Wednesday 30 September 2020

My Review: Pamela by Samuel Richardson

When I write up a Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle meeting, I try to capture the spirit and main conversations without colouring it too much with my own opinions. Usually, the general tone of the meeting sufficiently matches with my own feelings but sometimes it doesn’t. This is the case with Pamela.

In the meeting, when asked what I felt about the book, I said that I’d never been so bored and so fascinated. What fascinated me was how Pamela was constructed, written and marketed, with the whole hoopla and furore around it. What bored me was the book itself… at least it did, sort of.

For an epistolary novel, the book is extraordinarily monotone. There are three letters from her parents but everything else is written by Pamela herself. Because there is so much emphasis on the logistics of her obtaining writing equipment and hiding her writing, that it was hard not to wonder why she keeps writing to her parents when they’ll never receive them. Although I never got through Clarissa, it’s clear that Richardson learns in that second novel to create interest and vary the voices behind the letters.

The notes I wrote whilst reading Pamela make frequent reference to how repetitive I found the book. While many eighteenth-century novels are repetitive, many of those early novelists also wrote plays and they construct definite scenes and acts which repeat. The lack of narrator and Richardson’s inexperience with the novel form (it was his first) means that the repetition feels like a dog returning and gnawing a spent bone.

Richardson was inspired to write the book when he was writing a series of exempla letters designed to show newly literate people good examples of letter writing and hoped to sneak a little morality in. He wrote two letters, one from a servant girl to her parents saying her master was behaving inappropriately to her, and the second from the parents telling her to get out as soon as possible. He then took this element and decided to expand it. 

Something that I constantly wondered, was when he decided that the master character would be won round and legitimately marry the servant. It seemed to me that the first book must have come out, which led right up to the marriage and then Richardson must have taken onboard criticism he received and tried to address it in the second, where Pamela adjusts to her new position - but it turned out I was completely wrong, getting confused with the later sequel and that both parts came out at the same time. I found this fascinating, as that meant that when he was writing all the rapey scenes of Mr B abusing his power, he always intended him to become the romantic hero by the end.

I found such a disconnect between the two books of Pamela that it’s almost incomprehensible to me that they were ever intended to be one piece. In the first book Mr B is an all-powerful aggressor, who uses his wealth and influence to put Pamela in almost totally helpless positions and she only narrowly escapes his advances. Throughout, Mr B’s sister, Lady Davers is the distant but unreachable saviour who can end her misery. In the second part they are married, Lady Davers is the abusive harpy who tries to imprison Pamela and Mr B and the servants who formally were her persecutors are now her rescuers. All the characters around Pamela become their opposites and it’s incredibly topsy-turvey.

I hated the character of Mr B, and I think a lot of it was to do with this flip in his role in the book. Having read a good chunk of the amatory fiction that Pamela is a response to (and evolution of), I was expecting Mr B to try seducing her. Frequently in those early amatory fiction, the male sexual aggressor is all charm and flattery until he makes his final move, but Mr B never tried to seduce, he awkwardly groped and then whisked her away to the middle of nowhere to try and soften her resolve by locking her up. Lovelace in Clarissa is a far more fun antagonist (as far as I have read) because he is smarter and smoother than the bumbling Mr B.

There’s also the problem that Mr B has to become a love interest in the second half, so he has to be a really clumsy seducer so that Pamela can escape his whiles. Richardson also had to introduce the notion that, were they of an equal class, Pamela would very willingly marry him. This means that as Mr B is at his worst, we still get reminders that he is a wonderful, charming and generous man when he isn’t trying to rape his servants. Even after he has made Pamela desperate enough to seriously consider suicide, she has to tell her letters how she still can’t hate him, only his current actions.

The closest he comes to raping her, is the scene where he pretends to be a drunken maid asleep in a chair in Pamela’s bedroom and, in the night, sneaks onto the bed while his assistant Mrs Jewkes, holds her down. It reminded me of a part of The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys, when a man spends a weekend with her dressed as a woman in order to be alone with her. However, the earlier work used the transvestite-rape-attempt in a way similar to an 80s gore horror film. The outlandish image is designed to shock and surprise but due to the slightly shonky nature of the gore effects, it also amuses. Pamela’s similar scene reminded me of a 00’s gore horror film, where the effects are too realistic to be fun and it merely comes across as deeply unpleasant. Or would have been, were it not for Mr B’s goofy pronouncement along the lines of “get ready for your dooooom!”, which broke the mood.

However, as much as I found Mr B a rather pathetic villain, it wasn’t until he married Pamela that I really started to hate him. He becomes such a didactic, puffed-up prat that I really had no patience whatsoever. He starts trying to teach Pamela how to be a good wife, playing the part of fair and benevolent lawgiver. If this wasn’t bad enough, given how he has behaved up to that point, his rules are so unreasonably focused on making his own life easier. One of the first ones is that Pamela must always seem happy, especially happy when his noisy friends come over unannounced and want to have a party. This is especially irritating given how much of the second book is taken up with Mr B being a sulky crybaby and portraying himself as an injured party when some of his servants obstructed his earlier schemes to rape Pamela. Although he makes occasional references to how sorry he is, he spends that second half of the book so smug and self-satisfied, I can’t stand him.

Before the Reading Circle, I would have said more negative things about Pamela herself. I found her instant acceptance of Mr B’s change of heat and marriage proposal to be sickeningly passive - she should have been like Sophia in Tom Jones and made him earn that happy ending. However, the discussion did help me open up to see how how writing was not only rebellion but an active part of winning Mr B around to accepting in her virtue and falling in love with her. Also, the discussion about her ironic asides gave me an appreciation that she was not merely a doormat.

She is, however, something of a Mary Sue. This is a term that has been politicised recently and I am a little wary about calling her one here. However, in its simplest use, a Mary Sue is a character who is good at everything and everyone loves her. Pamela can; sew, write, knows literature, play the spinet, sing, is infinitely virtuous, run faster than a man described as walking ‘ten leagues a pace’ and always wins at cards. She is also beautiful, charming, forgiving, generous and everyone who meets her eventually falls in love with her. 

I’ve heard Pamela being given praise for being the first of many things it was not. Although Richardson does revel (wallow?) in the psychological details of his story, he is drawing from a vast well of unread fiction, frequently written by women, such as Mary Davys and Eliza Haywood, who wrote her own response to Pamela. That it gets given the credit for introducing a servant class protagonist, or a rags to riches story - or many of the numerous other things I’ve heard credited to the book, has more to do with the unfair way the canon of literature formed. I think Pamela’s influence lies more in the creation of a respectable and authoritative authorial figure in Richardson and says more about the marketing of the novel than the novel itself.

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