Book Review: “The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted” (2017)

Stefan Huygebaert et al (eds.), The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), 205pp. ISBN9789401440417 RRP £20.

This lavishly illustrated book is related to a recent exhibition at the Groeningemuseum in Brugge, Belgium. The aim of the exhibition was to give an overview of how justice and the workings of the law have been depicted in European high art between the medieval and early modern periods. To this end, the Groeningemuseum displayed paintings from its own collection, such as the fifteenth-century work by Gerard David, Het Oordeel van Cambyses (“The Judgement of Cambyses”), as well as rare manuscripts, books, and artefacts. The exhibition was then supplemented by an academic conference on the theme of law and justice in art which is currently a neglected area of scholarship.[i]

The introduction by Georges Martyn is highly informative, prefacing the ensuing case studies by raising several interesting points about the reason why art and architecture is highly important to the operation of the law:

Throughout history, law and justice have been surrounded by an aura of sacredness. To judge is to exercise power […] in the 19th– and 20th-century courts of law, architecture played a vital role in legitimising authority. With their richly decorated rooms and the impressive robes of the togati, these ‘Temples of Themis’ inspired awe […] Art depicting law and justice helped to legitimise the power of the courts.[ii]

It was recognised at the time that artistic depictions of the law helped to shore up the power of the ruling elites. This is why, after all, many of the paintings displayed at the exhibition were often commissioned by Magistrates and other public officials, and it had become common practice to exhibit these paintings within official buildings.[iii]

The book is divided into a series of case studies by various authors, each of which analyses a particular painting or object and discusses it in its historical context. One interesting essay in the collection is Vanessa Pauman’s discussion of the afore-mentioned Het Oordeel van Cambyses. This painting was commissioned by the Magistrates of Bruges but was not intended to awe offenders with a sense of the power and glory of the workings of the law. Rather, as Paumen points out, it was a moral message for the judges who passed sentences. The painting tells the story of a judge who served the King of Persia. The judge, Cambyses, had been accepting bribes from offenders and thus ‘had tainted his noble profession’.[iv] As punishment, the King ordered Cambyses to be flayed alive, and had his skin to decorate the judges’ chair as a permanent reminder of the sacredness of their profession.

The Judgement of Cambyses. Oil on Canvas. Groeninngemuseum.

Additionally, in the medieval and early modern periods, the idea of earthly justice was intertwined with that of divine justice. Societies in those ages were, of course, more religious. While the Last Judgement features heavily in a lot of art, Georges Martyn also picks examines other lesser-known Biblical episodes which featured in a visual representations of justice. For example, Francis Floris I’s The Judgement of Solomon (1547) was exhibited in Antwerp City Hall in order to provide public officials with an example of the difficulties of trying to judge a case when it is a matter of one person’s word against another. Works such as Het Oordeel van Cambyses and The Judgement of Solomon remind us that the representation of justice is not always about aweing commoners into submission.

Other highlights include Jos Monballyu’s discussion of paintings depicting the Flemish jurist, Joos de Damhauder (1507-1581). The man was a ‘celebrity’ public official: the author of a highly influential law treatise entitled Practycke Criminele (1570), and appeared in numerous contemporary prints. Another highlight in the collection of essays is Stefan Huygebaert’s discussion of the uses of the sword in images of justice. The reason that recognisable figures in the iconography of the law carry a sword, we are told, is because such images draw upon images of Christ from the book of revelation. The sword carried by images of Lady Justice symbolises not only a willingness to judge (as Christ does at the Last Judgement), but also a willingness to protect the weak and vulnerable.

The book focuses heavily on paintings and prints, but one thing that could have enhanced this work is if it had discussed more artefacts. Huygebaert and Kristel Van Audenaeren co-author a chapter on a fifteenth century silver sculpture shaped like a fist and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Fist of Justice (there appear to be no public domain images of this and therefore I cannot show it). Such pieces were known as ‘penalty pieces’, imposed upon wealthy offenders who had committed violent acts and exhibited in the courtroom for future offenders to see. This was a person’s way of ‘giving something back to society’, so to speak. In spite of the highly interesting history of this and similar objects given by Huygebaert and Audenaeren, however, the subsequent chapters revert to discussing paintings.

Frans Floris, The Judgement of Solomon. Oil on Canvas. Antwerp: Museum von Schone Kunsten.

Although this is an academic book, at twenty pounds it is relatively affordable when compared to the standard monograph price of approximately seventy pounds. The subject matter will render it useful to both researchers and students interested in the visual representation of the law, a sub-discipline of art, crime and legal history that is gaining ground. Moreover, its highly visual content will, furthermore, render the book popular with general readers interested in legal and crime history.


