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 (the manuscript, shown below, is now at Chawton House).
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 The Mansfield Park Murder. 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.
This post originally appeared on the austenprose.com blog in 2010, and updated in 2022