Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sir Charles Grandison: Final Thoughts

Notice the condition this old paperback,
 and the excessive number of
notable passages I discovered!
The History of Sir Charles Grandison / Samuel Richardson
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, c1972.
(originally published in 1753 & 1754 in 7 vol.)
xli, 465, 669, 501 p.

As you may know if you are a regular reader here, I've been reading the lengthy epistolary novel Sir Charles Grandison for the past couple of months. I've really enjoyed it, and have shared some of my thoughts already, in one initial commentary, and a second, slightly more lengthy post.

I finally finished the book this week, rather reluctantly ~ after 1500 pages these characters were friends! I didn't want to part with them, just as Harriet and Charles were living their happily ever after, and more change was about to descend upon them. But I don't think that contemporary readers really wanted the tale to end either, as there is an afterword written by Richardson in response to readers who questioned why he was stopping now. He goes through a list of the characters, ticking off how he's settled them and why it isn't necessary for him to follow them further, as he could continue doing so until their old age and by that time he'd have to continue with their children, etc. etc. Kind of like the endless looping of soap operas!

The plot is a little circular, with most of the vivid excitement happening in the first 100-200 pages, and lots of gossipy letters and anxious waiting going on after that. But I liked each of the characters, and found the social commentary very amusing. Our heroine, Harriet Byron, writes the majority of the letters, especially in the beginning, and she is a great correspondent. I was feeling a bit intimidated by her style until the other characters also comment on how fabulous she is at narrative letter writing -- whew, she was not the norm! Her letters are so fine that they are one of the factors that cause Sir Charles to fall in love with her (after she's handed them over for him to peruse -- these aren't letters written TO him).

The basic plot is that Sir Charles rescues Harriet from an attempted abduction by the nefarious Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, and during her lengthy recovery with the Grandisons, her gratitude turns to something more. Alas, there is an obstacle in the way, with Sir Charles having previous committments to a family in Italy. In the middle of the book he has to go back to Italy, to try to restore the fair Clementina della Porretta to sanity with his presence, as she has gone mad after rejecting him against her own inclinations, because he is a Protestant and she fears for her soul. (yes, really). This middle part, and the whole Italian subplot, becomes a bit tedious, and also weird. Sir Charles can resolve to be true to Clementina, then to Harriet, then bring them together and insist that they be "sisters" to one another. He is a noble wonder. One of the complaints I've seen in criticisms of this book is that Sir Charles is unchanged from start to finish and there is no real character to grow fond of as we see him develop. But Richardson's intent was to write a book about a "good man" to counteract his previous heroes in Clarissa and Pamela, bad men all. Thus Sir Charles is a bit unbelievable at times, perhaps a bit unyielding in his sense of honour. Still, there are parts that show him in a  more human light, as when he finally proposes to Harriet, and then begins to push her to name the day since he is impatient to be married. And when, on a visit to her family, he sweeps her into the cedar parlour alone and:

Here had he stopt, he would have been welcome: but hurrying me into the cedar parlour; I am jealous, my love, said he; putting his arm round me: You seemed loth to retire with me. Forgive me: but thus I punish you, whenever you give me cause: and, dear Lady G. he downright kissed me -- My lip; and not my cheek -- and in so fervent a way -- I tell you every-thing, my Charlotte -- I could have been angry had I known how, from surprize. Before I could recollect myself, he withdrew his arm; and, resuming his usual respectful air, it would have made me look affected, had I then taken notice of it.

There are times when the dialogue gets overheated with exclamations and religious fervour, and they are all throwing themselves at one another's feet and hugging one another's knees, but mainly it is full of fun and interest.

