November 12

On or about this day in 1739 a distinguished English master printer in his fiftieth year named Samuel Richardson reached into a new medium and began to write a novel. It was completed the following year and was published under the title of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. It became an immediate and resounding success. Richardson had originally been asked, by two London booksellers, to write a series of letters which could become patterns for illiterate country writers. He concluded that this could best be accomplished by instructing “handsome girls who were obliged to go out to service,” informing them how to best “avoid the snares that might be laid against their virtue.” From this inspiration grew his account of the adventures of a pure girl who resisted the advances of her amourous master and eventually married him

Printer Richardson followed up the success of his first novel with an even more popularly acclaimed tale, Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady. Clarissa, a much less virtuous lady than her predecessor, Pamela, nevertheless captured for her author a world-wide audience. That acute and acidulous critic, Samuel Johnson, remarked of Richardson’s prose style: “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.”

Richardson’s novels were written for a middle-class audience, which responded by making the author the best-selling novelist of his time. He dared to present the thoughts of individuals in a period when such an invasion of privacy was but to be hinted at. While Lord Chesterfield derided his writing, Diderot, the encyclopedist in France, classed Richardson with Moses, Homer, and Sophocles, among other classicists. Perhaps his secret was best described by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who wrote to her daughter, discussing Clarissa, “I was such an old fool as to weep over Clarissa Harlowe, like any milkmaid of sixteen over the ballad of the Lady’s Fall.”

In spite of his success as one of the most popular novelists of the century, Richardson continued his career as a printer, considering his writing to be simply an avocation. In 1754 he was appointed Master of the Stationers’ Company, and in 1760 he became Law-Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty. Throughout his career as a master printer, he was notable for the treatment of his apprentices, many of whom achieved distinction in their craft upon completing their indentures under Richardson. He wrote a book of instruction for apprentices which was later rewritten in briefer form for presentation to each apprentice by the Stationers’ Company. Written in 1734, this letter is still given to English apprentices.

Richardson died on July 4, 1761, in his seventy-second year.

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