[i] In Britain, Plymouth University recently held a conference with a similar theme entitled ‘A Time of Judgement: The Operation and Representation of Judgement in 19th Century Cultures’ at which I gave a paper, although the focus at this conference was literature rather than art and material culture.

[ii] Georges Martyn, ‘Divine Judgement, Worldly Justice’ in The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted ed. by Stefan Huygebaert et al (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), pp.15-28 (p.15).

[iii] Vannessa Pauman, ‘The Skin of the Judge: The Judgment of Cambyses’ in The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted ed. by Stefan Huygebaert et al (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), pp.81-91 (p.91).

[iv] Ibid.

Review: Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Wake” (2014)

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Manchester: Unbound, 2014) 372pp. PB £8.99 ISBN 978-1-78352-098-5

Although a review of this work has already been posted on the website of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, I am participating in a round table discussion of this book at the forthcoming Medievalism Conference in Bamberg, Germany in July 2016. The following review is therefore taken from the notes I have made while reading Paul Kingsnorth’s novel.

Kingsnorth has authored several works so far – both fiction and non-fiction. But The Wake is perhaps the most ambitious of all of them. The reason for this is because the whole is written in an invented form of Anglo-Saxon English. Here is a sample of the ‘language’ that appears in Kingsnorth’s work:

Aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr brocen in the daegs beginnan brocen by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of the age was written in the songs of men (2).

The ‘language’ used serves to alienate the modern reader. Kingsnorth no doubt is striving to give an air of historical ‘authenticity’ to his work. All of this is all very well and good, but one cannot help wondering what the point of it is when a vast majority of his readers cannot understand what Buccmaster – the outlaw protagonist of the novel – is saying or doing. I defer on this matter to Sir Walter Scott’s dedicatory epistle to Ivanhoe (1819) who explained why he avoided doing the same as Kingsnorth and instead opted to write in modern English:

It is true that I neither can nor do pretend to the observation of complete accuracy […] in important points of language and manners. […] the motive which prevents my writing the dialogue of the piece in Anglo-Saxon or Norman French, and which prohibits my sending forth to the public this essay printed with the types of Caxton or Wynken de Worde, prevents my attempting to confine myself within the limits of the period in which my story is laid. It is necessary for exciting interest of any kind that the subject assumed should be, as it were, translated into the manners, as well as the language, of the age we live in.[1]

To this day Scott is correct: people desire to read something that they can understand. More than this, however, because Kingsnorth is no skilled Anglo-Saxon linguist, his characters come across as simpletons when speaking his invented language, or as another reviewer, Robert DiNapoli,[2] says, a kind of ‘caveman’ speak: ‘buccmaster they all saes buccmaster gretans to you’ (11). As a result of its language, the characters often appear two-dimensional, incapable of complicated thought. The sum total of the sentiments expressed in the novel are: Norman bad, Saxon good.

The novel itself aims to be a ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel depicting what occurred in England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066. He begins his narrative by quoting William the Conqueror’s words on his deathbed (oddly quoted in modern English):

I have persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason. Whether gentle or simple I have cruelly oppressed them. Many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes perished through me by famine or by the sword. Having gained the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes. I dare not leave it to anyone but God (i).

And William of Malmesbury (oddly, also quoted in modern English):

England is become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers…they pray upon the riches and vitals of England; nor is there any hope of a termination of this misery (iii).

What Kingsnorth actually does throughout the novel is to recycle an old idea: that of the ‘Norman Yoke’. The idea was current in nineteenth-century scholarship and posited that English society under the Anglo-Saxons was composed of ‘freemen’ and was almost proto-democratic. Then the Normans came and all that apparently changed, and the freedom-loving English folk were oppressed by autocratic Normans. It is an idea to which Kingsnorth still adheres:

Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the Norman Yoke. History, like any academic discipline, has its fashions. In my view the yoke was very real (358).

Thus Kingsnorth has not actually done anything innovative here: the nineteenth century was full of fictional works which express to varying degrees the Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme: Pierce Egan the Younger’s 1840s outlaw novels, and even some of those horrendous late nineteenth-century children’s books all to some degree repeat the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other.

