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Genius Begins

Mr Samuel Richardson and Miss Pamela Andrews

“Reading Pamela’s letters, readers came to feel that they were Pamela; Richardson had obliterated reality and substituted the Pamela-world in its stead. It is for this reason – and not, I would argue, for some putative development of ‘realism’ – that Richardson is most to be valued as a major imaginative genius. The defining characteristic of the novel is not its realism, as many have argued; rather, its realism exists to augment its fantasy.”

Such are the beginnings of insight. Whether Pamela is a great novel, as opposed to a successful work of popular fiction, is debatable. Richardson’s second novel, the immensely long romantic tragedy Clarissa (1747-8), is certainly his masterpiece, and quite possibly the single greatest of the classic English novels. But that triumph would never have been possible if Richardson had not first written Pamela, the book in which he learns those secrets of dramatic narration he is to explore even more spectacularly in his later work. What follows is a lecture, written in 1993, that I used to do at Queen’s University of Belfast. Page references are to the 1980 Penguin Classics edition.


Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is the first example in English literature of the “bestselling novel.” When it appeared on November 6th, 1740, published anonymously in two volumes, its success was immediate and overwhelming. The book appealed to readers of all types, high and low, in town and country. Praise fell vociferously about its author’s ears: “If all the books in England were to be burnt, this book, next the Bible, ought to be preserved,” wrote one enthusiastic admirer; at St Saviour’s Church in Southwark, the Rev. Benjamin Slocock recommended the book from the pulpit. For Richardson’s friend Aaron Hill, Pamela contained “all the soul of religion, good-breeding, discretion, good nature, wit, fancy, fine thought and morality.” Hill, an unsuccessful poet and dramatist, had been one of Alexander Pope’s targets in The Dunciad, but even Pope, that famously cynical satirist, is reported to have stayed up all night reading Pamela. It is “judged in town as great a sign of want of curiosity not to have read Pamela, is not to have seen the French and Italian dancers,” reported the Gentleman’s Magazine of January 1741.

The novel’s vogue extended into a strangely modern series of spin-offs. Not only was Pamela twice dramatized, it was also made into an opera; scenes from the novel were illustrated in a series of paintings by the famous artist Joseph Highmore, and engravings were made from those paintings and sold in sets; at the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, pavilions were decorated with Pamela displays; the characters from Pamela were reproduced in waxwork; there were Pamela teacups; ladies were even able to purchase fans ornamented with a Pamela motif. It is worth noting that Pamela was also the first transatlantic blockbuster: the American edition, published in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, was the first novel to be printed in what was soon to become the United States of America.

Naturally, other authors soon tried to emulate Richardson’s success. Some attempted, with poor results, to produce works of a similar type such as “Pamela the Second,” a dramatic poem; or the supposed “true story,” Memoirs of the Life of Lady H., the Celebrated Pamela. But more often, in those days before modern copyright, writers produced unauthorized sequels, such as Pamela’s Conduct in High Life by John Kelly, or the anonymous Pamela in High Life. The rush of sequels forced Richardson to produce his own continuation, which appeared in December 1741. Known originally as Pamela in Her Exalted Condition, it is now commonly referred to as Pamela II. This work appeared as volumes III and IV in later four-volume editions of the novel, and as the second volume in the two-volume Everyman edition. It is omitted in the Penguin Classics, which prints only the original Pamela, and indeed the two parts should be regarded as separate novels. Pamela II in any case is by far the least inspired of Richardson’s works; still, given that everyone else was making money out of Pamela, I suppose we can hardly begrudge her creator jumping on the bandwagon himself.

Not that that was all that he was doing. Pamela II, which reiterated in no uncertain terms Richardson’s conception of his heroine, was also written to answer the numerous objections and to counter the many satires which the original Pamela had inspired. Anti-Pamela; or Feigned Innocence Detected, The True Anti-Pamela, and Pamela Censured were the titles of some of the works which appeared as an almost inevitable reaction to the success of Richardson’s novel. Was Pamela really the virtuous maiden she appeared to be, or a clever fortune-hunter who got Mr B. just where she wanted him? As voices raged on both sides of the debate, Pamela’s defenders became known as the Pamelists; her detractors as the Anti-Pamelists. The most famous of these Anti-Pamelists was a former playwright who was soon himself to become a famous novelist: this was Henry Fielding, whose Shamela – full title: An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews – transforms the virtuous heroine of Richardson’s novel into a malicious harlot whose virtue is all an act. Shamela, which also satirizes Richardson’s epistolary form, is an amusing enough parody, but not, as some of the critics have maintained, the last word on Pamela. Richardson’s remarkable novel is certainly strong enough to survive Fielding’s wit. The greatest significance of Shamela was in truth for Fielding himself, who was inspired by this exercise to go on and write his own first novel, Joseph Andrews, which appeared in February 1742. Beginning as a further parody of Pamela, in which Pamela’s brother must defend his virtue against a female Mr B., the novel soon breaks out into Fielding’s own distinctive fictional territory. Fielding was only the first of many writers in the eighteenth-century who were to be inspired to take up novel-writing in the wake of Richardson’s success.


