Denis Diderot, "Eloge de Richardson" in the Journal etranger (Jan. 1762)

Diderot's appeal to French readers in favor of Richardson gives a rare glimpse into the experience of reading the literature of sensibility on its own terms. (In the body of the article, below, italics are added, for the purpose of directing attention to particular passages expressing themes crucial to a discussion of sensibility.)

By 'novel' we have until now understood a tissue of fantastic and frivolous events which presented a threat to the taste and morals of its readers. I should like another name to be found for the works of Richardson, which raise the spirit, touch the heart, are permeated with a love for what is good, and are also called novels.

A maxim is an abstract, general rule of conduct whose application is left to ourselves. It does not of itself impress any perceptible image on our minds: but in the case of someone who acts, we see him, we put ourselves in his place or by his side, we enlist enthusiastically for or against him; we identify with his role if he is virtuous and we draw indignantly away from it if he is unjust of vicious. Who has not been made to shudder by a character such a Lovelace or Tomlinson? Who has not been filled with horror at the moving, sincere tones, the air of candour and dignity, the profound skill with which this man acts out all the virtues? Who is there who has not thought within his heart that he would be forced to flee from the society of men or take refuge in the depths of the forests, if there were many men capable of such dissimulations?

O Richardson! whether we wish it or not, we play a part in your works, we intervene in the conversation, we give it approval and blame, we feel admiration, irritation and indignation. How many times have I caught myself, as happens with children being taken to the theatre for the first time, shouting out: Don't believe him, he's deceiving you ... If you go there it'll be the end of you. [emphasis and ellipses are original here] My heart was in a state of permanent agitation. How good I was! How just I was! Wasn't I pleased with myself! When I had been reading you, I was like a man who had spent the day doing good.

In the space of a few hours I had been through a host of situations which the longest life can scarcely provide in its whole course. I had heard the genuine language of the passions; I had seen the secret springs of self-interest and self-love operating in a hundred different ways; I had become privy to a multitude of incidents and I felt I had gained in experience.

This author does not send blood flowing down the walls, he does not transport you to distant lands, he does not expose you to being eaten by savages, he does not confine himself within the secret haunts of debauchery, he never wanders off into the world of fantasy. The world we live in is his scene of action, his drama is anchored in truth, his people are as real as it is possible to be, his characters are taken from the world of society, his events belong to the customs of all civilized nations; the passions he portrays are those I feel within me; the same things arouse them, and I recognize their force in myself; the problems and afflictions of his people are of the same kind as those which constantly hang over me; he shows me the general course of life as I experience it. Without this art, my mind would easily take to the paths of fantasy, there would be only a fleeting illusion and a faint, passing impression.

What is virtue? It is, from whatever angle one considers it, a sacrifice of oneself. The sacrifice one makes of oneself in imagination is a preconceived inclination to do the same in reality.

Richardson sows in our hearts the seeds of virtue which at first remain still and inactive: their presence is hidden until the moment comes for them to stir and come to life. Then they develop and we feel ourselves driven towards what is good with an enthusiasm we did not know was in us. At the spectacle of injustice we feel a revulsion for which we can find no explanation. All this because we have been in contact with Richardson; we have been in conversation with this worthy man at a time when our unprejudiced hearts were open to the truth.

I still remember the first time I came across Richardson's work: I was in the country. How delightfully moved I was by them! With every moment I saw my time of happiness growing a page shorter. Soon I had the same feeling as is experienced by men who get on extremely well together and, having been together for a long time, are about to separate. When it was finished, I suddenly felt that I was left alone.

This author constantly reminds you of the important things in life. The more you read him, the more pleasure you take in him.

He it is who lights the depths of the cavern with his torch; he it is who teaches you to detect the cunning, dishonest motives concealed and hidden from our sight beneath other, honest motives, which are always the first to show themselves. He it is who spirits away the mighty phantom which guards the entrance to the cavern, and the hideous blackamoor which it masked stands reveled.

...

If it matters to men to be convinced that, independently of any concerns beyond this life, the best thing we can do to be happy is to be virtuous, what benefit Richardson has brought to humankind! He has not demonstrated this truth; he has made us feel it; with every line he leads us to prefer the fate of virtue oppressed to that of vice triumphant. Who would wish to be Lovelace with all his advantages? Who would not rather be Clarissa, despite all her misfortunes?

