who had the most children. In a different sense, the saying may pass for truth. The greatest writer is the one who has produced the largest family of immortal children. Those of whom it can be said that they have really added a new type to the fictitious world are indeed few in number. Cervantes is in the front rank of all imaginative creators, because he has given birth to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Richardson's literary representatives are far indeed below these; but Richardson too may boast that, in his narrower sphere of thought, he has invented two characters that have still a strong vitality. They show all the weaknesses inseparable from the age and country of their origin. They are far inferior to the highest ideals of the great poets of the world; they are cramped and deformed by the conventionalities of their century and the narrow society in which they move and live. But for all that they stir the emotions of a distant generation with power enough to show that their author must have pierced below the surface into the deeper and more perennial springs of human passion. These two characters are, of course, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison; and I may endeavour shortly to analyse the sources of their enduring interest.
Sir Charles Grandison has passed into a proverb. When Carlyle calls Lafayette a Grandison-Cromwell, he hits off one of those admirable nicknames which paint a character for us at once. Sir Charles Grandison is the model fine gentleman of the eighteenth century—the master of correct deportment, the unimpeachable representative of the old school. Richardson tells us with a certain naïveté that he has been accused of describing an impossible character; that Sir Charles is a man absolutely without a fault, or at least with faults visible only on a most microscopic observation. In fact, the only fault to which Sir Charles himself pleads guilty, in seven volumes, is that he once rather loses his temper. Two ruffians try to bully him in his own house, and even draw their swords upon him. Sir Charles so far forgets himself as to draw his own sword, disarm both of his opponents and turn them out of doors. He cannot forgive himself, he says, that he has been 'provoked by two such men to violate the sanctity of his own house.' His only excuse is, 'that there were two of them; and that tho' I drew, yet I had the command of myself so far as only to defend myself, when I might have done with them what I pleased.' According to Richardson, this venial offence is the worst blot on Sir Charles's character. We certainly do not blame him for the attempt to draw an ideally perfect hero. It is a perfectly legitimate aim in fiction, and the only question can be whether he has succeeded: for Richardson's own commendation cannot be taken as quite sufficient, neither can we quite accept the ingenious artifice by which all the secondary characters perform as decoy-birds to attract our admiration. They do their very best to induce us to join in their hymns of praise. 'Grandison,' says a Roman Catholic bishop, 'were he one of us, might expect canonisation.' 'How,' exclaims his uncle, after a conversation with his paragon of a nephew, 'how shall I bear my own littleness?' A party of reprobates about town have a long dispute with him, endeavouring to force him into a duel. At the end of it one of them exclaims admiringly, 'Curse me, if I believe there is such another man in the world!' 'I never saw a hero till now,' says another. 'I had rather have Sir C. Grandison for my friend than the greatest prince on earth,' says a third. 'I had rather,' replies his friend, 'be Sir C. Grandison for this one past hour than the Great Mogul all my life.' And the general conclusion is, 'What poor toads are we!' 'This man shows us,' as a lady declares, 'that goodness and greatness are synonymous words;' and when his sister marries, she complains that her brother 'has long made all other men indifferent to her. Such an infinite difference!' In the evening, according to custom, she dances a minuet with her bridegroom, but whispers a friend that she would have performed better had she danced with her brother.
