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His Fortune.

It is many years since Richardson fell into desuetude; it is many years since he became the novelist not of the world at large but of that inconsiderable section of the world which is interested in literature. His methods are those of a bygone epoch; his ideals, with one or two exceptions, are old-fashioned enough to seem fantastic; his sentiment belongs to ancient history; to a generation bred upon Ouida’s romances and the plays of Mr. W. S. Gilbert his morality appears not merely questionable but coarse and improper and repulsive. While he lived he was adored: he moved and spoke and dwelt in an eternal mist of ’good, thick, strong, stupefying incense smoke’; he was the idol of female England, a master of virtue, a king of art, the wisest and best of mankind. Johnson revered him Johnson and Colley Gibber; Diderot ranked him with Moses and Homer; to Balzac and Musset and George Sand he was the greatest novelist of all time; Rousseau imitated him; Macaulay wrote and talked of him with an enthusiasm that would have sat becomingly on Lady Bradshaigh herself. But all that is over. Not even the emasculation to which the late Mr. Dallas was pleased to subject his Clarissa could make that Clarissa at all popular; not all the allusions of all the leader-writers of a leader-writing age have been able to persuade the public to renew its interest in the works and ways of Grandison the august and the lovely and high-souled Harriet Byron. Richardson has to be not skimmed but studied; not sucked like an orange, nor swallowed like a lollipop, but attacked secundum artem like a dinner of many courses and wines. Once inside the vast and solid labyrinth of his intrigue, you must hold fast to the clue which you have caught up on entering, or the adventure proves impossible, and you emerge from his precincts defeated and disgraced. And by us children of Mudie, to whom a novel must be either a solemn brandy-and-soda or as it were a garrulous and vapid afternoon tea, adventures of that moment are not often attempted.


Again, when all is said in Richardson’s favour it has to be admitted against him that in Pamela he produced an essay in vulgarity of sentiment and morality alike which has never been surpassed. In these days it is hardly less difficult to understand the popularity of this masterpiece of specious immodesty than to speak or think of it with patience. That it was once thought moral is as wonderful as that it was once found readable. What is more easily apprehended is the contempt of Henry Fielding is the justice of that ridicule he was moved to visit it withal. To him, a scholar and a gentleman and a man of the world, Pamela was a new-fangled blend of sentimental priggishness and prurient unreality. To him the pretensions to virtue and consideration of the vulgar little hussy whom Richardson selected for his heroine were certainly not less preposterous than the titles to life and actuality of the wooden libertine whom Richardson put forth as his hero. He was artist enough to know that the book was ignoble as literature and absolutely false as fact; he was moralist enough to see that its teachings were the reverse of elevating and improving; and he uttered his conclusions more suo in one of the best and healthiest books in English literature. This, indeed, is the only merit of which the history of Miss Andrews can well be accused: that it set Fielding thinking and provoked him to the composition of the first of his three great novels. Pamela is only remembered nowadays as Joseph’s sister: the egregious Mr. B –­ has hardly any existence save as Lady Booby’s brother. ’Tis an ill wind that blows good to nobody. There are few more tedious or more unpleasant experiences than Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. But you have but to remember that without it the race might never have heard of Fanny and Joseph, of the fair Slipslop and the ingenuous Didapper, of Parson Trulliber and immortal Abraham Adams, to be reconciled to its existence and the fact of its old-world fame. Nay, more, to remember its ingenious author with something of gratitude and esteem.


