“The Man Who Made the Novel,” by Adelle Waldman. The New Yorker, 5/16/2016.
The world’s first novel is generally acknowledged to be Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji that popped up out of nowhere in 11th Century Japan. But it went nowhere, too. No one picked up the baton and carried it farther. The form of the novel dropped back into obscurity until independently rediscovered by Western culture centuries later.
In her article, Waldman uses the term, “made” instead of “recreated.” or “rediscovered.” The man is Samuel Richardson who, in 1739, did not set out to write a novel. He owned a printing press, and when past age 50, a bookseller asked him to write a book of example letters that any uneducated person could follow as a pattern. Richardson expanded the idea to include “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common concerns of life,” as he wrote in the introduction. The fictional letters he composed were supposedly from a pious 15-year-old servant girl to her parents concerning her employer who was making advances. He brought the letters to a happy ending when the employer agrees to marry the servant girl, and he published them in a book titled Pamela.
The immediate impression of Pamela is its length—almost twice as long as War and Peace, so I admit I did not read it and never will. I am only repeating what Waldman says about it. The book is filled with Richardson’s puritanism that was extreme even for those times, and a number of parodies soon followed. Pamela moves along well as a romantic comedy in the first half (attributable to Pamela’s wit and the confusion of her employer by her rebuffs), but by the second half, the situation is resolved by the marriage, and the story drowns in Richardson’s sanctimonious cant.
Richardson went on to write Clarissa. Clarissa is 18 and is pressured by her family to marry the wealthy but unappealing Solmes, rather than the evil rake Lovelace, who, of course, she prefers. Her story is divulged in her letters to her friend, Anna Howe (not a pun, I hope). Richardson was later dismayed that many readers also preferred Lovelace, blaming Clarissa’s coldness.
Richardson’s third book, Grandison, is about a virtuous man of the type Richardson thought a woman should prefer over Lovelace. That book still had a high sermon-to-action ratio, but was admired by Jane Austen who could describe “all that was ever said or done” by the book’s characters.