The structure, however, of the story itself is the best illustration of Sir Charles's admirable qualities. The plot is very simple. He rescues Miss Byron from an attempt at a forcible abduction. Miss Byron, according to her friends, is the queen of her sex, and is amongst women what Sir Charles is amongst men. Of course, they straightway fall in love. Sir Charles, however, shows symptoms of a singular reserve, which is at last explained by the fact that he is already half-engaged to a noble Italian lady, Clementina. He has promised, in fact, to marry her if certain objections on the score of his country and religion can be surmounted. The interest lies chiefly in the varying inclinations of the balance, at one moment favourable to Miss Byron, and at another to the 'saint and angel' Clementina. When Miss Byron thinks that Sir Charles will be bound in honour to marry Clementina, she begins to pine; 'she visibly falls away; and her fine complexion fades;' her friends 'watch in silent love every turn of her mild and patient eye, every change of her charming countenance; for they know too well to what to impute the malady which has approached the best of hearts; they know that the cure cannot be within the art of the physician.' When Clementina fears that the scruples of her relatives will separate her from Sir Charles, she takes the still more decided step of going mad; and some of her madness would be very touching, if it were not a trifle too much after the conventional pattern of the mad women in Sheridan's 'Critic.' Whilst these two ladies are breaking their hearts about Sir Charles they do justice to each other's merits. Harriet will never be happy unless she knows that the admirable Clementina has reconciled herself to the loss of her adored; when Clementina finds herself finally separated from her lover, she sincerely implores Sir Charles to marry her more fortunate rival. Never was there such a display of fine feeling and utter absence of jealousy. Meanwhile a lovely ward of Sir Charles finds it necessary to her peace of mind to be separated from her guardian; and another beautiful, but rather less admirable, Italian actually follows him to England to persuade him to accept her hand. Four ladies—all of them patterns of physical, moral, and intellectual excellence—are breaking their hearts; and though they are so excellent that they overcome their natural jealousy, they can scarcely look upon any other man after having known this model of all his sex. Indeed, every woman who approaches him falls desperately in love with him, unless she is his sister or old enough to be his grandmother. The plot of the novel depends upon an attraction for the fair sex which is apparently irresistible; and the men, if they are virtuous, rejoice to sit admiringly at his feet, and if they are vicious retire abashed from his presence, to entreat his good advice when they are upon their deathbeds.
All this is easy enough. A novelist can make his women fall in love with his hero as easily as, with a stroke of the pen, he can endow him with fifty thousand a year, or bestow upon him every virtue under heaven. Neither has he any difficulty in making him the finest dancer in England, or giving him such marvellous skill with the small-sword that he can avoid the sin of duelling by instantaneously disarming his most formidable opponents. The real question is, whether he can animate this conglomerate of all conceivable virtues with a real human soul, set him before us as a living and breathing reality, and make us feel that, if we had known him, we too should have been ready to swell the full chorus of admiration. It is rather more difficult to convey the impression which a perusal of his correspondence and conversation leaves upon an unprejudiced mind. Does Sir Charles, when we come to know him intimately—for, with the ample materials provided, we really seem to know him—fairly support the amazing burden thrown upon him? Do we feel a certain disappointment when we meet the man whom all ladies love, and in whom every gentleman confesses a superior nature.
Two anecdotes about Sir Charles may suggest the answer. Voltaire, we know, ridiculed the proud English, who with the same scissors cut off the heads of their kings and the tails of their horses. To this last weakness Sir Charles was superior. His horses, says Miss Byron, 'are not docked; their tails are only tied up when they are on the road.' She would wish to find some fault with him, but as she forcibly says, 'if he be of opinion that the tails of these noble animals are not only a natural ornament, but of real use to defend them from the vexatious insects that in summer are so apt to annoy them, how far from a dispraise is this humane consideration!' The other anecdote is of a different kind. When Sir Charles goes to church he does not, like some other gentlemen, bow low to the ladies of his acquaintance, and then to others of the gentry. No! 'Sir Charles had first other devoirs to pay. He paid us his second compliments.' From these two exemplary actions we must infer his whole character. It should have been inscribed on his tombstone, 'He would not dock his horses' tails.' That is the most trifling details of his conduct are regulated on the most serious considerations. He is one of those solemn beings who can't shave themselves without implicitly asserting a great moral principle. He finds sermons in his horses' tails; he could give an excellent reason for the quantity of lace on his coat, which was due, it seems, to a sentiment of filial reverence; and he could not fix his hour for dinner without an eye to the reformation of society. In short, he was a prig of the first water; self-conscious to the last degree; and so crammed with little moral aphorisms that they drop out of his mouth whenever he opens his lips. And then his religion is in admirable keeping. It is intimately connected with the excellence of his deportment; and is, in fact, merely the application of the laws of good society to the loftiest sphere of human duty. He pays his second compliments to his lady, and his first to the object of his adoration. He very properly gives the precedence to the being he professes to adore. As he carries his solemnity into the pettiest trifles of life, so he considers religious duties to be simply the most important part of social etiquette. He would shrink from blasphemy even more than from keeping on his hat in the presence of ladies; but the respect which he owes in one case is of the same order with that due in the other: it is only a degree more important.
