Monday, January 18, 2016

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson

"She may be turned loose to her evil destiny, and echo to the woods and groves her piteous lamentations for the loss of her fantastical innocence."
-- the still-plotting Mr. B. about Pamela (p. 170)

"What is left me but words?"
-- Pamela herself (p. 220)

In 1740, 51-year-old English printer Samuel Richardson published a story in letter form that was meant to illustrate moral principles.  It highlighted the temptations and outright dangers that attractive young women of lower social classes would meet with from gentlemen in high society, when they went out to work. This novel, Pamela, became a huge sensation, and led him to a career that would find him often designated, when I was an undergraduate, as the Father of the English Novel.

Of course, later reading shows there were plenty of other novels before Richardson. But although the style often seems far from what we find on the best-seller lists today, he popularized the use of the form to probe the psychological dimensions of a character, and what we'd call a "narrative arc," in contrast to writers like Sterne and Smollett. Of course, my old friend Eliza Haywood was already writing best-sellers like that, but for whatever fluke of zeitgeist, Pamela -- like a Jaws or a Star Wars -- was the one that really set the world on fire.

Haywood, in her response novel Anti-Pamela, and Henry Fielding in Shamela, both addressed something that struck me the first time I attempted to read it, long ago, which is that the story plays outs in a way that works against its attempted moral theme. Pamela's employer, Mr. B., trying to get her to sleep with him, attempts seduction, offers financial rewards, kidnaps her, and threatens her with rape. In the face of all, she remains so steadfast in defense of  her virtue that she inspires him to reform. When he finally offers her real marriage, the girl who thought he was stooping to even acknowledge her finally admits that, yup, she really was in love with him, and is rewarded with an elevation into wealth and high society.

In the first place, it's obvious that Mr. B.'s earlier behavior is a problem for a romantic hero, although plenty of explanation is offered later for why he might have been such a jerk. And it does seem, with the reactions of other high-born characters to her plight, that he's meant to be a pattern of the age: behaving like any man of his class might have, feeling themselves entitled to sex with any woman over whom they have authority, and we're meant to believe that his experience with Pamela has truly shown him the error of those ways.

For example, a neighboring lord famously remarks "What is all this ... but that our neighbor has a mind to his mother's waiting-maid! And if takes care she wants for nothing, I don't see any great injury will be done her ... 'tis what all young gentlemen will do" (138, 139).

Still, it's awfully unsavory, especially when she's gushing later about how wonderful he is.

The fact that Pamela is rewarded so much for standing her ground provides a pretty standard happy ending. It's kind of like Cinderella (minus wicked stepfamily) meets Beauty and the Beast. But the reward muddies the water of her exemplary behavior, and opens her up to the suspicion of hypocrisy, and of holding out for a better deal. After all, what happens when people hold fast to what they think is right, and they aren't rewarded for it? In the end, the work fits the mode of romance, but it's hard to put aside a more realistic perspective on what would really happen to a woman in a similar bind.

Another problematic element crops up early on, which is that everyone loves her! Everyone is praising her all the time, and she calmly repeats all their praise. "Don't think me presumptuous and conceited" (50), she says, but many readers have found her so.

Richardson, either because of some of that critical reaction, or from a recognition of the troublesome elements in the book, later embarked on Clarissa, which explicitly addresses a lot of these issues.

So, where to even begin talking about the specifics? I should have blogged as I went!

Pamela is a young woman from a poor background, working as a serving-maid for a wealthy woman who taught her all sorts of more refined accomplishments. When her employer dies, she catches the eye of the woman's son. Because there are no laws against sexual harassment, and little social disapproval for it, she finds herself at his mercy, but ultimately prevails, even winning over the members of the upper classes who are originally horrified at her elevation.

Along the way, there are detailed conversations, escape attempts, times when she could escape, but doesn't, and lots and lots and lots of philosophical pontificating from our heroine, who, on the verge of a kidnapping, secured plenty of paper and ink to continue her journal to her parents, and keeps the papers sewn into her "under-coat, next to my linen" to hide them: "I begin to be afraid my writings may be discovered; for they grow large" (134). There's a delightfully meta touch when her parents "wonder how you could find time and opportunity" for all this detailed writing (165).

Right off the bat, Pamela's poor but honest parents are concerned about her. "Our chief trouble is, and indeed a very great one, for fear you should be brought to anything honest or wicked, by being set so above yourself ... what avails all this, if you are to be ruined and undone!" (5) They're concerned that becoming educated and "a genteel girl" is likely to give her airs, and they immediately suspect that her new master's kindness can only be motivated by bad intentions, especially since Pamela is "so taken with his kind expressions." They remind her that "we had rather see you all covered with rags, and even follow you to the churchyard, than have it said, a child of ours preferred any worldly conveniences to her virtue" (6, 6-7).

Yup, they'd rather see her dead! "Arm yourself, my dear child, for the worst; and resolve to lose your life sooner than your virtue" (13).

Once Mr. B. proves her parents right, grabbing and kissing her, she insists "You have taught me to forget myself and what belongs to me, and have lessened the distance that fortune has made between us, by demeaning yourself, to be so free to a poor servant" (17). She seems more bothered that he isn't acting according to his station, than she is by his abuse of his position.

