Pamela-Samuel Richardson (1740) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

I’m a little confused about chronology.  Last time for this strand I read Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” published in 1742 in which Richardson’s main character is Fielding’s titular character’s sister and who makes an appearance.  I was surprised at the time that Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books To Read Before You Die” which I thought recommended books in the order that they appeared hadn’t mentioned “Pamela” but that’s because of my determination not to look ahead in the book.  I hadn’t seen it was the next title.  Dividing the recommendations into groups of five and choosing one, which has been my approach for this strand, here were my latest options:

Pamela – Samuel Richardson

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

Roderick Random – Tobias George Smollett

Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

Fanny Hill- John Cleland

I think I can see what’s happened here.  Boxall has 1742 for the “Pamela” publication date, the same year as “Joseph Andrews” and has put Fielding before Richardson alphabetically.  I chose to read “Pamela” as I had a copy sitting unread on my shelves but this Penguin edition has the publication date of 1740.  It’s a bit of a moot point anyway as Richardson revised this book regularly and the edition I read was reworked by the author in the 1750s but remained unpublished until his daughters approved its appearance in 1801, which is the version Penguin Classics have gone for.  Sorry, if I’ve confused you thus far!

“Pamela” is highly significant as it was the first best-seller which spawned translations, parodies (Henry Fielding’s “Shamela” being the most famous), spin-offs by other authors (ie; “Joseph Andrews”) and sequels.  Merchandise appeared with “Pamela” references and it became an important landmark in both English and European literature. Its structure, whilst not original, was significant.  It is largely an epistolary novel, written as letters by Pamela mainly to her parents, the rest is her journal, also intended to be read by her parents- there’s only a small intervention from the author, who adopts the guise of editor.

This gives this novel a different feel to what had gone before, which tended to be rambling road tales with many a digression and stories within stories.  Pamela is dealing with things as they happen, the plot develops as it goes along because she is writing either on the day events occurred or just after.  The plot as such can be summed up in the subtitle “Virtue Rewarded”.  Pamela spends a chunk of this novel trying to preserve hers.  She is a lady’s maid whose mistress has died and the son, known throughout as Mr B., is after her and goes to great lengths in his attempts to seduce her.  Coercive behaviour is highly present in the fiction of today and here, 280 years ago, we have a chilling, persistent example with Mr B.  Spread over two volumes, the first for me does achieve greatness.  The master’s plots to seduce Pamela and her foiling his lustful plans really drew me in.  In the second volume we get quite a lot of Mr B., through Pamela’s words, including a 48 point treatise on what makes a good wife and things become admittedly more of a slog.

I do find the whole background of this novel fascinating.  Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) was a printer, not an academic, and the idea came from a commission to produce a set of standard letters that could be used as templates for would-be letter-writers.  Pamela is not a lady, although she has been brought up in that environment, the parents she writes to are much simpler folk.  Pamela knows she is likely to be ruined if she gives in to Mr B. and around her Richardson devises a set of memorable characters who will help or hinder Mr B.’s plans. 

In our modern world the resolution is not that satisfactory.  I wouldn’t trust Mr B. and the way things turn out would have been likely to have been surprising and yet pleasing to Richardson’s contemporary readers.  All in all, this is a highly important if not totally involving work.  I did feel, when I was mid-way through the first volume that this might be the earliest work I would give five stars to- but the protracted, more didactic nature of the second half meant that it was not quite there for me.

The Penguin Classics edition I read with an introduction by Margaret A Doody states that “Pamela” was first published in 1740.

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