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Jul 1, 2012


“PAMELA – Or Virtue Rewarded” by Samuel Richardson (first part first published 1740; second part - the sequel or continuation - first published 1741 )

Reading a volume of Frank Sargeson’s letters puts me in the mood to set down my thoughts on a classic novel written in the form of letters (the almost-defunct epistolary style). But I’m also drawn to comment on it by the fact that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela was exactly the sort of literature that Sargeson liked to read when he wasn’t reading the work of his contemporaries or doing his own writing. His letters are peppered with references to his 18th and 19th century preferred reading.

So what can I say about Samuel Richardson’s Pamela? To presume to lecture you on it would be a bit like presuming to lecture you on Hamlet. The outline of the novel (or at least the first volume of it) is so well known. 

Pamela Andrews is the young maidservant of Lady B. When the old noblewoman dies, Pamela is inherited by Lady B.’s son Mr.B. He has wicked and immoral designs on her. He wishes to seduce and debauch her. He contrives to meet her when they are unobserved, to force himself upon her, to make lewd suggestions and nudges and winks and threats, again and again. He tries to snare her into a mock marriage.

Virtuously, Pamela resists his advances. She rejects Mr.B.’s proposal to make her his mistress with a consideration of marriage later. All this Pamela narrates in long letters to her distant, virtuous and humble parents John and Elizabeth Andrews, and to various other favoured correspondents.

Time passes.

Pamela ages some years.

The persistent Mr.B’s tactics become more violent. He has Pamela locked up and supervised by the wicked Mrs.Jewkes, who urges the girl’s forcible seduction (i.e. rape). Injured in an escape attempt, weakened by a fever, Pamela almost suffers a Fate Worse Than Death when suddenly [almost exactly halfway through the first volume of this long novel] Mr.B.has a miraculous change of heart. He realises he has gone too far. He is now fully convinced of Pamela’s real goodness and purity, and vows that he loves her truly. He forswears seduction or mock marriages. He is ready to marry her.

Will she accept him?

There are some hurdles to be overcome, not least the fact that she is low-born and he is an aristocrat. Will his gentry friends accept her?

Of course they will!

They are all struck by her beauty and her accomplishments, from carving a joint to singing and playing the spinnet. The poems she wrote in her forced confinement, in which she adapted the psalms to her condition, are read and admired. So Mr B. the aristocrat marries the poor-but-honest girl who protected her virtue.

I’ve simplified the plot outrageously in this summary, ignoring the cast of benign fellow-servants who sympathise with Pamela when she is threatened, but can’t do anything to help her, and the nice young clergyman Williams who ditto. There is also Mr.B’s flighty sister Lady Davers who livens up the last part of Volume One by her fits of hysterics and refusal to accept Pamela as her sister-in-law until (like everybody else) she bows down before the young woman’s virtue.

Pamela gets to forgive Mr.B. completely for his previous rakish ways, forgives him for the bastard child he had by another woman, and settles down as the loving and charitable wife of a country gentleman. The novel, as published in 1740, ends with “the editor” of these letters pointing the moral which he intends his readers to draw from the tale i.e. Providence will reward the virtuous.

This novel was popular enough to encourage Richardson to write a continuation of it, which appeared in the following year, 1741. While the first part of Pamela can be something of a chore, I must confess that I really struggled to even finish the second volume. Having definitively proven to us that Pamela is the picture of virtue, Richardson can do little more than contrive scenes to show off her virtue.

Like the continuation of Don Quixote, this second volume is very self-conscious in its self-referencing – and in places Richardson appears to be archly and rather ham-fistedly answering those who criticized the first volume. Human reality almost butts in for about fifty pages. There is an episode where Mr B. seems to be having an affair with another woman, a countess. This would seem a reasonable reaction to being married to a sexless paragon such as Pamela. But Richardson lets the episode fizzle out with another “improving” sermon and we are soon getting a long discourse on John Locke’s theories on child-rearing. The final insult is Pamela’s lectures to her children and women friends. They are, quite simply, smug, self-righteous and assume a God who very readily hands out punishments to the wicked.

So, having at least acknowledged its existence, kindly let me ignore this sequel in my comments on Pamela. Let me pretend that the whole novel is simply the first part – where I think Richardson should have left it.