Samuel RIchardson may not have looked like famous novelist material, but he is one of the best English writers of all time.

Why was Pamela so successful? To answer this, we must look both at its author and at the background of popular literature against which his novel appeared. Samuel Richardson was an unlikely figure to become a bestselling novelist. Pamela was not Richardson’s first book, but it was his first work of fiction, and when it appeared in 1740 he was already fifty-one years old, a prosperous, middle-class London printer. He had been born in Derbyshire in 1689, and by his own account had a precocious literary talent. Like many authors, he later recalled entertaining his schoolfellows with stories, some taken from his reading, others invented. What most pointed to his future was his friendship with a circle of young ladies in his neighbourhood, who retained the youthful Richardson to read to them while they were doing their needlework. At least, that was the original idea; but soon some of the young ladies found a better use for him: they employed him to write their love letters. So Richardson gained an early training in writing as a woman, and a rare insight into the female heart. This early phase of his life was to be replicated many years later, when as a famous novelist he would be surrounded by a circle of admiring ladies.

One might think that with Richardson’s talents he was set on a firm course for a literary career, but this was not to be. A sober and pious boy, he was intended by his father for the ministry, and this it would appear was Richardson’s own ambition. But family finances proved a barrier, and so it was that at the age of seventeen Richardson was sent to London as a printer’s apprentice. In this career he was to become a great success, rising in time to run his own printing company which printed, among much else, the Journals of the House of Commons.

It was not until Richardson was in his forties that he renewed his literary efforts, but his early productions were a long way from bestselling fiction. He wrote a handbook of advice for apprentices, which was used for many years in the printing industry. He produced a revised edition of Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, and in 1739 he produced a version of Aesop’s Fables. It was in the same year that the publishers Rivington and Osborne asked Richardson to put together a “model letter writer.” This was a type of book that was popular at the time, and indeed remains popular today: a how-to book for correspondence, a handbook which showed readers how to compose various types of letters by presenting specimens or examples. This sounds a dull sort of project, but Richardson’s imagination was unusually stirred by it. It occurred to him that the letters should not merely show readers how to write, but how to act as well: in showing how to handle various situations, the letters would give moral as well as epistolary advice. The titles of some of the letters show what Richardson had in mind: “To a father, against putting a youth of but moderate parts to a profession that requires more extensive ambition”; “From an uncle to a nephew, on his keeping bad company, (and) bad hours in his apprenticeship”; “To a young lady, advising her not to change her guardian, nor to encourage any clandestine address.” Clearly the composition of these letters revived Richardson’s long-dormant taste for fiction; the situations he envisages are like situations in novels. In this series of letters we are already half in the world of Richardson’s fiction.

The letters were published in 1741 under the title Familiar letters on Important Occasions. The publication had been delayed. One of the subjects Richardson had chosen to treat was the situation of a servant girl who found that her master had attempted her virtue: what should she do? It was while contemplating this, Richardson later explained, that he recalled a story, supposedly true, which he had heard many years before: the story of a virtuous young girl who, in resisting her master’s attempts to seduce her, had brought him in time to propose an honourable marriage. The marriage had apparently been a great success. This was the inspiration which Richardson had been waiting for. So it was that the Familiar Letters were temporarily set aside, and he plunged into work on Pamela. He wrote it in two months.

In understanding the impact of Pamela, we must realise that in 1740 the novel, although novels existed, was not yet established as a major literary genre. It is significant that several of the early novelists pretended that they were not writing novels at all. Daniel Defoe, the one great English novelist before Richardson, presented his novels as fictitious autobiographies: the stories of Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders were intended to be thought of as true, providing moral examples which could be taken seriously because they allegedly came from real life. Writing Pamela, Richardson himself would later pretend to be merely the editor of a real series of letters, although few people appear to have believed him.

There was good reason to distance oneself from the novel. A form of popular as opposed to serious literature, the novel was regarded as a low and vulgar form, suitable only for the entertainment of women and servants. The eighteenth-century was class-conscious in literature as in everything else, and to the literary intelligentsia, the novel’s lack of a classical pedigree was painfully clear. Others, of a more pious turn, disapproved of fiction as a waste of time: what was the point of reading imaginary adventures? It was surely immoral – and, as it happens, it probably often was. There was an extent to which the novel deserved its reputation: many early examples were scandalous tales of love, seduction or rape, which, to the morally minded, were merely thinly disguised pornography. This criticism has been made of Richardson’s own fiction, and it is clear that he draws heavily on the tradition of the seduction novel. But it is clear too that in Richardson’s case this material is transmuted by the pious ends to which it is put. Throughout his career, Richardson remained adamant about the purpose of his fiction: “to promote the cause of religion and virtue.” Whether he succeeds – whether, indeed, he is deceiving himself – is a moot point, and one much discussed, but to his admirers Richardson offered a unique blend: the excitements of the novel, and the moral purpose of a sermon. Richardson made the novel respectable.

