"This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this Kind of Writing. For it abounds with lively Images and Pictures; with Incidents natural, surprising, and perfectly adapted to the Story with Circumstances interesting to Person in common Life, as well as to those in exalted Stations....For as it borrows none of its Excellencies from the romantic Flights of unnatural Fancy, its being founded in Truth and Nature, and built upon Experience..." from the editor, 1740 edition of Pamela
Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded was on my reading list in a course on the early novel back in the 1970s. When I saw the Dover edition based on the 1741 edition of the novel on NetGalley I requested it to see why we should read it today.
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) was over fifty years old when a bookseller asked him to write sample letters to teach the art of letter writing to the unskilled. Richardson had little formal education, having been born in the working class, but he loved to read.
He created the character of Pamela, a fifteen-year-old girl who writes letters home to her impoverish parents. Pamela is a maidservent to a titled lady. As the book opens the Lady has died and her son is now Master of the house. He realizes that the little girl Pamela has grown into a sixteen-year-old beauty. Pamela has been educated and dressed to pass flawlessly among good society.
The Master is a Rake. He does not believe in marriage, but he believes in the seduction of powerless young women. Pamela is a devote Christian and an obedient child who has been taught that her Virtue must be kept intact. She fends off the Master, even as he turns up the pressure and changes his tactics. Pamela endures a near rape experience, kidnapping, isolation, temptation to commit suicide, an offer of fiscal security for herself and her parents, and even professions of love.
The Master discovers Pamela has been writing about what has been going on between them and insists on reading the letters.
|1742 edition of Pamela; Pamela hands over her letter to her parents|
Suddenly Pamela realizes she loves the Master, that she always did, and now he is a reformed Rake she can admit it.
Questions arise in the reader: Was Pamela play acting, holding out like Anne Boylan who teased Henry VIII into marriage, or was she honest? How can she forgive the Master for months of terror and hell and marry him? She always said she did not and could not hate him, that if he would only behave properly she could forgive him. But there is a lot to forgive.
Pamela continually thanks God for her good fortune--and her Master for such condescension as to marry so below him. Because Pamela is aware of the great sacrifice her Master has made in marrying her she retains his old title of her Master.
Pamela's ordeal is not yet over; she has to meet his friends and prove herself all over again to his vengeful sister. Finally even sis has to agree that Pam is not a gold-digger, but is virtuous and pure and worthy of her brother.
"...when you are so good, like the slender Reed, to bend to the Hurricane, rather than, like the sturdy Oak, to resist it, you will always stand firm in my kind Opinion, while a contrary Conduct would uproot you, with all your Excellencies, from my Soul." --the Master to Pamela
All is not yet well. The Master gets mad at Pamela lectures her on how to behave like a proper wife: bend like a reed to his whims. The book ends with a 48-point list of all Pamela has learned about proper behavior and expectations.
Richardson's book had a strong story line and a sympathetic character. The melodrama brought men and women alike to tears as they feared for Pamela's well being. The book flew off the shelves--the first best seller.
The book was a cultural game changer. People marketed Pamela mop caps and tea cups and fans and Richardson playing cards. It was quoted in sermons. The story was turned into plays and operas.
The sexual situations pushed the borders of the acceptable: as Pamela resists her Master's increasingly forceful attentions she finds herself in ever more tenuous situations. Undressed and in bed, her Master in disguise climbs in with her. When Pamela is kept hostage he tries to rape her; she is saved only because she passes out. There was controversy: Is this a book about proper conduct, or was it "thinly veiled pornography"?
|Pamela undressed. For a novel about virtue there are a lot of titillating situations.|
Writers satirized and copied the book. Henry Fielding's copycat book stars Shamela Andrews who sets out to seduce the squire to trick him into marriage. (Richardson's squire (a.k.a. the Master) was seduced while at college; the lady immigrated to America and a new life, leaving their child behind for the squire's sister to raise.) Novels about the trials of females in love proliferated; Pamela showed that people wanted to read about the female experience.
Richardson went on to write two more books, Clarissa and the Austen family favorite, Sir Charles Grandison. Richardson's books influenced Jane Austen whose first drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were epistolary. The use of letters is important in Austen's novels.
