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  • Leaving Little to the Imagination:The Mechanics of Didacticism in Two Children's Adaptations of Samuel Richardson's Novels
  • Bonnie Latimer (bio)

Samuel Richardson wrote of his own fiction that it was calculated to inculcate virtue, "turn[ing] young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvelous, with which novels generally abound" (Selected Letters 41). The result would be a joint engagement of the imagination and the intellect: while enthralling the emotions, he would also foster judgment—in terms of the ability to read fiction, but more importantly, in the capacity to form desirable moral views. As he wrote to another correspondent, Lady Bradshaigh, Richardson attempted to manage his fictions "not unartful[ly]," "so as to make [readers] differ in Opinion as to the Capital Articles, and by Leading one, to espouse one, another, another, Opinion, make them all, if not Authors, Car[v]ers" (Selected Letters 296).1

Reading these two pronouncements, we can uncover a tension between Richardson's statements of didactic purpose. On the one hand, the educative ends of his work seem to necessitate coercion: he intends to "turn" young people into a different "course," leading them to "dismiss" earlier, perhaps cherished, reading pleasures. On the other, he does not wish to manhandle his readers' critical faculties; he wants also to grant imaginative agency to his audience, exciting debate such that they "carve" or independently interrogate the significant moral issues raised by his work. In this more sophisticated model of didacticism, the novel engenders extra-textual conversation, a creative space out of which a multiplicity of conclusions—or even no conclusion—may arise.

Richardson's novelistic practice might be read in terms of the disjunction between these two models of didacticism. His work sparked the desired controversy, but this led him to reframe later editions of his novels to narrow [End Page 167] the range of meanings that might be drawn from the text. One need only think of the editorializing footnotes included in the third edition of Clarissa (1751). Equally, the third edition of The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1754) incorporated an "Index Historical and Characteristical," which provides morally pointed recapitulations of the novel's characters and sentiments. Richardson's insertions try to turn carving readers into obedient ones, shutting down the imagination of moral interpretations beyond what the editorial framework suggests.

The problems of engaging the imagination in the didactic process did not occur to Richardson only: an issue raised in contemporary criticism of his work is that in offering fictional scenarios susceptible to polyvalent interpretations, his novels lay themselves open to undesirable readings, far from their educative intent. The author of Pamela Censured (1741) sardonically represented the dangers of putting Pamela (1740) into the hands of impressionable young people, who might be more interested in its sexual voyeurism than in its worthy morals. Equally, A Candid Examination of . . . Sir Charles Grandison (1755) found similar faults: "so rich is his Imagination, that he cannot help being perhaps too lively and particular in some Scenes . . . We can hardly avoid being fired with the warm Description" (Candid Examination 24–25). In this reading, Richardson's invention tips over into luxuriance, opening up the possibility of an imaginative engagement more masturbatory than moral.

Despite these reservations, however, Richardson's work retained immense cultural authority—not least as an educational tool for children. Abbreviated and illustrated versions and adaptations became standard fare in the late-century nursery.2 John Entick's New Spelling Dictionary included Pamela and Grandison as the culminating items in a list of works that included those of Shakespeare, Boyle, Milton, Locke, Pope, Swift, and Addison (Entick vi). But the issue of their potential to spark subversive readings remained to be grappled with by Richardson's adaptors. The problem of how to afford the moral lesson while not encouraging inappropriate deductions is one that structures many of these later redactions and continuations—and the solutions employed by their authors shed light, I contend, on the didactic practices of mid- and late eighteenth-century children's writing. In this essay, I suggest that a central problem of didactic children's literature from...


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