I have often said, as I read him: I would happily give my life to be like this woman; I would rather be dead than be that man.

If I am able, despite the selfish motives which may disturb my judgement, to apportion my contempt or my esteem according to just standards of impartiality, it is to Richardson that I owe it. My friends. read him again and again....

Mankind, come and learn from him how to come to terms with the evils of life; come, we shall weep together over the unfortunates in his stories, and we will say: 'If fate casts us down, at least honest folk will weep also weep over us.' ...

He has left me with a feeling of melancholy, both pleasing an enduring. Sometimes people notice it and ask: 'What is the matter? there's something different about you; what has happened to you?' They question me about my health, my financial affairs, my family, my friends. O my friends! Pamela, Clarissa and Grandison are three great dramas! ...

Who has read Richardson's works without wanting to know this man, to have him as a brother or a friend? Who has not wished all kinds of blessings on him?

O Richardson, Richardson, a man who has no equal in my eyes, you will at all times be the subject of my reading! If I am compelled by pressing needs, if my friend is afflicted by poverty, if my modest wealth does not suffice to give my children what is necessary for their education, I shall sell my books. But I shall keep you, I shall keep you on the same shelf as Moses, Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles; and I shall read you all in turn.

The finer one's soul, the more delicate and pure one's taste, the more one understands nature, the more one loves truth, the greater is one's esteem for the works of Richardson.

...

Painters, poets, people of discernment, good people, read Richardson, read him constantly.

...

[One motive Diderot had in writing this article was to make clear that the French translation of Richardson's works (and especially of Clarissa), by the abbe Prevost, omitted many of the important scenes. Here Diderot laments their absence.]

If you have only read Richardson's works in your elegant French translation, and think you know them, you are wrong.

You do not know Lovelace; you do not know Clementine; you do not know the unhappy Clarissa; you do not know Miss Howe, her dear, tender Miss Howe, because you have not seen her with her hair dishevelled, lying across her friend's coffin, wringing her hands, lifting her tear-stained eyes to heaven, filling the Harlowes' home with her shrill cries and casting imprecations upon the whole of this cruel family. You know nothing of the effect of these things which your shallow taste would suppress, because you have not heard the mournful sound of the bells of the parish church, carried on the wind to the Harlowes' house, and awakening the remorse which lay dormant in these stony hearts; because you have not seen them start up at the sound of the hearse bearing the corpse of their victim. Then it was that the gloomy silence which hung over them was broken by the sobbing of the father and mother; then it was that the true sufferings of those wicked souls began, and the serpents stirred within their hearts and tore them apart. Happy were those who could find it in them to weep.

I have observed that, amongst people who read Richardson together or separately, the conversation was all the more interesting and lively.

I have heard, as a consequence of their reading, the most important questions concerning morality and taste being discussed and analyzed.

I have heard the conduct of the characters being discussed in the way one would talk about real events....

...

[T]hanks to this author, I have loved my fellow beings more, and loved my duty more; ... I have had only pity for the wicked; ... I have developed more sympathy for the unfortunate, more reverence for the good, more prudence in dealing with the things of the present, more indifference for the things of the future, more contempt for life, and more love for virtue, the only good which we can ask from heaven, and the only one it can grant us, without punishing us for our ill-considered requests!

I know the Harlowes' house as I know my own. my father's home is no more familiar to me than Grandison's. I have formed a picture for myself on the characters the author has brought before us; their faces are there: I recognize them in the street, in public places, in houses; they inspire affection or aversion in me. One of the advantages of his work is that it covers such a wide field that some part of the picture is always before my eyes. Rarely have I found six people gathered together without being able to give them some of his names. He leads me to seek out honest folk and to avoid the wicked; he has taught me to recognize them by subtle, readily discernible clues. He guides me sometimes without my being aware of it.

...

Since I have known [Richardson's novels], they have been my touchstone. If anyone does not like them, my judgment on that person is made. I have never talked about them to any man I esteem without trembling lest his judgement might not be the same as mine, I have never met anyone who shared my enthusiasm without wanting to put my arms round him and hug him.

Richardson is no more. What a loss for letters and for humanity! I was as much affected by this loss as if it had been my own brother. I carried him in my heart though I had never seen him, and I knew him only by his works.

