History

Novels & Human Rights Part 2: The Pamela Media Bomb

As you may recall from last week, Robinson Crusoe and Pamela both became bestsellers of their times, and Pamela outstripped RC. In its first year after publication, Pamela went through four English editions, one French translation, and several unauthorized versions. Just counting authorized editions, 20,000 copies of Pamela were published in the first year, when most other books could expect to sell about 10,000 and then be finished. A study of French personal libraries from 1740 to 1760 indicated that Pamela and Richardson’s later novel Clarissa were two of the top three books most likely to be owned. (The third was Tom Jones by Henry Fielding).

He looks boring, but he's a fascinating individual, I swear! Pic from Wikipedia
He looks boring, but he’s a fascinating individual, I swear! Wikipedia

The author, Samuel Richardson, was a very interesting guy. More about his motivations in a later post, but he was a printer. At that time, printers and booksellers were sort of lumped together, and he had to concern himself with marketing, such as it was in 1740. He made some remarkable innovations, but were they purposeful? Was he just incredibly lucky? He printed pamphlets and books for a long time before he published his own work. We know he sold most of his copyright to Pamela for a paltry 20 pounds early in his career, so he clearly didn’t realize how many copies he’d be moving later on… But how could he not know that, while he was orchestrating an unprecedented and wildly successful media campaign for his novel?

William Beatty Warner, a scholar of eighteenth-century media culture, distinguishes Richardson’s type of media event in several ways:

  1. These events are not triggered by historical happenings like trials or coronations, but are created for their own sakes. (It becomes an event that Avengers: Age of Ultron is coming out on a certain day, but the timing is basically arbitrary).
  2. Public interest continually keeps a piece of media in the public eye, “producing a sense that this media event has become an ambient, pervasive phenomenon.” I read Twilight because “everybody” was reading it and I wanted to know what was going on.
  3. When a piece of media is profitable and pervasive, imitators and critics rehash it endlessly. A couple years ago moviemakers got real interested in Norse mythology all of a sudden, for instance. It was the same in 1740, and copyright law was laughable at best… Other writers responded to Pamela’s popularity with a slew of sequels, parodies, commentaries, and imitations.

Richardson’s main successes centered on creating buzz and making Pamela a pervasive phenomenon. He obtained endorsements from friends in the printing industry – possibly in return for favors, but also stemming from genuine grassroots support. (The primary ingredient for a runaway success is, of course, source material that people actually like). One pastor, Benjamin Slocock, even recommended it from the pulpit. That anecdote is famous, but sometimes people forget to mention that Slocock and Richardson were friends. Another anecdote has Pamela being read aloud in a small village, and when she finally gets married, the townspeople are so excited they run to the church and ring the bells in celebration. It’s never quite clear which anecdotes are real and which were made up to sell books. A pretty interesting merchandising campaign also sprang up around the novel, including paintings and illustrations, a collectible deck of cards, fancy Pamela fans, racehorses named after her, and even a small waxworks museum.

VII: Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. 1743-4 by Joseph Highmore 1692-1780
Mr. B, disguised as the maid, observes Pamela undressing for bed. Painting by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4

One more factor is important: Pamela is sexy. Very sexy, and not just “for 1740.” I mentioned last week that explicit romances were already around before Richardson… Pamela was written in reaction to those novels, and was thus embedded deeply in their tradition, but Richardson broke with existing romance conventions in important ways. He created a didactic, moralistic novel in place of simple titillation, and the controversy helped drive Pamela’s popularity. Everyone had an opinion on whether he succeeded in elevating the genre of amorous romance, or if he merely disguised his participation in it. One of my favorite quotes from the whole project comes from literary scholar Ian Watt, who explains that Richardson created “a work that could be praised from the pulpit and yet attacked as pornography, a work that gratified the reading public with the combined attractions of a sermon and a strip-tease.” Controversy drew attention, the novel could appeal to two large target audiences, and many individuals could enjoy the novel for both reasons.

Pamela’s status as a media event distinguished it from other trendy books, allowing it to have a lasting impact on English-speaking culture. The craze and its imitators helped shape the building public interest in novels as a form. In England, about five books that could be classified as novels were being published each year in the early 1700s. By the 1790s, the average had risen to 70 per year. Combined, publication rates of all books increased from an average of 2,000 per decade in 1700 to approximately 7,000 per decade in 1800. Public libraries, providing novels through subscriptions or individual rental fees of a few pennies, sprung up in the late 1770s. Their presence evidences an increasing demand for novels in both the leisure and the working classes. More about social changes later!

Back to Pamela-as-innovation, though, Richardson’s use of realism raised Pamela from a mere novelty to a new species of fiction, the “novel”. Richardson called his method “writing to the moment.” The mechanisms he invented-slash-exploited will be our subject next week.

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3 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 2: The Pamela Media Bomb

    1. Glad you’re interested! It was really crazy to research for me because the book has been practically forgotten since then, especially under Robinson Crusoe’s shadow, but it was SUCH a big deal!

      Liked by 1 person

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