Friday, December 25, 2015

Anti-Pamela, by Eliza Haywood

"This they call a sober regular life -- my Stars! defend me from such formal ways."
-- Anti-Pamela, p. 59

Eliza Haywood's Anti-Pamela; or, Feign'd Innocence Detected (1741) represents Phase One of my attempt to conquer Pamela, Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel about a servant girl who holds onto her virtue so resolutely that it wins her a wealthy husband and a life far beyond her means. Now, I'm such a Richardson fan that, back when I planned to go on to a Ph.D., I intended to write it on his follow-up Clarissa. And, like a crazy person, I've read the 1,647-page Sir Charles Grandison in its entirety. Pamela, though, has always bugged me, and I've never been able to finish it.

An openly comic satire of Pamela can be found in Henry Fielding's Shamela, which is my Phase Two (hopefully culminating in a successful reading of the original), but this play on Richardson's work is a fairly serious one -- interesting, and worth reading, but without a lot of levity.

For a while, despite my love for her other books (especially The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless), I was a little put off by Haywood's lack of sympathy for her protagonist, Syrena Tricksy, who starts out poor, beautiful, and understandably eager to avoid a life of drudgery as a dress-maker or a ladies' maid. At a few points, Haywood pauses to excuse the gentlemen she encounters, whose actions would be pretty reprehensible if Syrena were what she appeared to be. Since she's a con artist out to fleece them, though, they get a pass, and that rubbed me the wrong way.

By the end, though, I thought the judgment was landing on the social norms, which trained women to use their wiles to get rich husbands, and then blamed them for their deceptiveness, and which allowed men to condemn women they'd had sex with, for things like coming to their lodgings: an impropriety and "Impudence" (149). Similarly, the double standard against Syrena for enjoying sex (so much so that she has her own affairs, apart from her desire for financial gain), when it's taken for granted that that's all the men in the novel want from her, is obviously unfair, and that comes across just from its being depicted. When several of her schemes go awry, and after casual, described-in-passing descriptions of an abortion and a bout with gonorrhea, Syrena begins to worry that she's lost her bloom and freshness, and that her chances have passed her by. The narrator notes then that she was "not yet seventeen," and it's hard not to see some poignancy.

I had to agree with Syrena's own belief, that her luck in earning a decent settlement as somebody's mistress might have been better if she'd been allowed to be herself, "sawcy" and with "an air of Insolence" (151), rather than perpetually pretending, at her mother's advice, to an overblown and hypocritical virtue, constantly drawn into situations where she "gave herself up entirely ... without seeming to know what she did" (155). When she thinks she's finally snared a husband, her response cries out through the ages: "How I shall indulge every Wish -- enjoy every Pleasure, and despise all Restraint" (190). Her means are dodgy, and it's fair for her deceptions to be punished, but I can't say her motives aren't understandable, and I liked her a lot more than I've ever liked Pamela.

The excellent Broadview edition contains both Anti-Pamela and Shamela, along with introductory critical material and numerous supporting texts (including an excerpt from something called Conjugal Lewdness, by Daniel Defoe -- and why does no one ever talk about that book, for pete's sake?)

Haywood, Eliza. Anti-Pamela and Shamela, by Henry Fielding. Edited by Catherine Ingrassia. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004.

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