Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela was a huge commercial success when it was released in 1741. The rags-to-riches story was highly influential on other authors writing around the time. However, just because the book was popular that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t also controversial.
Today, the painfully virtuous Pamela can seem a bit of drag (ok, that’s a personal opinion!). In the 1740s she was seen by some as a scheming social climber, by others as a wholesome girl rewarded for good behaviour, and by yet other as little better than a prostitute. Many of the negative responses to the novel were reactions to the social gap between country servant girl Pamela and her would-be-lover the rich Mr B.
An example of a negative interpretation of Richardson’s heroine is Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741). This was published about seven weeks after the second edition of Pamela. Fielding emphasises that what we learn from Pamela’s letters cannot be proven. Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela; or Feign’d Innocence Detected (1741) similarly criticises the credulity of the reader who believes the version of Pamela we receive from Pamela herself. Her novel is,
Published as a necessary caution to all young Gentlemen…A Narrative which as really its Foundation in Truth and Narrative; and at the same time that it entertains… arms against a partial credulity.
Haywood offers a cautionary tale to those who may have, in her opinion, mis-read Pamela. She warns about credulity as Syrena (her heroine) is shown to feign virtue in order to manipulate men. By demonstrating that virtue is a performance, Haywood encourages her reader to reinterpret Pamela with scepticism.
Richardson disliked this hijacking of his characters and attempted to take back control through various means. He even went so far as to write a sequel to the novel. He also tried to control visual representations of Pamela by commissioning his own illustrations for the 1742 edition. Gravelot and Hayman’s illustrations focus on the sentimentality and morality of the novel. Predictably, they did not prevent others from jumping on the gravy chain and offering their own visual interpretations of Pamela and Pamela.
Joseph Highmore’s series of 12 paintings of Pamela (c.1744) reject a rags-to-riches reading. His paintings are full of symbols for the eagle-eyed viewer. In ‘Pamela and Mr B in the Summer House’ the heart-shaped chairs suggest Mr. B’s intentions, Pamela’s fallen needlework foreshadows domestic upheaval, and Mr. B’s red trousers dominate the scene perhaps indicating his power. We should also note Pamela’s pale pink and white dress which catches the light and draws the eye to her. In this elegant dress, its wide face evidently supported by the structures of upper-class femininity (a hoop, stays, and panniers), it is difficult to envisage the sharp-tongued servant maid of volume one.
Highmore’s first painting shows Pamela in a black gown which, though plain, seems much too voluminous for household work.; the dress almost seems to support itself. An open bookshelf and a book lying in the background belie a conception of Pamela as well-educated and middle-class. There is not much difference between this woman and the one wearing a pretty pink dress in the painting above, yet in Richardson’s novel we see a massive transformation.
Highmore focuses on the beauty, distress, and feminine qualities of Pamela, rather than her social distance from her would-be lover, and so lessens the gap between them which had been ridiculed by contemporaries such as Fielding and Haywood. Though he does not accurately reflect Pamela as depicted in the first edition of Richardson’s novel, he follows Richardson’s own lead in reducing the social distance between the protagonists. In later editions of the novel, Richardson changed many details such as Pamela’s speech and writing style, in order to make her seem a more suitable partner for Mr B.
The Pamela of the first edition, who speaks in lower-class slang and openly berates her employer and his friends, modulates into a more softly spoken, modest servant who could almost pass as middle-class. Pamela and Richardson are an interesting example of the power of an audience to influence an author and their work.
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Have you read Pamela? What do you think, manipulative or manipulated? Let me know below.
Keymer, Thomas and Peter Sabor, ‘Pamela’ in the market place: Literary Controversy and Print Culture in Eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Haywood, Eliza, and Henry Fielding. Anti-Pamela and Shamela. Ed. Catherine Ingrassia. (Plymouth: Broadview Press Ltd, 2004)