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f he [the novelist] puts on the air of one [a teacher], it sometimes happens that his influence is directly the reverse of his precepts.

Take the novelist, Richardson, for example, as he appears in his earliest work, which Fielding could not refrain from satirising. No book has ever been written in which there is such a parade of morality as in Pamela: nevertheless, it is a mischievous work that makes one sympathise with the disgust which it excited in Fielding. There is no end to the morals which it professes to instil—morals for husbands, morals for wives, morals for parents, morals for children, morals for masters, morals for servants. Ostensibly we are taught to admire the strength of virtue, and to note the reward of victory; but to understand the virtue, we are introduced to all the arts of the deceiver. There is a continual handling of pitch, in order to see how well it can be washed off: there is a continual drinking of poison, in order to show the potency of the antidote. The girl resists the seducer; but the pleasure of the story consists in entering into all the details of the struggle, and seeing how the squire takes liberties with the maid. When our senses have been duly tickled by these glowing descriptions, our consciences are soothed by a thick varnish of moral reflections and warnings that are entirely out of place. Notwithstanding its great show of virtue, such an exhibition seems to have a much more immoral tendency than the frank sinfulness of Fielding’s works. “Here is my hero,” says Fielding, “full of wickedness and good heart: come and read of his doings.” “Here is my heroine, full of virtue,” says Richardson: “come and read of all her goodness.” But the descriptions of both are equally indelicate. It may be safely taken for granted that the force of Richardson’s preachings goes for very little in comparison with the force of his pictures.

In justice, however, to so great a writer as Richardson, I should take particular care to state that these strictures apply only to his earliest work. In all his novels there is a parade of moral laws, but that parade is not offensive and hollow in the later ones. Notwithstanding the tediousness of its commencement, it is not risking much to say that Clarissa Harlowe is the finest novel in the English language. No one thinks of Richardson, with all his weak vanity, as a great genius; yet we have to recognise the existence of this curious phenomenon that, as a grig like Boswell produced our best piece of biography, so a squat, homely burgess, who fed his mind on “says he” and “ says she,” produced what is still our best novel.

It is not Richardson, however, that we have now to do with. The point I wish to bring out is this, that it is not moral sermons which constitute the moral force of a novel: it is example. Much of this example is consciously followed. [161-63]


Dallas, Eneas Sweetland . The Gay Science. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1866. A HathiTrust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 30 April 2022.

Created 3 May 2022

Last modified 23 January 2024