The Printer as Author

Samuel Richardson enjoyed a remarkable double career: he was a lifelong professional printer and is acclaimed as the founder of the modern novel. Richardson’s father was an able joiner and draughtsman who, by 1678, had become a freeman of the Joiners’ Company and of the City of London. Shortly before Samuel’s birth in 1689 the family moved to Derbyshire. The reasons for the move remain unclear. The only known autobiographical account is a letter to Johannes Stinstra, his friend and Dutch translator, in which Richardson claims that his father’s sympathies with the Duke of Monmouth and the first Earl of Shaftesbury prompted his departure from the City at the time of Monmouth’s execution in 1685. To the end, however, Richardson remained silent about the circumstances of his birthplace and childhood years. The family moved back to London when Samuel was thirteen years old. There he was apprenticed to printer John Wilde in July 1706 and admitted as a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Stationers nine years later. Wilde specialized in the publication of almanacs, jest books and popular fiction – hardly an environment in which young Samuel would have developed a taste for literature. In 1718/9 Richardson set up his own press in Fleet Street and five years later he moved his business to Salisbury Court next to St Bride’s Church where he lived and worked all his life. Among his prestigious contracts were the printing of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and The House of Commons Journal. Richardson became master of the Stationers’ Company in 1754/5. St Bride’s was one of the first of Christopher Wren’s city churches to be opened after the Great Fire. It survived until January 1940 when it was destroyed in an air raid. In the excavations of the crypts over 200 skeletons were found in lead coffins which bore plates detailing information relating to the interred individuals. In the process, a crushed coffin was discovered with a plate bearing the legend ‘Mr Samuel Richardson. Died 4th July 1761. In his 72nd Year’.

The Rivington family of printers and publishers were, from the early eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, one of the most important book-trade dynasties in England. Their connection with the book trade began with Chesterfield-born Charles Rivington who, in 1703, was apprenticed to Emanuel Matthews, a London bookbinder. During his apprenticeship he moved from bookbinding to bookselling. In October 1707 he was turned over to the bookseller Awnsham Churchill and four years later he bought the business of the recently deceased Richard Chiswell, an important London bookseller who had been in business at the Rose and Crown, St Paul’s Churchyard. Rivington moved his shop to the north side of St Paul’s Churchyard, which by 1724 had become the locale of booksellers ‘for Divinity and the Classics’. He continued business under the sign of the Bible and Crown and the same premises remained in the family’s possession until 1853. Charles became the leading theological publisher in London. He published Wesley’s edition of Thomas à Kempis (1735) and one of Methodist George Whitefield’s earliest works, The Nature and Necessity of a New Birth in Christ (1737). He developed a close friendship with Samuel Richardson, a connection that may have begun as early as 1724 when both men were involved in the publication of the second edition of Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary. Some thirty titles have been recorded that were printed by Richardson and published by Rivington during the 1730s. Rivington’s youngest son Charles [ii] was apprenticed to Richardson before establishing his own printing house in Staining (or Steyning) Lane, Wood Street. From 1753 he took over part of the printing that Richardson had been carrying on for the Rivington publishing firm.

Richardson’ career as a novelist started late in life and almost by coincidence. Rivington played a part in this happy development. Writing to his friend and correspondent, the dramatist and author Aaron Hill, Samuel Richardson records that Rivington and bookseller John Osborne ‘had long been urging me to give them a little book, which they said they were often asked after, of familiar letters on the useful concerns in common life’ (Correspondence, 1804, vol. 1, p. lxxiii). The genre of a little book with sample letters had been popular for some time. These letters were supposed to provide models of business and personal correspondence to assist country people and the semi-literate. Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the most Important Occasions was published on 23 January 1741. While planning this manual, Richardson began writing the first draft of Pamela, completing it within about two months. Letters 138 and 139 from the manual, which represent the cautionary advice of a servant-girl’s father after her master’s sexually aggressive behaviout towards her, became the origin of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Rather than simply imagine the circumstances to generate the appropriate letter, Richardson seems to have benefited from his long years of printing newspapers by grounding his story in events that had been reported. The novel was commenced 10 November 1739, and issued with the names of the two publishers on the title-page in 1741/2. The story attained instant popularity, with four editions appearing during 1741. It created an English ‘Pamela’ rage (Pamela motifs appeared on teacups and fans, there were stage adaptations, waxworks, murals at Vauxhall Gardens, etc.). His second novel Clarissa, published in 1747 in the same epistolary style, was undoubtedly his masterpiece and won him a European reputation. A third novel, Sir Charles Grandison, appeared in 1753.

Despite the public success of Pamela and succeeding novels, Richardson was never negligent toward his printing business. As early as 1741, he was printing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and continued to print them until his death in 1761. As he remarked to Stinstra in 1753, ‘My Business, Sir, has ever been my chief Concern. My Writing-time has been at such times of Leisure as have not interfered with that’. Richardson ran his large printing business efficiently, allowing him to find time to write some of the longest fictional works in the English language. To those of us who are addicted to fiction, it is reassuring to know that the father of the novel was not a professional man of letters, a philosopher, or preacher – he was but a ‘simple’ printer, a man of lettering, a person with ink on his hands.

2 thoughts on “The Printer as Author

  1. The scope of Richardson’s production as a printer has been extensively documented by Keith Maslen, building on the work of William Merritt Sale but going far beyond, in his “Samuel Richardson of London, Printer: a study of the printing based on ornament use and business accounts” (Dunedin, N.Z.: University of Otago, 2001). Though as Maslen writes in his preface, “A perhaps not inconsiderable amount of Richardson’s printing will always remain undiscovered,” he is also, in my view, correct in his belief “that the bulk and range of his output is now known.” Maslen documents and illustrates more than 500 ornaments known to have been used by Richardson, an important means of identifying his work, and has more than 2300 entries giving bibliographical details for individual works printed by Richardson.

Comments are closed.