An introduction to Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded

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.

Samuel Richardson, a printer for much of his life, had not intended to be a novelist. He agreed with booksellers to write a book of lightly fictionalised model letters, offering examples of a suitable letter in various circumstances, such as requests for a loan, or condolences. He produced a sample letter from a girl suffering from the sexual attentions of her employer, followed by the father’s reply. Coming up with this exchange sparked his imagination. Richardson set the ‘letter-writer’ aside and began to write what became one of the world’s most influential best sellers: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded.

Letters Written to and for Particular Friends by Samuel Richardson, 1741

Letters Written to and for Particular Friendsby Samuel Richardson, 1741

While working on his letter-writing manual, Samuel Richardson was inspired to write his epistolary novel, Pamela.

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Pamela, who is aged 15 when her story begins, has been employed by a middle-aged lady as a maidservant and companion. The novel begins with the lady’s death. Pamela’s real sorrow mingles realistically with her anxieties about getting another job. The lady’s adult son Mr B assures this daughter of a poor family that she need not worry, but eventually she finds cause for concern in his attentions. Pamela Andrews must free herself and find another situation.

According to convention, Mr B should pass the maidservant on to his sister, Lady Davers. But he seems little inclined to this solution. Sometimes he speaks to Pamela in the lofty manner of a social superior, as her ‘master’. He is, as we say, ‘the boss’. At times he speaks very differently. When Mr B makes advances to her in the summerhouse, Pamela can no longer doubt his sexual intention. Their dialogue reflects their social background, familial influences, various cultural influences such as their different reading, and their temperaments. This young country squire, an important local landowner, is trying to mimic the aristocratic manners of a class just above his own – but his show of grand masculinity often collapses into uncertainty or colloquial pettiness. Pamela, in attempting to communicate her resistance effectively, appeals to the serious religious rhetoric in which she believes. Her statements are seasoned by comic observations, impetuous bluntness – and by an anger inappropriate to her class. Servants are not supposed to be bold or rude. Her language is demotic, of the people. As an epistolary novel (i.e. one told through letters), we come to know these characters directly: we hear their voices as we endeavour to decode their rhetoric and the folds of their minds.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson

Pamela by Samuel Richardson [page: vol. I p. 13]

A letter from Pamela.

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Servants and landowners, language and social codes

Pamela, as her language shows, is a member of the lower orders. Not only is her father far below the property qualification that permits a man to vote, but he and his wife are below the level of those worthy of the title ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ – titles of address and status. They are condescended to as ‘Goodman Andrews’ and ‘Goody’. Pamela is to work for her living as a servant. Servants in the real world don’t come off very well. They are portrayed as concerned with money and advantage for themselves, and as lazy gossips, deceptive and insolent. Eliza Heywood’s A Present for a Servant-Maid (1743) offers practical advice rebuking sloth and ‘Sluttishness’ and warning against being ‘free with Men Servants’. Jonathan Swift, observing the behaviour of these household underlings, wrote mock Directions to Servants: ‘When you have done a fault, always be pert and insolent’.

Directions to Servants by Jonathan Swift

Directions to Servants by Jonathan Swift

Directions to Servants in General is a satirical parody of the conduct book genre.

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In her very first letter Pamela is indeed represented as concerned for her job and with money. Although sincerely mourning the loss of her employer, she is also anxious about loss of employment and simultaneously delights in the gold coins that she can send home. That first letter is a wonderful mixture of reactions and sensations, written in the undeniable voice of a servant. In the position of a servant, Pamela can be accused of being pert and saucy, of overstepping the bounds – even when innocent, she is faulted. Servants must expect more blame than praise. Gently treated by her former lady, Pamela knows life might get harder. She thinks seriously about the different kinds of work for which she might be valued or at least tolerated. And she must get on with her fellow-servants below stairs, making this one of the first novels about the workplace.

Mr B, a member of the fox-hunting squirearchy, can rely on his status as a landowner – a status blown up in the eyes of his tenants and servants, who think he will go to London to celebrate the king’s birthday like a lord. Mr B feels he ought to assert himself according to the rakish code of males of his class. Pamela is the ideal target for an affair – a pretty maidservant of the lowest class, with no claims to marriage to one of any rank above her. In the eyes of a rakish 18th-century gentleman, such a girl should be grateful for the luxuries such an affair might bring her.

Rights and enslavement

As a teenage female of a poor, ‘low’ family, Pamela has very few rights according to British law. Yet Pamela believes in her own rights; her claim to an independent existence is clear to herself. In a way Pamela is a maker of rights. When she asks, ‘how came I to be his Property? What Right has he in me, but such as a Thief may plead to stolen Goods?’, she brings the issues of individual claims to the centre of the narrative. In a period when the transatlantic slave trade continued to expand, the right of one person to own another and claim property in their bodies and existence was almost – if not entirely – unquestionable among white Europeans. The novel indirectly points at Britain’s involvement in the institution of slavery. We find out later that Sally Godfrey, Mr B’s former girlfriend, disgraced by premarital sex and pregnancy, went off to Jamaica where she could live with a clean reputation and marry a planter. Sally sends back to England a black boy – who does not survive.

