Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded is a novel from 1740 written by Samuel Richardson, and the subject of my undergrad thesis. I’m studying its cultural impact. Pamela doesn’t stir up much controversy now, it’s not generally assigned to anyone to read, but when it was first published it was a pretty big deal! A debate raged over the appropriate content of reading matter, and indeed over whether reading was an acceptable pursuit at all. Pamela was quickly placed on the Pope’s Index of Forbidden Books, but that didn’t stop all and sundry from reading it.
Pamela is the story of the titular young servant fending off her employer’s sexual advances, until eventually he’s won over by her titular virtue and reforms his rakish ways, whereupon she agrees to marry him. It’s remarkably graphic, for what I was expecting. Basically it’s one long content note for attempted rapes and slut-shaming — worse even than the modern incarnations of rapey romances, and about as explicit, just without a final consummation.
The book thus resembles Animal Farm, which I talked about yesterday, in that it does actually contain the alleged objectionable material. I personally prefer it to modern romances because at least the narrator doesn’t approve — Richardson actually intended the book to be something of a guidance manual for young ladies on how to behave appropriately under these sorts of advances. (Basically to refuse everything and shout to high heaven unless the gentleman actually makes an honest proposal.) Still, the book dealt with pre-existing conventions present in lowbrow sexy books already being published. Some critics devoted whole books of response to calling Richardson a pornographer and lambasting Pamela for protesting too much, thus CLEARLY revealing herself to be a scheming slut. It’s awful.
First, books shouldn’t be banned for sexual content either, just be reasonably restricted by age range. But most importantly, the sex was never the point at all. Go back to Dr. Hutchings’ thesis from the talk on Tuesday… It’s never about what it’s actually about. Go back to that question he asked: “Who is trying to keep what out of the hands of whom, for what reason?”
The reason Pamela was a big deal, and the reason I’m writing a 20-page history thesis about it, is that the public related to this novel in a whole new way. It was about a lower-class woman, written as if it were a compilation of letters she had written to her parents in distress. People who read this book felt along with Pamela. Both men and women were astonished at the magic Richardson was working, to make each of them feel like a young servant woman suffering improper advances. They listened to her heartache, they recognized that real people did suffer similar distress, and they heard Pamela’s explicit arguments that her soul was worth just as much as anyone else’s. This book helped blow the dam open, and turned novels into the mass media items they are today. It’s been argued that the development of the novel established the most important precursor to human rights laws: The recognition that other people have inner lives like yours. That’s what people were trying to ban.
This novel is never assigned reading, but maybe it should be.