Kingsnorth attempts to portray Buccmaster as some type of Hereward the Wake (died c.1072) or Robin of Locksley from Ivanhoe, gallantly fighting for his country against the Norman oppressors. And he follows the now familiar storyline in medievalist fiction of how people become outlaws: Buccmaster is dispossessed of his lands by the Norman conquerors, and from thence becomes an outlaw/resistance fighter. But he is an outlaw with barely any redeeming qualities. Even before he is outlawed, we are told that he beats his wife (10) which, while domestic abuse may indeed have been prevalent in Anglo-Saxon society, hardly endears the character to a modern reader. Unlike the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe, Buccmaster does not seek to build a better society. Instead he simply wants vengeance, and he comes across as a quite brutal character who it is difficult to sympathise with. In the tales told about them, both Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake do commit violent acts, but they were never cruel. They did not take pleasure in their killing. Buccmaster is essentially unstable, and it appears more that the conquest and his dispossession was simply the perfect excuse for him to indulge his inherent violent tendencies.

At the end of it all, the reader is left pondering what the point of this novel was. Does Kingsnorth have a point to make about modern society? According to Adam Thorpe, who wrote the dire Hodd (2009), Kingsnorth’s novel, which he praises, apparently exhibits ‘a subdued sense that the novel intends a modern parallel with our own dispossessed times’, [3] although Thorpe does not actually say what modern-day relevance it has. Kingsnorth is, admirably, an environmental activist. But apart from a general sense that men could hunt freely before the Norman conquest, any application to modern times is probably lost on the modern reader due to the novel’s pseudo-Saxon tongue.

Although The Wake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, it is difficult to imagine that this novel will have any staying power. If a person wants to read a tale of a gallant Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter, then they need to follow the following instructions: head to Waterstones, or any other bookshop. From there head to the classics section and pick up a copy of Ivanhoe by the immortal Walter Scott.


[1] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance (1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1871), 15.
[2] Robert DiNapoli, ‘Lost in Translation: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake’ Arena Magazine No. 133 (December 2014), 52-53.
[3] Adam Thorpe, ‘The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth review – “A literary triumph”’ The Guardian 2 April 2014 [Internet <<>&gt; Accessed 16 April 2016].

Review: Mark Olly’s ‘The Life and Times of the Real Robyn Hoode’ (2015)

Review: Mark Olly, The Life and Times of the Real Robyn Hoode (Winchester: Chronos, 2015) 213pp. £9.99 978-1785350597

For serious Robin Hood scholars, it is usually with a sense of foreboding that they open a book which purports to tell anything about a ‘real’ Robin Hood. Whilst James C. Holt in Robin Hood (1982) made a serious analysis of the possible figures in medieval court rolls who could have been the original Robin Hood, even that great historian was forced to concede that we will never identify an original medieval outlaw due to the lack of evidence. [1]

This fact does not seem to have deterred Mark Olly in his latest book entitled The Life and Times of the Real Robyn Hoode (2015). Olly is not an historian or literary critic, but instead holds a Certificate of Ministry (Ct.Min.AP) and Diploma Of Biblical Studies (Dip.BS.AP) from what looks like a Pentecostal Church in Manchester called El Shaddai International Christian Centre.

In the beginning of the book, Olly projects himself as a serious antiquary – one who has been scurrying away in dusty archives like the antiquaries of old:

This book constitutes a modern examination and adaptation of primarily original Late Medieval source material found mainly in ‘A Gest Of Robyn Hode’ and its variants, the earliest ‘Garland’ collections of stories and ballads, the ‘Percy Folio’, and a host of Medieval, antiquarian & archaeological publications covering 500 years of research, most not readily available to today’s public (viii).

However, this is slightly misleading. Most of the Robin Hood ballads he works from are readily available to the public: Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795) has been reprinted dozens of times; Percy’s Reliques (1765) are available in facsimile reproduction from Cambridge University Press; the Garlands are also available in facsimile reprints and can be had for as little as £10 from Amazon. Finally, if you do not want to pay for these reprints, all of the Robin Hood ballads and tales are available free online from TEAMS website, and the later broadsides have also been scanned by both the USCB Broadside Ballad Online Archive and the Bodleian Broadsides. It is of course possible that Olly did not know these resources were at his disposal, and that he did carry out painstaking  archival research, but it is unlikely.

Olly says that his work:

Represents the first ever full archaeological assessment and survey of the oldest remaining Robyn Hoode material to survive (with a special emphasis on anything before 1650), the first ever attempt to reach a workable and authentic chronology that fits known historic facts from other recognized and contemporary sources (p.5).