We feel, indeed, a certain affection for Sir Charles Grandison. He is pompous and ceremonious to an insufferable degree; but there is really some truth in his sister's assertion, that his is the most delicate of human minds; through the cumbrous formalities of his century there shines a certain quickness and sensibility; he even condescends to be lively after a stately fashion, and to indulge in a little 'raillying,' only guarding himself rather too carefully against unbecoming levity. Indeed, though a man of the world at the present day would be as much astonished at his elaborate manners as at his laced coat and sword, he would admit that Sir Charles was by no means wanting in tact; his talk is weighted with more elaborate formulæ than we care to employ, but it is good vigorous conversation in the main, and, if rather overlaid with sermonising, can at times be really amusing. His religion is not of a very exalted character; he rises to no sublime heights of emotion, and would simply be puzzled by the fervours or the doubts of a more modern generation. In short, it seems to be compounded of common-sense and a regard for decorum—and those are not bad things in their way, though not the highest. He is not a very ardent reformer; he doubts whether the poor should be taught to read, and is very clear that everyone should be made to know his station; but still he talks with sense and moderation, and even gets so far as to suggest the necessity of reformatories. He is not very romantic, and displays an amount of self-command in judicially settling the claims of the various ladies who are anxious to marry him, which is almost comic; he is perfectly ready to marry the Italian lady, if she can surmount her religious scruples, though he is in love with Miss Byron; and his mind is evidently in a pleasing state of equilibrium, so that he will be happy with either dear charmer. Indeed, for so chivalric a gentleman, his view of love and marriage is far less enthusiastic than we should now require. One of his benevolent actions, which throws all his admirers into fits of eulogy, is to provide one of his uncles with a wife. The gentleman is a peer, but has hitherto been of disreputable life. The lady, though of good family and education, is above thirty, and her family have lost their estate. The match of convenience which Sir Charles patches up between them has obvious prudential recommendations; and of course it turns out admirably. But one is rather puzzled to know what special merits Sir Charles can claim for bringing it to pass.
Such a hero as this may be worthy and respectable, but is not a very exalted ideal. Neither do his circumstances increase our interest. It would be rather a curious subject of inquiry why it should be so impossible to make a virtuous hero interesting in fiction. In real life, the men who do heroic actions are certainly more attractive than the villains. Domestic affection, patriotism, piety, and other good qualities are pleasant to contemplate in the world; why should they be so often an unspeakable bore in novels? Principally, no doubt, because our conception of a perfect man is apt to bring the negative qualities into too great prominence; we are asked to admire men because they have not passions—not because they overcome them. But there are further difficulties; for example, in a novel it is generally so easy to see what is wrong and what is right—the right-hand path branches off so decidedly from the left, that we give a man little credit for making the proper choice. Still more is it difficult to let us sufficiently into a man's interior to let us see the struggle and the self-sacrifice which ought to stir our sympathies. We witness the victories, but it is hard to make us feel the cost at which they are won. Now, Richardson has, as we shall directly remark, overcome this difficulty to a great extent in Clarissa; but in Sir Charles Grandison he has entirely shirked it; he has made everything too plain and easy for his hero. 'I think I could be a good woman,' says Becky Sharp, 'if I had five thousand a year,'—and the history of Sir Charles Grandison might have suggested the remark. To be young, handsome, healthy, active, with a fine estate and a grand old house; to be able, by your eloquence, to send a sinner into a fit (as Sir Charles did once); to be the object of a devoted passion from three or four amiable, accomplished, and beautiful women—each of whom has a fine fortune, and only begs you to throw your handkerchief towards her, whilst she promises to bear no grudge if you throw it to her neighbour—all these are favourable conditions for virtue—especially if you mean the virtues of being hospitable, generous, a good landlord and husband, and in every walk of life thoroughly gentlemanlike in your behaviour. But the whole design is rather too much in accordance with the device in enabling Sir Charles to avoid duels by having a marvellous trick of disarming his adversaries. 