Reevaluating Reward in Richardson's Pamela
by Joshua M. Patton
Presented at the University of Pittsburgh Undergraduate Literature Conference
March 30, 2012
In Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, much attention is often paid to the characterization of Pamela herself and how it reflects Richardson’s opinions about women and their virtue. Pamela’s character is surely meant to be a model to the young women of the day, yet she also serves as a model to present-day readers. Rather than see her as someone to be emulated, present-day readers often see her as a representation of all women forced to endure the simultaneous sexual repression and sexual aggression of patriarchal 18th-Century England. In either context, Mr. B is a villain. He assaults her, violates her privacy at almost every turn, and even kidnaps her, the fear she uses to describe him in the book easily justified. Modern readers can’t help but pity the poor dear when upon B’s proposal of marriage she relents and claims to love this monster. However, as stated in the preface, if one of the purposes of this text was to “paint Vice in its proper Colours, to make it deservedly Odious, and to set Virtue in its own amiable Light, to make it truly Lovely,” then I suggest that Mr. B’s narrative arc represents the pathway from vice back to virtue and that he is perhaps the character most rewarded at book’s end (Richardson 5).
Mr. B’s life is greatly affected by the women in it. His mother’s death begins the occasion for the story. I can only speculate about Mr. B’s role in the family before her death, but his behaviors after his mother’s death are more those of a petulant youth than the patriarch of a genteel family. When Lady Davers so involves herself into her brother’s affairs, with respect to Sally Godfrey or his marriage to Pamela, it is safe to intuit that perhaps the ambitious older sister took a far more active role in quieting the disturbances of Mr. B’s youth than either of his parents (Richardson 480). When Pamela meets Miss Goodwin, Mr. B asks if Pamela will “allow me to love this little Innocent?” (Richardson 478). This is an interesting question, because to this point in the story Mr. B has seemingly made his decisions on his own, no matter how questionable they may be. He kidnaps Pamela rather than send her home, falsely imprisons Mr. Williams (a clergyman, no less), and plans a false marriage ceremony to fool Pamela into sleeping with him. Why would a man, capable of these acts, need ask permission to love his own offspring, illegitimacy aside?
Perhaps the answer to this question is similar to the answer to another important question the reader must consider when reading this novel: Why does Mr. B not fully force himself on to our virtuous narrator? In a study of rape cases tried by the Old Bailey from 1730 - 1830, the conviction rate for rape averaged 17%, but the conviction rate for attempted rape was higher, 47%. In terms of Richardson’s argument, perhaps this suggests that at the time attempted rape was the worse crime because virtue assailed is far different than virtue ruined. Still it seems not a far stretch of the imagination that Mr. B might rape Pamela. He hides in a closet, dressed in nightclothes, and attacks the girl in her bedroom. However when she faints, rather than taking further liberties with her, he flees.
Modern readers see little distinction here, as Mr. B’s actions are unquestionably repugnant. I believe that readers during the 18th-century would equally find these actions vile, which makes Mr. B’s change all that more drastic. Despite his unwillingness to take Pamela’s virtue against her will, he is perfectly willing to offer her money and even a false marriage so that she gives herself to him freely. That desire is important, because ultimately Mr. B offers himself to Pamela, because he is subject to his sister.
Lady Davers and Pamela are never allies. Her initial concern for Pamela’s virtue, with respect to removing her from her brother’s employ, is her way of protecting Mr. B from himself. As the older of the two siblings, Lady Davers ambition to rule the family is almost as clear as her resentment to the notion that as a woman, she never will. Still, she manages (or at least meddles) in the affairs of the men around her, Mr. B included. Davers thinks very little of her brother and while she may not have known that he planned a sham marriage, she anticipates that he might do such a thing when she finally asks him “you are actually and really marry’d, honestly, or rather foolishly, to this Slut” (Richardson 423). In a sense, this is as much of a coming-of-age story for Mr. B as it is for Pamela. When Davers bursts into their bedchamber because she doesn’t believe they are married, B asks her if he is not “independent,” “of Age,” and “at Liberty to please,” himself. Davers reminds him of his past dalliances and of “an Italian duel” and that “all of [his] Airs breathe as strongly of Manslayer as the Libertine” (Richardson 419). Lady Davers represents the social conflict that arises from such a union, but coupled with the knowledge of these dirty secrets, she also represents how Mr. B is still beholden to those societal ideals. When he renounces his sister, he is also renouncing the ideals she holds.
Pamela, as the source of this conflict, is then able to reconcile it as only she could, but displeases her husband in the process. Despite Lady Davers’s resentment that Pamela is able to increase her station in life through marriage – whereas were the situation reversed Lady Davers would have to assume the class of her husband – she too is won over by Pamela’s innate goodness, her virtuous nature. Mr. B tells Lady Davers that Pamela was born with “Beauty, Virtue, Prudence, and Generosity,” and her “Few years education,” and “Genius, has done more for her than a whole life has done for others” (Richardson 423). Many of Lady Davers’s complaints are similar to the protests Mr. B himself had against their marriage. Only it is Pamela’s singular excellence that wins him over and it is her singular excellence – through her interactions with Lady Davers and the praise she receives from the Lincolnshire gentry – that makes her fiercest enemy into her friend.
The significant change happens when Mr. B progresses from asking rhetorical questions about his station to making statements and rules affirming his position. Throughout the book Pamela has been independent and strong-willed. She is obedient as long as she is in agreement with what is being asked of her. Even though Pamela was able to change Lady Davers’s opinion of her, she did go against her husband’s wishes. Even though Pamela and Lady Davers work out their trouble, he renders the final verdict as evidenced by when they both go to him to plead for his favor.
