"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

June 8, 2013

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson (Book Review)

Pamela is the account of a beautiful 15 year old maid servant's defense of her virtue against the advances of her lascivious nobleman master, Mr. B. (no name provided to protect His Excellency), given in her own words via letters to her parents. When her mistress (Mr. B.'s mother), who has taught Pamela how to be a lady, dies, Mr B., who has a strong libertine streak, goes on the loose and trashes Pamela about the house because he is her master and believes he should get whatever he wants. The honest Pamela withstands him with the sacred mantra, repeated on every page of the book, of "rather my life than my virtue (read: virginity)." He pulls her in his lap, smothers her with kisses and puts his hand in her bosom. When that doesn't work, he suddenly jumps out of the closet while she is undressing, which brings on one of Pamela's splendid fainting fits, leaving her near dead.

Sexual deprivation next drives Mr B. to abduction. He kidnaps Pamela to another of his country houses where she is strictly guarded by the androgyne Ms Jewkes, a true Housekeeper from Hell. The evil housekeeper tells her to give in to Mr B. as it is better to be a kept woman than clean the dishes, and she uses interesting expletives as "saucebox" for Pamela. While thus hovering between maid servant and mistress, Pamela has several chances of escape but she blows them all, out of fear for a couple of cows in a nearby meadow, or by trying to climb over an unstable brick wall that collapses on top of her. The reader almost starts thinking she wants to stay. Pamela also enlists the services of the local preacher in her escape attempts, but unfortunately the young cleric falls in love with her, so that is no-go as well. When Mr B. hears about the preacher's unfortunate infatuation, he has him put in prison, because Mr. B. is the local magistrate and thus the law, and can do whatever he likes with 15 year old girls and obstinate preachers alike. This was 18th c. England, but I am afraid there could still be some backward places on this earth where a similar situation lingers on.

Another attempted rape, when Mr B. wearing the clothes of one of the maids, jumps into Pamela's bed, is fooled in the same way as before, by Pamela falling into a dead faint. In the meantime, Mr B. has had Pamela's letters intercepted and after reading them, is won over by her virtue - he suddenly decides to marry her "officially" despite the gap in social standing. And so it goes, although there still is a Lady Sister, who, outraged at her brother demeaning himself with a servant, has to be pacified. But after being dressed in style like a lady, Pamela also knows how to behave like a lady, and she appears more charming and educated than anyone she meets. The Cinderella wonder of it all.

As a modern reader, it is impossible to take the character of Pamela serious. Surely, we suspect, isn't she manipulating everyone around her (that is indeed what literally happens in the satire based on the novel, Henry Fielding's Shamela)? There seem to be some clues that she is an unreliable narrator and that honesty is not one of her virtues, but these were definitely not meant by Samuel Richardson, a fifty-year old printer who wrote the book as a straightforward moralistic example - not for nothing did he start it as a conduct book to educate the reader on social norms.

The story falls flat after Mr B. decides to marry Pamela. Unfortunately for the reader, when that happens, we are not even halfway through the 500 pages of this voluminous novel, and the rest of the book has been filled up with moralistic treatises and preaching. Thanks to Pamela's transforming goodness, all the baddies including the Hellish Housekeeper are exculpated - even Mr B. is forgiven a peccadillo in his past which has born fruit - and we end with one big happy family.

To conclude on a cynical note: this classic is a story of the near rape and kidnapping of a girl in her mid-teens, told by the victim in her own words to her parents (where were they? - her father only shows up when it is time for the wedding), promoted as the basis for a successful marriage. In reality, of course, such fairy tales never happened: it is more likely that the libertine masters took their pleasure with the girls they coveted and then discarded them to a life of prostitution. But fairy tales are popular, today and in the past. The novel led to a "Pamela craze" in England in the 1740s, and - like a modern blockbuster movie which it also resembles in other aspects - spawned various "Pamela goods," from fans and playing cards to teacups. I should have been warned...
Pamela is available for free at Gutenberg and eBooks@Adelaide. The best printed version is the one in Oxford Classics, which is based on the original, first edition of the novel.