Nor is this the only charge that can be made and sustained against our poet. It is also to be noted in his disparagement that he is the author of Sir Charles Grandison, and that Sir Charles Grandison, epic of the polite virtues, is deadly dull. ‘My dear,’ says somebody in one of Mr. Thackeray’s books, ‘your eternal blue velvet quite tires me.’ That is the worst of Sir Charles Grandison: his eternal blue velvet his virtue, that is, his honour, his propriety, his good fortune, his absurd command over the affections of the other sex, his swordsmanship, his manliness, his patriotic sentiment, his noble piety quite tires you. He is an ideal, but so very, very tame that it is hard to justify his existence. He is too perfect to be of the slightest moral use to anybody. He has everything he wants, so that he has no temptation to be wicked; he is incapable of immorality, so that he is easily quit of all inducements to be vicious; he has no passions, so that he is superior to every sort of spiritual contest; he is monstrous clever, so that he has made up his mind about everything knowable and unknowable; he is excessively virtuous so that he has made it up in the right direction. He is, as Mr. Leslie Stephen remarks, a tedious commentary on the truth of Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s acute reflection upon the moral effect of five thousand a year. He is only a pattern creature, because he has neither need nor opportunity, neither longing nor capacity, to be anything else. In real life such faultless monsters are impossible: one does not like to think what would happen if they were not. In fiction they are possible enough, and what is more to the purpose they are of necessity extravagantly dull. This is what is the matter with Sir Charles. He is dull, and he effuses dulness. By dint of being uninteresting himself he makes his surroundings uninteresting. In the record of his adventures and experiences there is enough of wit and character and invention to make the fortune of a score or more of such novels as the public of these degenerate days would hail with enthusiasm. But his function is to vitiate them all. He is a bore of the first magnitude, and of his eminence in that capacity his history is at once the monument and the proof.


But if Grandison be dull and Pamela contemptible Clarissa remains; and Clarissa is what Musset called it, ‘lé premier roman du monde.’ Of course Clarissa has its faults. Miss Harlowe, for instance, is not always herself is not always the complete creation she affects to be: there are touches of moral pedantry anticipations of George Eliot in her; the scenes in which she is brought to shame are scarcely real, living, moving, all the rest of it. But on the other hand is there anything better than Lovelace in the whole range of fiction? Take Lovelace in all or any of his moods suppliant, intriguing, repentant, triumphant, above all triumphant and find his parallel if you can. Where, you ask, did the little printer of Salisbury Court who suggests to Mr. Stephen ’a plump white mouse in a wig’ where did Richardson discover so much gallantry and humanity, so much romance and so much fact, such an abundance of the heroic qualities and the baser veracities of mortal nature? Lovelace is, if you except Don Quixote, the completest hero in fiction. He has wit, humour, grace, brilliance, charm; he is a scoundrel and a ruffian, and he is a gentleman and a man; of his kind and in his degree he has the right Shakespearean quality. Almost as perfect in her way is the enchanting Miss Howe an incarnation of womanliness and wit and fun, after Lovelace the most brilliant of Richardson’s creations. Or take the Harlowe family: the severe and stupid father, the angry and selfish uncles, the cub James, the vixen Arabella, a very fiend of envy and hatred and malice what a gallery of portraits is here! And Solmes and Tomlinson, Belford and Brand and Hickman; and the infinite complexity of the intrigue; the wit, the pathos, the invention; the knowledge of human nature; the faculty of dialogue where save in Clarissa shall we find all these? As for Miss Harlowe herself, all incomplete as she is she remains the Eve of fiction, the prototype of the modern heroine, the common mother of all the self-contained, self-suffering, self-satisfied young persons whose delicacies and répugnances, whose independence of mind and body, whose airs and ideas and imaginings, are the stuff of the modern novel. With her begins a new ideal of womanhood; from her proceeds a type unknown in fact and fiction until she came. When after outrage she declines to marry her destroyer, and prefers death to the condonation of her dishonour, she strikes a note and assumes a position till then not merely unrecognised but absolutely undiscovered. It has been said of her half in jest and half in earnest that she is ’the aboriginal Woman’s Rights person’; and it is a fact that she and Helena and Desdemona and Ophelia are practically a thousand years apart. And this is perhaps her finest virtue as it is certainly her greatest charm: that, until she set the example, woman in literature as a self-suffering individuality, as an existence endowed with equal rights to independence of choice, volition, action with man, had not begun to be. That of itself would suffice to make Clarissa memorable; and that is the least of its merits. Consider it from which point you will, the book remains a masterpiece, unique of its kind. It has been imitated but it has never been equalled. It is Richardson’s only title to fame; but it is enough. Not the Great Pyramid itself is more solidly built nor more incapable of ruin.