'What on earth is the use of my fighting with you,' says King Padella to Prince Giglio, 'if you have got a fairy sword and a fairy horse?' And what merit is there in winning the battle of life, when you have every single circumstance in your favour? We are more attracted by Fielding's rather questionable hero, Captain Booth, though he does get into a sponging-house, and is anything but a strict moralist, than by this prosperous young Sir Charles, rich with every gift the gods can give him, and of whom the most we can say is that the possession of all those gifts, if it has made him rather pompous and self-conscious, has not made him close-fisted or hard-hearted. Sir Charles, then, represents a rather carnal ideal; he suggest to us those well-fed, almost beefy and corpulent angels, whom the contemporary school of painters sometimes portray. No doubt they are angels, for they have wings and are seated in the clouds; but there is nothing ethereal in their whole nature. We have no love for asceticism; but a few hours on the column of St. Simon Stylites, or a temporary diet of locusts and wild honey, might have purified Sir Charles's exuberant self-satisfaction. For all this, he is not without a certain solid merit, and the persons by whom he is surrounded—on whom we have not space to dwell—have a large share of the vivacity which amuses us in the real men and women of their time. Their talk may not be equal to that in Boswell's 'Johnson;' but it is animated and amusing, and they compose a gallery of portraits which would look well in a solid red-brick mansion of the Georgian era.
We must, however, leave Sir Charles, to say a few words upon that which is Richardson's real masterpiece, and which, in spite of a full share of the defects apparent in 'Grandison,' will always command the admiration of persons who have courage enough to get through eight volumes of correspondence. The characters of the little world in which the reader will pass his time are in some cases the same who reappear in 'Grandison.' The lively Lady G. in the last is merely a new version of Miss Howe in the former. Clarissa herself is Miss Byron under altered circumstances, and receives from her friends the same shower of superlatives, whenever they have occasion to touch upon her merits. Richardson's ideal lady is not at first sight more prepossessing than his gentleman. After Clarissa's death, her friend Miss Howe writes a glowing panegyric on her character. It will be enough to give the distribution of her time. To rest it seems she allotted six hours only. Her first three morning hours were devoted to study and to writing those terribly voluminous letters which, as one would have thought, must have consumed a still longer period. Two hours more were given to domestic management; for, as Miss Howe explains, 'she was a perfect mistress of the four principal rules of arithmetic.' Five hours were spent in music, drawing, and needlework, this last especially, and in conversation with the venerable parson of the parish. Two hours she devoted to breakfast and dinner; and as it was hard to restrict herself to this allowance, she occasionally gave one hour more to dinner-time conversation. One hour more was spent in visiting the neighbouring poor, and the remaining four hours to supper and conversation. These periods, it seems, were not fixed for every day; for she kept a kind of running account, and permitted herself to have an occasional holiday by drawing upon the reserved fund of the four hours for supper.
Setting aside the fearfully systematic nature of this arrangement—the stern determination to live by rule and system—it must be admitted that Miss Harlowe was what in outworn phrase was called a very 'superior' person. She would have made an excellent housekeeper, or even a respectable governess. We feel a certain gratitude to her for devoting four hours to supper; and, indeed, Richardson's characters are always well cared for in the victualling department. They always take their solid three meals, with a liberal intercalation of dishes of tea and chocolate. Miss Harlowe, we must add, knew Latin, although her quotations of classical authors are generally taken from translations. Her successor, Miss Byron, was not allowed this accomplishment, Richardson's doubts of its suitability to ladies having apparently gathered strength in the interval. Notwithstanding this one audacious excursion into the regions of manly knowledge, Miss Harlowe appears to us as, in the main, a healthy, sensible country girl, with sound sense, the highest respect for decorum, and an exaggerated regard for constituted, especially paternal, authority. We cannot expect, from her, any of the outbreaks against the laws of society customary with George Sand's heroines. If she had changed places with Maggie Tulliver, she would have accepted the society of the 'Mill on the Floss' with perfect contentment, respected all the family of aunts and uncles, and never repined against the tyranny of her brother Tom. She would have been conscious of no vague imaginative yearnings, nor have beaten herself against the narrow bars of stolid custom. She would have laid up a vast store of linen, and walked thankfully in the path chalked out for her. Certainly she would never have run away with Mr. Stephen Guest without tyranny of a much more tangible kind than that which acts only through the finer spiritual tissues. When Clarissa went off with Lovelace, it was not because she had unsatisfied aspirations after a higher order of life, but because she had been locked up in her room, as a solitary prisoner, and her family had tried to force her into marriage with a man whom she had excellent reasons for hating and despising. The worst point about Clarissa is one which was keenly noticed by Johnson. There is always something, he said, which she prefers to truth. She is a little too anxious to keep up appearances, and we desire to see more of the natural woman.
