Miss Jane Austen's Bookshelf discussion

The History Of Sir Charles Grandison Bart
"The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Bart."

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message 1: by Sean (last edited May 05, 2014 09:32PM) (new) - added it

Sean Sharp (sharp01) | 37 comments I have been reading Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel "Sir Charles Grandison," published 1753-54, and the favorite novel of Jane Austen. I'm almost up to the half-way mark with this book, so I thought I'd share some thoughts with all of you.

Austen learned her own style of domestic social comedy of manners from this novel, which she had practically memorized, its characters "were as well remembered as if they had been living friends" (James Edward Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen (1871)).

Here's what Henry Austen wrote about his sister and "Sir Charles Grandison," in the "Biographical Notice" he wrote for the first publications of "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion":

"It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language. Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in "Sir Charles Grandison," gratified the natural discrimation of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative."

Just so you won't need to read the darn book (1600 pages long), here is a description and appreciation of it, with illustrations (1778) by Isaac Taylor:


Jane Austen allegedly wrote a five-act play based on "Sir Charles Grandison," to be performed by her family and friends. The exact date of the play's composition is difficult to determine, but modern scholars tend to consider it as part of Austen's juvenilia. The authorship of this play is controversial, since the Austen family always claimed it was written by Anna Austen, Jane Austen's niece, and was transcribed by her aunt--the manuscript, which survives, is in Jane Austen's hand. Modern scholarship tends to favor Jane Austen's authorship of the play. The play, which is no masterpiece and is certain to be a disappointment to those who know the great Austen novels, is basically a summary of key scenes from Richardson's novel, with the occasional witty line thrown in--the best lines are those taken from or inspired by Richardson.

message 2: by Sean (last edited Apr 27, 2015 09:09AM) (new) - added it

Sean Sharp (sharp01) | 37 comments A couple of months ago, I finally finished reading "Sir Charles Grandison" (1753-54) by Samuel Richardson. I can truly say that I have lived with these characters for the better part of 10 months, off and on--perhaps the only way to get through this lengthy book.

Sir Walter Scott wrote about this novel that "... a venerable old lady, whom we well knew, when in advanced age she became subject to drowsy fits, chose to hear Sir Charles Grandison read to her as she sat in her elbow-chair, in preference to any other work, "because," said she, "should I drop asleep in course of the reading, I am sure when I awake, I shall have lost none of the story, but shall find the party, where I left them, conversing in the cedar-parlour."" That pretty much says it all. There is very little plot in "Sir Charles," which recounts the virtuous exploits and good deeds of its titular hero, all in the form of letters, and comes to over 1600 pages (the original edition was published in seven volumes).

Richardson, after the success of his masterpiece "Clarissa" (1748), had no intention of writing another novel, but he was so disgusted by the success of Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones," whose hero Richardson considered to be morally flawed, that he set out to write a novel that centered on his vision of a good man, a man who would embody all the English, Anglican virtues of the mid-18th century.

To me, the best aspect of "Sir Charles" is the social domestic comedy that Richardson developed in this novel and that was such an influence on Austen. The novel's main comic character is Sir Charles's younger sister Charlotte. Charlotte is outspoken, witty, irreverent--a bit of a brat--but also warmhearted and honest; she is constantly getting in trouble with her brother, who is always reprimanding her. Charlotte is a delight and the book so badly needs her.

Richardson was a master at getting the "voice" of his characters; you would know which character was writing which letter just by the tone of that letter, the incidents described therein aside. This character delineation was something that Austen would take and do even better, even though she rejected the epistolary style early on in her writing.

The main conflict in the plot consists of Sir Charles's divided love between the English Harriet Byron and the Italian (and devoutly Catholic) Lady Clementina della Porretta. Indeed, Lady Clementina is so devoutly Catholic that her love for the Anglican Sir Charles drives her to madness, scenes of which are written by Richardson with full-throttled pathos.

Harriet Byron, who starts the novel promisingly as a sort of Elizabeth Bennett prototype, loses her spirit when she meets Sir Charles--who rescues her from an attempted abduction--and falls in love with him; after that, Harriet becomes one of Sir Charles's many devoted admirers. So, the conflict in the plot is really no conflict, because we know, in the end, that Sir Charles will end up with Harriet.

So am I sorry I read this enormous tome? No, I'm glad I read it. It gave me a greater and detailed insight into the manners and mores of mid-18th century England and insight into what influenced Austen in her writing.

Would I read "Sir Charles" again? Honestly, once was enough for one lifetime.

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