This sounds rather grand but it really is not. What he wants to do in reality is to ‘fit’ facts to the Robin Hood tales. It is a methodology so fraught with dangers that serious scholars do not attempt it. For example, in the seventh and eighth fyttes of A Geste of Robyn Hood, the King travels into Sherwood and meets Robin. But the ‘King and Commoner’ motif was very prevalent in medieval and early modern poetry and literature, and hence this event cannot be assumed to have actually ever happened – my good friend Mark Truesdale has in fact just written his PhD thesis on the King and Commoner ballad tradition, and we are co-authoring a forthcoming paper on these ballads in the nineteenth century.

What Olly proceeds to give us is a chronological diary account of the life of the supposed real Robin Hood. He first gives a completely unnecessary chronology of events in England after the Norman conquest, before going on to state that Robin Hood was born in the year 1129, or perhaps 1130:

1129 or 1130 (Winter): The birth of Robyn Hoode takes place in the reign of King Henry the second – although the exact location for this is unknown it is most probably the medieval village of Loxley in Staffordshire on the lands of the Earls Of Chester (p.12).

The source he cites for this completely groundless assertion is the ballad Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, and Valour. It is a ballad which does not appear until the seventeenth century, long after the events he describes here! And the ballad never even actually gives a date for Robin Hood’s birth!

The rest of the book follows in this manner, after which Olly goes into the history of some of the characters in the Robin Hood legend. This is what he says of Marian, Robin’s love interest:

Marian is a lesser daughter of the Marmion family who owned lands around Chartley Castle, Abbots Bromley, and the Needwood Forest, the location where Robyn grew up (adopted by Earl Hugh) and where Ranulf VI then built his castle (p.124).

This is another completely groundless assertion. Marian does not figure in any of the early ballads of Robin Hood. Instead all we know is that she figured in Tudor May Games, and from thence made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98)…where on earth he got the Marmion association is quite beyond me. The only other Marmion I know of is a poem by Sir Walter Scott, which incidentally has nothing to do with the Robin Hood tradition. 

Olly anticipates his book’s reception from scholars, saying that:

I have no doubt that this book will be taken apart by ‘experts’ and applied to various fields of specialty to test its ‘validity’ (p.6).

I am hardly an expert – just an humble PhD student, but even I can see the glaring faults in this book. We forgive eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquaries for making mistakes in their work, but nowadays anyone professing to be an historian must be held to rigorous standards of scholarship. Oddy’s book fails, and I will conclude by saying that no serious scholar would pick this book up. It might make it into my thesis literature review, but only as an example of how we should not approach the study of the Robin Hood legend. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to reading James Holt and Stephen Knight.



[1] See James C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982).

Review: Tim Hitchcock & Robert Shoemaker’s “London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of the Modern City” (2015)

London Lives

Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) xvi, 461, £21.99 RRP ISBN 978-1-107-63994-2

Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, two of crime history’s leading experts, have produced an excellently written account of the ways in which poor Londoners were instrumental in shaping the social policy of the British state between 1690 and 1800 (p.4). This is not to say that the governments of the day actively sought the advice of their social inferiors, but rather to illustrate how those from precarious social backgrounds, by ‘playing the system’ and making seemingly harsh laws work in their favour, contributed to changes in governmental policy from below in the areas of social welfare and criminal justice. As such, this work sits perfectly alongside the eponymous London Lives and The Old Bailey Online databases, which Hitchcock and Shoemaker were instrumental in bringing to life.

Hitchcock and Shoemaker’s work is well grounded in the scholarship of eighteenth-century social history, particularly in the history of crime. The need for this work comes from the fact that the history of crime and the history of poor relief have hitherto tended to constitute different subjects, but as Hitchcock and Shoemaker illustrate, the history of welfare and crime in the eighteenth century are interrelated. Moreover, even where previous scholars have attempted to build a history from below, the voices and the experiences of the poor are often marginalised and discussed instead in terms of official acts passed and the rise of charitable associations (pp.13-15). To build their argument Hitchcock and Shoemaker rely on a number of sources: the digitised MS. and trial transcripts from both London Lives and the Old Bailey Online; Workhouse and Settlement Records; Repertories of the Court of Aldermen; Parliamentary Papers; criminal biographies. The innovative feature with the online ebook version of this work is that the footnotes will link straight to the digitised sources in London Lives and the Old Bailey Online.