If this is to be an honorable marriage, Mr. B cannot have his lady-wife contradicting him, at least not so brazenly. The climax of this conflict comes when Mr. B presents his list of rules by which Pamela must abide. Here again modern readers may only see a cad and misogynist of the highest-degree, but I believe that was not Richardson’s intent. Were Pamela the sole focus of this work, the story would naturally end at the marriage, the ever-after (happily, or otherwise) would not be worth much attention. Even though this is the novel in its infancy, the importance of a character going through significant change was not absent from the form even then.
Pamela does not change too significantly throughout the narrative. The most obvious change she experiences is when her fear of Mr. B gives way to love. Lady Davers addresses this when she asks if Pamela had always been in love with Mr. B. She replies the way any good, virtuous, role model of the day would, she had “a great Reverence” for him and she thought “his good Actions, doubly good” yet took no pleasure in what she deemed his “naughty” actions (Richardson 452). Thus, Pamela’s change only comes about because of the much more significant change in the character of Mr. B. In the midst of his argument with Lady Davers, Mr. B hopes that Pamela will be able to “make as great a Convert of [Davers] from Pride as she has made me from Libertinism” (Richardson 424). It is an interesting loop that Richardson has crafted; Pamela changes her opinion of Mr. B because she inspired Mr. B to leave behind his love of vice so he can have a legitimate chance at love with her.
The list of rules may seem on the surface as though he is forcing her to submit to his will, which in a sense he is, but the addition of commentary by Pamela indicates how these rules will be practiced. Mr. B, for all of his bluster and bravado, is absolutely a fraud at the mercy of his wife. He risked his standing, with both family and society-at-large, to marry her. It is Pamela who has the upper-hand in Mr. B’s life now, supplanting Lady Davers as the person who either guides his morality or at least places it in context for him. Presenting Pamela with these rules is his attempt to regain the position he finds most comfortable – the one in which he gives the orders.
I am not sure if the idea of a list of 48 rules from husbands to their wives is as funny in the 18th-century context as it is to readers today, but I think it was. The tone is set with the first rule, which Pamela dismisses as irrational. Pamela “must not when he is in great Wrath with any body, break in upon him, without his leave.” In her comments, Pamela says she will remember this but imagines that this rule is even “peculiar to himself” (Richardson 448) Rules 26 and 15, with Pamela’s comments, are indicative of their varied perspectives. Rule 26 states that the words “Obey” and “Command” be “blotted out of his vocabulary,” and is more of a rule for Mr. B than it is for Pamela. Pamela’s declaration of “Very Good,” does not mean that she expects to be treated as his equal, but merely no longer as a servant (Richardson 450). Rule 15, part of a series that deals with raising children, shows this perspective variance when Mr. B says “ that undutiful and perverse Children make bad Wives and Husbands,” while Pamela adds, “bad Masters and Mistresses” too, showing that even though she has risen in station, she has not forgotten what life was like before. Mr. B also anticipates the rules Pamela will have the most trouble with by first offering a rule and then following with a clarification to that rule. For example in Rule number five, he cautions Pamela against “wilful acts of Meanness,” yet she adds that he must also not speak that way to her, using his own words (Richardson 448). However, this example is not more obvious than in rules 43 and 44. Rule 43 cautions Pamela against criticizing or faulting him in front of company, but then Rule 44 softens it by saying that at least she not do so with “such an Air of Superiority, as if she had less Opinion of his Judgment than her own” (Richardson 451). Essentially, these and other rules are asking that she simply not challenge him in front of others, implying that she could do so with impunity if she decided to be as domineering as Lady Davers.
The final doubt Pamela has about her beloved husband is reflected in her comments to Rule 6 when she wonders “whether poor Sally Godfrey is living or dead” (Richardson 448). After Pamela learns the truth, she is not angry. She pities the mother, living in Jamaica and being denied “the Enjoyment of so sweet a child” (Richardson 482). Lady Davers made all the proposals and arrangements for the care of both the mother and the child (at least until the mother found herself another husband after claiming to be widowed). Mr. B, while responsible for it all, is not taking any responsibility for his actions, deferring instead to the advice of his sister. Pamela, on the other hand, shows only concern for both the young mother – with whom Pamela empathizes because she only narrowly avoided the same fate – and a desire to take in the illegitimate child, seeing Miss Goodwin as not a blight on the family name but as an innocent that deserves both love and protection. When Mr. B asks if he is allowed to love his daughter, the suggestion is that he has perhaps always wanted to, but was cautioned against it. It is in this moment that Richardson makes Mr. B’s transformation from scoundrel to worthy companion for the virtuous Pamela.
18-th Century England, especially for the unlanded servant class, was a brutal time, doubly so for women. Richardson’s characterization of both Pamela and Mr. B are consistently debated with respect to their believability. Her virtue and his antics are almost cartoonish in nature or perhaps they just seem so through the filter of two-and-a-half centuries. What is interesting to me is how the titular rewards are handed out. In that respect, I venture Mr. B got the better end of that deal.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Simpson, Antony. ‘Vulnerability and the age of female consent: legal innovation and its effect on prosecutions for rape in eighteenth-century London’, in G.S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, eds, Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment, (Manchester, Manchester U.P., 1987), pp. 181-205.