“Why, Sir, 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.” This comment by Samuel Johnson is only partly relevant. As James E. Evans states in his introduction to Samuel Richardson’s series of excerpts, the revival of Richardson’s reputation in recent decades has grown out of the assertion that he “remains a great writer in spite of his morality” and must be read “’for the story’ (psychological realism and conscious artistry), because we no longer read ’for the sentiment.’”
Richardson himself stated quite clearly, in his prefaces to Pamela and Clarissa, and in his letters, that his purpose as an author was to depict “real life” and “in a manner probable, natural, and lively.” At the same time, however, he wanted his books to be thought of as instruments of manners and morals intended to “teach great virtues.” Fiction, he insisted, should be useful and instructive; it should edify readers of all ages, but particularly should be relevant and appealing to youth. Richardson observed with passionate interest and recorded with a genius for infinite detail the relationships between men and women; the concerns of daily life; and the particular class and caste distinctions of mid-eighteenth century England. This intense interest in the usual sets him apart from such predecessors as Daniel Defoe or the seventeenth century writers of prose romances. In all of his novels, and particularly, perhaps, in Pamela, the relationship between his main characters has about it the quality of traditional romantic love; at the same time, the novels are so realistically grounded in the accumulation of a mass of day-to-day realistic details as to create a remarkable sense of authenticity. Characteristic of this creation of the illusion of real life is the account, possibly apocryphal, of Pamela’s being read aloud by the local blacksmith to a small group of the village’s inhabitants on the village green; finally, when Pamela’s triumph by her marriage to Squire B. was assured, the villagers indulged in a spree of thanksgiving and merrymaking; it was their Pamela who had conquered.
Richardson, then, was both a conscious, self-avowed realist, and also an equally conscious, self-avowed teacher and moralist. This dualism permeates all three of his novels and is perhaps most apparent—and transparent—in Pamela. It is, indeed, Richardson’s hallmark, and is the source both of his strength and weakness as a novelist.
Reduced to its simplest terms, the “story” or “plot” of the first volume of Pamela is too well known to warrant more than the briefest summary. The heroine, a young servant girl, is pursued by her master, Squire B., but maintains her virginity in spite of his repeated and ingenious efforts, until the would-be seducer, driven to desperation, marries her. Thus is Pamela’s virtue rewarded. The continuation of the novel in volume 2, a decided letdown, is virtually plotless, highly repetitive, and highlighted only by Squire B.’s excursion into infidelity. Volumes 3 and 4, written partly because of Richardson’s indignation with the various parodies of the first volume of Pamela, have even less to recommend them. Labeled as “virtually unreadable” by one modern commentator, even Richardson’s most understanding critic-biographers, T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, have dismissed them as “Richardson at his worst, pompous, proper, proud of himself, and above all dull.”
Despite his frequent excursions into bathos and sentimentality, when he is not indulging in sermonizing on ethics and morality, the Richardson of the first volume of Pamela writes vigorously, effectively, and with keen insight and intimate understanding of his characters. Pamela contains many powerful scenes that linger long in the reader’s memory: the intended rape scene, the sequence in which Pamela considers suicide, even parts of the marriage scene (preceded by some prodigious feats of letter writing to her parents on the day prior to the wedding, from six o’clock in the morning, half an hour past eight o’clock, near three o’clock [ten pages], eight o’clock at night, until eleven o’clock the same night and following the marriage) are the work of a powerful writer with a keen sense for the dramatic.
In the final analysis, however, the novel succeeds or fails because of its characters, particularly and inevitably that of Pamela herself. From the opening letter in which she informs her parents that her mistress has died and Squire B., her mistress’s son, has appeared on the scene, to the long sequence of her journal entries, until her final victory when her would-be seducer, worn out and defeated in all his attempts to have her without marriage, capitulates and makes the “thrice-happy” Pamela his wife, she dominates the novel.
In effect, and seemingly quite beyond Richardson’s conscious intent, Pamela is two quite different characters. On one hand, she is the attractive and convincing young girl who informs her parents that her recently deceased mistress left her three pairs of shoes that fit her perfectly, adding that “my lady had a very little foot,” and, having been transferred to Squire B.’s Lincolnshire estate, laments that she lacks “the courage to stay, neither can I think to go.” On the other hand, she is at times a rather unconvincing puppet who thinks and talks in pious platitudes and sees her “honesty” as a very valuable commodity, a character—in Joseph Wood Krutch’s words—“so devoid of any delicacy of feeling as to be inevitably indecent.”
Squire B. is less interesting than Pamela, and his efforts to seduce Pamela tend to become either boring or amusing. Her father, the Old Gaffer, who would disown his daughter “were she not honest,” similarly frequently verges on caricature, although one distinguished historian of the English novel finds him extremely convincing; and Lady Davers, Squire B.’s arrogant sister, tends to be more unbelievable than convincing, as do Pamela’s captors, the odious Mrs. Jewkes and the equally repulsive Colbrand.
In spite of its shortcomings, Pamela cannot be dismissed, as one...
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