Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson

Having spoken last week about what I believe is the honorable, even heroic calling of writing and reading fiction, I thought it appropriate to go back and read one of the earliest novels. As with The Sorrows of Young Werther I was very familiar with this 1740 classic but had never actually read it. I knew that it was an epistolary novel, a series of letters, and hugely successful. Unlike earlier epistolary novels which were adventure or romantic adventure stories, Richardson’s story is more about the character of Pamela, a 15-year-old housemaid and life in an upper-class household.

Pamela is by her own account a pious and respectable girl whom everyone loves. Unfortunately, her master loves her a bit too much for her comfort and makes unwanted advances which she parries using her feeble weapons: words, fainting fits, and the support of other servants, though that support must be tempered by their fear of and dependence on their master. Thinking about how helpless she was to prevent him if he chose to force himself on her, I was reminded of The Tale of Genji and how such behaviour was considered commonplace. 18th century England is a long way from 11th century Japan, but I was not surprised to find Pamela’s aristocratic neighbours and servants from other houses declaring that Mr. B making her his mistress should be the obvious and ordinary outcome. Even today, with all the strides we have made in enabling women to be our own selves and not some man’s servant or property, there are too many women who are helpless against their abusers.

The first part of the story is a series of letters Pamela writes to her parents relating her problems with Mr. B. and asking for their advice. The second and much longer part is a journal that she keeps, still addressing her parents as though writing a long letter to them, telling them of her trials and assuring them of her determination to preserve her honor. She also tries to analyse people’s motives, including her own.

Richardson chose the epistolary form because of its immediacy. The first-person voice of someone in the throes of the experience does draw in the reader, and I happily plunged into the story. Unfortunately, Pamela’s voice did not interest me for very long. I soon began to find her endless complaining tiresome and her infinite perfection quite irritating. Of course, she is writing to her parents, so it is natural to relay compliments that she has received, knowing that they would enjoy hearing praise of her, but she goes on at such length about how everyone finds her so remarkable, so good, so smart, so beautiful, that it’s hard not to think “and so vain”.

One of the drawbacks of first-person voice is that we only hear that person’s view of events. Is Pamela a reliable narrator? Probably Richardson means her to be, since his intention with the book is to present a portrait of how girls ought to act. And not just girls. The last few pages are taken up with reminders to gentlemen, aristocrats, servants, clergymen, etc. of the lessons they should have learned from the story. Yet, it is hard not to wonder if Pamela didn’t plan the whole thing from the start in order to trap Mr. B. into matrimony, and if she isn’t perhaps a bit more wicked than the image she presents to her parents.

What kept me reading, in spite of the long lists of rules for right conduct in serving maids and wives, was the tension between the social classes, the niceties of who could sit down in whose presence, the particular amount of authority that a housekeeper might have, what happens when a woman marries a man from a lower class and vice versa. Richardson specifically instructs “lower servants” to “distinguish between the lawful and unlawful commands of a superior”, implying that they should disobey the latter. But, however radical he may be about social class, Richardson promotes a coldly conventional view of women’s roles, where a wife is little better than a servant.

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