Yet the long tragedy in which Clarissa is the victim is not the less affecting because the torments are of an intelligible kind, and require no highly-strung sensibility to give them keenness. The heroine is first bullied and then deserted by her family, cut off from the friends who have a desire to help her, and handed over to the power of an unscrupulous libertine. When she dies of a broken heart, the most callous and prosaic of readers must feel that it is the only release possible for her. And in the gradual development of his plot, the slow accumulation of horrors upon the head of a virtuous victim, Richardson shows the power which places him in the front rank of novelists, and finds precisely the field in which his method is most effective and its drawbacks least annoying. In the first place, in spite of his enormous prolixity, the interest is throughout concentrated upon one figure. In 'Sir Charles Grandison' there are episodes meant to illustrate the virtues of the 'next-to-divine man' which have nothing to do with the main narrative. In 'Clarissa' every subordinate plot—and they abound—bears immediately upon the central action of the story, and produces a constant alternation of hope and foreboding. The last volumes, indeed, are dragged out in a way which is injurious in several respects. Clarissa, to use Charles II.'s expression about himself, takes an unconscionable time about dying. But until the climax is reached, we see the clouds steadily gathering, and yet with an increasing hope that they may be suddenly cleared up. The only English novel which produces a similar effect, and impresses us with the sense of an inexorable fate, slowly but steadily approaching, is the 'Bride of Lammermoor'—in some respects the best and most artistic of Scott's novels. Superior as is Scott's art in certain directions, we scarcely feel the same interest in his chief characters, though there is the same unity of construction. We cannot feel for the Master of Ravenswood the sympathy which Clarissa extorts. For in Clarissa's profound distress we lose sight of the narrow round of respectabilities in which her earlier life is passed; the petty pompousness, the intense propriety which annoy us in 'Sir Charles Grandison' disappear or become pathetic. When people are dying of broken hearts we forget their little absurdities of costume. A more powerful note is sounded, and the little superficial absurdities are forgotten. We laugh at the first feminine description of her dress—a Brussels-lace cap, with sky-blue ribbon, pale crimson-coloured paduasoy, with cuffs embroidered in a running pattern of violets and their leaves; but we are more disposed to cry (if many novels have not exhausted all our powers of weeping) when we come to the final scene. 'One faded cheek rested upon the good woman's bosom, the kindly warmth of which had overspread it with a faint but charming flush; the other paler and hollow, as if already iced over by death. Her hands, white as the lily, with her meandering veins more transparently blue than ever I had seen even hers, hanging lifelessly, one before her, the other grasped by the right hand of the kindly widow, whose tears bedewed the sweet face which her motherly bosom supported, though unfelt by the fair sleeper; and either insensibly to the good woman, or what she would not disturb her to wipe off or to change her posture. Her aspect was sweetly calm and serene; and though she started now and then, yet her sleep seemed easy; her breath indeed short and quick, but tolerably free, and not like that of a dying person.' Allowing for the queer grammar, this is surely a touching and simple picture. The epistolary method, though it has its dangers, lends itself well to heighten our interest. Where the object is rather to appeal to our sympathies than to give elaborate analyses of character, or complicated narratives of incident, it is as well to let the persons speak for themselves. A hero cannot conveniently say, like Sir Charles Grandison, 'See how virtuous and brave and modest I am;' nor is it easy to make a story clear when it has to be broken up and distributed amongst people speaking from different points of view; it is hard to make the testimonies of the different witnesses fit into each other neatly. But a cry of agony can come from no other quarter so effectively as from the sufferer's own mouth. 'Clarissa Harlowe' is in fact one long lamentation, passing gradually from a tone of indignant complaint to one of despair, and rising at the end to Christian resignation. So prolonged a performance in every key of human misery is indeed painful from its monotony; and we may admit that a limited selection from the correspondence, passing through more rapid gradations, would be more effective. We might be spared some of the elaborate speculations upon various phases of the affair which pass away without any permanent effect. Richardson seems to be scarcely content even with drawing his characters as large as life; he wishes to apply a magnifying-glass. Yet, even in this incessant repetition there is a certain element of power. We are forced to drain every drop in the cup, and to appreciate every ingredient which adds bitterness to its flavour. We are annoyed and wearied at times; but as we read we not only wonder at the number of variations performed upon one tune, but feel that he has succeeded in thoroughly forcing upon our minds, by incessant hammering, the impression which he desires to produce. If the blows are not all very powerful, each blow tells. There is something impressive in the intensity of purpose which keeps one end in view through so elaborate a process, and the skill which forms such a multitudinous variety of parts into one artistic whole. The proportions of this gigantic growth are preserved with a skill which would be singular even in the normal scale; a respect in which most giants, whether human or literary, are apt to break down.
