Samuel Richardson: Biography, Pamela and the Epistolary Novel

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  • 0:05 Samuel Richardson
  • 0:55 Biography
  • 3:17 Epistolary Novel
  • 5:15 Plot
  • 8:19 Analysis
  • 10:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Samuel Richardson was the first writer to produce a true bestseller in the modern sense. Watch our lesson to learn about 'Pamela,' his groundbreaking epistolary novel.

Samuel Richardson

Though the name Samuel Richardson might not sound that familiar to you now, he was actually the most famous author of his day. In fact, he was the first writer in history to write what we would now think of as a bestseller, and we'll get to what that book was and what made it so exciting a little bit later. That happened in 1740, and the novel was called Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded; that had a huge impact both on literature and literary culture in the 18th century and really after that as well.

First, I want to talk a little bit about who Sam Richardson was (his life and his background), and then, we'll get into this novel that shaped so much of what we take for granted about books today. There's a lot of things we assume were always true about novels, but all those things had to be invented by someone. One of those big someones was Samuel Richardson.


He was born in 1689, probably in a small rural village somewhere in England. The details of his early life are sketchy, as is the case for most people born in that time who weren't born into nobility. He was one of a family of nine children. The Richardsons eventually moved to London, where Samuel got some sort of education - we're not sure exactly how formal or what the quality was. It was at Christ's Hospital grammar school. What is clear - at least according to Richardson himself - was that he always had a penchant for letter writing. He said one of his favorite things to do was help people in his community write letters of correspondence for various purposes. He actually got into helping local girls correspond to their long-distance suitors/lovers/pen pals. Right now, that probably seems like a surefire way to get 'friendzoned,' but he was really into it. According to Richardson, the experience helped him both get his start writing and also learn the ways of the female heart. Both of those will really come into play when we examine Pamela.

Because Samuel Richardson's father really couldn't afford the education necessary to make him a clergyman - which is what he wanted - Papa Richardson allowed Samuel to pick his own profession. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. Samuel chose to go into printing because he thought it would give him ample time to read, which is reasonable. As was the custom at the time, Richardson apprenticed in another shop for a while, then he eventually went on to either co-manage or manage a shop himself. It's a little sketchy as to which one. Finally, he bought his own shop in 1719.

During his tenure as a printing shop owner, Richardson encountered all sorts of people who needed works printed, as you might imagine; everything from political dissidents to the enforcers of etiquette (of which my mother is one). It was two of the latter, named Charles Rivington and John Osborn, who asked Richardson to produce what was known as a conduct book to help teach rural individuals about manners, social graces and the like. That might seem sort of offensive today, but it's something that happened then. Richardson had just started this project when he was inspired to turn what he had into a fictionalized story by adopting the relatively new form, the novel, which had just started to congeal about 20 years before. And so, that was what became Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. Let's talk about that now.

Epistolary Novel

The form of Pamela is really interesting, and everything Richardson wrote sort of followed this form. It's called an epistolary novel, which just means that it's written as letters from one character to others. Oftentimes there is a central character who corresponds with many characters; sometimes you'll see different kinds of correspondence in an epistolary novel. Remember how we mentioned that Richardson liked to write correspondence for people growing up? It's really no surprise, then, that his novels took this form once he started writing on his own. Also, the fact that he wrote a lot of letters for young ladies made him feel equipped to write a novel completely from the perspective of a woman, in this case Pamela. Whether or not he did a good job is your call. You should read it and decide.

What are the benefits of writing an epistolary novel? There are actually a few. First, it lets you more clearly see characters' motivations and their development than if you were just being told them by an author. Going along with that, it also allows the author to present a more complex main character than if it's written in another form. When an entire work is written in one character's voice, it more easily allows for complications and depth than a typical third-person narration really doesn't. Finally, it brings a sense of immediacy to the work. In an epistolary novel, characters are typically recording things more or less as they happen or shortly after they occur. Therefore, you feel more like you're right in the middle of the action, versus a more traditional form, where it can seem like everything that's going to happen already has and you're just getting to hear a future summary of the story, essentially.

If you think about it, you've probably seen some form of epistolary novel - or other media - somewhere before. Some famous examples include Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and even that Eminem song Stan are all modern day forms of an epistolary novel.

Pamela - Plot

So, now that you know what an epistolary novel is, let's get back to Pamela - the book that started it all. Some people call Pamela the first English-language novel, though it seems more likely that early 18th century authors, like Jonathan Swift or Daniel Defoe (both of whom we have lessons on, by the way), could really claim that prize instead of Samuel Richardson. It's up for debate, but either way, Pamela is an early novel, and it's an important one. But one reason people probably say that Pamela was the first English-language novel is because of the sensation that was around it. It was really the first book release that could be called a true multimedia event - it inspired artwork, novelty teacups and even playing cards. In a lot of ways this is the precursor to something like Harry Potter, Twilight or the Will and Kate phenomenon. If there had been motion pictures back in 1740, you really can be sure that someone would have made a movie of Pamela (in fact, there is a movie version made in 1974, but it was kind of played as a comedy - it's not my favorite thing).

Anyway, what was Pamela about? Why all the excitement? The main character is named Pamela Andrews, and she is a young, innocent country girl who works as a maid in a wealthy household in rural England. When her mistress dies, her mistress's son, Mr. B, decides to pay her more attention, going to great lengths to try to sleep with her, essentially. This includes everything from overt passes to actually hiding in her closet and then jumping out as she's undressing for bed. Basically, Mr. B is a big old creep.

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