Seven chapters follow the lengthy introduction, all of which are arranged around a theme but still broadly chronological. One of the strongest chapters is the second chapter which examines the way that ‘the poor were increasingly separated from the Parish community, and more clearly identified as a social problem’ in the two decades following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (pp.27-69). Out of the whole book, however, my particular favourite is the fifth chapter entitled ‘Reformers and their Discontents, 1748-1763’ (pp.194-267). It deals with cheats, pickpockets, highwaymen, and thief takers. That chapter begins by discussing the zeal of religiously-minded reformists in seeking to suppress the idleness and immorality which they thought characterised the ‘lower classes’. The authors then go on to discuss how plebeian people opposed these reforms. For example, one of the aims of the reformers was to de-entice people from a life of crime, but Hitchcock and Shoemaker show how highwaymen used the press to oppose elite perceptions of plebeian morality, and publicise their genteel apprehensions (pp.263-264).

As a whole, the work is without any obvious deficiencies. Despite their aim of making plebeian Londoners speak for themselves, sometimes elite perceptions of the eighteenth-century poor do dominate. Although this is not the fault of Hitchcock and Shoemaker themselves; most of the primary sources which relate to eighteenth-century criminal justice and social policy are of course elite documents. Indeed, this is acknowledged in their introduction. As such, this work complements the already brilliant studies into eighteenth-century crime which have been published in recent years such as Andrea MacKenzie’s Tyburn’s Martyrs (2007), as well as Shoemaker’s and Hitchcock’s own research.

In conclusion, this is the first work to effectively connect the history of social policy and crime and criminal justice in the eighteenth century. Although, as scholars who are primarily eighteenth-century historians, it is perhaps outside of Hitchcock and Shoemaker’s remit (though not, of course, outside of their capability as world-leading crime historians), it would have been nice to see this study carried on until the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. They do hint towards this in their conclusion, but carrying on Hitchcock and Shoemaker’s study to this year, when many disparate and scattered attempts at reform came to fruition, would make for an interesting research project.

Review: Stephen Knight’s “Reading Robin Hood” (2015)

Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 296p. £70 (HB) ISBN: 978-0-7190-9526-9

reading Robin Hood

When scholars approach the end of their career, they often simply repackage and republish their older works. This is thankfully not the case with Stephen Knight’s new book Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (2015). Knight is the man who back in 1994 essentially rescued Robin Hood Studies from the seemingly never-ending quest to find a ‘real’ Robin Hood by shifting the discipline’s emphasis towards literary research.

Unlike his Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (1994), or Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003), Knight’s most recent book is a collection of critical essays upon:

Area[s] where I have long felt exist elements of unclarity and uncertainty (p.8).

Hence there is no overall argument to work as such, and the chapters in it read like published conference papers which have never made it into journals. Knight begins by discussing the interplay between orality and literacy which has existed in the Robin Hood tradition. He then goes on to discuss the development of the outlaw myth in Scotland, after which he discusses the formation of The Gest of Robin Hood (c.1450).

Knight is strongest, however, when he is discussing the later tradition, a point which has been raised by R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor in the revised edition of Rymes of Robyn Hood (1976). The chapter ‘Romantic Robin Hood’ (pp.103-102) discusses how the Georgians transformed Robin Hood into a de-politicised, patriotic outlaw, and how this representation endures in modern portrayals. By far the strongest chapter is ‘Robin Hood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’. He discusses the novels which appeared during that century, and argues that this period, especially between 1819 and 1822, was a watershed moment in the formation of our modern conception of Robin Hood. His sources for this chapter are Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819), Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Maid Marian (1822), Royston Gower (1838), Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1838-1840), and Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). These are Knight’s key texts, in addition to limited discussions of the many late Victorian children’s books on Robin which were published.

One thing which would have been good to see is for Knight to focus on the various criminal biographies of Robin Hood which appeared in the eighteenth century. There were, as my own research has shown, a significant genre of literature in the early eighteenth century. Yet all we get from Knight about these pieces of literature is a cursory four lines:

Robin did have other random appearances in the period. Several of the serial collections of criminal characters, including some versions of The Newgate Calendar, list him, typically alongside major pirates (p.106).

Furthermore, when Knight discusses Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1838), he makes no mention of the fact that this tale was originally published as a penny blood, and it would have been useful to have some more contextualisation around this, especially in view of the fact that Rosalind Crone has argued recently that penny bloods were one of the working classes’ main outlets for accessing violent entertainment. If there had been more contextualisation on this point, Knight may have been able to nuance the point about Egan’s book being a ‘gentrified’ text. The above weaknesses notwithstanding, however, Knight has once again produced a detailed, scholarly text that is sure to be of use to Robin Hood scholars for years to come, and my own research owes a debt to Stephen Knight for having made the later tradition a serious area of scholarly inquiry.

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.