Review: Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson

 Over the past six months, I have noticed that whenever I go in to Waterstones, there tends to be a prominent display of books with black covers and greyish tinged objects on the front.  Slogans above these displays coo something like “Missing Mr Grey?”.  First off, I remain one of that microscopic percentage of the population who have never in fact read Fifty Shades – it’s not a moral thing as such, it’s just that I’ve heard it made its origin as Twilight fan fiction and I loathed Twilight because the writing was so bad I couldn’t physically stand it.  I laughed so hard in the first film that tears came and I’m not sure that that was the director’s intention.  I saw the second one while still at university, I was in the middle of a huge group of other students and everybody laughed until tears came.  I skipped the next one but then during Breaking Dawn Part One, I got so bored I started playing Scrabble on my phone.   Something that is a not-so-good version of Twilight just doesn’t sound like my sort of read.
Anyway, back to the point.  There has been a huge amount of chatter concerning Fifty Shades and all the innumerable not-Fifty Shades which are totally the same thing.  Does this represent a new phase in the female sexuality?  What does it say about women that they like reading about being dominated tra la la – as I said, I haven’t read it and the finer points have passed me by.  Still, it struck me that generally speaking, the nation’s readership has not really changed.  For the past ten years, misery memoirs have been de rigeur – now it’s the little black books.  But this got me thinking back to when I had to read old Pamela and I decided to write a few of my thoughts about her on this page.
The first thing to remember about Pamela is that it is very possibly the first novel that was ever written.  Seriously.  So, it gets remembered and studied for that reason alone which is a shame.  I had to study it while at university when I somewhat unwisely picked a module on The Development of the Novel – I’d had a few friends who had done it before and I thought that they had enjoyed it but I later discovered that in fact they had been talking about a different one where you got to read Bleak House.  I’ve always wanted to finish Bleak House … anyway, I mis-picked and ended up having to read Pamela.  To add insult to injury, my copy vanished right before I was due to write an essay on it and then I had to put out an urgent call on Facebook to borrow one from somebody else.  My one later resurfaced in the Lost Property box in the English department six months later.  I can’t lie that I was happy to see it again but it was my property so I took it home again.  Resentfully.
I could therefore take this opportunity to explain a little bit about The Development of the Novel – about how it went from confessional style Moll Flanders, then the rise of the epistolary novels such as Pam and then authors gradually became more courageous about accessing the interior lives of their protagonists directly rather than resorting to letters, coming to the seamless Jane Austen and occasionally clunky but generally decent Mr Dickens.  I could do … it’s tempting … but I won’t.  The more important point to make is that Pamela is one of a then-popular genre of conduct stories – you know, the virtuous person is incredibly virtuous even when times are tough and because of that eventually she gets the handsome rich man.  These stories can also have the not-so-virtuous person who ends up dying of a respiratory ailment in a French garret, loudly repenting of their behaviour.  Now, despite the fact that I do believe that even in the seventeenth century it should be possible to write a woman with a mind of her own (Evelina!), this is not my main issue with Pamela.  Cinderella is amongst my favourite of the Disney movies – it might even be my favourite one if it weren’t for The Lion King.  I like a good marriage plot as much as the next person … but this isn’t a good marriage plot.

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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Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson
Published by Oxford University Press on June 7th 2001
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 592
ISBN: 9780191605161

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8 thoughts on “Review: Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson

  1. Dear Madam,

    I must say that your words about my "Pamela" have brought me much grief, resulting in several sleepless nights indeed. I hope you do not think it too presumptuous of me to raise my hand and proudly declare myself a member of the "Pro-Pamela camp."

    Don't mistake me, I am not blind to some of "Pamela'"s faults, but I must disagree with your final judgement of my "Pamela," namely, that it promotes Misogyny. What is this judgement, after all, if not vile slander? And can I really trust my own eyes when I see myself being accused of "effectively promoting rape?"

    Excuse me, I must lie down, for I feel a head-ache coming on.

