Pamela overview

I will bear any thing you can inflict upon me with Patience, even to the laying down of my Life, to shew my Obedience to you in other Cases; but I cannot be patient, I cannot be passive, when my Virtue is at Stake!

Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela poses the question of whether a woman’s virtue can reform the rakish behaviour and moral failings of men. In Richardson’s first novel, which he began as a conduct book and transformed into one of the most influential books of the 18th century, the most unlikely of heroines – a 15-year-old servant girl – embodies Richardson’s hope that stories can instruct as well as entertain.

After the death of her employer, the young maidservant Pamela finds herself having to rely on her wits and moral virtue to fend off the attentions of Lady B.’s son. Young Mr B gives Pamela his mother’s clothing and then offers to pay her to acquiesce to his seduction. When she refuses, he intercepts her letters to her parents and moves her to a distant country estate, away from the protection of the friendly housekeeper Mrs Jervis, and puts her under the care of the immoral Mrs Jewkes. He offers to pay her parents if she will comply with his demands. However, despite Mr B’s threats and promises, his physical intimidation and his efforts to isolate her from familial support, Pamela remains firm. After discovering Mr B’s plot for a sham marriage and injuring herself in an attempted escape from her seducer, Pamela prevails upon Mr B to let her return to her parents. The climactic turn in their relationship comes when Mr B writes her two letters: bidding her farewell and wishing her happiness in the first, and asking her to return to him in the second when he falls suddenly ill. The two reunite and marry. Pamela has some final trials, including accepting an illegitimate daughter of Mr B’s and overcoming the prejudice of the neighbourhood gentry and Mr B’s sister, but is eventually accepted by all.

Pamela’s impact

Richardson’s epistolary novel was a ground-breaking text not only for its focus on an unlikely heroine, but also for the way it contextualises her heroism against a vividly rendered yet utterly ordinary backdrop of daily middle-class life. Pamela’s letters to her parents and the journal she keeps during her imprisonment at Mr B’s country estate chronicle her inner anguish and moral rectitude. Richardson turns away from aristocratic heroines and fantastical events, and instead imbues the decisions of daily life with dramatic tension and moral purpose. Richardson’s technique of ‘writing to the moment’, in which Pamela sends letters describing Mr B’s seduction in the very moment it is happening, was spoofed by later writers such as Henry Fielding. Despite this, Richardson’s style and technique would prove immensely influential in the development of later realist novels.

Samuel Richardson
Full title:
*Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded*
Prose fiction
Literary period:
18th century

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