Some critics have considered Samuel Richardson the father of the novel. George Saintsbury declared Pamela the first novel in history, asking rhetorically, “Where are we to find a probable human being, worked out to the same degree, before?” Other characters in English literature had been as “probable” as Pamela Andrews, including the characters of Shakespeare. No previous character, however, had been “worked out to the same degree,” that is, delineated through such a lavish presentation of her personal attributes and the conditions of her everyday life. Richardson did not invent the form of long fiction, but he did innovate the combination of psychological realism and amplitude of concrete detail that is the special province of the genre of the novel.
This aesthetic achievement grew out of the epistolary form that Richardson chose to employ, but its significance extends beyond that form. As M. Kinkead-Weekes observes, “What [Richardson] invented was the dramatic novel, not merely the idea of writing in letters.” In other words, Pamela inaugurates a whole tradition in the English novel whereby readers know the characters directly through the circumstances of their comparatively unfiltered lives, rather than learning of them second-hand through an omniscient narrator. The method is “dramatic” in the sense that it dispenses with the objective mediating consciousness, much as a theatrical production does. The tradition of the dramatic novel would go on to claim, among so many other titles, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in the eighteenth century, Brontë’s Jane Eyre in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century Joyce’s Ulysses and much of the rest of the Modernist canon.
Another of Richardson’s decisive contributions to the tradition of the novel was his investing Pamela with such moral heft that serious people felt at liberty to take it seriously. As a result, the previously lightweight genre of the novel, which had long possessed a cultural status comparable to that of soap operas or music videos in our day, acquired new prestige. As Elizabeth Bergen Brophy observes, the novel prior to Richardson had been primarily the work of hack writers, with the highbrow literary talent preferring to concentrate their efforts on poetry, and its chief purpose was to supply “vicarious thrills, improbable plots, and thinly disguised sexual titillation.” In Pamela, by contrast, Richardson sought to “turn young People into a Course of Reading different from the Pomp and Parade of Romance-writing” by using fiction as a vehicle for moral instruction. His efforts to “promote the Cause of Religion and Virtue” endeared the novel to the religious establishment, such that certain clergymen even read the more directly pious passages from their pulpits on Sundays. Thus bearing the approval of the moral and spiritual authorities, novels emerged as artifacts of major cultural significance, capable of providing not merely entertainment but also, potentially, moral wisdom and psychological insight.
The rise of the novel as Richardson re-created it coincided with the increasing cultural importance of private experience and personal relationships. Indeed, the influential critic Ian Watt has argued that the ascendancy of the Richardsonian novel contributed to this new emphasis on the private and personal, what Watt calls “the transition from the objective, social and public orientation of the classical world to the subjective, individualist and private orientation of the life and literature of the last two hundred years.” The eighteenth century saw the rise of economic individualism, that is, the phenomenon of individual workers’ selling their labor on the open market rather than attaching themselves for life to aristocratic patrons in the feudal manner. With this new economic model came greater personal mobility, as workers moved to where the jobs were, and this increased mobility led to the decline of the patriarchal family structure: extended families became less likely to remain together in the same geographical area and consequently ceased to be as important as they had previously been. The loss of the organic social networks of patriarchy created a momentous deficit for which society compensated by placing a new emphasis on voluntary personal bonds and the inner life. As Watt puts it, such personal relationships as friendship and the marital bond “offer[ed] the individual a more conscious and selective pattern of social life to replace the more diffuse, and as it were involuntary, social cohesions which individualism had undermined.” Such newly important bonds, in particular the marital kind, are precisely Richardson’s field of interest, and his dignifying of private relationships and private experience naturally struck a chord with his contemporaries.
Thinking of the rise of the novel as a response to the heightened importance of voluntary private relationships makes it easy to understand why the dominant tradition of the English novel, at least until the beginning of the twentieth century, has followed Richardson’s lead in taking for its subject the coming-together of a heroine and her freely chosen husband. The novel provides a forum for exploring the psychological niceties involved in securing that most critical of personal relationships, the spousal bond; it has served an important sociological function, then, by acquainting unmarried readers with the emotional facts of the courtship process. Whether the novel’s record in this regard has been completely beneficial is, however, a matter of some debate. As Watt explains it, “the formula that explains the power of the popular novel” is a “combination of romance and formal realism,” that is, a pairing of wish fulfillment with a semblance of probability. The novel’s use of “narrative skill” to “re-create the pseudo-realism of the daydream, to give an air of authenticity to a triumph against all obstacles and contrary to expectation,” amounts simply to a more insidious version of the Cinderella fantasy, an application of literary realism that teaches the infusion of marital aspirations with fairy-tale patterns of social elevation. Whether or not one chooses to accept Watt’s moral judgment of this tendency of the English novel, it is a tendency that undoubtedly bears the impress of Richardson and of Pamela.