    I will be very happy to continue this conversation about this or any of my other novels, at least as soon as I recover from this horrible pounding in my temples. Until then I remain

    Your humble servant,

  2. Sir,

    Greetings, I'm afraid that I have been horribly remiss and not noticed your comments until just now. I'm afraid that Pamela offended me on oh so very many different levels – from the plot (I do think that editors were around even when Pamela was written) to the heroine herself to the idea that a man who has attempted rape is a viable husband prospect. I don't know, I'm an old-fashioned girl but I do still think that this is fairly off-colour behaviour.

    I'm sure your other books are simply marvellous and please accept my most sincere best wishes for your future health and happiness.

    Yours etc,
    Girl with her Head in a Book

  3. Dear Girl with Her Head in a Book,

    Good gracious, bless you for rescuing me from Pamela. I was two chapters in and happy that she was resisting such a twisted man, when I found your review. The notion that I'd have to read chapters more about his attempts, only to find her marry the creature, makes me ill. Despite it's being at the root of the English novel, ah, I'll forgo such nonsense.

    Very best,


  4. Dear Natalie,

    If my ramblings have rescued even one innocent reader from the horrors of Pamela then I count it a Good Job Done.

    Mr B_'s attempts do get ever more ridiculous – he dresses as a woman and hides in Pamela' bed at one point … Mr Richardson had some 'interesting' notions …

    Take care,

    Girl with her Head in a Book

  5. To the Girl with her Head in a Book,
    I agree with you on many levels, with regards not only to Pamela but also most enthusiastically to your comments regarding Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
    It seems to me that Richardson had hidden in his novel a few good points (for example, when Pamela exclaims that it's all very well that she should forget her place when her master forgets his, and when she talks of the world condemning enslavement and abuse of one sex while encouraging it in the other), but then ran in a direction quite contrary to said points. He lived, of course, in a time when a woman's (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, a man's)virtue before marriage was heavily emphasized, which is all fine and dandy in its own right. However, as is displayed in Richardson's Pamela, the idea of marriage itself was sometimes perverted, becoming an excuse for abuse and repulsive behavior, including rape. I am not, as you say, a "Feminazi", but I certainly don't promote any abuse and degradation excused away by a marriage contract. In Pamela, we see only glimpses of a young woman with a mind of her own, and while I applaud her adamant self-protection, I agree with your point that marrying a would-be rapist is no reward for virtue, as the title of the work suggests. I started out reading the novel thinking perhaps it would be an insight into the life and the issues faced by young women of the time, especially in Pamela's position, and of the real rewards of virtue. As the novel progressed, I dared hope that Mr. B__'s attempts toward Pamela were a sort of test, but I was disappointed and repulsed by the result. The story of Pamela is laughable, as are its modern-day counterparts. One thing I am truly puzzled by, however, is the cult-following such novels receive. The same women screaming about women's rights in a nation that already provides us with every right a man has are the same ones obsessing over the oppressive Mr. Grey, and Edward the creepy, sparkly, undead vampire. I shake my head in shame.
    Yours truly,
    S.C. Popphan

  6. Dear S.C. Popphan,

    I am always delighted when anybody takes notice of my reviews but I was especially pleased to get a comment where someone has clearly given things a lot of thought. I know exactly what you mean, Pamela represents the thousands of oppressed women but if her choices are repesented as ones which all women should follow in the pursuit of virtue, then virtue is not worth having. For women, loss of chastity meant being completely cut off from society and Pamela's insistence on waiting for marriage is fair enough but Mr B_ is not someone to marry! She is your classic blank female, echoed in the Grey series (which I still have not read) and also Twilight, surrendering to the creepy dominant figure. Run from Sparkly Edward, run from Mr Grey and most of all, run from Mr B_. It depresses me that recent fiction suggests that women are choosing to fantasise about this kind of relationship. I may be weird, maybe it even makes me a Feminazi but I'd rather be single than with someone who wants to abuse or degrade me.

    Yours truly,
    Girl with her Head in a Book.
    PS – thanks again for the comment 🙂

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