"Pamela," Richardson, and the epistolary novel.
The genre is important. Pamela is not the first novel. There have indeed been questions raised about what a novel really is and who wrote the first English novel. The word itself is ambiguous; it means a tale or, as others have insisted, a "piece of news." E.M. Forster, the famous British novelist, defined the novel as "any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words." Other critics suggest that a novel should be between 60-70,000 and 200,000 words. Perhaps the most satisfactory definition is the one Chris Baldick in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms: It is normally expected of a novel that it should have at least one character ...; a plot, or some arrangement of narrated events, is another normal requirement. When all these comments are considered, then, one might come to the conclusion that the novel is a form of prose narrative that contains characters, action, and some sort of plot.
There have been many suggestions as to the first English novel: Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590); Thomas Nash's The Unfortunate Traveler (1594); John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678); Aphra Behn's Oronoko (1688); Samuel Richardson"sPamela (1740); and Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1741). The last two novels are most frequently put forth as the first English novel, and the latter is often considered to hold that title. Pamela, however, is undoubtedly the first epistolary novel, a novel told entirely in letters. One critic has provided the significance of Richardson's achievement in this way: "For a long time it has been the business of academics to build genealogies for the Novel that challenge Ian Watt's narrative of its 'rise' via Defoe and Richardson and Fielding. Yet the many prehistories of the Novel that try to make Richardson's achievement appear less surprising miss a simple truth: his contemporaries did think that Richardson's creation was unprecedented. Many disliked it for just this reason. As the anonymous work's authorship became known, the fact that he was a 51-year-old printer, a businessman with no literary track record, emphasized [sic] the sense of Pamela as a book that came from nowhere. In a rush it became disputed, admired, parodied, reviled. Suddenly, and, as it happened, irreversibly, the Novel became a genre with the potential to be morally serious."
As cited above, little is known of Richardson's life. Born in Derbyshire in 1689, he was one of nine children of a carpenter. He wanted to be a clergyman, but since his family could not afford to pay for the necessary university education he became a printer's apprentice. Eventually he established his own print shop, one that became one of the largest in London. One notable sign of his success was his election as Master of the Stationers' Company, the guild of London printers.
Richardson's printing business brought him into contact with the publishing world; and this contact, together with his interest in letter writing, a genre which consisted of exemplary letters that provided the semiliterate with letters containing practical, social, or moral advice about common predicaments, resulted in the publication in 1741 of Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions." One biographer of Richardson explains the result of this project: "Richardson addressed a number of fictional situations, including that of attractive servant-girls subject to plots against their virtue. In the middle of the composition process, Richardson set aside these model letters in order to take up in detail the situation that particularly fired his imagination, that of the virtuous servant-girl fending off a lecherous master. The result of this new project was Pamela (1740)." Before his death in 1761 Richardson wrote two more epistolary novels, Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753). It isPamela, however, that brought him fame. As one critic wrote: "Toward the end of Richardson's lifetime, and for some decades after his death, he commanded a degree of international prestige unparalleled by any contemporary English writer. His novels were translated into all the major European languages and continued to inspire imitations and theatrical adaptations until the end of the century."
The basic plot of Pamela clearly exhibits Richardson's obsession with letter- writing, especially those written by frightened attractive servant girls. John Sutherland, a distinguished critic, has described it in the following tongue in cheek manner: "The plot of Pamela is somewhat sarcastically summarized by his biographers in this way: 'a virtuous servant girl rejects her master's lewd advances and is kidnapped by him and is confined in a lonely country house where she continues to fight him off until he is overcome by her virtue to the extent of proposing matrimony, which is instantly accepted.'" Clearly, although meant to be humorous, Sutherland's summary reflects the title page of the novel:
Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded.
In A Series Of Familiar Letters
From A Beautiful Young Damsel
To Her Parents
In addition to its significant role as the first novel told entirely in letters, Richardson's novel is also recognized as being one of the early novels to have as its main character a member of the lower class; after all, Pamela is a servant girl. In her introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel Margaret Doody emphasizes this point; she writes: "It is sometimes difficult for the twentieth-century reader to understand what Richardson's contemporaries would have grasped immediately - the full meaning of Pamela's social position, which might be compared to that of a black servant girl in the American South. [This] makes her, in Mr. B's world, an inferior, commonly thought of almost as another species of being." To have such a person as a central character in a novel at this time was both innovative and, on Richardson's part, a daring departure in the publishing world. Sutherland describes what he calls the novel's "revolutionary feature" in this way: Virtue [cited in the title, Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded] is a word with Roman associations which is, historically, the exclusive property of the aristocrat. Pamela is a revolutionary act of social redefinition.
The reaction of the public to the novel was, as one might expect, mixed; there was praise, condemnation, and parodies, all understandable. The letters provide clear evidence for that reaction. Here, for instance, is a letter to Pamela when she tells him that her mistress is dead and she is to remain with the master:
My dear Child,
Your letter was indeed a great trouble, and some comfort, to me, and to your poor mother. We are troubled, to be sure, for your good lady's death, who took such care of you, and gave you learn-' ing, and for three or four years past has always been giving you clothes and linen, and every thing that a gentlewoman need not be ashamed to appear in. But our chief trouble is, and indeed a very great one, for fear you should be brought to any thing dishonest or--wicked, by being set so above yourself. Every body talks how you are come on, and what a genteel girl you are; and some say, you are very pretty; and, indeed, when I saw you last, which is about six months ago, I should have thought so myself, if you was not our child. But what avails all this, if you are to be ruined and undone! Indeed, my dear Pamela, we begin to be in great fear for you; I hope the good 'squire has no design; but, as he was once, as you own, a little wildish, and as he has given you so much money, and speaks so kindly to you, and praises your coming on; and, Oh! that frightful word, that he would be kind to you, if you would do as should do; these things make us very fearful for your virtue.
And here is a sample of one of the heroine's letters:
O how I was terrified! I said, like as I had read in a book a night or two before, 'Angels and saints, and all the host of heaven, defend me! And may I never survive one moment, that fatal one in which I shall forfeit my innocence! 'Pretty fool!' said he, 'how will you forfeit your innocence, if you are obliged to yield to a force you cannot withstand? Be easy, for let the worst happen that can, you'llhave the merit, and I the blame; and it will be a good subject for letters to your father and mother, and a pretty tale moreover for Mrs Jervis.' He then, though I struggled against him, kissed me, and said, 'Who ever blamed Lucretia? The shame lay on the ravisher only: and I am content to take all the blame upon myself; as I have already borne too great a share for what I have deserved.
He then offered to kiss my neck. Indignation gave me double strength, and I got from him by a sudden spring, and ran out of the room.
While the epistolary genre seems a restrictive one, Richardson was able to overcome its limits. Many readers and critics agree that he was able to, as one critic noted, "create a complex heroine through a series of her letters." In his later years he was both harshly criticized and highly praised. His fellow novelist, Henry Fielding, the author of Joseph Andrews, ridiculed him and wrote the parody, Shamela. Nevertheless, Richardson's novels were translated into all the major European languages and inspire both fictional replications and theatrical adaptations for many years. One 18th century scholar, Leo Braudy, described the benefits of the epistolary form created by Richardson: "Language can work: letters can be ways to communicate and justify." That seems a fitting tribute to Richardson's achievement.
Mike Timko writes about the arts and is a frequent contributor to The World & I.
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|Title Annotation:||THE ARTS; Samuel Richardson's novel "Pamela"|
|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2016|
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