Notoriously the original (1740) Pamela set off a quarrel that is known to every Eng.Lit. graduate. Henry Fielding proclaimed Richardson’s virtuous heroine to be a sham. Richardson may have thought he was showing a young woman whose virtue was (eventually) suitably rewarded. But Fielding said she was simply an artful minx. In protecting her virtue, said Fielding, all Pamela was doing was raising her price. She will not give in to a seducer, but she will give in to the very same man when he offers marriage and wealth. Her “virtue” is merely prudential and a piece of mercenary self-interest.

Fielding proceeded to write a parody in the form of a pamphlet (Shamela); and then expanded the idea into his novel Joseph Andrews which begins with the ludicrous situation of Pamela’s “brother”, the manservant Joseph Andrews, resisting the attempted seductions of a Lady Booby. (Personally I rate Joseph Andrews Fielding’s most delightful novel – I enjoyed it more than Tom Jones – but I digress.) Eng.Lit. graduates are also invariably told that Richardson and Fielding, those eighteenth century pioneers, proceeded to father two different streams in the English novel. From Richardson the leisurely, introspective, pains-taking psychological study (roll on George Eliot, George Meredith and Henry James). From Fielding the boisterous, laddish, event-filled social panorama (roll on Thackeray and Dickens)

Fielding’s argument against Pamela is a good one, and it’s hard not to think of it in those later sections of the novel where Pamela takes possession of Mr.B’s house as his wife, and itemises the jewels (formerly belonging to his mother) which her husband now gives her; or when she describes exactly what clothes she and her husband wear to church. Such an off-putting conjunction of the pious and the materialistic!

But this novel can make no sense at all unless we take Richardson at his word and assume we are reading what was intended as the story of a truly virtuous person whose goodness protects her from sin and ultimately brings her a justifiable reward. To read the whole novel is to encounter somebody too artless to be a calculating minx. So in a major sense Fielding is wrong. The keynote is naivete, but it is hard to tell if the naivete belongs to the character of Pamela or to the author Richardson. Constantly, it is Pamela who tells us of her own virtue, beauty and moral goodness, even when she is supposedly reporting the words of other characters. Indeed in some scenes (as when Mr.B. eavesdrops in the “closet” while Pamela tells Mrs. Jervis why she will not give in to his enticements), the whole situation is so artificially arranged that modern readers might begin to suspect an “unreliable narrator” – Pamela telling us things to enhance our admiration for her.

And yet this is simply not the case. WE see her as praising herself, but RICHARDSON, I think, thought he was giving us a convincing account of virtue, perhaps not noticing that his intended portrait was compromised by the very nature of the first-person voice in Pamela’s letters. The effect is even more complex than this. Perhaps it is her naivete and artless self-praise that help us to believe in the reality of this character. How could anyone but a real person be so naïve as to give so much self-praise?

There are, however, other difficulties to be negotiated in the novel, apart from the main narrative voice. The chief unreality, where disbelief cannot be suspended easily, is in the sudden moral reversal of so many characters. Mr.B. suddenly, at mid-point of the novel, goes from being the calculating rake and would-be rapist to being the affectionate, generous, moral suitor. His confederates Mrs.Jewkes and M.Colbrand are suddenly transformed from pandar and brutish jailer to Pamela’s obedient and worshipful servants. Remember, Pamela is agreeing to marry the man who mistreated her for years, imprisoned her and was on the point of raping her. There is an odd ambiguity about other characters in the novel, too. I think Richardson wants the servant Mrs. Jervis to be seen as Pamela’s protector and friend – in fact, she is listed as one of the virtuous in “the editor’s” closing remarks. But in the early parts of the novel, before the worse Mrs.Jewkes is introduced, Mrs. Jervis’s behaviour (putting Pamela in B.’s way) makes her come close to being a pandar herself.

There is also the problem of the novel’s insistence on the physical existence of the letters and long journal that Pamela writes. Willing to accept the epistolary syle as a mere convention to facilitate self-revelation or interior monologue (as acceptable as Shakespearean solilioquies), I was confounded by the way the novel lays such emphasis on the hiding and secreting and smuggling of Pamela’s letters, and later on her sewing her voluminous writings into her dress so that no possible hiding places may be found. This conjures up some ludicrous images, as do the hasty explanations of how Pamela found time to write so much. And then there is the matter of both Mr.B. and his sister Lady Davers asking to read Pamela’s journal and being impressed by the virtue and purity revealed therein.

