Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), printer, sometime publisher and best-selling novelist, is best remembered as the author of three extremely long epistolary novels – Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1747-48) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54) – which brought him international fame and fortune in his middle age (Figure 3.1). Somewhat improbably, this pious, sober and sententious man, who travelled little and could hardly have been more English, was inundated with praise from French philosophes and German critics. Denis Diderot, in his hyperbolic Éloge de Richardson (1761), compared Richardson to Moses, Homer, Euripides and Sophocles, composing the most effulgent of the many panegyrics which sprang from the European press. Richardson rose to literary splendour from the humblest beginnings. The son of a rural

joiner, he was able by dint of hard work, good luck and astute connections, to make a comfortable fortune in the printing trade. Even before fame was thrust upon him in the 1740s he had attained a prosperity that contrasted with the poverty of his youth. He was the beneficiary, as both printer and author, of the remarkable transformation in British publishing that occurred between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. When Richardson published his first novel, Pamela, he was more than fifty years old; by

then there were few byways of publishing he did not know. He had worked as a proof corrector and as a hack, writing prefaces and compiling indexes; he had printed newspapers and conduct books and won the lucrative contract to be official printer to the House of Commons. He had worked for booksellers and published books on his own account. From his presses had rolled not only the finely printed folio Journals of the House of Commons, weighty tomes that only a successful printer at the peak of his trade could produce, but also the ephemera – handbills, advertisements and trade cards – that earned the daily bread of the humble jobbing printer. In his early years, when he had little capital or clout, Richardson was often hired by a

bookseller to print part of a work. He was a craftsman for hire, a cog in the publishing machine. To act on his own behalf, to escape the control of the booksellers who dominated publishing, he had to take risks. Printing the work of such government opponents and Jacobites as Francis Atterbury, the banished former Bishop of London, and Philip, Duke of Wharton, the mad-cap rake and sometime drinking companion of the exiled Stuart Pretender, invited the hostility of the authorities and the threat of arrest; but it was also profitable and helped the young printer to make his mark. But as Richardson prospered in the 1730s, he grew more prudent, avoiding controversy

and diversifying his business to include newspapers and government work. He bought a

share in the Daily Gazetteer, a paper which he printed, and began the profitable business of printing parliamentary bills and reports, work that in its best year grossed him nearly £600. He also printed literary works, including James Thomson’s famous poem The Seasons and several editions of Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, which he re-edited to include his own material. Richardson’s career as a printer followed the path laid down in his first published work,

the advice book The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum: or, Young Man’s Pocket Companion: it took him by dint of industry and virtue from the margins of his trade to the centre of his profession. Like Hogarth’s Tom Goodchild in The Industrious and Idle Apprentice, Richardson married his master’s daughter; and though, unlike Tom, he never became Lord Mayor, he did achieve high office, being elected Master of the Company of Stationers in 1753. Yet none of Richardson’s experience and success prepared him for the remarkable

chain of events that followed the publication of his first novel. Pamela, the moralistic story of a servant girl whose determined defence of her sexual virtue is rewarded by genteel marriage (Figure 3.2), was a runaway best-seller in 1740. Within a year of its appearance it had gone through five editions, been pirated and parodied, notably in Henry Fielding’s Shamela, dramatized on the London stage by Henry Giffard and put into verse by George Bennett.