But was it merely the edifying message which made Pamela so successful? Surely not. In addition, we must consider Richardson’s literary technique, and the sheer skill with which he employed it. Pamela is a novel in letters, or an “epistolary novel.” Everything that is distinctive about Richardson’s contribution to fiction derives from his choice of this form.

Samuel Richardson did not invent the epistolary form. Among readers of early novels, it would have been a recognized literary type, although it is notable that by 1804, when the first biography of Richardson came to be written, its author, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, proclaimed confidently that the form was of Richardson’s own devising – so thoroughly had he eclipsed the work of his precursors. Nowadays, however, the first epistolary novel is agreed to have been not Pamela but a work published some seventy years before. This was Five Love Letters from a Nun to a Cavalier, an anonymous work from Portugal which appeared in 1669. Known most commonly as the Portuguese Letters, it consists of a series of letters from a nun to her lover, who has gone away; gradually the nun realizes that he is not coming back to her, and as the letters proceed her emotional outpourings become more and more intense. The work is significant in that nothing actually happens in it; the lover does not come back; the nun does not commit suicide; the Mother Superior does not find out; the situation is not resolved in any way. The letters present a static situation, but they focus not on plot or story but rather on the emotional responses of the nun. In the Portuguese Letters, the capacities of the epistolary form for exploring the inner workings of the mind were first apparent. The epistolary form is also notable in that each letter is supposed to be written at a different time. At the time of writing any given letter, the writer cannot know what his or her future holds. Richardson’s own term for his literary technique was “writing to the moment.” He explained what he means by this in the Preface to Clarissa, his second novel: “Much more lively and affecting . . . must be the style of those who write in the height of a present distress, the mind tortured by the pangs of uncertainty (the events then hidden in the words of fate); than the dry, narrative, unanimated style of a person relating difficulties and dangers surmounted, can be . . . the relater perfectly at ease; and if he felt unmoved by his own story, not likely to affect the reader.” Unlike the memoir novels or fake autobiographies of Defoe, that is, the epistolary novel is a novel meant to have been written not only by the person or persons who take part in the action, but written by them ore or less while the action is taking place.


Images from Richardson’s novels had a huge vogue in the eighteenth century. Pamela and Mr B, inevitably, were depicted in glamorous and stylised forms.

The potential advantages of this form for a novelist are considerable, but Richardson was certainly the first novelist to take full measure of these advantages. If we ask how Richardson’s Pamela differed from earlier epistolary novels, one simple but revealing answer is that it is much longer. Robert Adams Day, an American scholar who has studied the pre-Richardson epistolary novel, remarks in his book Told in Letters (1966) that any earlier novelist would have given the story of Pamela a hundred pages at the most; Richardson gives it five hundred. Pamela indeed, as Day has found, was known at first as a “dilated novel,” that is, a stretched or expanded novel. Early novels were typically short, or if they ran into hundreds of pages generally crowded into these pages a large number of sketchily-described adventures: Defoe’s Moll Flanders is typical; his Robinson Crusoe, which depicts Crusoe’s survival on his island in such extraordinary detail, is a rare exception. Now the distinctive characteristic of the novel, as we think of the form today, is its ability to draw us into a fictional world which can become, as we are reading, a sort of substitute reality. Quite apart from any other literary devices, the main way in which the novelist achieves this is through the accumulation of detail. Take for example the scene in which Pamela divides her possessions into three bundles. When she spreads out their contents before Mrs Jervis, her careful enumeration of objects combines with vivid dialogue to suggest the author’s full imaginative projection into the situation:

So I said, when she came up, “Here, Mrs Jervis, is the first parcel. I will spread it all before you. These are the things my good lady gave me. In the first place,” said I – and so I went on describing the clothes and linen, mingling blessings, as I proceeded, on my lady’s memory for her goodness to me: and when I had turned over that parcel, I said, “Well, so much for the first parcel, Mrs Jervis, containing my lady’s gifts.”

Now I come to the presents of my dear virtuous master: “Hey, you know, closet for that, Mrs Jervis!”

She laughed, and said, “I never saw such a comical girl in my life! But go on.” “I will, Mrs Jervis,” said I, “as soon as I have opened the bundle”; for I was as brisk and as pert as could be, little thinking who heard me.

“Now here, Mrs Jervis,” said I, “are my ever-worthy master’s presents”; and then I particularized all those in the second bundle.

After which, I turned to my own, and said:

“Now comes poor Pamela’s bundle, and a little one it is, to the others. First, here is a calico night-gown, that I used to wear o’ mornings. It will be rather too good for me when I get home; but I must have something. Then there is a quilted calimanco coat, and my straw hat with green strings; and a piece of Scots cloth, which will make two shirts and two shifts, the same I have on, for my poor father and mother. And here are four other shifts; and here are two pair of shoes; I have taken the lace off, which I will burn, and this, with an old silver buckle or two, will fetch me some little matter at a pinch.

“What do you laugh for, Mrs Jervis?” said I. “Why you are like an April day; you cry and laugh in a breath.

“Here are two cotton handkerchiefs and two pair of stockings, which I bought of the pedlar”; (I write the very words I said) “and here too are my new-bought knit mittens: and this is my new flannel coat, the fellow that I have on. And in this parcel pinned together are several pieces of printed calico, remnants of silks, and such-like, that, if good luck should happen, and I should get work, would serve for robings and facings, and such-like uses. And here too are a pair of pockets, and two pair of gloves. Bless me!” said I, “I did not think I had so many good things!” (pp. 110-111)

These details are not necessary to the story, considered simply as a story; what they are necessary to is its emotional texture, and what we might call its “imagined reality.” Clearly the protracted or “dilated” quality of Pamela is influenced by the nature of its basic situation. In the Familiar Letters, a story similar to Pamela’s was rounded off much more swiftly. Here are the two letters from the model letter-writer which inspired Richardson to write Pamela. First, “A Father to a Daughter in Service, on hearing of her master’s attempting her virtue.”

My dear Daughter,

I understand, with great grief of heart, that your master has made some attempts on your virtue, and yet that you stay with him. God grant that you have not already yielded to his base desires! For when once a person has so far forgotten what belongs to himself, or his character, as to make such an attempt, the very continuance with him to prosecute his designs. And if he carries it better, and more civil, at present, it is only the more certainly to undo you when he attacks you next. Consider, my dear child, your reputation is all you have to trust to. And if you have not already, which God forbid! yielded to him, leave it not to the hazard of another temptation; but come away directly (as you ought to have done on your own motion) at the command of

Your grieved and indulgent Father.

This is followed by “The Daughter’s Answer”:

Honoured Sir,

I received your letter yesterday, and am sorry I stayed a moment in my master’s house after his vile attempt. But he was so full of his promises of never offering the like again, that I hoped I might believe him; nor have I yet seen anything to the contrary: But am so much convinced, that I ought to have done as you say, that I have this day left the house; and hope to be with you soon after you will have received the letter. I am

Your dutiful Daughter.


Everyman editions of Richardson’s novels were widely read in the mid-twentieth century. Many of us first saw the books in these editions.

No doubt she was a sensible girl; but if Pamela had done that there would have been no novel. Once embarked on a full-length novel, Richardson obviously had to keep it going; but this, as it happened, proved to be not so difficult. In “writing to the moment,” Richardson found himself concentrating, with ever increasing intensity, on the details of Pamela’s situation, as the heroine tells us both exactly what has just happened and analyses exactly how she feels about it.

In looking at Pamela’s early success, no factor is more important than Richardson’s extraordinarily detailed realisation of a compelling fictional idea. Testimonies from early readers suggest that to read Richardson was to be drawn wholly into the story in a way in which they had never before experienced. Pamela swept all before it precisely because there had been nothing like it until then. Reading Pamela’s letters, readers came to feel that they were Pamela; Richardson had obliterated reality and substituted the Pamela-world in its stead. It is for this reason – and not, I would argue, for some putative development of “realism” – that Richardson is most to be valued as a major imaginative genius. The defining characteristic of the novel is not its realism, as many have argued; rather, its realism exists to augment its fantasy. Pamela depicts a world of believable feelings in believable fragments, and in this sense it exhibits “realism”; but the story itself is fantasy. That there may have been a real-life couple like Mr and Mrs B is beside the point; as presented by Richardson the story is essentially a fable or fairytale, a variant in particular of the Cinderella story.

Richardson’s realism lies not so much in his plots as in his depiction of character. One reason why Pamela has aroused so much controversy is that readers respond to the heroine as if she were a real person. Though Richardson’s characters owe much, at a basic level, to stock figures from the popular novels and plays of his day, his depiction of them appears realistic because of the intensity of his psychological portraiture. It has been said that Richardson’s novels are essentially studies of the divided mind. The typical Richardson situation is one of uncertainty, in which motives must be questioned and the self examined. Richardson excels in depicting the fluctuations of the mind under duress. At the dawning of his reformation, Mr B’s seemingly straightforward character dissolves into flux:

“I will not answer, too fearful and foolish Pamela,” said he, “how long I may hold in my current mind; for my pride struggles hard within me; and if you doubt me, I have no obligation to your confidence or opinion. But at present I am sincere in what I say: and I expect you will be so too; and answer directly my question.” (p. 253)

A classic example is Pamela’s self-communings on receiving Mr B’s letter, asking her to return to him after her release from captivity:

What, my dear parents, will you say to this letter? How my exulting heart throbbed, and even upbraided me for so lately reproaching me for giving way to the love of so dear a man! But take care thou art not too credulous neither, O fond believer! said I to myself; things that we wish, are apt to gain a too ready credit with us. This sham-marriage is not yet cleared up: Mrs Jewkes, the vile Mrs Jewkes! may yet instigate and influence the mind of this master: his pride of heart, and pride of condition, may again take place; and a man that could, in so little a space of time, change his professed love into avowed hatred, must be too unsteady to depended upon; and though he sends for me now in such affectionate terms, he may again relapse, if now he mean honourably, and then may more effectually deceive, and ruin me. Therefore I will not acquit thee yet, O credulous, fluttering, throbbing mischief! that art so ready to believe what thou wishest: and I charge thee to keep better guard than thou hast lately done, and tempt me not to follow too implicitly thy flattering impulses.