I have never met one of his compatriots, or any of my friends who had travelled to England, without asking him: 'Have you seen the poet Richardson?' And after that: 'Have you seen the philosopher Hume?'

One day, a woman of unusual taste and sensibility, who was very much taken with the story of Grandison, which she had just read, said to a friend of hers who was leaving for London: 'Please pay a visit to Miss Emily and Mr Belford on my behalf, and especially Miss Howe, if she's still alive.' ...

Did not two women friends fall out, and resist all my efforts to bring them together, because one of them had a poor opinion of the story of Clarissa and the other worshipped it?

I wrote to this last, and here are some of the extracts from her reply:

[In the following, the italicized passages are quotations by the woman "who worshipped" Clarissa of remarks by the woman "who had a poor opinion" of it.]

Clarissa's piety irritates her! ... No, no, you will never persuade me that a generous soul could think like this.

She laughs when she sees this child in desperation at her father's curse! She laughs, and she is a mother! I tell you this woman can never be my friend; I blush to think that she once was.
...

She finds it extraordinary that reading him should reduce me to tears! And what always amazes me, when I reach the last moments of this innocent girl, is that the flints, the walls, the cold, unfeeling paving stones I walk upon are not moved to join their laments with mine. At such times everything grows dark about me; my soul is filled with blackness, and it seems that nature has veiled itself in deep mourning.

In her opinion, Clarissa's wit consist in uttering fine phrases, and when she has managed to produce a few, then she is consoled. It is, I confess, a great affliction to feel and think like this; such an affliction that I would rather my daughter died forthwith in my arms than know she suffered it. My daughter! ... Yes, I have thought about it, and I stand by it.

...

One can see that there is in matters of taste, as in matters of religion, a kind of intolerance of which I disapprove, but which I can only avoid in myself by an effort of reason. I was with a friend when I was given Clarissa's funeral and testament, two passages which the French translator left out, for some unknown reason. This friend is one of the most tender-hearted men I know, and one of the keenest devotees of Richardson: very nearly as keen as me. He promptly grabbed the pages and went off into a corner to read them. I was watching him: first I saw tears flowing, he stopped reading and began to sob; suddenly he got up and walked up and down without knowing where he was going, crying out like a man distressed, and addressing the most bitter reproaches to the whole Harlowe family.

[Diderot ends the article, after mentioning some of the passages in Clarissa, Pamela, and Grandison that he particularly admires.]

Diderot is a master of letter writing, as is demonstrated in his letters to Sophie Volland, and this article reads rather like a love letter to Richardson, master of the letter. (Indeed, in lamenting the loss that Richardson's death constitutes for "letters", he seems to express a sense of deprivation for the genre of the personal letter, as well as for "belles-lettres." One of Richardson's abilities that he most admires is that of sustaining separate, characteristic writing styles in the many characters of his novels.) Because of the article's love-letter quality, it is a shame to have omitted any parts of it at all in the present selection, since the cumulative effect is essential to the article's function. Nevertheless, the selection given here provides insight into the ways in which Diderot has experienced the novels, and it demonstrates how important he feels it is, for social and individual morality, that people adopt a sentimental method of reading.

In particular, the article encourages a reading style that is emotional and immediate; a reading career that is repetitive and that applies its lessons and models to everyday moral life; and a readerly ethos that takes the judgment of novels as indicative of one's own moral state and that of other readers.

Reading, in this light, becomes an crucial and earnestly undertaken activity, both for the individual and for the community as a whole. People engage in deep self-examination because of the novels they read. And groups of people come together in the space defined by these novels, or they are separated from each other because they can or cannot do so. As Diderot remarks at the end of the selection above indicate, the literature of sensibility aspires to create bonds between people that have strength rivaling that of religion. In this attempt, they also create social divisions and exclusions of similar force.

Finally, it seems important that the discussions of Richardson often express themselves in the medium of personal correspondence form. In writing letters about Richardson's letters, there is a repetition of form which mirrors the repetition of literary actions that Diderot speaks about. Perhaps, then, Richardson's novels can improve the genre of letter writing and provide a forum in which this genre is discussed, in the same way that they improve moral action and provide a forum in which morality is analyzed.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography