What is an epistolary novel?
‘Epistolary’ means a story written in the form of letters, sometimes with diary entries. Through an exchange of letters we follow 15-year-old Pamela, a maidservant, as she is terrorised and imprisoned by Mr B, a nobleman, libertine and the son of her recently deceased mistress. It ends, however, with them falling in love and marrying.
Richardson favoured the epistolary style because he believed that it brought the reader into close contact with the emotional and psychological world of the letter writer. At the same time, it established a temporal immediacy that meant that the reader and the protagonist experience the events of the narrative together.
The conduct book
Pamela belongs to the conduct book tradition. Aimed mainly at girls and young women, conduct books taught moral behaviour, social norms and the codes of sensibility. Here, Richardson employs the novel form to instruct through entertainment.
Contemporary responses to Pamela
Pamela caused a sensation in the mid 18th century, spawning Pamela-themed literature, sermons and merchandise (including fans and paintings). However, not all responses were positive. Many contemporaries viewed the ‘licentious’ content of the novel, as well as its frank portrayal of social mobility, as overshadowing the moral lesson taught by Pamela’s chaste conduct. The disagreement over the moral validity of the story came to be known as ‘the Pamela controversy’.
Much ridicule arose from the implausible trajectory of the novel, in which Pamela’s terror of Mr B is swiftly transformed into love upon the proposal of marriage. Contemporary writers published satirical responses that called into question the reliability of Pamela’s account of events. Two of the most popular parodies – Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741) and Eliza Heywood’s Anti-Pamela (1741) – portray Pamela as an experienced girl prepared to trade her feigned innocence for wealth and an elevated social position.
Pamela in Charlotte Brontë's Jane EyrePamela continued to be popular and influential well into the 19th century. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre alludes to Pamela early on, when Jane reads it as a young girl at Gateshead. This conscious reference invites the reader to compare and contrast the two plots which, as Jane Eyre unfolds, become more apparent.
19th-century readers would have been familiar with Pamela. First published in 1740, it achieved a wide, long-lasting readership. Indeed, critics of Jane Eyre explicitly made comparisons between the two novels. In a review for Littell’s Living Age, Elizabeth Rigby declared:
Jane Eyre is merely another Pamela, who, by the force of her character and the strength of her principles, is carried victoriously through great trials and temptations from the man she loves. Nor is she even a Pamela adapted and refined to modern notions…
Mr B and Edward Rochester
Critics have often compared Edward Rochester with Mr B from Pamela, suggesting that Brontë may have drawn on this character for inspiration. The defining similarity is their secret past. As young men, both enjoy a pleasure-seeking libertine lifestyle which leads to an illegitimate daughter who, without a mother, is now dependent on them.
At the same time, however, Jane Eyre distinguishes itself from Pamela. Jane, for instance, is an altogether different heroine: rebellious, rational and strong-minded. Compare how Pamela innocently accepts clothing from Mr B with Jane's suspicious interpretation of the same offer from Rochester.
- Article by:
- Margaret Doody
- Rise of the novel, Gender and sexuality, Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded evolved from a collection of model letters into a bestselling novel. Margaret Doody introduces Samuel Richardson's work and its exploration of gender, class, sexual harassment and marriage.
- Article by:
- Kathryn Sutherland
- Childhood and children's literature, The novel 1780–1832
Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores how Jane Austen’s education and upbringing shaped her childhood writing, and considers the relationship between these early works and her adult novels.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Rise of the novel, Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism
John Mullan explains how the novel took shape in the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and the ways in which the book industry both shaped and responded to the new genre.