Friday, May 1, 2015

Samuel Richardson parlayed mash notes into first English novel; died of a stroke

As a teenager Samuel Richardson was a whiz at writing love letters—not for himself but for the neighborhood girls. When he was thirteen, Sam was asked by a local lass to help her write a mash note to her boyfriend. It was so successful that Sam soon became the go-to guy for concocting sweet nothings, and he credited this experience with providing him with a deep understanding of the female psyche that led to the first English novel.

Richardson was always very secretive about his early life, so it’s hard to pinpoint facts about his birth, upbringing, and schooling.  He was probably born in August of 1689 in a rural English village, one of nine children. His father was a joiner—a specialized type of carpenter—and he moved his family to London, where he opened a cabinetry shop. Money was tight, and Samuel received a sketchy education at Christ’s Hospital grammar school. After that he was apprenticed to learn the printing trade.

Before long, he was able to open his own shop in Fleet Street and then married his former boss’s daughter, Martha Wilde, with whom he had a daughter and five sons—none of whom survived to adulthood. Martha also died, and Richardson married again, this time to Elizabeth Leake, with whom he had four daughters.

Although the printing business prospered, Richardson lacked a male heir to carry on the firm, so he turned to writing. His first effort was a good conduct guide, written in the form of letters. Out of this grew a narrative work, which he called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1754. Drawing on his teenage memories of the intimate details of his female friends’ love lives, he created such a racy work that it became widely popular and landed on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. It is generally regarded as the first English novel. Richardson followed this with two more novels, Clarissa Harlowe (which is more than a million words) and Sir Charles Grandison, which cemented his position as a leading literary light.

Richardson was evidently a man of conventional Protestant Christian religious belief. His novels, while full of titillating details of seduction, are basically highly moralistic, with rewards promised in the afterlife for good conduct and punishment for the wicked.

In June of 1758, Richardson began to suffer from debilitating insomnia, and in June of 1761 he had an apoplectic attack. One of his female friends, a Miss Talbot, described his condition in a letter of July 2, 1761: “Poor Mr. Richardson was seized on Sunday evening with a most severe paralytic stroke....One has long apprehended some stroke of this kind; the disease made its gradual approaches by that heaviness which clouded the cheerfulness of his conversation, that used to be so lively and so instructive; by the increased tremblings which unfitted that hand so peculiarly formed to guide the pen; and by, perhaps, the querulousness of temper, most certainly not natural to so sweet and so enlarged a mind, which you and I have lately lamented, as making his family at times not so comfortable as his principles, his study, and his delight to diffuse happiness, wherever he could, would otherwise have done.”

The stroke proved fatal, and two days later, July 4, 1761, Richardson died at his home in Parsons Green in central London. He was seventy-one.  He was buried in a crypt in St. Bride Churchyard in Fleet Street near his first wife. 

Illustration: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.  

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