chapter  2
41 Pages

Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady

As noted in the Introduction, Richardson is not universally associated with the libertine novel. Of course, specialists of eighteenth-century English literature do not tend to use ‘libertine novel’ as a category. It is natural, then, for critics working in that field to have linked Richardson above all to the sentimental novel.1 Brissenden, for instance, writes: ‘The main stream of sentimentalism in the English novel springs directly from Richardson’.2 He is careful to add nuance: Richardson’s novels helped to found a genre to which they do not themselves belong; and he makes a very convincing case.3 But it is difficult to agree entirely with Brissenden’s account of Richardson’s impact across the Channel. For he presents the English author’s inf luence on Laclos and Sade purely in terms of ‘the sentimental literary tradition’; and in doing so he hitches even those most libertine of authors to the tradition in question:

In France, leading dix-huitiémistes have tended to keep Richardson and the libertine novel apart in a slightly different way. For whilst it has become commonplace to connect the English author with Rousseau, his importance for Laclos and Sade has been somewhat overlooked. Thus, in his seminal study Laclos et la tradition, Versini is curiously averse to allowing connections to be made between Richardson and Laclos: ‘Ce n’est pas le benoît Richardson qui a formé la sensibilité, l’intelligence et encore moins le goût de Laclos. Avec Racine, Molière, Mme de Lafayette, Rousseau et les sensualistes, on est plus sûr de frapper à la bonne porte’.5 But surely Versini’s idea that Laclos is inf luenced by Rousseau (and others) rather than Richardson can be questioned simply on the grounds that Rousseau himself is indebted to the English author. (It would seem counter-intuitive to argue that Laclos was inf luenced only by the non-Richardsonian aspects of La Nouvelle Héloïse, for instance.) This tendency to associate Richardson above all with the sentimental novel means that Colette Cazenobe broke new ground in her discussion of the roman du libertinage.