Thus foolishly dialogued I with my heart; and yet, all the time, this heart was Pamela. (p. 287)

How perfect that last sentence is! Richardson is remarkably successful at suggesting what in modern terminology we might call unconscious feelings. Pamela is of course a romantic comedy, a type of story in which a pair of lovers must overcome a series of obstacles to reach their inevitable union. Richardson’s originality derives in part from the nature of the obstacles: Pamela’s lowly class position, Mr B’s masculine pride, the snobbery of high society. The obstacles are massive, yet from the beginning of the novel it is clear that the couple are in love. We see this in Pamela’s first encounter with Mr B, in which feelings Pamela herself does not understand are nevertheless apparent to us. We might also note how well Richardson conveys Pamela’s youthful femininity:

I have been scared out of my senses; for just now, as I was folding up this letter, in my lady’s dressing-room, in comes my young master! Good Sirs! How I was frightened! I went to hide the letter in my bosom, and he, seeing me tremble, said smiling, ‘To whom have you been writing, Pamela?’ I said, in my confusion, ‘Pray your honour, forgive me!’ Yet I know not for what: For he was not undutiful to his parents; and why should he be angry that I was dutiful to mine! And indeed he was not angry; for he took me by the hand, and said, “You are a good girl, to be kind to your aged father and mother. I am not angry with you for writing such innocent matters as these; though you ought to be wary what tales you send to your family. Be faithful and diligent; and do as you should do, and I like you the better for this.” And then he said, “Why, Pamela, you write a pretty hand, and spell very well too. You may look into any of my mother’s books to improve yourself, so you take care of them.”

To be sure I did nothing but curtsy and cry, and was all in confusion, at his goodness. Indeed, he was once thought to be wildish; but he is now the best of gentlemen, I think! (p. 44)

In looking at psychology in Richardson’s fiction, it is also important to consider how he deals with the theme of perception, or interpretation: that is, how our views of people or events may differ depending on our own particular biases. Conflict in Pamela comes through the clash of differing subjective viewpoints. Pamela and Mr B, at the height of their battle, cannot even agree on the meanings of words: Mr B, wanting to make Pamela his mistress, speaks fulsomely of “honour” and “love,” but to Pamela he is merely abusing language: “‘Yes, yes, sir,’ said I, ‘your honour is to destroy mine, and your love is to ruin me, I see it too plainly” (p. 247). The incident in which Pamela dresses in her country clothes shows how the same situation may be read entirely differently by two different people. Pamela, donning her rustic garb, is announcing in effect her allegiance to innocence; to Mr B, she is doing precisely the opposite:

I dare say he knew me as soon as he saw my face; but was as cunning as Lucifer. He came up to meet me, and took me by the hand, and said, “Whose pretty maiden are you? I dare say you are Pamela’s sister, you are so like her; so neat, so clean, so pretty! Why, child, you far surpass your sister Pamela!”

I was all confusion, and would have spoken; but he took me about the neck. “Why,” said he, “you are very pretty, child: I would not be so free with your sister, you may believe; but I must kiss you.”

“O sir,” said I, as much surprized as vexed, “I am Pamela. Indeed I am Pamela, her own self!

“Impossible!” said he, and kissed me, for all I could do. “You are a lovelier girl by half than Pamela”; and again would kiss me.

This was a sad trick upon me, and what I did not expect; and Mrs Jervis looked like a fool, as much as I, for her officiousness. At last I disengaged myself, and ran out of the parlour, very much vexed, you may well think.

He talked a good deal to Mrs Jervis, and at last ordered me to attend him again; and insisting on my obedience, I went, but very unwillingly. As soon as he saw me, “Come in,” said he, “you little villain!” (I thought men only could be called villains); “Who is it you put your tricks upon? I was resolved never again to honour you with my notice; and so you must disguise yourself, to attract me, and yet pretend, like an hypocrite as you are –”

“I beseech you, sir,” said I, “do not impute disguise and hypocrisy to me. I have put on no disguise.” “What a plague,” said he, for that was his word, “do you mean then by this dress?”