To make the story complete, the plot should have been as effectively conceived as Clarissa herself, and the other characters should be equally worthy of their position. Here there are certain drawbacks. The plot, it might easily be shown, is utterly incredible. Richardson has the greatest difficulty in preventing his heroine from escaping, and at times we must not look too closely for fear of detecting the flimsy nature of her imaginary chains. There is, indeed, no reason for looking closely; so long as the situations bring out the desired sentiment, we may accept them for the nonce, without asking whether they could possibly have occurred. It is of more importance to judge of the consistency of the chief agent in the persecution. Lovelace is by far the most ambitious character that Richardson has attempted. To heap together a mass of virtues, and christen the result Clarissa Harlowe or Charles Grandison, is comparatively easy; but it is a harder task to compose a villain, who shall be by nature a devil, and yet capable of imposing upon an angel. Some of Richardson's judicious critics declared that he must have been himself a man of vicious life or he could never have described a libertine so vividly. This is one of the smart sayings which are obviously the proper thing to say, but which, notwithstanding, are little better than silly. Lovelace is evidently a fancy character—if we may use the expression. He bears not a single mark of being painted from life, and is formed by the simple process of putting together the most brilliant qualities which his creator could devise to meet the occasion. We do not say that the result is psychologically impossible; for it would be very rash to dogmatise on any such question. No one can say what strange amalgams of virtue and vice may have sufficient stability to hold together during a journey through this world. But it is plain that Lovelace is not a result of observation, but an almost fantastic mixture of qualities intended to fit him for the difficult part he has to play. To exalt Clarissa, for example, Lovelace's family are represented as all along earnestly desirous of a marriage between them; and Lovelace has every conceivable motive, including the desire to avoid hanging, for agreeing to the match. His refusal is unintelligible, and Richardson has to supply him with a reason so absurd and so diabolical that we cannot believe in it; it reminds us of Hamlet's objecting to killing his uncle whilst at prayers, on the ground that it would be sending him straight to heaven. But we may, if we please, consider Hamlet's conceit as a mere pretext invented to excuse his irresolution to himself; whereas Lovelace speculates so long and so seriously upon the marriage, that we are bound to consider his far-fetched arguments as sincere. And the supposition makes his wickedness gratuitous, if we believe in his sanity. Lovelace suffers, again, from the same necessity which injures Sir Charles Grandison; as the virtuous hero has to be always expatiating on his own virtues, the vicious hero has to boast of his own vices; it is true that this is, in an artistic sense, the least repulsive habit of the two; for it gives reason for hating not a hero but a villain; unluckily it is also a reason for refusing to believe in his existence. The improbability of a thoroughpaced scoundrel writing daily elaborate confessions of his criminality to a friend, even when the friend condemns him, expatiating upon atrocities that deserved hanging, and justifying his vices on principle, is rather too glaring to be admissible. And by another odd inconsistency, Lovelace is described as being all the time a steady believer in eternal punishment and a rebuker of sceptics—Richardson being apparently of opinion that infidelity would be too bad to be introduced upon the stage, though a vice might be described in detail. A man who has broken through all moral laws might be allowed a little free-thinking. We might add that Lovelace, in spite of the cleverness attributed to him, is really a most imbecile schemer. The first principle of a villain should be to tell as few lies as will serve his purpose; but Lovelace invents such elaborate and complicated plots, presenting so many chances of detection and introducing so many persons into his secrets, that it is evident that in real life he would have broken down in a week.
