received little education owing to his father's poverty. In 1706 he was apprenticed to a printer and set up in business on his own in 1721, in which year he married Martha Wilde. He combined printing and publishing. In 1723 he took over the printing of an influential Tory Journal, the True Briton. In the 1720s and early 1730s he suffered the early deaths of all his six children, and in 1731 that of his wife; he attributed the nervous disorders of his later life to the shock of these deaths. In 1733 he married Elizabeth Leake, and four daughters of their marriage survived. His The Apprentice's Vade Mecum (1733) is a book of advice on morals and conduct. In 1738 he purchased in Fulham a weekend ‘country’ house, which he always referred to as ‘North End’, and which later became famous for his readings and literary parties. He published in 1739 his own version, pointedly moral, of Aesop's Fables.
His novel Pamela (1740–41) started as a series of ‘familiar letters’, which were published separately as Letters…to and for Particular Friends (1741). The morality and realism of Pamela were particularly praised, but complaints of its impropriety persuaded him to revise his second edition considerably. Imitations and forged ‘continuations’ persuaded Richardson to continue the story in Pamela II (1741); a stinging parody, An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews (1741), appeared which Richardson believed to be by Fielding (as it almost certainly was) and which he never forgave. Fielding's Joseph Andrews begins as a parody of Pamela.
In 1733 he had begun printing for the House of Commons and in 1742 he secured the lucrative post of printer of its Journals. Clarissa (8 vols, 1747–9) was an undoubted success, but there were complaints about both its length and its indecency. Similar criticisms greeted Sir Charles Grandison (7 vols, 1753–4). He became friendly with Dr Johnson, to whose Rambler he contributed in 1750.
Richardson is generally agreed to be one of the chief founders of the modern novel. All his novels were epistolary, a form he took from earlier works in English and French, and which he raised to a level not attained by any of his predecessors. The ‘letters’, of which his novels consist, contain many long transcriptions of conversations. He was acutely aware of the problems of prolixity (‘Length, is my principle Disgust’) and worked hard to prune his original drafts, but his interest in minute analysis led inevitably to an expansive style.