Wednesday 23 September 2020

Pamela at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle came back for its fifth year and achieved something that no-one else has yet achieved in these corona times, a productive and enjoyable Zoom meeting. 

Sixteen people from around the country (and one in Montreal) were singly ushered into the room, their name announced for those waiting as if announced by a footman. Our previous online meetings had been to read plays where it was clearly delineated when someone was to speak, this was a spirited discussion on a divisive text where everyone still managed to take turns and the conversation didn’t descend into chaos.

The text in question was Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, an epistolary novel written in 1740 which became a publishing sensation and is generally regarded as an important step in the foundation of the English novel. Through a series of letters, Pamela first describes her efforts in thwarting the sexual advances of her employer, known only as Mr B. In the second half, he decides to marry her, rather than making her his mistress and they adjust to their new life as a couple.

Samuel Johnson was a friend of Richardson, who had bailed him from a debtor’s sponging house shortly after he wrote the dictionary and had compared the detail of Richardson’s characters favourably to Fielding’s. When his friend Erskine said that Richardson was a dreadfully dull writer, he had the following comment; 

“If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.”

There were some who found the book to be a terrible slog, the pacing is odd to a modern reader and the use of Pamela’s letters means that the book frequently returns to the same ideas as Pamela herself returns to them, mulls them over, reaffirms them and discusses them. It’s a realistic way to portray how people digest their thoughts and problems but later authors have developed those techniques more fully in ways that also keep the story moving.

One of the elements that most interested the group was how the book portrays sexual, gender and class relationships, providing detailed insights into how women and their place were viewed at the time. Mr B is a member of the Squirearchy, where it is readily assumed that women in the servant classes are available to them sexually, either for a casual grope or, if properly enumerated, for a long-term sexual relationship. He doesn’t consider that women in the servant class have a name, family or reputation to protect. It’s not until reading her private thoughts that Mr B can fully accept that Pamela is not merely holding out for a better deal but genuinely treasures her virtue (and virginity) for its own sake. It would be nice to think this attitude has disappeared as time has passed, but the Me Too movement, the Epstein case and numerous other news stories have made it clear that men in power still have many of these assumptions.

As Peter Sabor said, Pamela is a book that changes resonances depending on the time it’s read and changes multiple times on re-reading, something he know about, having edited the Penguin edition.

Part of the discussion was about the agency of Pamela herself. She’s in an extremely precarious position, the man who wants to rape her is not only her employer, not only has a small army of servants who are expected to carry out his orders but is also the Justice of the Peace in the county where she is abducted to. It’s made clear that he is a well liked and respected member of the local establishment and will always be believed over her. It seems that she has no power whatsoever.

Yet, Pamela does have paper, pen and ink. It is through her writing that Pamela not only expresses herself but shapes the events in the novel. At first she writes to get advice from her parents, then as she is imprisoned in Mr B’s Lincolnshire estate she uses it to try and get help. The details of how she hides the letters, sewing them in her clothes or using a sunflower as a spy-style dead drop show her ingenuity. 

However, it’s when her letters are found that they really start to have an impact on her situation. It’s through reading them that Mr B begins to believe that Pamela is genuine and indeed may love him in spite of her ordeals. If anything, though he lusted after the Pamela he knows, it’s the Pamela in the letters who he falls in love with and marries. It’s also the letters that smooth the gentry around her when she is married to Mr B, acting as evidence of her purity and goodness. 

There’s an interesting tension between how the letters are intended to be the ‘to the moment’ depiction of how Pamela thinks and feels at any given moment but also how they are a polished text presented to the reader. Through her letters, she selects ones that are to be summarised and ones that are to be shown in full, even including summaries of events that have happened so far. This means that in text the letters are genuine, heartfelt, outpourings of emotion but to the reader they are a crafted narrative.

Although the first half contains most of big drama (with the exception of Lady Davers’s histrionic reaction to the marriage) the second half possibly provided the most discussion.  There’s a part where the Mr B gives Pamela a lecture on the downfalls of most marriages which she then turns into a set of rules. While it is highly questionable if someone who has behaved as Mr B had any authority for proclaiming on what makes a good marriage, these rules are not merely accepted. As Pamela writes them up, she adds her own comments in italics. These are often little ironic comments and in later editions (we were reading the earlier one) were expanded to become even more so, at times sounding a little condescending to Mr B and his overwrought emotions. It’s almost as if Pamela is developing strategies to manage Mr B, though that would seem alien to her character as presented through the rest of the book.

It’s also in the second half that we hear the story of Sally Godfrey, Mr B’s youthful fling who he had impregnated. Despite a journey to get her back, she emigrates to Jamaica and lives a happy life, leaving her daughter to be raised believing that Mr B is her uncle. Pamela instantly falls in love the child, longing to take her home, raise her and spoil her with treats, in marked contrast to her father, who would have cut all ties with Pamela if she had given birth to a similar illegitimate child. It’s an interesting hint in how she may be developing her own views on virtue that are more liberal than those she was brought up with.

Pamela may not be the book best read for a crisp and entertaining story but it did give rise to many sentiments and ideas with probably one of the densest discussions in the Reading Circle so far - and all mediated through video conferencing.

For anyone needing to continue their Pamela fix, there’s also a sequel, Pamela in her Exalted Condition which I’ve personally retitled Pamela’s European Vacation after finding out she goes on the Grand Tour. In this book, Pamela is a settled member of the upper classes, giving her opinions on art, history and criticising Locke’s theories of education.

For those looking for a modern take on Pamela, there was loose adaptation on at the National Theatre last year written by Martin Crimp and called When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other.

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