Pamela is a sixteen year-old servant girl whose noblewoman mistress dies and then that lady’s son Mr B___ takes over the running of the household. Pamela writes to her parents about how good and kind Her Master is, he is going to keep her on even though there is no job for her to do, he just likes to see her sing and dance and give her nice necklaces to wear. Can we see where this story is going? It’s not exactly subtle … her parents write back that they are concerned For Her Virtue and Pamela assures them that is not a risk and that either way Her Virtue Is More Precious Than Her Life. Anyway, so yes … Her Master does try and seduce her, she says no and he doesn’t take that for an answer. He imprisons her, kidnaps her, jumps out at her from cupboards, dresses up as a woman and tries to get in to bed with her … repeatedly tries to overpower her. Wonderful chap. And what do we think happens next? Reader, she marries him.
I remember getting around twenty pages in and thinking, “My university is actually asking me to read porn this semester”. I’m not saying that Pamela represents hard core pornography by the standards of today … I’m a bit of an innocent in that area to be fair … but for a middle-aged man to be writing about a sixteen year-old girl stuffing letters to her parents down her bosom only for the man she calls her Master to try and ferret them back out again so he can read them is a definite power play. Pamela may hold out until marriage, she may be writing to her parents until late-ish at night on the wedding day itself, but basically Her Master Gets His Way with her at last. I’m sorry – it’s porn. It’s Fifty Shades in crinolines.
|Pamela and Mr B_ (lovely chap)|
I don’t think that it makes me a scary Feminazi (offensive term) to think that a woman should be able to aspire to have a husband who is not a would-be rapist. Marrying Mr B_ does not seem like a decent reward for virtue to me … a good reward would be to see him punished for his offences, yet as soon as her Master promises to wed her, Pamela cheerfully describes Mr B_ as ‘the very best of men’ to her parents and speaks sternly to anybody who criticises him, including people who had tried to help her while Mr B___ was, you know, holding her prisoner. Thank goodness for Henry Fielding who wrote not one but two novels to make fun of Pam – Joseph Andrews (Pamela’s equally prim and prudish brother who also experiences sexual harassment in the workplace) and Shamela which covers Pamela’s “real letters” to her parents, in which she details how her virtue is all a massive con to force Mr Booby marry her. I still love Henry Fielding a little bit for those two books even though that same English module also introduced me to Tom Jones which is fairly hilarious but oh merciful heavens it is lonnnng. It’s nice to know that even way back then there were men who recognised that Richardson’s novel was insulting and degrading to women. Of course, Richardson was none too happy about all of this and the feud between the two of them went on for years.
|Don’t do it, Pamela!|
The really important thing to understand though is that this book was wildly popular. There were paintings done, there were a multitude of sequels concerning her married life. There were plays, it was huge. Yet, in the English tutorial after reading this book, the tutor explained that generally speaking, right from the start, readers of this book fall in to the Pamela or Anti-Pamela camp. Not one person raised their hand as being pro-Pamela. People may argue that it is a love story or that Pamela asserts herself by keeping hold of her virtue and thereby takes a victory for womankind but that’s simply not true. Samuel Richardson is writing a story about an abused servant girl. This was something that really happened – women in service were frequently raped by their employers and had no point of redress. Pamela goes to bed with extra layers of clothes on to try to stop her Master getting at her. She has to check that he has not hidden under the bed covers. He is not perhaps the most cunning of sexual predators, but he is one nonetheless. In rubber-stamping their union as a Happy Ending because Mr B_ puts a ring on Pamela’s finger, Richardson is effectively saying that rape is ok, provided that Mr B_ is truly prepared to make an honest woman of her. Call me crazy, I still think that consent should come in there somewhere too.
Basically though – literary fashions reappear just like every other kind of fashion. Twilight has Bella cooing about how wonderful it will be to be a vampire, that Edward is totes the guy for her even though he wants to you know, drink her blood, then Fifty Shades which from what I have understood is about a guy who wants to do nasty things to a woman in the name of sexual gratification. Way back at the birth of the novel, there was Pamela. I’m a bit of a prude … all of that passes me by, I like nice men who actually have respect for the female species. I can forgive the stylistic issues, such as Richardson’s rabbiting on about the insignificant details such as Pamela’s packing, this is after all the birth of a brand new literary genre – the Novel, but I can’t forgive the sentiment behind this novel: Misogyny.
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Published by Oxford University Press on June 7th 2001
Genres: Fiction, Classics
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