Novels & Human Rights Part 4: Is Reading Good or Bad? (Richardson’s Intended Effects)

Please note there is now a page to collect and organize these posts!

Last week, we talked about how Samuel Richardson explicitly wanted his novel Pamela to be more realistic than its predecessors. Why? We’ve also talked about how Pamela was basically a religious book and erotica at the same time. Why did he decide to write this novel in the first place?

I believe Richardson intended his book to have an uplifting effect. However, I also think he understood the basic rule that “sex sells.” He designed the story to attract impressionable people, arouse their sentiments, and use their involvement in the story to teach a moral lesson. Maybe I’m overly gullible, but I think that’s what he was trying to do because that’s what he SAID he wanted to do:

I am endeavoring to write a story, which shall catch young and airy minds, and when passions run high in them, to show how they may be directed to laudable meanings and purposes, in order to decry such novels and romances, as have a tendency to inflame and corrupt: and if I were to be too spiritual, I doubt I should catch none but grandmothers, for the granddaughters would put my girl indeed in better company, such as that of the graver writers, and there they would leave her; but would still pursue those stories, that pleased their imaginations without informing their judgments. (Warner 222)

Of course, his mimicry of the “amorous intrigue” genre left him vulnerable to the oft-leveled criticism that he was not actually elevating the genre, just disguising his prurient intentions. Still, he gave every indication of serious virtuous intent. His private letters showed dismay at the various lewd accusations pointed at him. Pamela and his later books Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison follow the same pattern — the romance-like main plots always give way to overwhelmingly repetitious moralizations in the end. He said what he wanted to do — unify amorous intrigue and religious instruction — and he succeeded.

Books like this. pierre-marteau.com
Some pre-1730 intrigues. pierre-marteau.com

There comes a point when a novel is out of its authors hands, though, and readers can make of it what they will. Not everyone agreed that fiction even could make readers more moral individuals, or that Richardson’s book in particular would do it. (Not to mention diverging opinions on what “more moral” would even look like).

The first reactions to fiction were negative. Clerics and doctors believed that readers, particularly women, would copy the depravity they found in stories. At best, novels would distract women and the lower classes, keeping them sedentary and overly emotional when they should be working or keeping house. Some said that constant emotions without the possibility of acting on them would atrophy sensibility in real life. Furthermore, some critics believed Pamela could not possibly “inculcate Religion in the Minds of Youth, when the Blood is hot, and runs quick in every Vein.” The anonymous Pamela Censured quoted one reader’s belief that passions were “So strongly touch’d that it is impossible for Youth to read it without Sympathy, and even wishing themselves in such a Situation, which must be attended with very bad Consequences.”

At the same time Diderot, Francis Hutcheson, and others were arguing that fiction expanded the mind and made people more moral by association. This debate was already ongoing before Richardson. As usual, he (and his friends) simply took things further. In a letter in the Weekly Miscellany, republished as frontmatter for Pamela‘s first edition, Richardson’s friend Aaron Hill wrote:

It carries Conviction in every Part of it; and the Incidents are so natural and interesting, that I have gone hand-in-hand, and sympathiz’d with the pretty Heroine in all her Sufferings, and been extremely anxious for her Safety … I have interested myself in all her Schemes of Escape; been alternately pleas’d and angry with her in her Restraint … In short, the whole is so affecting, that there is no reading it without uncommon Concern and Emotion.

Admittedly a staged letter, an advertisement designed to promote the book, the piece does illustrate the intensity of Hill’s emotions — what Hill felt to be the most important part of the Pamela experience. He also replaced the usual critical dichotomy of the “gullible vulgar vs. the canny elite” with a dichotomy of the “unfeeling majority” and an implied “feeling minority.” Richardson shows Pamela, his paragon of virtue, learning from books — She references Biblical stories, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Aesop’s fables, poems, and mythological stories, usually linking them to particular lessons she had learned about how to behave. Her suitor, Mr. B, accuses her of being influenced by reading romances, but he is the one acting the part of a “romantic” hero. By reading her letters, he converts himself to proper virtuous behavior. Richardson expects the book to transform its readers in the same way.

Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing, Joseph Highmore, 1743-4
Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing, Joseph Highmore, 1743-4

The relevant point for the future of human rights is that if Pamela alarmed critics more than other books, it was because Richardson had legions of fans. People read Pamela in masses, and they identified with her whether moral watchdogs wished them to do so or not. The controversy encouraged people to put themselves in her shoes. Readers knew Pamela was fiction, but the debate styled itself as one between honest morality and the possibility that Pamela (therefore Richardson) was a hypocrite, claiming virtue while pandering to common tastes. Critics called Pamela a deception because they saw sensibility and emotionality as overly credulous, but by calling attention to the novel, critics pushed fans into reading more closely. Interested parties had to imagine themselves as Pamela to see whether her actions were reasonable or not.

Next week, we’ll start talking about how empathy for fictional characters actually works, and the effects we’ve measured in the modern day. I feel like I’m probably confusing some people at this point, what do you think so far?

11 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 4: Is Reading Good or Bad? (Richardson’s Intended Effects)

  1. This is all really interesting. I’ll admit I’d never heard of the book before this, but it sounds like the debates around it were very similar to the ones that occurred in Japan when Murasaki Shikubu but The Tale of Genji to paper. So many people were worried about its effects on women in particular, maybe for different reasons than Pamela. For one, the monks of the time demanded it all be burned for its heresy. 😛


      1. I’ll try to remember! I’m on my phone right now and your blog is t mobile responsive, so I’ll have a look on my computer later. ☺ feel free to FB PM me the link to the “Table of Contents”, too!


          1. Haha, yeah. That’s why everyone has been switching themes. 😛 Google is starting to penalize the ranking of any site that is t mobile responsive.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Hannah, this is a very fascinating series of posts. I look forward to further installments.

    I very much enjoyed your recountings of the contemporary reactions to Samuel Richardson’s novel. Certainly there is some very familiar hysteria present there that repeats itself with depressing familiarity over the centuries…

    “Novels / theater / movies / comic books / rock music / television / video games are corrupting society! It’s the downfall of everything that is good & decent in Western civilization! Won’t anyone think of the children?!?”

    In other words… the more things change, the more they stay the same! 🙂



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