Are You Virtuous Enough? Are You Sure?

I’d been warned Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded, was a tedious read. About a quarter of the way through, I find it more obnoxious than tedious. It’s also fascinating from an anthropological standpoint, being the story of a domestic servant featuring many details of mid-18th century life. I’ve been reading a copy printed in 1907 (the bookmark is a ribbon added by me).

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It’s pretty sturdy for its age. It also has some charming engravings from a 1745 edition.

So far, the story has been about Pamela, a 16 year-old servant, resisting the sexual advances of her master, a young gentleman, who has become less restrained in his conduct following the death of his mother, Pamela’s former mistress. Richardson originally conceived the series of letters that make up most of the novel’s content as a “conduct book”, a book designed to instruct young people how to behave. This is where the book is obnoxious and unsurprisingly inspired a multitude of parodies in its own time, one of the most strident critics being Richardson’s rival, Henry Fielding, and reading Pamela after Fielding’s Tom Jones is a bit like watching Get Out after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Pamela’s master is such a consistent swine and Pamela is such an unwavering paragon it’s all a bit absurd. It has the quality of late Puritan morality, too, in its implication that anything approaching sinful thought or inclination is a ticket to Hell. At one point, the master offers to support her poor family for the rest of their lives in exchange for her becoming his lover. She replies only with shocked indignation—her poverty and her parents’ poverty are only a source of pride for her.

. . . God’s goodness, to your piety and good examples, my dear parents, my dear poor parents! I say that word with pleasure; for your poverty is my pride, as your integrity shall be my imitation.

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Imagine a more realistic woman in a more realistic situation, one who married a rich man she only kind of liked, for example, to save a family where most of the children had died and the parents were suffering the effects of malnutrition. Just imagine how Pamela’s grandstanding would come off.

I know from synopses there’s eventually a turn where Pamela’s master does become reformed and she accepts him but so far the book almost reads like #MeToo, the Novel, with its attention to how the master abuses the power of his position to attempt taking advantage of Pamela. But on the same token, Pamela might be called Victim Blaming, the Novel with its conceit that any submission on Pamela’s part would render her culpable.

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At one point, when Pamela’s master tries to rape her, he mentions the rape of Lucretia to assure Pamela she will bear no guilt for the deed.

He by force kissed my neck and lips; and said, Whoever blamed Lucretia? All the shame lay on the ravisher only and I am content to take all the blame upon me, as I have already borne too great a share for what I have not deserved.

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May I, said I, Lucretia like, justify myself with my death, if I am used barbarously! O my good girl! said he, tauntingly, you are well read, I see; and we shall make out between us, before we have done, a pretty story in romance, I warrant ye.

Lucretia was a noblewoman in ancient Rome who was raped and subsequently committed suicide. The incident has been used for centuries to frame discussions about rape. Saint Augustine wrote about it in his City of God:

This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her.

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But Augustine also goes on to say that Lucretia’s suicide should not be used to prove her integrity.

. . . but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin? Even though this were the case, she ought still to have held her hand from suicide, if she could with her false gods have accomplished a fruitful repentance. However, if such were the state of the case, and if it were false that there were two, but one only committed adultery; if the truth were that both were involved in it, one by open assault, the other by secret consent, then she did not kill an innocent woman; and therefore her erudite defenders may maintain that she is not among that class of the dwellers below “who guiltless sent themselves to doom.” But this case of Lucretia is in such a dilemma, that if you extenuate the homicide, you confirm the adultery: if you acquit her of adultery, you make the charge of homicide heavier; and there is no way out of the dilemma, when one asks, If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?

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Richardson seems to be invoking this dilemma by awkwardly putting it into the mouth of a would-be rapist. What starts as a decent enough point that one shouldn’t blame women for being raped goes to a place seemingly designed to provoke neurotic second guessing and loopholes. Yes, my dear, but are you sure you didn’t enjoy it, just a little bit? Because then you’d be a sinner.

For some reason, many people consider Pamela to be the first English novel, despite the existence of Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Oroonoko (1688), and many, many others. The answer to this mystery comes in the Publisher’s Note included in my 1907 edition:

. . . it marked the transition from the novel of adventure to the novel of character—from the narration of entertaining events to the study of men and of manners, of motives and of sentiments. In it the romantic interest of the story (which is of the slightest) is subordinated to the moral interest in the conduct of its characters in the various situations in which they are placed.

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In other words, it’s not genre fiction. All those other works are too much fun to be worthy of serious notice. I’d argue, though, Moll Flanders has more psychological depth in her little finger than Pamela has in her whole chaste person.

Twitter Sonnet #1279

A running ball was tossed to make the skin.
In grassy chalk the lines were written green.
Ideas were bunched in notes beneath the pin.
A scratchy scrawl was never clearly seen.
Retrieving amps reprised the tuneless steel.
In boxes packed a sea of fish were read.
In yellow dye the fortress turned to real.
A tree or wall recalled what ceilings said.
A skipping disk curtailed revision’s play.
Absorbing tasks divert the tendrils west.
Another sun creates a purple day.
Assembled wheels propel the cages best.
An empty pen discards its crimson cap.
Inverted slides reveal a hidden map.

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