Epistolary novels are notoriously "open" works. The potential unending nature of a correspondence lingers around the form, which tends to create endings that center around the reunion or final alienation of the correspondents, or that most ultimate of ends, death itself. Moreover, the subjectivity of the letter-writer's point of view has been time and again discussed: much ink has been spilled on what William B. Warner called "The Pamela Media Event" -- the explosion of multimedia responses, continuations, condemnations, and retellings of the story that contains the seeds of its own critique within the pages of its text. Less has been made of the effect of epistolarity on Richardson's final novel, Sir Charles Grandison, and what Jocelyn Harris calls the "prevailing self-consciousness" of the final novel -- a description by no means meant as a compliment (130).
This is, I suspect, because unlike Richardson's other novels, Grandison does not fall into the first and most glaring trap of the epistolary form: to whit, the title subject does not tell his own story. Because the titular hero is not also the speaker (as Pamela Andrews was entirely and Clarissa Harlowe was primarily), several of the interpretive problems that arise in the prior novels are not found in the same fashion. Because we do not hear Sir Charles speak of his own virtues, the charges of a self-serving narrative are largely mitigated.
That said, Grandison is not without its own challenges. Sir Charles himself is, unlike the vacillating Pamela or self-protective Clarissa, absolutely opaque and almost superhumanly consistent. If he struggles (as Richardson claims he does, with "tendencies to pride and passion" (6.300)), it is not presented to our gaze directly. How does one hang a story around a main character who does not grow and change, particularly in a period that is dominated, as J. Paul Hunter suggests, by a "character-centric" understanding of the shape of the novel? (283)
First, one might argue that in fact Harriet Byron is the primary focus of the narrative, but even Harriet herself is a more or less exemplary character (as befits the future consort of Sir Charles Grandison). To balance this, there is also a massive cast of characters and other correspondents whose epistolary social network expands our focus far beyond Grandison and Harriet alone. As it was with Clarissa's sassy friend Anna Howe, Sir Charles's sister Charlotte and her adventures in courtship, marriage, and motherhood provide vivid forward motion during the long stretches of deadlock in the Byron-Grandison courtship.
This is quite necessary, for the "deadlock" is further complicated by Sir Charles himself, who has managed to get himself into quite a romantic pickle. As we discover in Volume Three, Sir Charles has been mired in marriage negotiations with the family of Lady Clementina Poretta since before the outset of the novel's events. It is this event -- not character development and progress -- that serves as the primary prevention of narrative closure in the novel. While this engagement makes sense as a complicating outside factor, it is nevertheless one of the more difficult plot developments to reconcile with Sir Charles' perfection. The courtship is bizarre and often critiqued, both within the text and outside it [READERS?]. In the recounting of his relationship with Clementina and the Poretta family, Sir Charles claims to have rigidly respected his role as honorary brother, tutor, and insurmountable religious differences, and indeed only thinks of marrying Clementina when her entire family begins making negotiations on her behalf. One is reminded a bit wryly of P.G. Wodehouse's self-described preux chevalier Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, who thought it only polite to acquiesce to a woman's demands when she assumes an engagement is in the offing.
Even this complication, once resolved, cannot truly end the novel. Instead, the novel continues to spin out to an ending that doesn't seem to be all that necessary. This is quite unlike Pamela, whose final letter is sent ahead of herself, to the parents she will shortly reunite with, or Clarissa, which ends with the dramatic death scene of Lovelace. To concentrate on Harriet Grandison's final letter, with its deaths, legacies, and encomium upon the hero, is hardly to find an end of the correspondence or narrative in any final sense. For all the events that are crowded into the text, they seem to be rather beyond the point. Leah Price suggests the novel is "so boring" because even that which does happen makes no "financial difference" (43).
Moreover, Richardson's books, especially Grandison, do not physically end with the final letter. As Janet Altman notes in her work on the epistolary form, epistolary novels cannot be understood apart from the massive frames that so often accompany them (163), and this is particularly true of Richardson, who she singles out as presenting a complete text, with an authoritative reading of the work, establishing his editorial presence as the ultimate authority (165, note 16). It is vital to look at books as physical objects, particularly in the case of Richardson, as the apparatus was as much in his control as the rest of the narrative, and he tirelessly exercised creative control on his texts towards his own ends (as discussed by Stephanie Fysh).
Finding the end of the novel is, from a purely material perspective, surprisingly challenging. While readers of Pamela and Clarissa had only a handful of additional pages to contend with (Pamela's first edition features a six-page conclusion, Clarissa's, seventeen), the readers of Sir Charles Grandison have never had the luxury of encounting the novel's narrative divorced from a massive chunk of supplementary material. Because of the threat of a pirated Irish edition, Richardson felt forced not only to defend the legitimacy of his own edition in the separately-published The case of Samuel Richardson, of London, printer; with regard to the invasion of his property in The history of Sir Charles Grandison, before publication, by certain booksellers in Dublin, but also within the text itself, in an "Address to the Public" with its own epistolary evidence (see Price 37).
Succeeding editions would be no less dense with "back matter," nor is this material easy to ignore -- in the second edition, 133 pages of the final 438-page volume -- a solid third of the volume -- are devoted to the concluding apparatus: an index, concluding note by the editor, an index of similies and allusions, an additional letter, as well as the Address to the Public. Thus, 30% of the concluding volume was taken up with material that can be understood as "supplemental" to the main text. To dismiss this substantial chunk of "the end" as merely incidental would be to mistake not only Richardson's purpose, but the physical reading experience of the text. How could a reader adequately anticipate the end of the novel with such an expansion of pages still awaiting them even when they'd reached the end of the correspondence?
Thus, it seems clear to me, at least at my current phase of thinking (stay tuned), that Richardson's final novel exemplifies, perhaps more than its sisters, Johnson's dictat to read Richardson's works for something other than plot. Moreover, I find that to be a rather liberating way of understanding this weird and experimental text. Rereading, meditation -- the work we know Richardson himself performed and found meaningful -- is most strongly encouraged in this novel, which not only includes massive end matter (as his two other novels would expand to include), but also makes ending with the final letter more a spur to reenter the text than to a sense of closure.
Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1982.
Erickson, Robert A. "Written in the Heart: Clarissa and Scripture" Passion and virtue : essays on the novels of Samuel Richardson. David Blewett, Ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Fysh, Stephanie. The Work(s) of Samuel Richardson. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.
Harris, Jocelyn. Samuel Richardson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989
Hunter, J. Paul. "Serious Reflections on Farther Adventures: Resistances to Closure in Eighteenth-Century English Novels," in Augustan Subjects: Essays in Honor of Martin C. Battestin, ed. Albert J. Rivero. Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1997.
Price, Leah. Anthology and the Rise of the Novel : From Richardson to George Eliot. Cambridge [England] ; Cambridge UP, 2000.
Richardson, Samuel. The history of Sir Charles Grandison. In a series of letters published from the originals, by the editor of Pamela and Clarissa. In six volumes. ... [The second edition] London, -1754. 6 vols. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale Group. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/ECCO
Schellenberg, Betty A. The conversational circle : rereading the English novel, 1740-1775. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996
Warner, William Beatty. Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.