Review: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded

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.

I downloaded this free ebook from the Kindle Store.

22 thoughts on “Review: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded

  1. I’m currently reading Clarissa by the same author and I can recognize what you write about the writing being repetitive – in the extreme, one might add. Without having finished Clarissa but with a pretty good idea about what’s to come, I think you might like that one better. Yes, Clarissa also goes to a man who’s not decent in any way – but she does so because her family is pressuring her so much to marry another man (whom she hates) that she see no other choice.
    The way you write about Pamela, makes it sound almost like Richardson turns into Marquis de Sade for the second part of the novel. I think the themes of the novel could be very interesting and make for a really fascinating novel – but the way Richardson writes, this one really sounds like it ends up being so creepy that it’s hardly possible to stand!

  2. The Restoration is filled with creepy sexual things, but if you ever wanted to do another Restoration behemoth novel, go with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. While it still has weird gender stuff, it reads as shockingly fresh and modern, and the gender stuff is a lot more progressive. Not to mention, Fielding saw Pamela as morally hypocritical and wrote a full-length parody of it called Shamela (let’s just say Fielding and Richardson did not always get on. . .)

  3. I’ve always kind of wanted to read this just so I could then enjoy the parody, Shamela 😛 But yes, I can imagine wanting to peel my skin off too.

  4. Wait. Wait. “Girls falling for their abusers” is not just an unfortunate and angry-making trend in the genre, but something that was pulled aside and labelled as such on the B&N shelves? Like “Staff Picks” (but hopefully not the same as the staff picks, oh gods)? That… just… I… really? HOW IS ANYONE OKAY WITH THAT? I can’t decide if that makes me want to rage or cry. Both, probably.

      • I’ve been thinking about this all day, and I think I am a little less rage-y now. I’m going to give the B&N employee who did this the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are a like-minded individual who finds the “girls falling for their abusers” thing repulsive, but by calling the books out as such, they’re at least alerting potential readers to the angry-making contents, and keeping the books from being shelved under Romance, where their content might be mistaken for actual romantic behavior by the young and impressionable.

        The fact that there are enough such books to fill an entire bookshelf still makes me ill, though.

    • I was in Louisiana over the weekend, so I couldn’t address this, but it’s “young adult paranormal romance” that’s the Barnes & Noble label, not “girls falling for their abusers”. I’m so sorry for the confusion and the upset! Of course, there’s sometimes a thin line between the two labels…

      • Ha, that’ll teach me to go into insta-ragewad-mode without getting the full story!

        But wait… why does the phrase “young adult paranormal romance” make you want to breathe fire?

      • To be fair, it’s less the phrase and more the actual thing. Young adult paranormal romance, from the samples on Barnes & Noble shelves, seems focused almost entirely on the “supernatural dude/ordinary girl” aspect, which slips so easily into problematic territory that I can’t see it without thinking about that.

  5. I had a million thoughts going on while reading this post. First – what a freakin’ cool class you’re taking. #jealous

    And then it went through the vicariously emotional state of your reading. MASTER? 47 RULES? Seriously?

    I am curious about Tom Jones (from commenter above). Might look into that one. Continue to share the books on your syllabus though. Nifty.

    • Keep in mind that Tom Jones is over 800 pages. Somehow, though, I found it very enjoyable. It might have been Stockholm Syndrome, but I don’t know. I was surprised by Fielding’s treatment of Sophia, the female lead, and the illegitimate, wild Tom among a gazillion other ideas, themes, and characters. It still shows its age but I found it quite sharp and readable overall.

  6. I read Pamela in college as well, and had similar issues with it. I LOVED Shamela, which we also read and compared to Pamela. It’s quite funny. Fielding agrees with you. 🙂 I also liked Joseph Andrews, which also pokes fun at books like Pamela. It’s a better story overall than Shamela, Shamela was just funny because I disliked Pamela so much! I’m having some of the same problems with Clarissa right now.

  7. Pingback: Review: Joseph Andrews « The Literary Omnivore

  8. Pingback: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (Naxos AudioBooks), by Samuel Richardson, read by Clare Corbett – A Review | Austenprose - A Jane Austen Blog

  9. A funny footnote: Pamela was criticized for being immoral, not because Pamela was “rewarded” by marrying her torturer, but because… she wasn’t good enough for him! She was from too low a class, and the British upper class found it shocking for her to marry him. So Richardson did a rewrite in which she was more educated and spoke better upper-class English.

    (I don’t get it, though; folk tales have been full of stories of common women marrying princes since forever.)

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