Friday, March 18, 2016

Hanging Out With Pam and Em, part one

The reading gods strangely decreed that I should read two classics of Western literature one after the other. Although coming from different periods and written by authors of different countries, there are some interesting similarities about them. Both were written by men, featuring shall we say strong-willed female protagonists, and both broke new literary ground for the novel.

I read Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson because of a curious project a friend of mine has taken on. Because he feels that in his youth he avoided reading long books, in recent years he has tried to correct that, and occasionally succeeded in inveigling his friends into joining him in reading a series of what he calls "tomes". Different friends have responded to different lures, but through his offices I have finally tackled The Way We Live Now, Tristram Shandy, and, well, a fair amount of Humphrey Clinker. And now, Pamela. I thought I had attempted Pamela back in my college days, and was interested in completing the project. About halfway through, and somewhat to my dismay, I realized that it hadn't been Pamela at all, it had been Clarissa, Richardson's later and some say greater work. By that time, though, it was too late to back out.

Pamela, in case you have never heard of this 18th century bestseller, is a novel in letters showing the triumphant resistance (it's in the title folks, so that's no spoiler) of a very young servant girl to the unseemly advances of her late mistress's son, who has now become her master. At about the halfway point, though sensing what was coming, I was still hoping that our Pam would somehow find a musket and rid herself of her tiresome master and all his cohort, but sadly, this is not how it all works out. For me at least, Richardson manages to make the master so creepily loathsome that any redemption for him seems implausible, and unlike Mr. Darcy and all the other subsequent dark romantic heroes who finally become noble ones, Mr. B____ does not quite manage a personal transformation.

It is hard to read such a book absolutely straight, meaning as its original audience would have taken it. Pamela, in her triumph, took the world by storm. People not only read the book; there was merchandise.

As a form of the Cinderella story, and hence a prompt to upwardly mobile aspiration beyond its normal scope, it's no wonder that one Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wickedly called it "the  joy of the chambermaids of all nations."

According to the introduction to my old Signet edition by John M. Bullitt, Richardson was asked by two booksellers he knew to write a little book "for handsome girls who were obliged to go out to service ... how to avoid the snares that might be laid against their virtue." He happened to remember a true story which he had heard many years before, and so the character of Pamela sprang into life. It is safe to say that Pamela got away from him, as she does pretty much everyone in the book itself, by one means or another. Despite Richardson, she became psychologically real, a little like Pinocchio, or the Velveteen Rabbit. And the "little book" ended up being in excess of five hundred pages.

Pamela had a lot to get off her chest.

1750 portrati by Joseph Highmore

The letters and events are repetitious and go on too long. Dr.Johnson, according to Bullitt,wrote, "If you were to read Richardson for the story, your patience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself; but you must read him for the sentiment." My friend found one of the obstacles to be the way Richardson wrote dialogue in this book, which doesn't follow our modern conventions with quotation marks and distinct paragraphs, but I didn't find this a problem. I was actually rather fascinated by this alternate way that Richardson (or Pamela, since it's her letters we read)  rendered the way people speak to each other.

On the other hand, there is a tension and a nightmarish quality to the book that I found truly disturbing, while my friend found it all somewhat comical. Some of Mr. B___'s attempts on Pamela reminded him of some frat boys he had the opportunity to observe in action one summer as they schemed to assault some college girls' equivalent of virtue. Perhaps it's a difference between men and women, because Henry Fielding's short work Shamela takes Pamela to be too knowing by half. Although I don't mind the idea of parodying this work in theory, the first half of the book is about a guy holding a fifteen  year old girl completely in his power, and not really having to atone for it in the second, whatever Richardson himself may have thought about his redemption. And I found it worrying that throughout the book Pamela has absolute reliance on God to see her through. Worrying not for her, but for other girls in similar positions, who, equally virtuous, did not have such happy rewards, through no fault of their own.

My friend saw a sort of Gandhian figure in Pamela, which I found interesting. He mentioned someone saying that Gandhi couldn't have succeeded if he hadn't found in British values a line they wouldn't cross. Even Pamela's ability to faint at certain strategic moments reminded him of non-violent resistance. I'm not sure how well that strategy would have worked in real life for other Pamelas, though. As we know from the results of date rape drugs, men are not always put off by unconsciousness.

And I'm pretty sure that none of the administrators of the British Empire ever called Gandhi a "sauce-pot."

I'll take up the second book in part two.


  1. You inspire me! I have this feeling I read Pamela when I was younger, or part of it. My mom may have poo-poohed it at the time. Or delighted in it. A friend recently gave me Goldfinch. That's long. I'll read that. Maybe.

  2. I asked for Goldfinch for Christmas. And got it. Have I read it yet? Uh, no.

  3. Oh, yeah--and if you some urge to write about Pamela, or The Goldfinch, I feel sure there is a spot at Escape Into Life that has your name on it...