“I mean, may it please your honour,” said I, “one of the honestest things in the world. I have been in disguise, indeed, ever since my good lady your mother took me from my parents. I came to my lady so low in garb, that these clothes I have on are a princely suit, to those I had then. And her goodness heaped upon her rich clothes, and other bounties: and as I am now returning to my parents, I cannot wear my good things without being laughed at; and so have bought what will be more suitable to my degree.”

He then took me in his arms, and presently pushed me from him. “Mrs Jervis,” said he, “take the little witch from me; I can neither bear nor forbear her.” (Strange words these!) “But stay; you shan’t go! – Yet begone! – No, come back again.” (pp. 89-90)

Pamela’s honesty is interpreted by Mr B as hypocrisy; note too how he sees the purport of the clothes finally in relation to himself. The reason Pamela is wearing them must have something to do with him; it cannot be because of needs of her own unrelated to her supposed flirtatiousness. Of course Mr B also blames Pamela, and not himself, for the fact that he desires her; note how he speaks later of her ‘insinuating arts’, her bewitching face’ (p. 203). The objection to Pamela’s character of the Anti-Pamelists are all, it is worth noting, anticipated in the novel by Mr B. Behaviour which to Pamela is sincere appears to Mr B merely as acting:

I could not speak; but throwing myself on the floor, hid my face, and was ready to die with grief and apprehension. “Well may you hide your face!” said he, “well may you be shamed to see me, vile forward creature that you are!” I sobbed, and wept, but could not speak. And he let me lie, and went to the door, and called Mrs Jewkes. “There,” said he, “take up that fallen angel! Once I thought her as innocent as an angel of light; but now I have no patience with her. The little hypocrite prostrates herself thus, in hope to move my compassion, and expects, perhaps, that I will raise her from the floor myself. But I shall not touch her; no,” said the cruel man, “let such fellows as Williams be taken in by her artful wiles! I know her now, and plainly see, that she is for any fool’s turn, that will be caught by her.”

I sighed, as if my heart would break! And Mrs Jewkes lifted me upon my knees; for I trembled so, I could not stand. “Come,” said she, “Mrs Pamela, learn to know your best friend! confess your behaviour, and beg his honour’s forgiveness of all your faults.”

I was ready to faint; and he said, “She is mistress of arts, I assure you; and will mimick a fit, ten to one, in a minute.”

I was struck to the heart at this; but could not speak presently. I only lifted up y eyes to heaven! And at last made shift to say, “God forgive you, sir!” (p. 222)

The theme of perception is taken up again in Pamela’s battle with Lady Davers. Lady Davers refuses to believe that Pamela and Mr B are really married; as her nephew Jackey puts it, Pamela’s whoredom is “a plain case; a very plain case” (p. 406). “Dost thou think thouself really married?” Lady Davers demands at last (p. 413), but as Pamela replies in exasperation, “Why, madam, what does it signify what I think? Your ladyship will believe as you please” (p. 414).

When Pamela leaves the Bedfordshire estate, supposedly on her way home, Mr Longman gives her a generous supply of paper, pen and ink (p. 131). At the end of her trials, Pamela says happily to Mr Longman: “Good Mr Longman, how do you? I must always value you; and you don’t know how much of my present happiness I owe to the sheets of paper, and pens and ink, you furnished me with …” (p. 479)

The truth of this is clear when we consider how Mr B’s reformation has come about largely through his reading of Pamela’s letters. Richardson, that is, does not depict an entirely solipsistic world. Mr B improves morally and gains happiness because he is able at last to see Pamela’s situation from Pamela’s point of view.

This indicates the importance of the epistolary method within the story itself. Letters for Richardson are not merely a means of narrating the action; the existence of the letters also has a considerable impact upon the action. Consider, for example, Pamela’s alarm at the loss of the long letters narrating Mr B’s first attempts on her virtue (p. 54); her difficulty in sending and receiving letters; her shock on learning that John Arnold had been showing her letters to Mr B (p. 156); the details of the places in which she has to hide her letters during her imprisonment in Lincolnshire. The letter comes to symbolize the self, its privacy and inner integrity; there is therefore a comic aptness in Pamela stitching her letters into the linings of her dresses and Mr B, desperate to read them, threatening to strip her to find them. When Mr B’s deceitful scheming is at its blackest, it is appropriate that Pamela sees through his machinations through the episode of the switched letters, in which his letter to Mrs Jewkes has been placed inside the cover of his letter to Pamela. It is not entirely fanciful, I like to think, that the famous episode of the misplaced letter in Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a small affectionate tribute to Richardson, a writer whom Thomas Hardy admired.

