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Reading the Classics: PAMELA

Reading Pamela, by Samuel Richardson,  is like watching the invention of literature before your eyes. Richardson began this as yet another work-for-hire series of “conduct letters” of the sort that Madame De La Fayette et al made popular during the 1600s, but the story took off in such a way that it became more like, oh, a reality show that develops into its own story. Richardson developed the narrative “a l’moment” approach, that is, slipping inside the character’s skin and reporting on what they were thinking and feeling at the moment. The effect was riveting.

The plot is simplistic: Pamela spends 500 pages keeping her virtue from her lord and master, Mr. B–; like Beaumarchais’s comedy, here, for the first time, we have a commoner as hero, who brings the lord to heel.

We also get a close look at relationships and how marriages were made. The lists the two made up for marriage are quite enlightening.

This novel became a multimedia event: there were plates and fashions and posters and all kinds of Pamela stuff . . . and of course the satires! Even Eliza Haywood got into the act, with her Anti-Pamela but the most famous is Fielding’s Shamela with its long beginning full of puffery between writers busy praising each other, and its pokes at the government of the time for barefaced piracy in order to make the rich richer, and shaft the rest of the nation.

Nowadays few read it outside of school, and for the average eighteen year old yawning through an Intro to Lit course, this story of the maid who protects her virtue despite various attempts against it until she is rewarded with love, position, wealth, and respect, seems really silly. One might even wonder why the heck it was so popular a best seller as to propel its author to the front ranks of 1740s fictioneering.

Well, part of the answer lies in the plot—instead of writing about a protagonist in high life, Richardson chose a working girl from a humble background. She’s a housemaid. There were a whole lot of people of ordinary walks of life who really liked this story of a humble girl making good. But for the more sophisticated readers, it’s the narrative voice that was so stunning. The accepted frame of novels had been the narrator writing after the fact, and though there were epistolary novels aplenty, they too largely affected that flat distance. Richardson’s novel engaged successfully with immediacy–Pamela and the rest desperately writing letters within minutes after the exciting events they relate.

Exciting as it was, the novel also opened Richardson up to parody: at one point in Fielding’s Shamela the eponymous heroine notes in one of her desperate letters that there are three people in a bed, and two of them are shamming sleep so they can scribble their latest adventures. People are hopping in and out of rooms, busily scribbling to one another in secret in between bawdy adventures.

Fielding actually suppressed Shamela after two quick editions (the second with fast emendations to poke at some political developments of the time). The book that drew my eye was one scarcely mentioned by my English prof way back when: Joseph Andrews, the companion volume Fielding wrote. This novel concerns Pamela’s brother, who is a good-looking young man taken in as a footman, and who wishes to preserve his virtue, despite the strenuous efforts of the various women of his acquaintaince, from the lady who employs him down to her own servants, to romance him. After a long, extremely funny scene of hinting around, and Joseph being steadfast in his refusal to take the hints, Lady Booby cries out, “Did ever Mortal hear of a Man’s Virtue?”

Fielding goes on to stick his quill into the complacent, civilized, and practiced corruption of the government of the time, the selfish attitudes of people toward those in want, and he makes a lot of really nasty jibes against the actor Colley Cibber, whose recent autobiography had not just dismissed Fielding with one condescending reference, but apparently is most disingenuous in its self-aggrandizement. No version of Entertainment Weekly or Jon Stewart could be more gossipy or satiric about current celebrities, or governmental shenanigans.

I love eighteenth century novels for their bawdy freedom, their slapstick action trading off with wit. Few are written in stylish prose, they are bumpy and jerky in construction as their authors, writing fast, explored the possibilities of narration, plot, character, and voice–they were busy inventing the novel, as there were no rules. Those novels are chock-full of real life detail that the more refined writers of the 19th century draw the veil of delicacy over, but which are most enlightening to us. The plots creak with what later became cliché, but one discovers where the clichés originated.


2 thoughts on “Reading the Classics: PAMELA”

  1. Without knowing the background, I gave up on “The Moonstone” by Wilkie collins less than 1/2 way through. It was riddled with cliches from every gothic novel I’d ever read.

    Fast forward a few decades and by this time I KNEW that all the gothic novels I’d read were actually the cliches. Collins was the first. With that in mind, I re-read “Moonstone” and loved it.

  2. Sherwood Smith

    Yes! Reminds of the student comment passed along by professors that “Shakespeare is boring because it’s full of cliches.”

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