Richardson's epistolary style allowed Pamela's voice an immediacy that brings the reader into her emotional and mental life. After the failure of Pamela's fake suicide to escape from her Master she is brought to her lowest point, even to considering actually committing suicide. She grapples with the implications of such an act:
"And wilt thou, for shortening thy transitory Griefs, heavy as they are, and weak as thou fanciest thyself, plunge both Body and Soul into everlasting Misery?...because wicked Men persecute thee, wilt though fly in the Face of the Almighty and bid Defiance to his Grace and Goodness, who can still turn all these Sufferings to thy Benefits? And how do I know, but that God, who sees all the lurking Vileness of my Heart, may not have permitted these Sufferings on that very Score, and to make me rely solely on his Grace and Assistance, who perhaps have too much prided myself in a vain Dependence on my own foolish Contrivances?"
This dramatic scene had to make readers weep for Pamela, even as it instructs readers to a Christian attitude toward suffering: complete reliance upon and trust in God.
Ways to Relate to Pamela
Today's reader can learn about the society of 1740. From coaches to dress to class to coaches to drinks, every aspect of life can be discovered. In a happy scene a drink with a toast and spices is shared, with everybody having a piece of the toast. Now I know where 'toasting' came from.
The book is democratic. Richardson's working class viewpoint is evident. His titled and privileged classes were NOT superior. In fact, in the last part of the story the Master himself confesses that his kind were badly coddled and not taught self restraint.
The subtitle Or Virtue Rewarded could have also been The Reformation of A Rake, as Pamela brings the Master to choose marriage over debauchery and reform his manners and morals. His sister is shocked to hear her brother talking like a 'preacher'!
Pamela faces every instance of abuse against women, all of which continues to this day: kidnapping, rape, pressure for sexual favors from those in power, workplace abuse.
In Pamela we get a foretaste of the Victorian Angel in the House, the female whose presence raises the moral fiber of the entire household.
Class in 1740 is well described: A man raises a wife into his class whereas a woman of rank debases herself by marrying beneath her. Pamela has all the attributes the Master considers primary in a woman to make him happy, including her setting him as her Master to whom she is obedient in all things. Actually, she is the only woman who could fit the bill. No high born lady would tolerate his demands for primacy in all things.
"...I am not perfect myself: No, I am greatly imperfect. yet will I not allow, that my Imperfections shall excuse those of my Wife, or make her thin I ought to bear Faults in her, that she can rectify, because she bears greater from me." said by the squire to Pamela
In that list of rules Pamela has compiled is No. 21: That Love before Marriage is absolutely necessary. A very contemporary idea! Also one Jane Austen professed; that is why she backed out of an accepted proposal of marriage--she knew she didn't love the man.
Other rules, such as "the words Command and Obey shall be blotted out of his Vocabulary" and "a Man should desire nothing of his Wife but what is significant, reasonable, just" are surprisingly humane at a time when women were powerless in marriage.
Did you watch Poldark on Masterpiece Theater this past year? What happened? Poldark bedded then married his scullery maid, who then underwent social ostracism until she proves herself? That is very like the second part of Pamela's story. It was Richardson's book that started a landslide of books about the female experience.
There were times when Pamela's voice and character were strong and moving. And many pages which I couldn't wait to get through; often this happened when Pamela was retelling her story to new people or in the second volume when Richardson was refreshing readers on events from the first volume. Pamela is heroic in her standing up to adversity with moral fortitude. She is also always humble and non-confrontational, engendering Non-violent resistance. In these ways we can admire her.
I am glad to have read the novel after forty years. I would love to be back in a classroom setting to discuss it. My book club members, especially the women, would hate Pamela for her passivity and acceptance of her rank in the class structure. They would rail at her marriage to the undeserving Master. They would leave the book unfinished. The wish fulfillment ending for the 1740s audience would not appeal to contemporary liberated gals. Those who enjoy the classics and the experience of reading works that established the genre will find much to learn and enjoy from Pamela.
The Dover edition offers exactly what the original readers found in their hands. There are no footnotes or articles about Richardson or the novel.
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded
by Samuel Richardson
$6.00 paper cover
Publication July 15, 2015