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:

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.

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.


Ben Jonson’s “The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood” (1641)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was England’s first poet laureate, and is generally regarded as England’s second most important playwright after William Shakespeare.

Major works of his include:

  • A Tale of a Tub (1640)
  • Bartholomew Fair (1631)
  • The Alchemist (1612)

Among many others. For me, however, the writings of Jonson are significant because he began work on a Robin Hood play entitled The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood, printed in 1641. The play remained unfinished due to his death, but it presents a very different type of outlaw life to the one we are used to seeing on film and television today.

The play is what is known as a ‘pastoral’. What, you might ask, is a pastoral?

The pastoral is a literary style or type that presents a conventionalized picture of rural life, the naturalness and innocence of which is seen in contrast to the corruption and artificiality of city and court. Although pastoral works are written from the point of view of shepherds or rustics, they are always penned by highly sophisticated, urban poets.- Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau

Pastorals appeal mainly to urban audiences, and in the 17th century, with London as squalid as it was, the play would have gone down well with audiences living within the environs of the capital.

Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood [Edited] With a Continuation, Notes, and an Appendix [by F. G. Waldron] (1783)

It is the most gentle and sentimental Robin Hood story I’ve yet come across. The plot is as follows:

Robin Hood, has invited all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the vale of Bevoir to a feast in the forest of Sherwood, then he learns that the shepherd, Aeglamour, fears his has drowned in the river. In the meantime, Marian appears to have been possessed by an evil witch, named Maudlin, whom, it is speculated, is also responsible for the disappearance of the Shepherd’s beloved.

It is not known how Jonson intended to finish the play, for he died before he could complete it, however:

Ann Barton* suggests that as, among the cast is one ‘Reuben, the Reconciler’, Jonson would have had the witch and her children at the final delayed banquet of venison. She sees in the text ‘a strong suggestion’ that this would have been the ending. If so, it would have been reMariankable. Note also Barton’s suggestion that ‘There is no sense of cosmic evil surrounding Maudlin’. Do you agree? Note that she also suggests that Alken, the sage old shepherd, is the last of Jonson’s many self-portraits (and he leads the witch hunt). – (Dr. Roy Booth)

This isn’t a type of Robin Hood story that we’d expect in this day and age – it seems all to surreal and peaceable.

tanner 1
Thomas Bewick, ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’ ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).

A version was revived in 1783 by Francis Waldron, as the 1780s, according to Linda V. Troost, were a time of tax raises and stories about an outlaw that stole from the rich and gave to the poor proved to be popular during that time. In both versions, however, Robin is a very inactive hero, which is reminiscent of Munday’s plays.

It has been argued by most Robin Hood scholars that Jonson had little effect upon the overall legend of Robin Hood – he is, these days, not some ‘gentle master’ as he was called in Jonson’s play, but an action hero.

Yet I can’t help wondering if maybe Thomas Bewick had read this play and taken inspiration for his Robin Hood prints from this play for Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)…

Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Robin Hood’s History

Whilst re-organising my home work space, I came across my undergraduate dissertation. I focused upon representations of polite society in eighteenth-century print culture, with a particular focus upon the periodicals of two men: Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729).

The Spectator [Source: Wikipedia]
The Spectator [Source: Wikipedia]

Between them these two men created the most important periodicals of the eighteenth century, entitled The Tatler and The Spectator. Each issue was printed on one sheet of paper, and numbered approximately 2,000 words.

The content was mainly satirical – not ‘satirical’ in the way that a modern TV show like Mock the Week was satirical – rather, it was a more subtle satire, which aimed to represent to its readers aspects of eighteenth-century life through the eyes of fictional characters, or correspondents.

The main correspondent in The Tatler was the fictional Isaac Bickerstaffe. He wrote his articles out of the various coffeehouse locations of early eighteenth-century London. In the first issue he explained that readers would receive:

Poetry under that of Will’s coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestick news…from Saint James’s Coffee-house – The Tatler, April 23rd, 1709

Interior of a London Coffeehouse [Source: British Museum Archives AN00162021_001]
Interior of a London Coffeehouse c.1700 [Source: British Museum Archives AN00162021_001]

In fact, these periodicals were designed to be read and discussed in coffeehouses. The coffeehouse was, in the words of Brian Cowan, ‘a unique social space’ where, irrespective of rank, men (and it was primarily men who frequented coffeehouses) could gather together and discuss the news of the day, as illustrated by the image ‘Interior of a Coffeehouse held by the British Museum’. Look closely at the image, and you can see that whilst the men are enjoying their coffee, there are copies of a periodical freely available to them.

The correspondents in The Spectator were an interesting lot, and these fictional characters were supposed to represent an eighteenth-century gentleman’s coffeehouse club: there was Mr. Spectator who ‘lived in the world, rather as a Spectator of mankind than as one of the people’. Next there was Sir Roger De Coverley, who was the “nice old man” type – a Tory Lord whose political views no one really took very seriously. After the aristocracy members of the increasingly influential middling sorts were represented: Andrew Freeport, a merchant; a lawyer from the Inner Temple; a retired army officer named Captain Sentry; a rakish young gentleman named Will Honeycomb, and finally an unnamed clergyman (who visited the coffeehouse club but seldom).

Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller's Son. Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).
Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son.
Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).

What, if anything, does this have to do with Robin Hood? In issue 81 of The Tatler in 1709, the character Isaac Bickerstaff recounted a dream in which he met many ancient worthies such as Hercules, Jason, Achilles, Aenaeus, Socrates, Caesar, and Augustus. You will notice that the foregoing list of heroes is mainly comprised of figures from the classical period.

In fact, the eighteenth century is not a period usually associated with any significant interest in the medieval past. The Georgians were living in the age of the Enlightenment, and for cultural and intellectual inspiration looked to the continent and the Classical period, which explains why many Georgian and Regency buildings were built in the neo-Classical style. To the Georgians the medieval period was a “dark age” dominated by monks and tyrant kings.

Which is why it is surprising that, in Bickerstaffe’s dream, when they are searching for another hero to join them at the table, the ancient heroes of old tell Bickerstaffe that:

…If they must have a British worthy, they would have Robin Hood – The Tatler, Number 81, 1709.

Cultural and intellectual interest in medieval times and persons was not, it seems, restricted to the gothic revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and our hero, Robin Hood, can sit comfortably alongside the great heroes of the ancient world.

The Tatler, Number 81

The Spectator, Full Text of Volume One at Project Gutenberg

Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013).

Cowan, B. The Social Life of Coffee (Yale University Press, 2005).

Habermas, J. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Polity, 1989).

The newest research on Addison and Steele’s periodicals which I have recently been made aware of has been undertaken by Dr. Adam James Smith – see his blog!