Monday, June 17, 2013

Pamela

Pamela, by Samuel Richardson

I have done it!  I have conquered Pamela!  And now I never have to do it again.


Pamela is a beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished young maidservant in Lady B.'s home.  Lady B. has trained her as a companion, meaning to marry her to a respectable man when the time comes, but when the lady dies, what is to become of Pamela?  Young Mr. B. has designs upon her person, but Pamela, being perfectly virtuous, is resolved to resist his blandishments--if necessary to the death.

I really got into the premise of the novel.  Richardson starts off by tackling a real and serious social problem of his day--servant girls' utter vulnerability to men of higher status--and he does it from the girls' perspective.  Pamela has a problem shared by thousands; she is a poor and defenseless girl and Mr. B. has all the power on his side.  She can't leave, she can't make him too angry, and she can't make him leave her alone.  Should she succumb, she will lose all and he will lose nothing; at best she will be a kept mistress, but it's more likely that she'll end up on the streets.  This is a great story!

However, this is also the 18th century and Richardson is writing a fairy tale.  So it doesn't go quite the way I would like.  Mr. B., maddened by Pamela's refusal to be his mistress and her fellow-servants' sympathy with her situation, has her abducted and taken to one of his other estates, where he pays a morally dissolute housekeeper to imprison and torment her.  Here, he does his best to persuade, seduce, and just plain rape Pamela.  Her main defense is fainting, but she does appeal to neighbors for help, try to run away, and even contemplate suicide.  Even as Pamela's virtue makes Mr. B. angry, it also inspires his admiration--and finally he decides to marry her.  Pamela, meanwhile, has been falling in love with her would-be rapist.  Sigh.  Of course she has.  After that I kind of lost steam, because argh.

Pamela and Mr. B. in the Summerhouse, by Highmore
And the awful part is that they get married about halfway through the first volume (there are two).  So I spent a lot of time wondering how on earth Richardson was going to spin the story out for another 700 pages or so.  Here is how:

The first 200 pages are quite exciting, as Pamela tries to resist young Mr. B.
It takes them 100 pages to get married.
Then for about 200 pages they have the first days of their marriage, and Mr. B.'s sister shows up in a rage, which is fun.
200 pages of incredibly dull rehashing of earlier events; neighbors all love Pamela and want to hear all about it, and Mr. B. tells his side of the story.
100 or so pages of Pamela's first lying-in and her misery at Mr. B.'s too-close friendship with a beautiful lady.  He repents and becomes a better husband than ever.  This bit is pretty interesting.
200 pages of Pamela writing a book of Hints to Young Mothers, then letters that are Hints to Young Ladies.  This takes years, so by the end she has several children and has spent a couple of years on the continent.

Mr. B., lauded throughout as an excellent husband, once he gets over his rapeyness anyway (and then there's his bit of backsliding) may well be a good husband by 18th century standards, which seem to have been extremely low.  Even the book says so.  By our standards he's a jerk who proves himself to be horrible over and over, and I expected that, but even so he was pretty hard to take.

The novel is written in Richardson's trademark epistolary style (in fact, his project began as a set of exemplary polite letters and then turned into a dramatic novel), so it's all letters back and forth, mostly from Pamela to others.  She writes a sort of journal in this way.  Even so, it gets improbable and humorous when you read extremely long and detailed conversations in letters that may run to over 50 pages long.  Pamela is said to have a simple, free, flowing style of writing that her contemporaries admire, and this is quite true by Georgian standards; the modern reader will probably find it florid, overblown, and often tedious. 

Pamela was a smash hit when it was published in 1740 and 1741.  Of course, many people also hated it and so people divided into Pamelists and Anti-Pamelists.  Pamelists felt that their heroine was as virtuous and lovely as she was presented; Anti-Pamelists argued that she was clearly a conniving gold-digger who used her virtue to get to her goal (I'm betting that there were references to Anne Boleyn's ambitions to become queen).  I'm not convinced by the Anti-Pamelist narrative myself.  A servant girl simply couldn't realistically imagine becoming a wealthy lady through marriage.  Anne Boleyn was, as far as status went, a semi-acceptable candidate for marriage to Henry VIII if you left out the part where he was already married.  But Pamela's social status is so far below Mr. B.'s that their marriage is unthinkable.  It's even more far-fetched than Mr. Darcy marrying Elizabeth.

I am, however, sympathetic to the parodists.  Henry Fielding wrote two Pamela satires, and I can hardly blame him.  I would like to read them, but right now I'm about Pamela'd out.

I've been glad to participate in o's 18th Century Celebration!  If I can get the time I'd quite like to tackle Tristram Shandy, which I think I would like better (although it would undoubtedly be baffling).  Pamela wasn't on my CC list, but it was a pretty fun read, and Tristram Shandy actually is on my list.  June is too short for all the reading I want to cram into this month.

6 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Wow, you read Part II of Pamela. Even I didn't read Part II, and I read Sir Charles Grandison.

I somehow feel I have left this comment before. Well, that just shows how impressed I am.

Fielding's Joseph Andrews begins as a Pamela parody but thankfully turns into something more original - highly original - pretty quickly.

And thus the English novel was launched.

Jean said...

Well, I didn't know that Part II was more of a sequel than anything else until I was done. My Everyman copy just says "Pamela: in two volumes" and so I missed that information. Oh well.

jennysbooks said...

Props to you Madam. Many, many props. Tristram Shandy is a way better book -- or such is my assessment having only read the first 100 pages or so of Pamela before giving up in despair. Now you can reward yourself by watching the old BBC adaptation of Pamela, which features a very young Sean Bean with an unflattering period hairstyle.

NOPE. Sorry. I told you a lie. It's Clarissa that got adapted with Sean Bean. I decided not to give brain space to trying to tell Clarissa & Pamela apart. :p

Jean said...

Hee hee, thanks Jenny, I'll have to look that up! The difference: Pamela is POOR while Clarissa is RICH. Pamela LIVES and Clarissa DIES. There ya go. ;)

jrleek said...

Wow, the Anti-Pamelists sound like an interesting crowd. If Pamela is only pretending to be virtuous to get her goal, what exactly do they think she should have done to be properly virtuous? Become Mr. B's mistress?

Jenny/Teachingmybabytoread said...

Whoa! I've never heard of that. But it made me think of the real life countess of Derby. I had to hunt down the title, but here's a really good book:
http://www.amazon.com/Life-Mask-Emma-Donoghue/dp/B001PO6B7Q