Richardson by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

The censure which the Shakspeare of novelists has incurred for the tedious procrastination and the minute details of his fable; his slow unfolding characters, and the slightest gestures of his personages, is extremely unjust; for is it not evident that we could not have his peculiar excellences without these accompanying defects? When characters are fully delineated, the narrative must be suspended. Whenever the narrative is rapid, which so much delights superficial readers, the characters cannot be very minutely featured; and the writer who aims to instruct (as Richardson avowedly did) by the glow and eloquence of his feelings, must often sacrifice to this his local descriptions. Richardson himself has given us the principle that guided him in composing. He tells us, “If I give speeches and conversations, I ought to give them justly; for the humours and characters of persons cannot be known unless I repeat what they say, and their manner of saying.”

Foreign critics have been more just to Richardson than many of his own countrymen. I shall notice the opinions of three celebrated writers, D’Alembert, Rousseau, and Diderot.

D’Alembert was a great mathematician. His literary taste was extremely cold: he was not worthy of reading Richardson. The volumes, if he ever read them, must have fallen from his hands. The delicate and subtle turnings, those folds of the human heart, which require so nice a touch, was a problem which the mathematician could never solve. There is no other demonstration in the human heart, but an appeal to its feelings: and what are the calculating feelings of an arithmetician of lines and curves? He therefore declared of Richardson that “La Nature est bonne A imiter, mais non pas jusqu’a l’ennui.”

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But thus it was not with the other two congenial geniuses! The fervent opinion of Rousseau must be familiar to the reader; but Diderot, in his eloge on Richardson, exceeds even Rousseau in the enthusiasm of his feelings. I extract some of the most interesting passages. Of Clarissa he says, “I yet remember with delight the first time it came into my hands. I was in the country. How deliciously was I affected! At every moment I saw my happiness abridged by a page. I then experienced the same sensations those feel who have long lived with one they love, and are on the point of separation. At the close of the work I seemed to remain deserted.”

The impassioned Diderot then breaks forth:–“Oh, Richardson! thou singular genius in my eyes! thou shalt form my reading in all times. If forced by sharp necessity, my friend falls into indigence; if the mediocrity of my fortune is not sufficient to bestow on my children the necessary cares for their education, I will sell my books,–but thou shalt remain! yes, thou shalt rest in the same class with MOSES, HOMER, EURIPIDES, and SOPHOCLES, to be read alternately.

“Oh Richardson, I dare pronounce that the most veritable history is full of fictions, and thy romances are full of truths. History paints some individuals; thou paintest the human species. History attributes to some individuals what they have neither said nor done; all that thou attributest to man he has said and done. History embraces but a portion of duration, a point on the surface of the globe; thou hast embraced all places and all times. The human heart, which has ever been and ever shall be the same, is the model which thou copiest. If we were severely to criticise the best historian, would he maintain his ground as thou? In this point of view, I venture to say, that frequently history is a miserable romance; and romance, as thou hast composed it, is a good history. Painter of nature, thou never liest!

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“I have never yet met with a person who shared my enthusiasm, that I was not tempted to embrace, and to press him in my arms!

“Richardson is no more! His loss touches me, as if my brother was no more. I bore him in my heart without having seen him, and knowing him but by his works. He has not had all the reputation he merited. Richardson! if living thy merit has been disputed; how great wilt thou appear to our children’s children, when we shall view thee at the distance we now view Homer! Then who will dare to steal a line from thy sublime works! Thou hast had more admirers amongst us than in thine own country, and at this I rejoice!”

It is probable that to a Frenchman the style of Richardson is not so objectionable when translated, as to ourselves. I think myself that it is very idiomatic and energetic; others have thought differently. The misfortune of Richardson was, that he was unskilful in the art of writing, and that he could never lay the pen down while his inkhorn supplied it.

He was delighted by his own works. No author enjoyed so much the bliss of excessive fondness. I heard from the late Charlotte Lenox the anecdote which so severely reprimanded his innocent vanity, which Boswell has recorded. This lady was a regular visitor at Richardson’s house, and she could scarcely recollect one visit which was not taxed by our author reading one of his voluminous letters, or two or three, if his auditor was quiet and friendly.

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The extreme delight which he felt on a review of his own works the works themselves witness. Each is an evidence of what some will deem a violent literary vanity. To Pamela is prefixed a letter from the editor (whom we know to be the author), consisting of one of the most minutely laboured panegyrics of the work itself, that ever the blindest idolater of some ancient classic paid to the object of his frenetic imagination. In several places there, he contrives to repeat the striking parts of the narrative which display the fertility of his imagination to great advantage. To the author’s own edition of his Clarissa is appended an alphabetical arrangement of the sentiments dispersed throughout the work; and such was the fondness that dictated this voluminous arrangement, that such trivial aphorisms as, “habits are not easily changed,” “men are known by their companions,” etc., seem alike to be the object of their author’s admiration. This collection of sentiments, said indeed to have been sent to him anonymously, is curious and useful, and shows the value of the work, by the extensive grasp of that mind which could think so justly on such numerous topics. And in his third and final labour, to each volume of Sir Charles Grandison is not only prefixed a complete index, with as much exactness as if it were a History of England, but there is also appended a list of the similes and allusions in the volume; some of which do not exceed three or four in nearly as many hundred pages.

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Literary history does not record a more singular example of that self-delight which an author has felt on a revision of his works. It was this intense pleasure which produced his voluminous labours. It must be confessed there are readers deficient in that sort of genius which makes the mind of Richardson so fertile and prodigal.

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