Any protest against slavery must be based on the belief in an individual’s claim to control his or her own body and labour. Pamela relates to our own times; its title character can be seen as a heroine of protest, denying the assumption by powerful males of implicit but established property rights to the labour and bodies of working women. The heroine is acting both personally and politically, like a participant in the #MeToo movement. But there is no ready made ideology for Pamela to call upon. What she relies upon is her Christian and Protestant beliefs – her only access to equality. ‘O Sir! My soul is of equal Importance with the soul of a Princess, though my Quality is inferior to that of the meanest Slave’ (p. 158). In a sense Pamela is a princess – Richardson took her name from the royal heroine of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

Mr B can be confident that his status and privileges do not emanate from romance. He relies upon facts of life, upon customary practice and the acceptance of female subjugation as natural. What makes Mr B salvageable is his naïveté. He adopts rakish bluster and the language of male power. Yet such actions and beliefs are inauthentic: he is rarely the fundamental author of what he claims, and underneath his obedience to social mores there is uneasiness and uncertainty. What is true to his character is the sexual drive itself, for which Richardson has a great and unusual respect. True sexuality, however, has been entrapped by power. The young landowner is trying on a derivative costume of masculinity. Despite his best efforts, the master is secondary – he is always ‘B’ to Pamela Andrews’s ‘A’.

Protection of women and the portrayal of sexual assault

The battle between the pair is lively, surprising – and often funny. They talk past each other, sliding through various lexical registers and verbal resources, each trying to make the other give way. Mr B determines to take a more active part in his scenario. When Pamela is told that she will be allowed to go home to her parents, she is relieved, if saddened, at having to say farewell to her old home. Her master, however, has no intention of letting her go and kidnaps her to his remote and sparsely populated Lincolnshire estate. Here he will do what he likes – a battle of one-on-one, mano à mano.

The centre of the novel focusses upon the two characters enclosed in their warfare of wills and feelings, with few others to provide a social check or to interfere. The well-meaning Parson Williams gives Pamela some hope in her ‘Sun-flower correspondence’, but the young curate gets no encouragement from the powers that be. Sir Simon Darnford, a neighbouring landowner, defends Mr B from impertinent intrusions: ‘And if he takes care she wants for nothing, I don’t see any great Injury will be done her. He hurts no Family by this’ (p. 124). The protection of women is for the sake of the owners of women: men of ‘Family’ and the propertied who exchange females in the marriages through which wealth and power are transmitted down the generations. In that sense, Pamela has no ‘family’ at all. Williams, presenting a nuisance, is speedily tricked by Mr B’s hirelings, and then put in gaol. Mrs Jewkes, the former barmaid, acts rather the part of a madam in a brothel. When Mr B is about to rape Pamela, Mrs Jewkes eagerly urges him on: ‘What you do, Sir, do; don’t stand dilly-dallying’ (p. 188).

Pamela by Samuel Richardson

Pamela by Samuel Richardson [page: vol. I facing p. 123]

Illustration of Pamela and Mrs Jervis, with Mr B eavesdropping on their conversation from behind a curtain.

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Nothing can save Pamela, not even unconsciousness – nothing except Mr B’s inner unwillingness to commit the rape. He always hoped that Pamela would somehow fall in with his scenarios. When she absolutely refuses, he finds that committing an assault, an injury to one he loves, is not what he truly wills. After this turning point the couple must learn to talk to each other without pretences. There can be no real love without free choice. Pamela makes her most important choice – trusting Mr B – without consulting her parents.

Moving through sexual harassment and assault to love and marriage, the presentation of Pamela and Mr B’s relationship has always troubled Richardson’s readers – as the author intended. The great deconstructive questioning of Pamela is Clarissa (1747–48), where despite the reader’s hopes there is no happy ending possible. Pamela’s heroic stand for chastity seems contradicted by her return to Mr B at his appeal. Indecorously, she doesn’t seek – let alone take – advice. She gambles on him, and he on her. Richardson questions conventional romance by going past the ‘ending’ of the wedding day to the discomforts of married life, and he frequently exhibits disconcertingly realistic ingredients in their passion. Mr B himself says that he wasn’t attracted to marriage with ladies of his own class – too spoilt and domineering. Did he need someone whom he could dominate? If so, he chose wrongly. Pamela has to work out ways in which to cope with his temper and flare-ups of egotism.

Sermons to Young Women

Sermons to Young Women [page: 231]

Fordyce instructs women to be dutiful, submissive, meek, modest in dress and behaviour and sensitive but at the same time, they should appear as elegant and attractive as possible.

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This novel is significant as the very first work to deal with sexual assault as a central issue in itself and to treat it with psychological realism – rather than use it as a symbol or signal of change in male government, as in the Roman story of the rape of Lucretia. Pamela consistently warns us of the abuse of power.

