Samuel Richardson was born into relative poverty as one of nine children in the midland country of Derbyshire in England. The Richardson family moved to East London in 1700, and around this time, Samuel received a brief grammar-school education.
The young Samuel, being a pious and studious boy, wanted to be a clergyman; his father endorsed the choice but, being a mere joiner (that is, a carpenter specializing in domestic interiors), could not afford to pay for the university education that was a requirement for ordination in the Church of England. The elder Richardson allowed Samuel to choose his fallback profession, and the youth decided to be a printer on the theory, as he would later tell his Dutch translator, that “it would gratify my Thirst after Reading.”
He began his apprenticeship in 1706 and continued in it for seven years. During that period he took his own education in hand, and in spite of the stinginess of his master, who grudged Richardson every hour spent away from his work, was soon well on his way to becoming one of the great autodidacts of English literature. He read widely in order to compensate for having received little formal, and certainly no classical, learning; the effects are apparent in his writing, which tends to favor colloquial and vernacular speech, spontaneity over ingenuity, sincerity over irony, and so on.
Richardson married his master’s daughter, Martha Wilde, in 1721. Their marriage was apparently a happy one, except that none of their six children would live past the age of three. Soon after Martha died in 1731, Richardson married Elizabeth Leake, who bore six more children, with four surviving to adulthood.
His printing career was more uniformly successful than were his efforts of begetting offspring. The model of the industrious Puritan bourgeois businessman (rising at five in the morning and turning in at eleven at night), he rose to become official printer for the House of Commons and printer of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (essentially England’s Academy of Sciences). His peers in the printing business elected him Master of the Stationers’ Company (the livery company, or guild, of London printers).
As a printer, Richardson naturally had extensive contact with the book-selling world. His demonstrated familiarity with the literary marketplace caused many booksellers to consult him on the literary quality of their wares. He was also a prolific writer of letters, and his reputation as such led two booksellers to approach him in 1739, asking him to produce a volume of model letters. Called a “letter-writer,” the genre comprised exemplary letters that, in their form, provided the semiliterate with adaptable epistolary templates and, in their content, proffered practical, social, or moral advice about common predicaments. In Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions (1741), Richardson addressed a number of fictional situations, including that of attractive servant-girls subject to plots against their virtue. In the middle of the composition process, Richardson set aside these model letters in order to take up in detail the situation that particularly fired his imagination, that of the virtuous servant-girl fending off a lecherous master. The result of this new project was Pamela (1740).
The publication of Pamela was a massive cultural event, inspiring praise and condemnation, imitations and parodies. Richardson’s first follow-up was a sequel, Pamela in her Exalted Condition (1741), which he designed primarily to override the unauthorized sequels afloat in the marketplace. His other major works were the novels Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753).
Fame did not alter Richardson’s lifestyle as one might expect, since he continued with his printing business and with his customary pastimes, such as letter writing. The major change in his everyday life was perhaps the friendships he was able to cultivate with members of the aristocracy; for a striving middle-class admirer of inherited privilege, this contact with the nobility answered a lifelong social craving. The literary figures with whom Richardson associated, such as Samuel Johnson and William Hogarth, were an illustrious company but might have come into his orbit even had he remained merely one of London’s preeminent printers.
Richardson’s reputation was mixed: he received lavish praise and lavish criticism. Denis Diderot classed him with Homer and Sophocles, while Fielding joined with others who ridiculed sanctimonious and morally ambiguous elements in Richardson’s work. Toward the end of Richardson’s lifetime, and for some decades after his death, he commanded a degree of international prestige unparalleled by any contemporary English writer. His novels were translated into all the major European languages and continued to inspire imitations and theatrical adaptations until the end of the century.
In the later stages of his life, he suffered from a nervous ailment that may have been Parkinson’s disease. He died of a stroke at age 71.