Theatre and drama


When Richardson described Clarissa as a ‘Dramatic Narrative’, he established one of the central critical paradigms through which his novels have subsequently been discussed. His ‘Postscript’ to Clarissa was intended to serve a more local purpose, vindicating the novel’s tragic ending by contextualising it in contemporary dramatic criticism and, specifically, in Joseph Addison’s rejection of ‘the chimerical notion of Poetical Justice’. Like Calista in Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent (1703) or the eponymous heroine of Charles Johnson’s Cælia; or, The Perjur’d Lover (1733), Clarissa dies in order to ‘raise Commiseration and Terror in the minds of the Audience’. The exemplary ‘Catastrophe’ to the novel thus serves an important didactic function in reminding readers that virtue cannot always be rewarded in a world where God has ‘intermingled Good and Evil’. If a ‘fortunate Ending’ is suspect in a tragedy, such as ‘the altered King Lear of Mr. Tate’, then it must be avoided in a novel self-consciously formed, as Richardson explains, on both a ‘Dramatic’ and a ‘Religious Plan’. No less than dramatists, novelists present audiences with examples to imitate or abhor and, in so doing, inculcate moral lessons ‘under the guise of an Amusement’ (C, Vol. vii, pp. 425–8, ‘Postscript’). Dramatic Novelist Richardson’s conception of Clarissa as a dramatic narrative encouraged early readers to evaluate all of his epistolary novels in terms borrowed from the drama and theatre. Indeed, these readers seem to have assumed, along with Denis Diderot, that ‘Pamela, Clarissa, and Grandison are three great dramas!’ Richardson’s contemporaries viewed his plots and characters as having analogues in the English stage tradition, and they understood the novel in letters as a genre that could approximate the immediacy of actors and actresses reacting to one another in the moment and playing to audiences in, as it were, a ‘lively present-tense manner’ (C, v.xxv.221). Describing the effect of Richardson’s ‘epistolary correspondence’, Anna Laetitia Barbauld argues that this narrative technique ‘makes the whole work dramatic, since all the characters speak in their own persons’. Yet, as in drama, the absence of a narrator to mediate the action made the epistolary novel liable to objection. The initial response to Pamela was dominated by debate over the heroine’s questionable sincerity and her capacity as an actress.

Publication Title

Samuel Richardson in Context