Granting the high improbability of Lovelace as a real living human being, it must be admitted that he has every merit but that of existence. The letters which he writes are the most animated in the voluminous correspondence. The respectable domestic old printer, who boasted of the perfect purity of his own life, seems to have thrown himself with special gusto into the character of a heartless reprobate. He must have felt a certain piquancy in writing down the most atrocious sentiments in his own respectable parlour. He would show that the quiet humdrum old tradesman could be on paper as sprightly and audacious as the most profligate man about town. As quiet people are apt to do, he probably exaggerated the enormities which such men would openly avow; he fancied that the world beyond his little circle was a wilderness of wild beasts who could gnash their teeth and show their claws after a terribly ostentatious fashion in their own dens; they doubtless gloated upon all the innocent sheep whom they had devoured without any shadow of reticence. And he had a fancy that, in their way, they were amusing monsters too; Lovelace is a lady's villain, as Grandison is a lady's hero; he is designed by a person inexperienced even in the observation of vice. Indeed, he would exaggerate the charm a good deal more than the atrocity. We must also admit that when the old printer was put upon his mettle he could be very lively indeed. Lovelace, like everybody else, is at times unmercifully prolix; he never leaves us to guess any detail for ourselves; but he is spirited, eloquent, and a thoroughly fine gentleman after the Chesterfield type. 'The devil take such fine gentlemen!' exclaims somebody; and if he does not, I see little use (to quote the proverbial old lady) in keeping a devil. But, as Johnson observed, a man may be very wicked and 'very genteel.' Richardson lectures us very seriously on the evil results which are sure to follow bad courses; but he evidently holds in his heart that, till the Nemesis descends, the libertines are far the most amusing part of the world. In Sir Charles Grandison's company, we should be treated to an intolerable deal of sermonising, with an occasional descent into the regions of humour—but the humour is always admitted under protest. With Lovelace we might hear some very questionable morality, but there would be a never-ceasing flow of sparkling witticisms. The devil's advocate has the laugh distinctly on his side, whatever may be said of the argument. Finally, we may say that Lovelace, if too obviously constructed to work the plot, certainly works it well. When we coolly dissect him and ask whether he could ever have existed, we may be forced to reply in the negative. But whilst we read we forget to criticise; he seems to possess more vitality than most living men; he is so full of eloquent brag, and audacious sophistry, and unblushing impudence, that he fascinates us as he is supposed to have bewildered Clarissa. The dragon who is to devour the maiden comes with all the flash and glitter and overpowering whirl of wings that can be desired. He seems to be irresistible—we admire him and hate him, and some time elapses before we begin to suspect that he is merely a stage dragon, and not one of those who really walk this earth.
Richardson's defects are, of course, obvious enough. He cares nothing, for example, for what we call the beauties of nature. There is scarcely throughout his books one description showing the power of appealing to emotions through scenery claimed by every modern scribbler. In passing the Alps, the only remark which one of his characters has to make, beyond describing the horrible dangers of the Mont Cenis, is that 'every object which here presents itself is excessively miserable.' His ideal scenery is a 'large and convenient country-house, situated in a spacious park,' with plenty of 'fine prospects,' which you are expected to view from a 'neat but plain villa, built in the rustic taste.' And his views of morality are as contracted as his taste in landscapes. The most distinctive article of his creed is that children should have a reverence for their parents which would be exaggerated in the slave of an Eastern despot. We can pardon Clarissa for refusing to die happy until her stupid and ill-tempered old father has revoked a curse which he bestowed upon her. But we cannot quite excuse Sir Charles Grandison for writing in this fashion to his disreputable old parent, who has asked his consent to a certain family arrangement in which he had a legal right to be consulted:—
'As for myself,' he says, 'I cannot have one objection; but what am I in this case? My sister is wholly my father's; I also am his. The consideration he gives me in this instance confounds me. It binds me to him in double duty. It would look like taking advantage of it, were I so much as to offer my humble opinion, unless he were pleased to command it from me.'
