Richardson's Unfamiliar Quotations: Clarissa and Early Eighteenth-Century Comedy


This article takes issue with a pair of standard critical assumptions about Samuel Richardson's ambivalent relationship towards the theatre of his day: 1) that he distrusted the stage and disdained the indecorum of contemporary drama, especially comedy, and 2) that he derived the majority of the dramatic quotations in his novels at second-hand, from commonplace books such as Bysshe's Art of English Poetry (1702). It does so by illustrating, for the first time, the novelist's surprising use in Clarissa (1747-1748) of material from two 'modern' comedies that he could only have known at first-hand: Christopher Bullock's A Woman is a Riddle (1717) and Elizabeth Cooper's The Rival Widows (1735). Even though Richardson questioned the existence of a 'good Dramatic Writer' in his age, he seems to have made an exception of Bullock and Cooper by having sympathetic characters quote their lines to good effect. And even though he frequently attacked the 'deplorable Depravity' of the British stage, he appears ironically to have been willing to borrow from playwrights who were notably also comic actors and who, moreover, performed the roles of the very characters who originally delivered the lines quoted in Clarissa. The article analyses the thematic significance of these new identifications, and discusses how they might change our understanding of Richardson's literary sources and, inevitably, his 'reading.'

Publication Title

Review of English Studies