In the development of the English novel in the eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding are the two most influential figures.
Richardson is best known for his three epistolary* (in the form of letters) novels: Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), Clarissa: Or, the History of a Young Lady (1748) and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753). In Pamela his subject matter is to show the virtue of a maidservant who resists the attempt of her master to seduce her. Her steadiness and consistency ultimately pay and enable her to win her master as her husband. Clarissa shows the suffering of dignified women, as a victim of a false man’s seduction. In Sir Charles Grandisons, the story of a man’s love with two women is presented with a moral effect. It shows also the triumph of womanly virtues.
Richardson’s novels have moral purposes. These are didactic and serious and imply the contrast between virtue and villainy, between innocence and incest, between love and lust. He manipulates the moral ideals through these contrasting features in human nature and behaviour. The excessive ethical views and tragic bearing have rather sentimental effects. But this sort of sentimentality was the fashion of the time.
Epistolary format is part of the Richardson’s revolutionary contribution to the development of the novel in English, for the first-person narration of events, in nearly real-time, allows the novelist to explore, quite naturalistically, the depths and nuances of his character’s psyche. As a novelist, Richardson has influenced subsequent ages through his penetrative study of human nature. Richardson's greatest contribution was his introduction of character insight to the novel. Richardson introduced "the deliberate and detailed analysis of conduct, motive, action and reaction which was essential for further progress".
In the rise of the English novel in the eighteen-century, the name of Henry Fielding shines as prominently as that of Samuel Richardson. Richardson and Fielding, though recognized as classic masters in English novels, are however widely different as novelists. Like Richardson, Fielding did not write many novels. His notable novels include Joseph Andrews, The History of Jonathan Wilds, The History of Tom Jones, and Amelia. His novels are not epistolary like Richardson’s. His method is epical, direct, and the story is developed through narration as well as conversation.
Fielding’s first notable novel Joseph Andrew, published in 1742, was supposed to ridicule Richardson’s Pamela. The situation, he contrived here is quite original and reverse to what is found in Pamela. Instead of the virtuous maidservant, Fielding presents Joseph, an honest servant, who resists seduction from his mistress. But in the course of the novel Fielding became so engrossed in his own narrative and the exercise of his own comic gift, that Richardson is almost forgotten. In it Fielding is direct, vigorous, hilarious, and coarse to the point of vulgarity. Fielding’s most illustrious work is Tom Jones. It is so carefully planned and executed that though the main theme follows Tom Jone’s life from childhood onwards, the reader is kept in suspense until the close as to the final resolution of the action. The story itself is elaborate, with most diverse social elements. In Tom Jones he had drawn one of the great human characters of English literature. Fielding’s last novel Amelia, published in 1751, marks his resourcefulness as a story-teller. He idealizes the main woman character and this leads to an excess of pathos. He had established in it one of the most notable forms, middle class realism.
In style, Fielding was different from Richardson, in that he has been called "the first unashamed novelist in England" for his use of an omniscient narrator over a letter or autobiography form. In his writing, Fielding knew he was creating something new - what he called the "comic prose era". He parodied religion and added satire to his writing; his greatest contribution was the addition of social context to his novel. Fielding furthered the scope of the novel.
Both Richardson and Fielding have a lasting influence on English Literature. Not only were they among the founding fathers of English novel form; they also had their own unique contribution to the form and content of the genre.
*An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.