One of the things that I particularly enjoyed while reading was the relationship between Harriet and Caroline and Charlotte Grandison, Sir Charles' sisters. When they are caring for Harriet at the beginning of the book, they become close friends, particularly Charlotte who is of an age with Harriet and also unmarried. Charlotte is a fascinating and to me, a favourite, character. She is independent minded and witty, so much so that she is continually being reminded by the nobler Harriet and her brother Charles that wit has its place but she should be more circumspect in general. She tortures poor Lord G, who wishes to marry her, and then questions everyone who tells her she should be more wifely once they have wed. "He knew what he was getting beforehand," is essentially her reply. She is the character who raises social issues and questions the status quo, as much as possible for someone who enjoys the advantages of wealth and status. She points out that women are as intellectually able as men but are also in a much more precarious position financially and with regards to reputation and security. She draws our attention to the double standards regarding marriage and old maids, and the place of women in the social structure. She insists that she be allowed to determine her own course of behaviour, and enjoys being flippant and sarcastic as she pleases, and is willing to take the consequences as required.

When, near the end of the book, the women all start having babies, Richardson seems to delight in the presence of infants. Charlotte, in particular, becomes a new woman, finding that she is actually thrilled with her new daughter, also named Harriet. She becomes reconciled to her husband, Lord G., when he unexpectedly bursts in on her while she is breast-feeding, and after screaming "O wretch!..Begone! -- Begone! Whence the boldness of this intrusion?" in total embarrassment, realizes that he is in raptures to see her acting like a "real mother" would (unlike most mothers of the time who would have had wet nurses). She then calms down, but repeats, "Begone, Lord G.... See! see! How shall I hold the little Marmouset, if you devour first one of my hands, then the other?"

She begins to dote on her baby, calling it by terms of affection like pug, brat, leech, and (my favourite), marmouset. Even in this softening, Charlotte retains her characteristic wit and habit of "making men look about themselves" as Harriet puts it.

I really enjoyed this book. It made me laugh, and gave me moments of delight, and introduced me to some wonderful people and lovely homes, which I can nearly picture as clearly as if I'd been in the sitting room or the women's closets myself. The length of the book turned out to be a bonus, as I spent so much time reading their letters I began to feel part of the story, and as if I should be writing back! I found myself thinking in their patterns of speech after one long afternoon of intense reading, and entertained myself by using archaic exclamations for a while, too :)

I loved discovering small things that were taken for granted by contemporary readers, like the way men wore swords when they were 'dressed', or the fact that women had their private closets where they would retreat to write letters and rest.  Or the reminder that childbirth was always dangerous and frightening no matter how much a child was wanted, or that grandparents would express disappointment when a child turned out to be a girl.

I loved the structure of the book -- how Richardson was able to clearly demarcate who was writing to whom, and the very natural overlapping dates of letters to and from the various locations that the characters were at. He was able to maintain a solid fiction with events making sense in the timeline, and funnily enough, with characters explaining how it was that they were able to write so much. One notable example is when Charlotte and Harriet's cousin Lucy are spelling each other off with quickly dashed off paragraphs describing Harriet's wedding, as it is happening, in a letter that is addressed to Lady L, otherwise known as elder sister Caroline (who can't be there because she has just given birth). Richardson's letters are well constructed and entertaining, and feel like an active correspondence.

Sir Charles himself is rather bland, but in the manner of Sir Percy Blakeney. I wondered from time to time if he wasn't indeed something, or someone, beyond what we saw of him. There were intriguing hints of a bit more spirit now and again... And I do admit that I was also thinking about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in some regards, though these two weren't quite as modern, of course.

This is a book I will happily reread in future, despite its length. It was an enjoyable excursion into the past, into some extraordinary letter-writing, and into the lives of some very fascinating women. What a reading experience it was, sinking into such a door-stopper once more. Well worth the time invested in it!


  1. What fun! after reading your post in my feed reader I went immediately to Project Gutenberg to download the book but they only have volume 4 of 7! :( Looks like I will have to haunt my local secondhand bookshop for a copy now!

  2. Stefanie - the title link here goes to an online version by the U of Adelaide (but there are quite a few jumbley letters created in the html-ing of it, some quite undecipherable)

  3. Oh, yay for Adelaide University!


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