Another objection arises, especially as the first volume reaches its midpoint. How prurient is all this? Ostensibly, this is the tale of a young woman heroically protecting her virtue. But as it is built on the suspense of her possibly losing her virginity, we are also being teased into waiting (and, of course, half hoping) for her knickers to fall. The scene of attempted rape comes as close to pornography as a book can, without actually being pornography.

Here, though, is the oddity. Despite all these objections, something about this overlong, naïve, prurient and morally-questionable novel undoubtedly lives. Is it simply the intensity of Richardson’s “writing to the moment” and following the main character’s feelings in such detail, despite the huge improbabilities involved? A sense of gravitas and importance is built up. This is a very “enclosed” and self-contained world we are getting – the characters and their personal lives and feelings are all-absorbing. Unlike Fielding, Richardson gives us nothing of politics, opinions on religion or foreign races (except for the caricatured foreign villain Colbrand) or the great world at large. It is a private, domestic novel, not a public one. I am not surprised that modern-day lovers of Pamela (and Clarissa) tend also to be lovers of the hothouse psycho-drama of Jean Cocteau and Tennessee Williams. This is another thing to which Richardson is the distant ancestor.

How curious that some scenes, such as Lady Davers browbeating and abusing Pamela when she does not yet know that she is married, work so well as drama – even though they are contrived. Again, the revelation towards the end that Mr.B. has an illegitimate child raises all sorts of psychological possibilities, as does his extracting from Pamela a promise that she will never marry the clergyman Williams.

This is a great naïve novel.

Yes, of course my pen (which I have so often told you about) was busy noting down choice quotations into my notebooks.

There’s a typical piece of self-proclaimed virtue early in the first volume when Pamela writes: “I can so contentedly return to my poverty again, and think it a less disgrace to be obliged to wear rags, and live upon rye-bread and water, as I used to do, than to be a harlot to the greatest man in the world.”

Later, when she is offered the role of mistress, she writes: “What should I think, when I looked upon my finger, or saw, in the glass, those diamonds on my neck, and in my ears, but that they were the price of my honesty, and that I wore those jewels outwardly, because I had none inwardly?” My crude mind read this and immediately thought of the floozie in the musical Guys and Dolls who sings “Take back your mink. Take back your poils. What made you think… made you think I was one of those goils?”

There’s some kittenish fun when, after his reform, Mr.B. tells Pamela “You chop logic very prettily. What the deuce do we men go to school for? If our wits were equal to women’s we might spare much time and pains in our education, for nature teaches your sex what, in a long course of nature and study, ours can hardly attain to. But indeed every lady is not a Pamela.”

And then there are awful moments when Pamela becomes the patronising lady of the manor offering good advice to the lower orders. One such moment has her writing to her mother: “As Farmer Jones has been kind to you, as I have heard you say, pray when you take leave of them, present them with three guineas worth of good books; such as a Family Bible, a Common Prayer, a Whole Duty of Man, or any other you think will be acceptable; for they live a great way from church; and in winter the ways from their farm thither are impassable.” This passage led me to write a poem on how Farmer Jones would regard this bargain. He would be unimpressed, I suspect.

Pamela’s haughty strain becomes even more unbearable in the second volume where she writes of stage-plays “nothing more convinces me of the truth of the common observation, that the best things corrupted, prove the worst, than these representations…”And she writes of opera “When one finds good sense and instruction, and propriety, sacrificed to the charms of sound, what an unedifying, what a mere temporary delight does it afford.”

Yet I pull my reproving head in a little when, late in the second volume, she proclaims: “I am convinced, and always was, that Platonic love is Platonic nonsense: ‘tis the fly buzzing about the blaze, till its wings are scorched; or, to speak still stronger, it is a bait of the devil to catch the unexperienced, and thoughtless: nor ought such notions to be pretended to, till the parties are five or ten years on the other side of their grand climacteric: for age, old age, and nothing else, must establish the barriers of Platonic love.”

On this one, I think naïve, patronising Pamela might have a point.

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