Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded is a epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, first published in 1740. It takes the form of a collection of letters written by a fifteen-year-old girl to her parents about her life as a maid in a squire’s household.
After Pamela’s elderly mistress dies, she is left in the employment of her mistress’s son, Mr B–. He initially shows her exceptional kindness, which then develops into amorous advances. Pamela is quite disturbed by her master’s designs on her virtue, especially when they begin to take a sinister turn. He accosts her in the summerhouse and in various other places around the house, demanding that she surrender her virtue to him. It becomes most alarming on a particular occasion when Mr B– hid himself in the housekeeper’s bedroom closet. Pamela had begun to sleep in Mrs Jervis’s bedchamber in order to better protect herself, and it was the closet in this room where he waited for Pamela to undress and get into bed.
I went to Mrs Jervis’s chamber; and, O dreadful! my wicked master had hid himself, base gentleman as he is! in her closet, where she had a few books, and chest of drawers, and such like. […] I sat myself down on one side of the bed, and she on the other, and we began to undress ourselves; […] I pulled off my stays, and my stockings, and all my clothes to an under-petticoat; and then hearing a rustling again in the closet, I said Heaven protect us! but before I say my prayers, I must look into this closet. And so was going to it slip-shod, when, O dreadful! out rushed my master in a rich silk and silver morning gown. I screamed, and ran to the bed, and Mrs Jervis screamed too; […] I found his hand in my bosom; and when fright let me know it, I was ready to die; and I sighed and screamed, and fainted away.
By this stage Pamela had already decided to remove to her parent’s home, even though they are poor and could hardly afford to support her. Whilst her removal is put off multiple times by her new master, she is at length taken in Mr B–‘s carriage – not to her home – but to her master’s Lincolnshire estate.
Why, dear father and mother, to be sure he grows quite a rake! How easy it is to go from bad to worse, when once people give way to vice!
She is placed in the care of a Mrs Jewkes, and is quite fearful of her master’s purposes by this kidnapping. The entire estate seems devoid of people who would help her from her predicament, excepting the local parson, Mr Williams. However, all his attempts of aid and all her attempts at escape are cruelly prevented.
Eventually, Mr B– comes to Lincolnshire to pursue his advances on Pamela. He tries to persuade her to become his mistress by forcing himself upon her and even offering her financial income if she accepts, but she is persistent in her refusal to voluntarily surrender her virtue to him. After a while, he seems to change his approach and decides that he should marry her, despite the many reasonable objections that would have existed in the eighteenth century (such as his family’s dislike of the match, the difference in their station in life, etc…).
Pamela decides, once she is convinced of the sincerity of his proposal, to accept him. She then continually pours out profusions of gratitude for the wonderful treatment and condescension he has shown her by asking her to be his wife.
O, sir, said I, expect not words from your poor servant, equal to these most generous professions. Both the means, and the will, I now see, are given to you, to lay me under an everlasting obligation. How happy shall I be, if, though I cannot be worth of all this goodness and condescension, I can prove myself not entirely unworthy of it! But I can only answer for a grateful heart; and if ever I give you cause, wilfully, (and you will generously allow for involuntary imperfections,) to be disgusted with me, may I be an outcast from your house and favour, and as much repudiated, as if the law had divorced me from you!
I found these constant effusions of humble praise quite sickening really. I mean, the guy had repeatedly tried to rape her! Not only was it a stretch of the imagination that such a “rake” would suddenly want to marry his maidservant because of her long-standing virtue, it was equally amazing that Pamela would suddenly forget how abominably she had been treated at his hands and accept him!
The story concludes with a visit from Lady Davers (Mr B–‘s sister) who violently opposes the match, but she is soon won over by the virtuosity and goodness of Pamela.
As a story, it was quite repetitive and long-winded (common in the 18th century and especially common to Samuel Richardson), which made it a little annoying. It is surely unrealistic to think that a maidservant would have had that much paper available to her to write so copiously to her parents, let alone have the time to write it all! However, even though it does not make particularly easy reading for the modern bookworm, I can appreciate the story in the light of the culture of the time.
The eighteenth century had begun to see the rise of the novel, where a fictional story was used to communicate to the reader a moral message. Previous to this, a writer would usually communicate such moral-related content in the form of published sermons on religious themes, or in conduct books designed to provide rules on social behaviour. In this context, the author’s very heavy moral directive – that virtue (above all other characteristics) is to be preferred in women – is easier to understand. Samuel Richardson did not want to tell an interesting story per se, but wanted to communicate an important moral message and merely used a story to do it.
Pamela was quite popular in its day and went on to have several revisions, with subsequent editions adding chapters on Pamela as a mother to her young children. Richardson had intended it to promote virtue and religion among the youth of the day, however many people saw Pamela’s seeming uprightness to be covering a more sinister cunning designed to ensnare a squire in matrimony. This viewpoint occasioned several satires to be printed on the topic, including An Apology of the Life of Miss Shamela Andrews (1741), by Henry Fielding, and The Anti-Pamela; Or, Feign’d Innocence Detected (1741), by Eliza Haywood.
All in all, it was heavy going but interesting to read arguably one of the most popular novels written during the eighteenth century. What is your favourite eighteenth century novel?
Sources and Relevant Links
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson (1740) – read online
Illustration Source: National Gallery of Victoria
An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews, by Henry Fielding (1741) – read online
The Anti-Pamela; Or, Feign’d Innocence Detected, by Eliza Haywood (1741) – read online