Hardy, in his book Life and Art (1925), commended Richardson’s abilities in the structuring of his narratives, and it is worth noting that Richardson’s clever deployment of the epistolary form is only one aspect of his grasp of how to put a novel together. Casual readers – and some critics – have sometimes assumed that Richardson’s novels simply ramble on with no regard for form. In the case of Pamela, the fact that the story continues for so long after the wedding is often cited as an example of artistic ineptitude. While it is true that for most later novelists a wedding would become the natural stopping-point of their narratives, the view that Richardson did not know what he was doing here derives from inattentive reading. Pamela is in fact a very carefully constructed novel. The reason why the story continues for so long after the wedding is that the wedding is simply not the end. As a servant marrying her master, Pamela’s triumph is not complete until she is accepted for what she is not only by Mr B but by society. Her battle with Lady Davers, in the second half of the book, represents her struggle for social acceptance and parallels the conflicts with Mr B which have occupied the first half of the book. The structure is underlined by the heroine’s geographical progression, from Lincolnshire to Bedfordshire and back to Lincolnshire again. Compare Pamela’s sorrowful farewell to the Bedfordshire estate, and her triumphant homecoming at the end. In the outward journey, which leads her unwittingly to Lincolnshire, Pamela is in effect like a fictional hero who must go out into the wilderness to do battle with dark forces. In the Lincolnshire estate, the secure world of her childhood is transformed into a dark gothic place, in which the benevolent mother figure of Mrs Jervis is replaced by the demonic mother in Mrs Jewkes. The watershed, with the reformation of Mr B and Pamela’s realization of her love, comes roughly at the half-way point in the narrative, and the novel balances a first volume detailing the assaults on Pamela with a second recounting her triumphs. At the beginning of the novel, with the death of old Mrs B, we see the disruption of order; at the end of the novel order is restored on a higher plane as Pamela herself becomes the new Mrs B. It is the classic structure of comedy.


Richardson’s novel is nowadays most widely read in editions from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics. Both are good.

The question of structure is intimately related to the novel’s depiction of social themes. One points here both to sexual themes and to themes of a broader political nature. Feminist critics are often interested in Pamela. It is, after all, a novel about what would now be called sexual harassment, which purports too to be written from the point of view of a woman. A common feminist view is that the ending of the novel is most unsatisfactory, showing the absorption of the once-spirited Pamela into the role of the compliant wife. Many modern readers may share this discomfort, championing Pamela in her resistance to Mr B the seducer but deploring her submission to Mr B the husband. Of course this must be understood in terms of the values of the time, the prevailing notions of marital roles, and in particular the sentimental ethos of womanhood. Richardson is preeminently a sentimentalist in his depiction of the woman as a private and domestic creature, consecrated to virtue and love, inhabiting a wholly different sphere from the man. The polarized notions of male and female which had become predominant by the mid-eighteenth century are everywhere apparent in Pamela: we need only note that Pamela would be “ruined” if she lost her virginity out of wedlock, whereas Mr B can be excused for his own lapse which produced his illegitimate daughter. One might add, however, that Victorian relentlessness against “fallen women” has not yet taken hold: the unfortunate Sally Godfrey is at least allowed a new start in Jamaica rather than an early death. The polarization of male and female roles is indicated also in the disapproval heaped upon “unfeminine” women, brought out particularly in the description of Mrs Jewkes, who appears to be not only hideously ugly but a lesbian as well.

A certain ambiguity in Richardson’s depiction of women may be sensed in the absent mother figure who broods over the narrative: the old Mrs B, who dies on the first page. Mrs B, the mother of Mr B and Lady Davers, is at once an angel of womanhood whose household Mr B seeks implicitly to recreate with Pamela (p. 393); and a bad mother whose faulty upbringing of her children is to be blamed for the character flaws of Mr B and Lady Davers. There is perhaps no way around this contradiction: Mrs B, in taking in the young Pamela, is responsible on the one hand, if not for Pamela’s excellence of heart, at least for the education and refinement which enable her to become a lady; on the other hand Mrs B has also created her lustful son and her snobbish, spiteful daughter. The depiction of Mrs B might be seen as encapsulating an essential ambiguity in the sentimental attitude to women, who are at once exulted as angels and denigrated as inferior. Yet if the novel contains these tensions, there can be little doubt that in Pamela, Richardson portrays the sentimental woman as an awe-inspiring figure. The choric praises which surround Pamela in the latter part of the novel show the homage the sentimentalist pays to virtue. In the sentimental ethos, virtuous women are superior to men. Pamela is certainly Mr B’s moral superior; as good an example as any is his jealousy of Parson Williams, compared with her spontaneous love of the so-called “Miss Goodwin,” her husband’s illegitimate daughter. Even the fallen Sally Godfrey is superior to Mr B, as he acknowledges himself: “I could not bear she should so escape me; so much transcend me in heroical bravery,” says Mr B of her flight from England. If Pamela depicts on one level a woman’s introduction to wifely submissiveness, it is worth remembering that it depicts also a man’s being brought into line by a woman. Mr B reforms precisely by becoming in a sense more feminine, renouncing his aggressive masculine attitudes to sex in favour of “feminine” virtuous love. It is Pamela who triumphs in the battle of the sexes.

