Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363
As the subtitle indicates, what many consider the first novel is concerned with “virtue rewarded.” Developed through the title character’s diary entries, the plot is largely autobiographical. Pamela, a virtuous young woman, is ultimately rewarded by marriage to a wealthy man, Mr. B. Along the way, her innate goodness strongly affects him to reform his once debauched ways, and he proves a worthy husband to her.
Samuel Richardson’s original version, published in 1740, only takes Pamela through her youth and marriage. He followed this with an update in which Pamela goes through numerous adjustments in learning to live as a lady and manage the estate’s household.
Fifteen years old when the story begins, Pamela is sent to Bedfordshire to become a lady’s maid. Pamela becomes fond of the wealthy Lady B., but when the lady dies, her son and heir, the dissolute Mr. B., takes over. When he attempts to sexually assault her, Pamela flees, only to be retrieved to the estate and his control. The housekeeper, Mrs. Jervis, provides moral support, but Mrs. Jewkes, the former estate’s caretaker, tries to control Pamela’s every move, even shutting her away. The boss’ sexual misconduct continues. But wielding the ultimate weapon, purity and righteousness, Pamela prevails: once Squire B. frees her from her contract, she wonders whether he is so bad after all; he misses her, reforms, and marries her. All through these ordeals, Pamela keeps a diary, and the entries comprise the novel’s substance.
Once married, Pamela in her new position also must contend with Mr. B.’s sister, Mrs. Davers, who thinks she is too lowly to be his wife. In addition, her husband reveals he has an illegitimate daughter from a previous affair. After meeting other family members and winning them over, Pamela becomes pregnant. When they move to London, her problems do not end because she learns her husband has not truly reformed; he is having an affair. Once discovered, he apologizes and promises to reform. The ever-virtuous Pamela not only forgives him but also takes his daughter (who had been at boarding school) into their home to raise her along with their own son.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825
Pamela is really two, closely related novels. The first two volumes of 1740 have the full title Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to Her Parents. Now First Published in Order to Cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes. The additional volumes that followed in 1741 were published in a new two-volume set titled Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Damsel, to Her Parents: And Afterwards, in Her Exalted Condition, Between Her, and Persons of Figure and Quality, upon the Most Important and Entertaining Subjects in Genteel Life. The Third and Fourth Volumes. Published in Order to Cultivate Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes. The subtitles are significant because they reflect the didactic intentions of the author as well as the expectations of the audience Richardson sought.
The first two volumes of Pamela tell how the fifteen-year-old Pamela Andrews left her parents’ home to become a servant in the country home of a lady of substance in Bedfordshire. The latter dies almost immediately, leaving Pamela alone in the rambling estate with Squire B., the lady’s libidinous son. Squire B. promptly tries to impose himself upon the wide-eyed, nubile Pamela, who, being a proper girl, resists his advances and flees from Bedfordshire. Squire B., however, will have his way. He has Pamela abducted and brought to his estate in Lincolnshire, a household run by his housekeeper, Mrs. Jewkes. Throughout all her traumas, Pamela is scribbling away, writing frequently to her parents and then in her journal, reporting with great immediacy the pulse-quickening assaults upon her cherished virtue. In providing Pamela with no friend in Mrs. Jewkes, Richardson used every means at his disposal to inform his readers (who knew it already) that the social codes of the day were tolerant of people of the upper class who seduced their servants.
Pamela, however, abjures hanky-panky, and when Squire B. tries to force himself upon the hapless Pamela, she resists with her only weapons—innocence and vulnerability—and in so doing, gains a moral superiority over her would-be seducer. If rape has to do with power, as contemporary psychologists contend, by the end of volume 2, readers of Pamela see a complete power shift from Squire B. to the virtuous girl, hence the words “Virtue Rewarded” in the subtitle. Pamela, by the sheer force of moral rectitude, reduces the proud squire to a sniveling penitent. She has endured kidnapping and imprisonment, her attempts to gain her freedom have been thwarted by the unprincipled Mrs. Jewkes, and even Parson Williams, the local curate, has been unable to help her. She has contemplated suicide, realizing that the entire establishment within which she must exist favors rank over righteousness. As in many eighteenth century British novels, however, virtue prevails. Squire B., unnerved by all that has happened, grants Pamela her freedom, but then, realizing he loves her, recalls her and marries her.
The second half of the four-volume work has to do with Pamela’s adjusting to her transformation from humble servant to lady of a powerful house. Underlying all that Richardson writes about here is the implicit question, “Is quality a birthright, or can it be earned?”
The novel was radical for its time. It deals with age-old questions of the individual versus the establishment, of class struggle, and of the sexual politics that exist between men and women. It questions established social norms. Society at that time viewed unmarried ladies of the upper class as inviolable because they were, in a crass sense, economic commodities. Through them the establishment propagated itself. Women of the lower class, however, did not matter; they were fair game for any gentleman with a libido.
One may question—as many did—Pamela’s innocence. Some people, including Henry Fielding, considered her a conniving and manipulative young lady who knew what she wanted and set about getting it. In Fielding’s The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742), a shameless parody of Pamela, Pamela’s brother, Joseph, emerges as an obverse image of his almost-too-good-to-be-believed sister. Fielding’s other attack, A Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), was among many debunking reactions to Richardson’s novel.
Some critics label Richardson humorless and naïve. A literal reading of Pamela supports such a conclusion. Beneath the surface, however, lurk arcane suggestions, oblique comments about problems that concerned Richardson deeply. Squire B.’s attempts to deprive Pamela of writing materials makes one wonder whether Richardson is commenting indirectly about the Licensing Act, which imposed strict censorship on the London stage at about the time Richardson wrote Pamela. In 1735, he published a tract in support of the Licensing Act. That was the politically correct stand for a prominent printer to take—but was that his real stand?
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