18th century

The Worst Novel I’ve Ever Read: Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” (1740)

Frontispiece to Pamela, Vol. 1 (1740).

Frontispiece to Pamela, Vol. 1 (1740).

This post is written tongue-in-cheek (although, in truth, I really do not wish to ever revisit the works of Samuel Richardson ever again!)


I feel bad writing about something like this, like I’m betraying my eighteenth-century roots. Whilst I love the period because it gave us writers like Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, William Godwin, and Mary Wolstonecraft. If you’re an eighteenth-century scholar, you might notice that there’s one significant name missing from that literary pantheon. This is Samuel Richardson. May you never have to come across his work! I hated it.

There. I said it. I hate Samuel Richardson.

I did my undergraduate dissertation on eighteenth-century print culture: periodicals, novels, and satirical prints. I tasked myself with reading the works of some of the literary worthies from that period. So I enthusiastically got stuck into Fielding and Defoe.

But then there was Richardson.

But what did he do that was so bad, you might ask?

He wrote novels. His works weren’t satirical like Pope’s. They were no adventures like in Defoe’s books. They weren’t amusing like Fielding’s. They weren’t whacky like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (still can’t fathom that one, really). They weren’t radical like Godwin’s and Wolstonecraft’s.

No. Richardson’s works are in a league of monotony that is all their own.

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was written by Richardson in 1740. Originally published in two volumes, it is what is known as an epistolary novel. Apparently this was quite innovative for the eighteenth century, as no one, surprisingly, had thought of doing it before.

Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson

The plot recounts the tale of Pamela, a servant in the household of an upper-class man, Mister B. He falls in love with Pamela, and makes repeated attempts at seducing her. I seem to remember him hiding in her room at some point and watching her undress. I could be wrong of course (please don’t make me look it up, I couldn’t handle opening that book again). She resists these attempts until finally, as the title suggests, her virtue is rewarded and he marries her, having been so impressed by her moral goodness.

The tale literally takes place inside one household. That literally is it.

Here is an example of some of the language in the novel:

LETTER VIII
DEAR PAMELA,
I cannot but renew my cautions on your master’s kindness, and his free expression to you about the stockings. Yet there may not be, and I hope there is not, any thing in it. But when I reflect, that there possibly may, and that if there should, no less depends upon it than my child’s everlasting happiness in this world and the next; it is enough to make one fearful for you. Arm yourself, my dear child, for the worst; and resolve to lose your life sooner than your virtue. What though the doubts I filled you with, lessen the pleasure you would have had in your master’s kindness; yet what signify the delights that arise from a few paltry fine clothes, in comparison with a good conscience?
These are, indeed, very great favours that he heaps upon you, but so much the more to be suspected; and when you say he looked so amiably, and like an angel, how afraid I am, that they should make too great an impression upon you! For, though you are blessed with sense and prudence above your years, yet I tremble to think, what a sad hazard a poor maiden of little more than fifteen years of age stands against the temptations of this world, and a designing young gentleman, if he should prove so, who has so much power to oblige, and has a kind of authority to command, as your master.

Yawn. It literally does not get any better.

Now, whilst the novel was a commercial success, with Pamela motifs appearing all over in prints, and ceramic decorations, not everyone was convinced of this tale of a virtuous young woman who manages to tame a ‘wild’ aristocratic suitor. Least of all was Richardson’s fellow novelist Fielding. Rather than seeing Pamela as a tale of bourgeois virtue winning out against aristocratic immorality, he saw it as a tale of ruthless ambition. Pamela was not virtuous but scheming and manipulative, and wrapped Mr. B. around her little finger. So in 1741 Fielding wrote, and I quote the full long version of the title here:

An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. In Which, the Many Notorious Falshoods and Misrepresentations of a Book Called PAMELA, Are Exposed and Refuted; and All the Matchless ARTS of that Young POLITICIAN, Set in a True and Just Light. Together with A Full Account of all that Passed Between Her and Parson Arthur Williams; whose Character is Represented in a Manner Something Different from what he Bears in Pamela. The Whole Being Exact Copies of Authentick Papers Delivered to the Editor.

Shamela

Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741)

Despite having his detractors, such as Fielding (though Fielding never actually claimed authorship), Richardson was encouraged by the commercial success of Pamela into writing another, even longer novel, in the same epistolary style, entitled Clarissa, or The History of Young Lady (1748). Apparently this is Richardson’s masterpiece…it is also said to be one the longest novels in the English language – it was published in 7 volumes!!! At least readers in the eighteenth century got the option of not reading all the way to the end; they could simply decline to read the book any further.

Apparently Richardson’s novel, Clarissa, is our 4th greatest novel, so the Guardian newspaper says (well, it would, wouldn’t it?). Maybe read for yourself and judge.

So there, just know that I’ve read Pamela so you don’t have to.


Read Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) here.

Read Clarissa, or  the History of a Young Lady (1748) here.

…or, you could just read Henry Fielding’s satire, which is much shorter, here.

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