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  • Richardson and the Philosophes by James Fowler
  • Hina Nazar
Richardson and the Philosophes. By James Fowler. Oxford: Legenda, 2014. 195 pp.

This book seeks to fill an important gap in Richardson studies, as well as studies of Enlightenment culture, by identifying the mid-century English novelist as much more than a founding father of the novel genre. Taking his cue from recent studies such as Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever’s The Literary Channel: The Inter-National Invention of the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), James Fowler aims to restore Richardson to his proper place in an Enlightenment that resisted stratification along national lines, and one in which Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment ideals intersected productively to engender the ideological dynamism we associate with the second half of the eighteenth century. More particularly, Fowler suggests that Richardson’s sentimental Christian fiction became a whetstone for French philosophes such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, who sought to capture the capacious reading public created by the spectacularly successful Pamela and Clarissa in order to propagate fundamentally anti-Richardsonian sentiments — above all, a critique of revealed religion. Fowler acknowledges that Richardsonian ideology is not reducible to Christian belief and highlights the convergence between Richardson and the philosophes on the merits of meritocracy — the ‘Pamelaesque problem of “birth versus worth”’ (p. 68) — but his emphasis falls on Richardson’s and his French interlocutors’ divergent beliefs about revelation and the afterlife. After a brief discussion of the religious framework of Richardson’s novels in Chapter 1, Fowler moves in Chapters 2 to 5 to detailed readings of the philosophes’ creative adaptations of Richardson. Voltaire, we are told, rewrote Pamela as Nanine, challenging Richardson about the importance of chastity as an index of female virtue. His critique of chastity became more ambiguous after reading Clarissa, as is evidenced by L’Ingénu and Les Lettres d’Amabed; these, Fowler argues, are thereby ‘particularly difficult to classify as “Enlightenment literature” ’ (p. 172). No such difficulty exists in the case of Rousseau’s Julie, ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse, which, Fowler suggests, is straightforwardly ‘anti-Clarissa’ (and hence pro-Enlightenment) because of its heroine’s deistic beliefs, anathema to devout Christians such as Richardson. Diderot, too, wrote an anti-Clarissa in La Religieuse, ‘not only anti-conventual, but fundamentally anti-Christian’ (p. 172). Fowler’s readings are illuminating of the cross-Channel eighteenth-century milieu in many respects. His interpretation of Voltaire’s relationship with Frederick of Prussia as analogous to that between Pamela and her master is especially engaging. But Richardson himself, the novelist who gives occasion to this study, remains a somewhat simplified figure. Fowler’s contention that ‘we should give Richardson his due as a writer who fought against Enlightenment tendencies’ (p. 4) ignores the ideological complexity of the novels, which are straightforward in neither their religion nor their politics. Fowler elides, for example, the rhetoric of self-determination that substantially informs Richardson’s sexual politics, against which thinkers such as Rousseau appear decidedly sexist and ‘counter-Enlightenment’. Fowler initiates an important conversation about Richardson’s influence on the Continent; we can advance it by acknowledging, more fully, the ideological multivalence of works such as Clarissa, and by treating religion as one among several variables that define Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment platforms. [End Page 245]

Hina Nazar
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign


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