Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was the first novel assigned to us in Sex, Texts, and Countertexts, my English Literature class focused on gender in Restoration comedies and writings. We began the semester focusing on two plays, The Country Wife and The Rover, both of which were written prior to Pamela and exhibit the kind of culture that Pamela is a backlash against. I’d never read it or really heard of it until I went and downloaded the Kindle Store version of the text and set to reading. That’s really it, people, sometimes I only read things because people make me.
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded is the story of, well, Pamela, a fifteen-year-old maidservant in the 1740s. When her kindly mistress dies, Pamela expects to be sent back home to her poor parents, but her mistress’ son, Mr. B, makes advances on her. When Pamela resists, Mr. B kidnaps her, threatens the other servants, and even attempts to rape her. Throughout all of these trials, Pamela holds firm to her belief in God and her belief in her own virtue—but can she hold fast when there are so many for so long, and her own heart threatens to betray her?
I actually enjoyed the first half of Pamela. I’m utterly fascinated by characters with a strong moral code, especially when adhering to that moral code alienates them. I liked it in The Crucible and I liked it in Pamela. It read like some sort of late night exploitation flick, as Pamela keeps dodging advance after assault after advance from Mr. B and his increasingly odious lackeys. My particular favorite moment was when Pamela actually managed to escape the mansion that served as her prison, only to break her leg and receive a concussion in the attempt. After considering suicide to end it all and protect her virtue for good, Pamela is brought up before Mr. B and the foul Mrs. Jervis and tormented even more. I saw her as a little Determinator of virtue, hellbent on getting out of this bad situation and back home to her parents. And, best of all, she actually claimed her own virtue (and this was, at the time, seen as something more valuable to the upper classes!) and questioned the culture that led to Mr. B (albeit without ever saying a bad word about her mistress, the one that spoiled him). Despite the writing, which could be repetitive and sentimental, I actually cared about Pamela and wanted to see how she would get out of this bad situation and strike out on her own.
And then she fell in love with Mr. B, forgave him, and married him.
Oh my sweet Lord, my cries of frustration could be heard for miles. There’s been a recent rash of “girls falling for their abusers” in young adult paranormal romance (and the fact that that phrase comes from actual Barnes & Noble shelving makes me want to breathe fire) in novels such as Hush, Hush, and it’s so problematic that it makes my bile rise. Of course, this is something we’re exploring in this class—the way women are treated in this narratives written by men, especially sexually. The Rover, being written by an actual woman, Aphra Behn, improves upon that with the witty Helena; then again, it also includes a male protagonist who attempts to rape who is rewarded with the witty Helena at the end. It’s easy to forget how circumscribed one can be by one’s time, although that is no excuse.
In any case, that was the deathstroke for Pamela. I suppose one could do a deeper reading where one examines the second half of the novel for evidence of Pamela’s Stockholm Syndrome (or, oh! Even the idea that her concussion left her with brain damage! Or the idea that she’s trying to game the system!), but without Pamela’s strong moral compass, the exploitation is downright horrifying. (Well into their marriage, Pamela calls Mr. B “master”, and he even gives her forty-seven detailed rules on how to be a proper wife. I want to peel my skin off.) There’s plenty of rich territory for us to explore here as a class (I imagine I’ll write a paper or two on Pamela), but as a novel one might read for entertainment or even education (which was Richardson’s goal with Pamela), oh my sweet Lord, avoid it.
Bottom line: While the first half of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded is interesting as Pamela’s strong moral code is pitted against her creepy master Mr. B’s various attempts to assault her, once she falls in love with him, it becomes so problematic and awful that it’s hard to read. Avoid.