In turn, he assumes (like Fielding will) that her resistance is all part of a strategy, and she responds, Clarissa-like, "I had better be thought artful and subtle, than be so" (23). Early on, her thoughts seem clearer on the subject: "He may condescend, perhaps, to think I may be good enough for his harlot; and these things don't disgrace men that ruin poor women, as the world goes" (37). At this point, I can't help thinking that, whatever the plot will bring, Richardson's popularity with women readers may have had something to do with these kinds of asides from Pamela's first-person perspective. Sometimes it's enough just to see a viewpoint articulated, and while she eventually succumbs to happiness with her moody persecutor, Pamela does rail against the double standards of her time. Similarly, she points out that "if you was not rich and great, and I poor and little, you would not insult me thus" (67), and that's true.

It does remain consistent throughout the book that Pamela, despite her personal virtuousness, refuses to condemn other women who've been "ruined," and she mentions this early on: "it is grown more a wonder that the men are resisted, than that the women comply ... one don't know what arts and stratagems men may devise to gain their vile ends; and so I will think as well as I can of those poor undone creatures and pity them" (68). Pity may not be ideal, but still, this was fairly progressive of Richardson.

Throughout the book, Mr. B. (along with his accomplice, Mrs. Jewkes, and his sister, Lady Davers) will call her all kinds of names: mostly "creature," but also "hussy" and "slut." My favorite is when he calls Pamela "the amiable gewgaw" (169), which sounds like a title for an old-school Regency romance: The Amiable Gewgaw.

 Whisked off to a country house where she's kept under guard, she comes up with various escape plans, but she begins to ruminate on the fact that "with all his ill usage of me, I cannot hate him" (187). When he begins to be jealous of a clergyman who tried to help her by offering marriage, she insists that she doesn't want to be married, adding in her journal "the only one I could honour more than another, is the gentleman who, of all others, seeks my everlasting dishonour" (198), and  "What pity his heart is not as good as his appearance" (206). It isn't much longer before she admits "I begin to be afraid I know too well the reason" why she couldn't hate him (224).

The situation resolves rather anti-climactically, with Mr. B. finally sending her to her parents to be rid of her, then calling her back and promising he'll treat her honorably. She takes him at his word, and (Stockholm Syndrome?) goes back of her own free will, leading to a happy ending which will take Richardson another couple hundred pages to describe.

Once he clears up her doubts and they get engaged, then married, Pamela has to come to terms with "the weight of the obligations you oppress me with" (325) -- very interesting language. Then they'll have to win over Lord B.'s snobby sister, who called his wife "the dirt you seem so fond of" (270). Ouch! And who will for a long time refuse to believe they're really married, claiming that Pamela is just one more girl "in the list of his credulous harlots" (413).

One detail I quite liked is that, after all that emphasis on guarding her virginity, Pamela has some trepidation about the wedding night. She wishes she had a "kind friend of one's own sex, to communicate one's foolish thoughts to" (353); of the marriage ceremony, she says "O sir, 'tis very awful, and makes one shudder, to reflect upon it!" (359). Even though she's married to "her beloved, gracious master! the lord of her wishes!" (364) (eww, right?), their sharing a bed is "yet dreadful to me to think of" (367).

For Clarissa fans, it's relevant to note that she muses here on the lot of women like herself married against their will, to their parents' choices, and how they'd have to face the reality of sex with those men: "what do not such poor innocent victims suffer!" (367) So that theme of women's powerlessness over their own bodies (and lack of "agency," as people might say in our day) was already on Richardson's mind in this novel as well.

Pamela's journal takes us practically to the moment itself, with an entry dated 11:00 pm on her wedding night, "to this happy, yet awful moment," and then picks up the next day with her in transports of oddly-phrased happiness."His words are so pure, his ideas so chaste, and his whole behavior so sweetly decent" (372). As many words as we have in this book, I could stand a little more detail at this point, because, what exactly is she talking about?

The story carries on a great deal after the wedding, depicting a lot of confrontations with the outraged Lady Davers, which remind us that, with the difference in their social classes, Mr. B. couldn't have honorably courted Pamela from the beginning even if he'd really wanted to, and that marrying her is more shocking to people than if he'd actually raped her. Which does make him look more honorable, in the end, than most of the people around him, although I still wish she'd gone back to her parents and refused to marry him.

Her compassion for women who fell like she didn't comes around again when she feels deeply empathetic toward a former mistress of Mr. B.'s who had a daughter out of wedlock, and promises to not only accept the little girl, but shower her with love.

As the narrative trickles off to a conclusion, there are some more mixed messages about a woman's place in society. Lady Davers points out the double standard that she wouldn't be forgiven for marrying her groom, and while Mr. B. counters that with the conventional idea that it's totally different, because the man has to be the head of the household, she's allowed to make an articulate case. Then Pamela, getting to know how ill-tempered he can be when angry, sounds her husband out for all his philosophies on married life. Although she seems to accept the loose rules he sets out for marital happiness, she points out that it's "a little hard" if, for example, she's supposed to "bear with him, even when I find him in the wrong" (476).

However, one of his ideas is "that the words COMMAND and OBEY shall be blotted out of the Vocabulary," to which she adds, "Very good!" (477)

So, in summary (whew!), while its problematic qualities are still problematic, I didn't hate Pamela in the way I expected to. It comes across as a work that's struggling to be progressive, but is still bogged down in its refusal to rock the boat of convention too much. I did find the character of Pamela somewhat conceited, but since she was supposed to be a very young woman left to defend herself with her wit, I couldn't dislike her the way I did when I was younger myself. And it's a fascinating portrait of its age.

The sequel, (Pamela's Conduct in High Life), has been so forgotten that it's often not even listed as one of his novels, but it's available, under the title Pamela Vol. II, at Project Gutenberg.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1958.

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