|Samuel Richardson by Joseph Highmore (1750).|
I have wanted to read The History of Sir Charles Grandison ever since I first read Clarissa in 2012. It is one of Richardson's epistolary novels: Richardson's other novels are Clarissa, (1748), and the Pamela novels: Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740), and Pamela in her Exalted Condition (1741). Sir Charles Grandison followed Clarissa in 1753. I loved Clarissa and basically hated Pamela (Virtue Rewarded) so I was looking forward to seeing where Sir Charles would fit in. And, it's said to be one of Jane Austen's favourite novels; she even re-wrote it as a play, which made it all the more intriguing.
I ended up giving Sir Charles four stars on Goodreads: three stars really, but that additional star out of respect for Richardson's achievement. In fact it falls exactly between Pamela and Clarissa in more than just one way. Samuel Johnson wrote of Clarissa that one ought to read it for the sentiment; if one read it for the plot one would hang oneself. The much shorter Pamela on the other hand has a little more action from what I remember. Sir Charles, which was eight volumes, with each volume at around 300 pages long (2.400 pages in total) has action, more so than Clarissa, but it is so very long. It is not an easy read by any stretch.
|Manuscript of Jane Austen'sSir Charles Grandison.|
That said, it starts out with great excitement: the heroine Harriet Byron (good and virtuous, but not quite at the dizzy heights of Pamela or Clarissa) begins with three suitors - Mr. Orme, Mr. Greville, and Mr. Fenwick. Her stay in London adds a further three to the collection - Sir Rowland Meredith, Mr. Fowler, and Sir Hargrave Pollexfen: he is the worst of the six by far, and following an argument with Harriet he kidnaps her, imprisons her, and tells her she will be his wife. Happily she is rescued by Sir Charles Grandison, and Sir Pollexfen demands a duel with Sir Charles. He refuses however, saying duels are damaging to society and that he is not so much of a coward to fear being labelled a coward. He manages to get Pollexfen to apologise, though he still attempts another proposal. But Harriet refuses - she has fallen in love with Sir Charles. However the path to true love does not run smoothly in this novel: Sir Charles has already promised himself to Signorina Clementina della Porretta. The vast bulk of the novel is dealing with this: Sir Charles' promise and Harriet's love for Sir Charles, and the events concerning Harriet and Sir Charles' immediate circle.
It's a slow novel, but in defence these matters can't be rushed! Really it does take some stamina, all of Samuel Richardson's novels do I think, and I would benefit greatly from a second read (which I'm more than willing to do, but not this year). One aspect that's hard is Sir Charles himself. He's good and that's an end to it. There's no development of character, simply changes in circumstances, and his unwavering dedication to that which is good and moral makes him more virtuous than Richardson's most famous character Clarissa Harlowe. But to see the flurry of activity around the still-point that is Sir Charles is what makes Sir Charles Grandison an interesting read, if only for the portrayal of the drawing rooms many of us have come to love in Austen. And this novel is an important battle in the war between Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding: Pamela was satirised by Fielding in his Shamela (1741) and The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend, Mr. Abraham Abrams (1742). Then came Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749): Richardson wrote of it,
Why did he make him a common -- What shall I call it? And a Kept Fellow, the Lowest of all Fellows, yet in Love With a Young Creature who was traipsing after him, a Fugitive from her Father's House? -- Why did he draw his Heroine so fond, so foolish, and so insipid? -- Indeed he has one Excuse -- he knows not how to draw a delicate Woman -- he has not been accustomed to such Company -- And is too prescribing, too impetuous, too immoral, I will venture to say, to take any other Byass than that a perverse and crooked Nature has given him; or Evil Habits, at least, have confirm'd in him. Do Men expect Grapes of Thorns, and Figs of Thistles? [source]
Sir Charles Grandison was, in part, a response to Tom Jones (and it's "truly coarse-title"), and part a desire to write a decent male character to follow the evil Robert Lovelace of Clarissa.
It is a very worthy read in short, but I found it tough to get a hold of. This Christmas however I was lucky enough to get an eight volume set published in 1776 (making these books the oldest I own) so I read this in 18th Century English, which was an amazing opportunity. The biggest and hardest-to-get-used-to difference of all was what is called the "long S", which looks like this: ſ. Here's the first page of Sir Charles with the ſs:
L E T T E R I.Miſs Lucy Selby, To Miſs Harriet ByronAſhby-Commons, Jan. 10Your reſolution to accompany Mrs Reeves to London has greatly alarmed your three Lovers: And two of them, at leaſt, will let you know that it has. Such a lovely girl as my Harriet, muſt expect to be more accountable for her ſteps than one leſs excellent and leſs attractive.
I got used to this quite quickly on the whole (though I was still startled by "out of the mouths of babes and ſucklings" in Vol. IV!). There are other differences too: "exact", for example, becomes -
(There's no unicode for that "ct". The image was found here). Also, "choose" becomes "chuſe", and "afflict" -
(Note the closeness of the "ffl").
All in all then, reading Sir Charles was a great experience for me and however hard I found it it was worth it: when I've got more time I'd like to re-read it and write more on it, something less focussed on Harriet and Sir Charles, more so on their circle. For now: if you can get a hold of it then do so, but be prepared for a tough (but worthy) read!
To finish - four illustrations from the British Museum:
To finish - four illustrations from the British Museum: