In November of 1740 Samuel Richardson published his lengthy novel Pamela to immediate popularity and success. It’s unlikely you’ve heard of it unless you’ve done any study of British novels published in the 18th century, but I think it’s a very pertinent read right now in 2010. I will also concede that it’s a bit boring and dry at parts so I’ll do some basic plot summary for you.
The novel was written in the new literary format of the epistle, that is to say, a novel constructed around letter writing or diary format. Our protagonist is a 15 year old servant girl by the name of Pamela who has been employed by the very rich Mr. B since the age of 12. Oh, but Mr. B is a randy fellow who has been trying to get into her knickers since he first set eyes upon her. Luckily, under the watchful eye of her mother she was safe from his advances. Then, tragically, her mother dies and now Pamela must rely on her wits to protect her virtue. In fact, the full name of the title is Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded and the major bulk of the book is a game of cat and mouse in which Mr. B does everything possible to seduce and ravish the young girl.
Richardson was an innovative writer and the style that he uses to tell this story was truly groundbreaking. A popular device of the British novel was to tell “a true story” despite the fact that these were books purely for entertainment and works of fiction. Even though we look back on these times as being stodgy and a little dull, it really was the reality TV of the time and novels were very popular among women. Richardson took a risk by creating the structure of the epistolary novel to lend credence to the idea that his words were actually those of a young girl and it caught on like wildfire. Suddenly, every writer was using this format and it remained popular well into the 19th century.
Pamela may have been born to poor parents, but luckily this was a time before things like child labor laws and compulsory education ruined everyone’s fun and at the ripe old age of 12 she is sent off to be a servant to the lovely and very rich Mrs. B where she spends her days lacing corsets, developing a strong relationship with the motherly head servant, and learning to be a lady. All-in-all, it’s not a bad life. In her 15th year, Mrs. B tragically passes away and her bachelor son comes home to roost in his inheritance throwing Pamela’s life upside down. He is instantly attracted by her good looks and without things like “sexual harassment laws” or “workplace protection” he hounds her mercilessly trying to get the one asset that Pamela has- her virtue.
Mr. B tries every single trick in the book to seduce her and these are truly the highlights of the novel. He tries to woo her. He threatens to marry her off to the very prototype of the “Igor” archetype who is ugly, smelly, and bad company in general. He locks her away in an estate informing her parents that she is having an affair and the move is wholly necessary to “protect her reputation.” He even tries to lay in bed with her dressed in drag as one of the more homely female servants. Towards the end he offers her a financial contract written in articles that would prove to be very lucrative for her, but she declines because she will not accept the role of a mistress. After hundreds of pages he finally relents and offers her the equitable marriage she has been seeking.
The reason why I think this novel is so fascinating in today’s context is because of the reception it received upon its release. The populace simply adored it but there were some very harsh critics. Eliza Haywood, another popular female writer of the time, composed Anti-Pamela and Henry Fielding wrote An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews both highlighted the fact that virginity was a valuable financial asset to Pamela and both write stories where the female protagonist is smart, cunning, and ruthless either deliberately using virginity as a ploy or in the case of Shamela as a carefully constructed ruse in which she is really a prostitute teaming up with her mother to take men for everything they have.
No matter the time or place, human beings have fascinating relationships with sex. We as a species have always had premarital and extramarital sex. It is what we have done, what we do, and what we will continue to do throughout the course of history. Virginity, specifically female virginity, is the hunt for the white stag. All of these writers were aware of the fact that is is a commodity. This may be a well organized dowry calculated by the cultural standards of beauty and social status or a winning bid on eBay, but the value of virginity is always pretty easy to link to money. These novels never downplay Pamela’s intelligence (Pamela is always an oddly complex character even through the eyes of three different writers) but the parodies and satires point out the fact that virginity is not just an oblique moral state-of-being. Why do we still have phrases like, “why buy the cow when the milk is free,” if virginity was not in fact just a financial venture?
I look around at my own time and place here in America where there are innumerable patches of sexual culture. My own “San Francisco values” are distinctly different from parts of the country where purity balls are so common. At a purity ball, a father vows to protect his daughter’s chastity. I even read an account where a father got his daughter a necklace with a lock on it and kept the key until the day she married when he handed it off to her lawfully wedded husband. Now that’s kinky and creepy, amiright? In a few centuries, what will people say about our sexual culture? Will we be looked at as a predominantly Pamela based culture with a few Shamela detractors? Is virginity less of a moral issue than it is an economic issue? Will we ever have a society in which we acknowledge the infinite diversity of sexual experience and accept the spectrum?
I do want to conclude by stating that I’m not telling anyone to go out and read this novel. Please bear in mind that I find pleasure in being tied up and beaten so any of my pleasure recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s a tedious read, without a doubt. I’m also the kind of person who loves talking about how fascinating the first edition of the English dictionary is. I think that the satire written in response to Pamela is far more witty and engaging (as any well done satire is apt to be) but it’s really hard to fully process it without having encountered its target first. Just don’t find me after class to steal my glasses and shove me into a locker because I’m a huge nerd. I wrote this little summary to point out that we’re all participants in a larger tradition. For every person who believes that the hymen is holy, there is someone else who believes that the hymen should be hole-y. Even virtue has a shadow.