Even one of Richardson's abject lady-correspondents was revolted by this exaggerated servility. But narrow as his vision might be in some directions, his genius is not the less real. He is a curious example of the power which a real artistic insight may exhibit under the most disadvantageous forms. To realise his characteristic power, we should take one of the great French novelists whom we admire for the exquisite proportions of his story, the unity of the interest and the skill—so unlike our common English clumsiness—with which all details are duly subordinated. He should have, too, the comparative weakness of French novelists, a defective perception of character, a certain unwillingness in art as in politics to allow individual peculiarities to interfere with the main flow of events; for, admitting the great excellence of his minor performers, Richardson's most elaborately designed characters are so artificial that they derive their interest from the events in which they play their parts, rather than give interest to them—little as he may have intended it. Then we must cause our imaginary Frenchman to transmigrate into the body of a small, plump, weakly printer of the eighteenth century. We may leave him a fair share of his vivacity, though considerably narrowing his views of life and morality; but we must surround him with a court of silly women whose incessant flatteries must generate in him an unnatural propensity to twaddle. It is curious, indeed, that he describes himself as writing without a plan. He compares himself to a poor woman lying down upon the hearth to blow up a wretched little fire of green sticks. He had to live from hand to mouth. But the absence of an elaborate scheme is not fatal to the unity of design. He watches, rather than designs, the development of his plot. He has so lively a faith in his characters that, instead of laying down their course of action, he simply watches them to see how they will act. This makes him deliberate a little too much; they move less by impulse than from careful reflection upon all the circumstances. Yet it also implies an evolution of the story from the necessity of the characters in a given situation, and gives an air of necessary deduction to the whole scheme of his stories. All the gossiping propensities of his nature will grow to unhealthy luxuriance, and the fine edge of his wit will be somewhat dulled in the process. He will thus become capable of being a bore—a thing which is impossible to any unsophisticated Frenchman. In this way we might obtain a literary product so anomalous in appearance as 'Clarissa'—a story in which a most affecting situation is drawn with extreme power, and yet so overlaid with twaddle, so unmercifully protracted and spun out as to be almost unreadable to the present generation. But to complete Richardson, we must inoculate him with the propensities of another school: we must give him a liberal share of the feminine sensitiveness and closeness of observation of which Miss Austen is the great example. And perhaps, to fill in the last details, he ought, in addition, to have a dash of the more unctuous and offensive variety of the dissenting preacher—for we know not where else to look for the astonishing and often ungrammatical fluency by which he is possessed, and which makes his best passages remind us of the marvellous malleability of some precious metals.
Anyone who will take the trouble to work himself fairly into the story will end by admitting Richardson's power. Sir George Trevelyan records and corroborates a well-known anecdote told by Thackeray from Macaulay's lips. A whole station was infected by the historian's zeal for 'Clarissa.' It worked itself up into a 'passion of excitement,' and all the great men and their wives fought for the book, and could hardly read it for tears. The critic must observe that Macaulay had a singular taste for reading even the trashiest novels; and, that probably an Indian station at that period was in respect of such reading like a thirsty land after a long drought. For that reason it reproduced pretty accurately the state of society in which 'Clarissa' was first read, when there were as yet no circulating libraries, and the winter evenings were long in the country and the back parlours of tradesmen's shops. Probably, a person eager to enjoy Richardson's novels now would do well to take them as his only recreation for a long holiday in a remote place and pray for steady rain. On those conditions, he may enter into the old spirit. And the remark may suggest one moral, for one ought not to conclude an article upon Richardson without a moral. It is that a purpose may be a very dangerous thing for a novelist in so far as it leads him to try means of persuasion not appropriate to his art; but when, as with Richardson, it implies a keen interest in an imaginary world, a desire to set forth in the most forcible way what are the great springs of action of human beings by showing them under appropriate situations, then it may be a source of such power of fascination as is exercised by the greatest writers alone.
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