Updated: Oct 12
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is considered to be one of the first true English novels.
Published in 1740 in two volumes, Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel explores the themes of sex, marriage, feminism, and classism. When it came out, it was an instant standout; it was provocative and controversial, and far more sophisticated than meets the eye at a first read. The subtlety and contrivance of Richardson’s writing does indeed reveal itself along with the story.
Pamela is the tale of a fifteen-year-old maid, whose parents are poor country people. After her dear lady dies, she falls under the control of Mr. B, the lady's son. He desires Pamela at all costs, and resorts to very low ploys in order to achieve his goal.
Pamela’s virtue however—as a consequence of the way she was raised and of her late lady's teachings—does not allow her to fall victim to unruliness and disrespect. She fights her master over and over again, suffering greatly his sudden changes of temper and his violent reactions. She is denied going back to her parents, and is thus held prisoner. The letters she writes to her parents tell us the story all the meanwhile. They are always seized and supervised by the villainous Mr. B, before Pamela is allowed to send them out.
In the second part of the story, Pamela’s master (for thus she always refers to him) can no longer sustain her resistance in the face of all his attempts, and thus gives in to his own emotions as a man, and to his virtues as a gentleman. As Pamela cannot but rejoice in her master’s favorable change and admire him for his good qualities, the two fall in love with each other and get married.
By doing so, Mr. B raises Pamela to his own status (even against his sister’s threats of dishonor), makes her well acquainted with his own circle of friends, and entrusts both her and her parents with money and land: thus turning from villain to savior.
Pamela is the main character, and her virtue as a woman is the primary quality around which the story revolves. Both her spirituality, deriving from her Catholic upbringing, and her humility, the awareness of her own condition, make her an object of praise and admiration.
The grace of her physical appearance and of her manners is only surpassed by that of her inner character, as both Mr. B and his friends continuously reassert.
In spite of feeling—and breaking—under the constant threat of Mr. B and his loyal servant Mrs. Jewkes, as well as Mr. B's daughter, Lady Davers, Pamela emerges victorious every time: she ultimately wins her enemies over, one by one, turning their wickeder sides into their better nature. Pamela is the light by which all that surround her are inspired into spiritual conversion.
This novel’s heroine, however, is not only a humble, good, deserving human being. She is also a woman with exceptional intellectual abilities. As we progress through the story we see her writing improve at an incredible rate. We bear witness to her aptitude for language; to her eloquent reasoning; to her absolute capacity for learning.
At the time it was written, Pamela caused great concern as regards marriage and social status. Today, this far-reaching example of English literature certainly kindles the admiration and respect of many a woman, proving how much ahead of its time Richardson’s own ideas must have been.
In a time when the word "feminism" has stretched to touch upon multiple aspects of social life and reverberates stronger than ever, Pamela sets a high standard before us: having shaken—by the immeasurable virtue of a woman—a world where it was perhaps nigh on impossible to even utter what today is considered a right, and was yesterday a dream.
In a time when we know oppression and equality are the difference between savageness and civilization, Richardson’s novel shines like a great spark from the past: having long ago opened the way for freedom of sex and of class, of thought and expression—and having thus liberated us from the absurd constraints of our own minds.
————— Edoardo is an Italian native and has lived and studied both in Italy and abroad. He graduated with a B.A. in Modern Languages and Economics from the University of Milan and with an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of London. He now lives and works in the city of Bologna. ————— The views and opinions expressed in Community are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Madiha Foundation.