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M. Jules Janin, a little more than twenty years ago, to produce an abridged version of Clarissa, which has met with the warmest acceptance, and which has given a new term of life to the reputation of Richardson in France. He was incited to this work by listening to the lecture of M. Villemain on our novelist. That accomplished critic, remarking on the undue length of Richardson's masterpiece, observed that it is the tendency of advancing civilisation to shorten labour, to expedite pleasure, and to abridge even histories. If fact detains an audience. with difficulty, how can we expect, he asked, that fiction should hold us by the button for ever? Urged by this hint, M. Janin produced a version of Clarissa which has met with great success, although it has the demerit of making considerable alterations in the text, and also of adding to it.
I have ventured to offer to English readers a simple abridgement of the marvellous tale, matchless in the range of prose fiction,-because, for the honour of our literature, I lament that the noblest of all novels, the most pathetic and the most sublime, should be unread and wellnigh unknown among us; and because I agree with the French critics in thinking that the prolixity which has been its bane may be diminished with an advantage to which there is no serious drawback.
Nor in arriving at this conclusion, is it necessary to underrate what both Jeffrey and the elder Disraeli set forth as to the value of prolixity in Richardson's art. Only let us understand wherein it is that this value consists, and what it is that we are to gain or lose by regard or disregard of it. The fact is that it touches Richardson's most obvious characteristic,-his undoubting faith in the reality of his story and its personages. His heroes and heroines seem to be no creatures of imagination, but living beings. He believes in them himself, and he makes his readers believe in them. When Pamela, whose history came out by instalments in a distant village, was known to be married, the good folks who were interested in her fate set the church bells ringing, and filled the air with rejoicings. When the first half of Clarissa was published, the author was besieged with letters entreating him to make the heroine happy in a union with her destroyerand to reform Lovelace. “Will you not save his soul, sir ?” Foreigners went to Hampstead to search out the house in the Flask Walk where Clarissa lodged, and Londoners as they strolled through King Street into Covent Garden, looked about for the shop of Smith the glover, in whose tenement Clarissa died. Now the prolixity of minute detail in which Richardson indulged went far to produce this sense of reality, and this it is that constitutes the worth of it to his art. It does not make the story clearer, nor does it add to the interest of the events; but it seems to give them confirmation.
Yet the universal cry against Richardson's wearisomeness is pretty sure evidence that his art is, in this respect, overdone. We are delighted to have confirmation of a good story; but depend upon it that when the confirmation irks us, we have had more of it than is necessary. If we are really interested in a story, we complain of nothing which makes it either more clear or more credible. The evidence which palls upon us must needs be overmuch. And not only on this general ground may we declare the prolixity which all complain of to be unnecessary: we arrive at the same conclusion if we examine the channels into which Richardson's prolixity overflows. His prolixity is of three kinds, the first of which may be described as that of the gossip, the second as that of the moraliser, and the third as that of the complete letter-writer.
Prolixity of gossip, as displayed in the pages of literature, is most rank in the conversation of Dame Quickly. When this worthy hostess wished to bring it home to Falstaff that he had promised to marry her, she pelted his memory with a tempest of details that were more likely to drive him out of his wits than into belief:— “Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt
goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Whitsun-week, when the prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor ; thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me, and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? . Did not goodwife Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then, and call me gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar; telling us, she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou didst desire to eat some; whereby I told thee, they were ill for a green wound? And didst thou not, when she was gone down stairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people; saying, that ere long they should call me madam? And didst thou not kiss me, and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book-oath ; deny it, if thou canst.” Mrs. Quickly is very particular, and as she is not allowed to speak too often or too much we find her very amusing ; but I suppose we should all take her word against Sir John without such a clatter of circumstantial evidence. This gossiping prolixity of hers may be found to some degree in Richardson, who is very particular in noting every trifling detail of the foreground, while, as a rule, his background is a blank. Our attention is fixed on a small group of figures, of whose surroundings, in any large sense, we know but little.
There is no broad landscape behind them ; there is no sense given to us of a great world of life bustling around, and, peradventure, intermeddling with them. But as for the little group in the foreground, we are instructed with microscopic minuteness in most of their ways, and many traits are brought into view which have no direct bearing on the story, but give a certain air of nature to the course of events, by besetting them with the redundant possibilities of life. With prolixity of this kind in the hands of a great artist it is difficult to interfere, and I have been chary of reducing any of Richardson's details where these convey additional fact, picturesque or significant.
It is different when we have to deal with prolixity of moralising. Richardson is mighty in sermons, and never weary of pointing a moral. And, doubtless, his habit of preaching about his characters, and of holding them up for warning or for example, as if they were real beings and not mere phantoms of the brain, tends to give an air of illusion to his embodiments. It seems impossible that there should be so much solemnity of discourse about persons who exist only in sport. A dream is more than a dream to us when we can be brought to accept its wanderings as the premises of an argument. But the credence which Richardson thus obtains, when he takes the pageantry of his imagina