It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely novelist than Samuel Richardson. The son of a carpenter, he attended school only intermittently until he was seventeen, when his formal education ended and he was apprenticed to a printer. He didn’t publish his first novel until after he turned fifty. The undertaking was almost accidental. He had become the proprietor of a printing press when, in 1739, two London booksellers asked him to put together a “letter-writer,” an etiquette manual consisting of letters that “country readers” might use as models for their own correspondence.
Richardson quickly expanded the project’s scope. A diligent worker who had risen from tradesman to middle-class property owner, he longed to impart what he had learned. He wanted, he wrote in the book’s introduction, to teach readers not only how to write elegant letters but “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common concerns of life.” Recollecting a true story he’d heard years earlier, he composed several letters to and from a pious servant girl whose boss was making lewd advances, in order to warn young women of “snares that might be laid against their virtue.”
In the fall of 1739, Richardson began to absent himself from his wife in the evenings, after work at the printing press. Instead of proceeding as planned on the letter-writer, he was quietly adding to the stock of letters by the servant girl, bringing her story to a happy conclusion. It took him just two months to produce “Pamela,” a book many consider the first modern English novel.
Not that Richardson made this claim. He associated novels with improbable romances, or mere entertainments; “Pamela” was intended to be instructive. But a novel it was. More than the adventure stories of Daniel Defoe or Jonathan Swift, “Pamela” was concerned with the representation of interior life. It is also organized around a single, unified plot, which distinguished it from Defoe’s more episodic “Moll Flanders” (1722), a pseudo-memoir that recounts its protagonist’s varied and largely illicit pursuits, from her inauspicious beginnings through her late years in the colonies. Flanders’s story is told from the complacent perspective of a woman who has achieved wealth and security, and generally adopts the matter-of-fact tone of a case history. Pamela’s letters, in contrast, are lively and conversational, their language a reflection of both her native cleverness and her inexperience. Richardson was fond of saying that his characters’ letters are written “to the moment”; that is, as the characters experience the events they describe. This lends “Pamela” a palpable sense of immediacy. In its first letter, our fifteen-year-old heroine describes to her parents the attention she has begun to receive from her young, unmarried employer—who “gave me with his own hand four golden guineas, and some silver.” Her parents urge Pamela to keep her distance. “We had rather see you all covered with rags, and even follow you to the churchyard, than have it said, a child of ours preferred any worldly conveniences to her virtue,” they write—to which Pamela responds, “I will die a thousand deaths, rather than be dishonest in any way.”
This can sound like the exaggerated language of farce. It isn’t. To read Richardson is to enter a moral universe in which the terms “virtue” and “honesty” are used, unironically, as synonyms for virginity. Richardson’s puritanism was extreme even for his period. (Flanders, for example, spoke playfully about her virginity as a “trifle . . . to be had” easily.) But the sanctimonious tone didn’t deter many readers. The novel was so popular that “Pamela”-inspired merchandise, from teacups to fans, quickly sprang up, as did spurious sequels, a theatrical version, and even a comic opera. The book also drew praise for its edifying story line. (“Virtue Rewarded” is its apt subtitle.) Alexander Pope gave it a jolt of publicity when he said that it would “do more good than many volumes of sermons,” a quote that may have been solicited by Richardson’s brother-in-law, a bookseller.
Not everyone was won over by the self-taught moralist. A number of “Pamela” parodies also appeared, including two by a not yet famous Henry Fielding, then a thirty-four-year-old failed playwright studying to be a lawyer. Fielding, whose Tom Jones would gain renown for his cheerful sexual exploits, found Richardson’s platitudinous Sunday-school morality unbearable. He launched his own novel-writing career with the spoofs “Shamela,” in which the virginal young maid is recast as a slatternly schemer who manipulates Squire Booby into marrying her, and “Joseph Andrews,” which purported to be about Pamela’s brother. Strapping young Joseph’s impassioned speeches about his virtue, though nearly identical in substance to Pamela’s, read rather more comically coming from a man’s mouth.
Fielding articulated a squeamishness about Richardson that outlasted either man’s lifetime. Though Richardson went on to write two more novels—including the masterly “Clarissa”—he has long inspired an unusually intense mix of appreciation and irritation. “So oozy, hypocritical, praise-mad, canting, envious, concupiscent,” Samuel Coleridge described him in his notebooks. It pained Coleridge to admit that he nonetheless admired the man “very greatly.” A self-satisfied bourgeois, with a scold’s horror of impropriety, Richardson certainly confounds the image of the writer as tortured artist. The bigger problem is that these qualities bleed into his work. His self-serious moralizing and the ostentatiousness of his characters’ rectitude make Richardson difficult to embrace. Yet, unlike the more urbane and congenial Fielding, Richardson has a knack for psychological realism and an ability to craft characters whose clamorous inner lives continue, almost three centuries later, to feel real to us. He possesses a sometimes dizzying rhetorical intelligence—his characters argue with the agility of top litigators—and seemingly boundless imaginative sympathy: the figures who populate the most winning of eighteenth-century picaresques are cardboard cutouts compared with Richardson’s principals.
Even “Pamela,” prudish and didactic as it is, feels far less limited or quaint than we might expect. The story is robust enough that readers needn’t accept Pamela’s belief that she’ll be “ruined” if she has sex (consensual or otherwise) in order to sympathize with her situation; it’s enough that she doesn’t want sex on the terms offered. It helps, too, that her narration is engaging and tartly comic. If Mr. B, her employer, had his way, she writes to her parents, he “would, keep me till I was undone, and till his mind changed; for even wicked men, I have read, soon grow weary of wickedness with the same person.” Meanwhile, Mr. B—“the finest young gentleman in five counties”—assumed that what he wanted from Pamela would not be so very unwelcome, especially since, like any decent “gentleman of pleasure,” he was prepared to reward her for her favors. He is baffled by her reaction to his overtures—somewhat understandably, given that Pamela says things like “How happy am I, to be turned out of door, with that sweet companion my innocence!” (In spite of being on Pamela’s side, we can’t help feeling some sympathy with Mr. B when he calls her a “romantic idiot.”) Even as his actions become increasingly desperate, he has a coherent rationale for his behavior. He thinks Pamela is overreacting. “I am sure you . . . frightened me, by your hideous squalling, as much as I could frighten you,” he says after he tries to kiss her.
Richardson’s wit and ability to conceive characters who feel “natural”—as he rather immodestly put it in the book’s original introduction—enable the novel to outpace his own didactic intentions, to become something far more lifelike and original than a morality tale. But “Pamela” is, at bottom, a Cinderella story, and so Mr. B eventually proposes marriage to his former maid. Pamela is transported with joy that he is willing to “stoop” so low, but what’s good for the character is less good for the reader. With a story to tell, Richardson the writer of instructional material was distracted, but when the conflict is resolved, about halfway through, we enter a narrative dead zone in which the author’s more irksome qualities come to the fore. Mr. B becomes a mouthpiece through which Richardson delivers life lessons (for example, that a woman ought not grow “careless in her dress” after marriage). Lest we forget that Pamela’s happiness is due to her exemplary virtue, we watch as she is embraced, one after another, by all the neighboring gentry as “an ornament to our sex,” “a worthy pattern for all the young ladies in the county,” “the flower of their neighborhood,” etc.—a tedious procession of praise that starts to undermine the good will we felt for Pamela when her circumstances were less prosperous. The novel closes with a last word from our zealous author, who briefly tears off his epistolary robes to list the various moral teachings the book contains, in case we somehow missed them.
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