Reception and controversy

The novel’s democratic inclinations spoke to its time. Its heroine figured on fans, on china, in epigrams and poems, and its story was dramatised almost immediately. Pamela was a hit – perhaps the first ‘best-seller’. This meant that it was subjected to rigorous refutation, criticism and mockery. Pamela Censured (perhaps as a booksellers’ ploy) thundered against its sexual subject matter and ‘Amorous Scenes’. Charles Povey in The Virgin in Eden (1741) tries to uphold a perfect allegorical chastity, a rather Spenserian virginity unlike the ‘Immodest Romances’ of Pamela’s letters. Eliza Haywood published Anti-Pamela: or, Feign’d Innocence Detected in June 1741, two months after Henry Fielding’s great attack in April.

Fielding is the earliest of famous contemporary writers to attack Pamela with verve and success. His Shamela changes the very ground of the novel’s story, turning the youthful heroine into a sexually experienced plotter who has already borne a bastard. Shamela is the daughter of an Irish Roman Catholic prostitute in Drury Lane. Mr Booby is ignorant and silly, letting himself be played upon by sexual attraction and specious talk of virtue. One can see in Fielding the old Etonian outraged by an attack on the privileges of masculinity itself as well as on upper-class rule. Shamela, her mother and Parson Williams are all in a conspiracy against the gentry’s entitlement. Dangerous ‘levelling’ is gaining ground. After all, we don’t want to encourage young gentlemen to marry their mother’s waiting-maids! Shamela herself represents everything that Fielding fears: clever women, self-motivated sex-workers, an uppity proletariat, the Irish, and Roman Catholics. Such forces are enemies of orderly hierarchical marriage and counter the regulating effects of Anglican Protestantism, which encourages respect of British masculine rights and liberties. Pamela’s own interpretation of Protestantism, however, gives her a sense of herself strong enough to resist Mr B’s attempt to own her.

An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews

An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews

In this letter, Henry Fielding casts the heroine as sexually experienced and manipulative. Shamela describes how she pretends to be shy around Mr Booby and fakes anger when he kisses her.

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Marriage A-la-Mode: The Settlement, by William Hogarth

Marriage A-la-Mode The Settlement by Hogarth

William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode offers another perspective on marriage, class and morals in the 18th century. The series satirises the upper-class practice of arranged marriage, where wealth is exchanged for social status. In this first painting, Hogarth depicts the marriage settlement being negotiated by the Earl of Squander and a rich merchant; on the left sit the ill-matched new couple, miserable and ignoring each other.

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The ending

In his greatest novel Clarissa Richardson denies the possibility of a happy ending. Richardson’s first novel, however, ends not only in marriage but in reconciliations. Mr B’s sister, Lady Davers, initially refuses to believe in the frightful marriage and treats the married Pamela as a seduced servant girl, fallen and impudent. Lady Davers (Barbara or ‘Captain Bab’) has managed her brother’s affairs before, packing off Sally and seeing to the care of the bastard child. That Barbara used to be of great importance in her brother’s life renders her chagrin understandable. By the novel’s close, however, these tensions are resolved and the family united.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson

Pamela by Samuel Richardson [page: vol. II p. 404]

‘Will you love me? – Will you let me be your Aunt?’. In this scene, Mr B, Pamela and Miss Goodwin (Mr B’s daughter with Sally Godfrey) are united as a family.

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Not every admirer of the heroine or the novel approved of the misalliance. Carlo Goldoni wrote a successful play called Pamela nubile (1750), and followed that with Pamela maritata. But Goldoni changed the circumstances – Pamela turns out to be of noble descent after all. In writing his own sequel, Pamela in her Exalted Condition (1742), Richardson acknowledges the difficulties within the match. At one point Pamela offers to leave the marriage, feeling she has evidence that her unfaithful husband has been missing the society of the well born and regrets the loss of a more suitable mate. The union of Mr B and Pamela will always be ‘a work in progress’, requiring both parties to redefine their social worlds and realign their individual personalities.

This article is © Margaret Doody.

  • Margaret Doody
  • Margaret Doody is the Glynn Family Professor of Literature at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She came from Canada to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, as an undergraduate, and there subsequently pursued a D. Phil. with a dissertation on Samuel Richardson. Her interests have centered upon English and European literature, particularly the novel with its multiple deep roots and forms of fiction. Since the publication of her first book, A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson, she has written extensively about eighteenth-century authors, including Richardson, Jonathan Swift, Frances Burney and Jane Austen. Recently she has moved towards the Renaissance, a turn visible in The True Story of the Novel and Tropic of Venice. She is now writing a book on science and imagination in the Age of Alchemy, the subject of a course taught in the spring of 2018. Margaret Doody is also a writer of fiction, author of the Oxford comedy The Alchemists and of the “Aristotle Detective” series of mystery stories.