Samuel Richardson is the man who became the idol of his day, during the earlier years of the eighteenth century-one who moved in a little crowd of female worshippers eager to render him the constant tribute of their tears.
Nor was it merely in the matter of an unexciting exterior; his qualities of disposition were assuredly not those that capture the fancy; a rigid moralist in a day when loose living was the rule rather then the exception; a loyal abstainer in an age when it was considered almost a point of etiquette to round off your dinner on the floor; a vegetarian when dietary reform was looked on as a dangerous form of mental affection.
The Sentimental Note:
Sentimentality is one of the big stage properties of romance, and because of its almost universal appeal romance was so dearly loved for many centuries. With the advent of realism into fiction, sentimentality bulked far less prominently.
Richardson’s enormous popularity is due to the fact that he recognized the part played in everyday life by sentiment, and he gave his readers sentiment enough to please the most emotional of them. His deliberate, minute, detailed method enabled him to give the utmost effect to this sentimental note.
Today we are not moved by discursive sentimentalizing to a like extent, thought even now the sentimental writer may always reckon on a large audience; but in those days when sentiment was tabooed in verse, a generous supply of it in fiction proved especially acceptable. It is a mistake to speak as we sometimes do of the formal, unemotional eighteenth century; it is an estimate based entirely on its leading school of poetry. People at large were fully as prone to sentiment, as fond of sentiment, then as now.
Literary fashions may change, but human nature remains pretty constant from century to century; and the absence of sentiment and passion in the verse of the day, merely served to exaggerate its expression in the fiction of the time.
Richardson’s method is cumulative. For instance, in Pamela, each letter is rather more harrowing than the one preceding; in Clarissa, each scene more poignant until the climax is reached.
Richardson introduced sentimentality into English fiction and popularized it forever. Without, his influence we might never have had Trist ram Sandy: we certainly should have been without Joseph Andrews; and ill could we have afforded to lose both these novels. Then the feminine standpoint taken in his writings stirred many able women to continue and amplify the feminine tradition.
In France, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise is frankly inspired by Clarissa, while Diderot grew hysterical in his praise, and in Germany, the sentimental vogue aroused by Richardson culminated in Goethe’s Sorrows of Weather.
These things must be remembered when we shudder at his moralizing, laugh at his absurdities, and yawn over his interminable length. He is the first novelist to show a real and vital knowledge of the human heart, its perversities and contradictions-the first to analyze the woman’s point of view; and the man who did that deserves some measure of praise from posterity.