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Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison and the Symptoms of Subjectivity
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The eighteenth-century novel has long been implicated in the creation of modern subjectivity. For Nancy Armstrong the very “history of the novel and the history of the modern subject are . . . the same.”1 Conventionally, the early novel’s preoccupation with the individual has been credited with the turn from the premodern self toward an inward-turning “subject.” Individuality, it seems, is inextricable from subjectivity. The capacity of the novel to represent “non-generic types, particular and independent, and thus (essentially) non-social ‘moral’ beings” marks the evolution of autonomous individuals.2 The first-person narratives of the early novel empower “the production of . . . written interiority,” and the novel thus represents a space for individual response, separate from, often antithetical to, the social.3 This alliance of individuality and subjectivity can be traced to Ian Watt’s influential study, which characterized the novel as “individualist and innovating.” His insistence on “the interconnection of aesthetic particularism, economic and epistemological individualism, and privatization . . . subsumed under the term individualism” has continued to shape critical discourse.4 Samuel Richardson’s status in Watt’s novelistic triumvirate is as the father of the psychological novel, and his works, primarily Clarissa; or the history of a young lady (1747–48), have long been claimed as evidence of the eighteenth-century evolution of an “autonomous, independent individual” or “juridicial subject.”5

Yet criticism’s claim for Richardson as a forefather for individual subjectivity rests on a selective reading of his work, one which excises both Pamela’s continuation, Pamela in her Exalted Condition (1742), and his final work, The History of Charles Grandison (1753) from his corpus. Effectively halving Richardson’s oeuvre, such a critical selection seems to confirm Clifford Siskin’s claim that our analysis of eighteenth-century novels has been dictated by presumptions of interiority.6 In light of works by Betty Schellenberg, Deirdre Lynch, Carol Kay, and Patricia Meyer Spacks that have questioned the equivalence of the novel with individualist subjectivity, this essay will seek to examine Grandison as a novel concerned with creating an anti-individualist subjectivity.7 Long relegated to a postscript in studies of Richardson’s work, critical attention is returning to Grandison as academics seek to further understand the complex origins of the novel.8 Its influence on Jane Austen alone (who Armstrong sees as inaugurating the dominant form of nineteenth-century fiction) suggests a richness of style and content that is obscured by contemporary impatience with its moral ratifications and reconfirmations.9 Indeed, Spacks includes Grandison in her study of boredom, as an instance of the difficulty of recapturing interest in a novel whose “insistence on community” alienates and flummoxes modern readers.10 Critics similarly evince irritation at the work’s solutions of the contradictions of individual life, as individuals behave well, unselfishly, without sufficient conflict between the private self and social demands: Mark Kinkead-Weekes bemoans the novel as “turning aside from that inner drama which produced his greatest works”; Margaret Anne Doody notes how the openness of interpersonal tensions diminishes their power to attract interest; Sylvia Kasey Marks comments on the “public” nature of the correspondences.11

Unarguably, Grandison lacks Clarissa’s carceral interiority; private individuals are supplanted by a corresponding society of astonishing frankness. There appears to be critical consensus that private individuals are the pre-eminent source of novelistic interest and that Grandison’s failure to provide individual conflict is a mark of the triumph of its author’s didacticism over his aesthetic instinct. Yet Richardson’s novels explicitly rework and respond to their immediate predecessors and critics, representing a conscious formal, thematic and ideological development. The author himself claimed that this final work was the culmination of his “whole plan” of writing, that is, the renovation of social relations at the level of the reader.12 Such a statement, notwithstanding Richardson’s comments on his own prolixity, deserves credence given his habits of persistent editorial revision and intervention. Indeed, numerous poetic panegyrics assert Grandison as “This last great work, which leaves all praise behind.”13 Anna Williams, Samuel Johnson’s companion, places Grandison above Clarissa—“Thus every mind Clarissa’s tomes rever’d; / Great work of art, till Grandison appear’d.”14 Like Richardson...