A sense of holding contradictory views in tension may also be found in the broader political themes of the novel. On the one hand, Pamela can be seen as a novel that is radical in its social outlook. Resisting Mr B, Pamela in effect stands up for justice against the arbitrary tyranny of the rich and powerful. Mr B is the master; Pamela is the servant; from his point of view he can therefore do what he likes with her. Pamela’s vigorous defences of her rights are among the most appealing parts of the novel: “Let me alone! I will tell you, if you were a king, and insulted me as you have done, that you have forgotten to act like a gentleman: and I won’t stay to be used thus!” (p. 102) Her integrity is all the more impressive considering the odds against her. Mr B is not only her master, he is also a Justice of the Peace in both Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire: he is, in fact, the highest representative of the authority of law in the world of the novel. When Pamela is imprisoned in Lincolnshire, Mrs Jewkes tells her it’s no good trying to escape:

She expressed her wonder at my resolution, but told me frankly, that I should have found it a hard matter to get out of my master’s power, let me have escaped to whom I would; for that she was provided with a warrant from my master (who is a justice of the peace in this county, as well as in the other) to get me apprehended, on suspicion of wronging him. (p. 217)

Almost all the people Pamela meets are dependent on his good favour for their well-being. Pamela’s defender in Lincolnshire, Mr Williams, could ruin his career by speaking out against his patron’s actions. When he does approach the local quality, they are in any case dismissive: why should the seduction of a waiting-maid be taken seriously? Sir Simon Darnford puts it brutally: “Why, what is all this, my dear, but that our neighbour has a mind to his mother’s waiting-maid! And if he takes care she wants for nothing, I don’t see any great injury will be done her. He hurts no family by this” (p. 172).

Richardson assails the social hierarchy, yet at the end of the novel the hierarchy is affirmed. Pamela’s reception by the servants on her return to Bedfordshire suggests an almost feudal notion of the relation between master and servant: consider, for example, the pardon of John Arnold:

The poor fellow came in, with so much concern, that I have never seen a countenance that expressed so lively a consciousness of his faults, mingled with so much joy and shame. “How do you, John?” said I. “I hope you are very well!” He could hardly speak, and looked with awe upon my master, and with pleasure upon me. Well, John,” said my master, “there is no room to say anything to a man that has so much concern upon him already. I am told you will serve me, whether I will or not; but I turn you over altogether to my wife here: and she is to do by you as she pleases.” “You see, John,” said I, “your good master’s indulgence. Well may I forgive, that have so generous an example. I was always persuaded of your honest intentions. You were only at a loss what to do between your duty of your master, and your good-will to me: you will now, from his goodness, have no more puzzles on that account.” “I shall be but too happy,” said the poor man. “God bless your honour! God bless you, madam! I have now the joy of my soul, in serving you both; and I will, to my power, make the best of servants.” “Well, then, John, your wages will go on, as if you had not left your master: may I not so, sir?” said I. “Yes, surely, my dear,” replied he, “and augment them too, if you find this duty to you deserves it.” “A thousand million of thanks,” said the poor man: “I desire no augmentation.” (pp. 481-482)

In Mr B’s marriage to Pamela, the aristocracy has corrected its vices by uniting with the virtues of the poor; but the notion of social class has not been challenged. Richardson is at pains to stress that he is not advocating that young gentlemen, generally speaking, should marry their mother’s waiting-maids. It is notable that in many of the adaptations and spurious continuations of the story, other writers corrected what they saw as its “levelling” tendency by having Pamela discover that she was really of high birth. Richardson, to his credit, rejects this “princess in disguise” device, but of course he makes Pamela a person of such exceptional qualities as to obviate any ordinary objections to such a marriage. If Pamela is of low birth, she is nevertheless a lady in her heart.

Yet to imply that the novel contains only a false radicalism would be wrong. Two important aspects must also be considered. The first is simply that Richardson takes a lower class female character so seriously to begin with, and defends so intensely her right to her virtue. That a girl of Pamela’s class should be depicted as a fully realized individual was more revolutionary still. Compare Fielding’s treatment of Molly Seagrim in Tom Jones. Molly is a mere caricature with no inner life and no feelings to be taken seriously; she is seen unproblematically as sexual fair game; and of course we are hardly surprised that she should turn out in any case to be a slut.

The second aspect of Richardson’s radicalism is religious. Pamela protests against her treatment not on political but on Christian grounds. On Earth, God may place us in different social positions but before Him, we are equal. Pamela declares: “But, O sir! my soul is of equal importance with the soul of a princess, though in quality I am but upon a foot with the merest slave” (p. 197). Later she remarks “how poor people are despised by the rich and the great! And yet we were all on a foot originally. Surely these proud people never think what a short stage life is; and that, with all their vanity, a time is coming, when they shall be on a level with us” (p. 294). The religious pronouncements are not empty piety; Pamela is a Christian heroine, and specifically designed by Richardson as such. In this, as in the novel’s ability to hold contradictory attitudes in tension – radical and conservative, patriarchal and feminist – we see further reason for the early appeal of Pamela. We can also see reasons for its continuing fascination.