Today’s post is a question I really can’t answer. Another essay in the Norton Critical Edition (1983) of Humphry Clinker is by Wolfgang Iser, “The Generic Control of the Aesthetic Response: An Examination of Smollett’s Humphry Clinker.” Iser examines the epistolary form of Humphry Clinker and compares it with that of Richardson’s novels, and finds them different. According to the essay, “[t]he letter-form offered itself as a means whereby Richardson could capture the introspection he sought to portray” in “deal[ing] with the spiritual life of the characters.” Iser claims that “[t]he letter-form facilitates this self-examination insofar as it externalizes inner emotions.” On the other hand:
If Humphry Clinker is considered against this background, only the form of observation that we find in the different correspondents can be equated with that developed by Richardson. The individual personality of the letter-writer is present in everything he records. However, in Smollett the observations are no longer concerned with self-analysis, but with the changing situations that occur during the journey through town and country. For Richardson, the letter-form was a means of self-revelation to be achieved through a variety of situations, and it was on this central theme of self-discovery that the events of the epistolary novel were hinged. For Smollett, this central theme loses its importance. Richardson attached importance to the individual situation of his heroines only insofar as it led them to self-analysis and all the consequences resulting from it, but Smollett takes the situation itself as a theme.
Now, I should say that this is not a negative thing for Iser; he is not knocking Humphry Clinker here, in fact he seems to be saying that it makes HC more complex because it can deal with more than just its characters’ inner moral life.
But my question is this: where is the self-analysis in Richardson? These claims about Richardson’s novels were what I had been generally led to believe, before starting this project, that I should expect from epistolary fiction. The idea that the letter allows the author to “externalize inner emotions” is something I ran into…I don’t know where, but that’s the impression I had of at least one notion of the “point” of the epistolary form. And I may have been unfortunately blinded by my dislike of Pamela, but I really did not see this happening there much.
Yes, Pamela thinks about herself and her situation a lot. She spends a lot of time “talk[ing] about [her] vartue,” agonizing over the awful way she’s been treated, and wishing she could go home to her poor but honest parents. But is this self-analysis? Is there any self-discovery? The little tiny bit of self-discovery there is, where Pamela realizes that after all she’s in love with Mr B., is minimized by her for obvious reasons—because it’s absurd and embarrassing. And I just can’t think of any more self-discovery than that. Pamela isn’t on some kind of spiritual journey. Is she?
Now, admittedly, Iser talks more about Clarissa in this essay than about Pamela, and my understanding is that Clarissa and Charles Grandison are better-developed than Richardson’s first novel. Maybe they really do show the self-analysis that’s claimed; I hope so. But Pamela is not excluded from those claims here, and I just didn’t see it. In fact, it was something I had expected to be able to write about after reading Pamela, since I’d expected it to be a major feature, but I didn’t mention it because it didn’t seem to be there.
I guess it’s months now since I finished Pamela and maybe my prejudice combined with the elapsed time is making me forget; that’s why this post is really a question. Did I miss it?
So, on to the form—the reason for all this, anyway.
I had, of course, read plenty of epistolary novels before starting this project, but I think I’d always taken for granted something that’s actually a little weird when you think about it. Not always, but often, the letters (and other documents) that make up the story also have a role as objects within the story. Pieces of the narrative are things within it, and also, because of the nature of the letters as a series of installments, they can affect the course of the story.
So, the writing of the story can affect the outcome of the story. Sounds like maybe a little bit postmodern when you put it that way, don’t you think?
In Pamela, this happens a lot. When she’s still living in the Bedfordshire house, Pamela’s letters to her parents are intercepted by Mr. B, giving him knowledge of her state of mind and the ability to more effectively plot against her. One character’s whole role consists in carrying Pamela’s physical letters (which we’re reading) to her parents (secretly showing them to Mr. B along the way), thereby ingratiating himself with the whole family. His betrayal comes as a great blow.
Writing is clearly important to Pamela, who knows she doesn’t have much of consequence to say but nevertheless compulsively “scribbles” about everything that happens to her. She hoards paper and hides ink around the house in case Mrs. Jewkes tries to stop her writing. While she’s being held in the Lincolnshire house, instead of writing letters to her parents, she writes (very faithfully) a journal addressed to them instead. This journal is an even more important document to the story itself.
Pamela is able to get part of the journal sent off to her parents, via Mr. Williams (with whom she carries on another secret correspondence, the physical presence of which creates constant danger of being found out). When Mr. B reads her later entries, they are ultimately what cause him to warm toward her enough to propose, and he is very jealous of the part no longer in the house. He wants the rest sent for, he wants to keep reading further entries. Pamela tries to hide her journal in her clothing but he’s ready to strip it off to get it from her. He simply must get his hands on everything she writes; she can’t have any privacy of thought from him.
But after that Pamela is very willing to let people read her story. Mr. B’s sister, Lady Davers, gets it after him:
‘But I understand, child,’ continued she, ‘that you keep a journal of all matters that pass; and that he has several times found means to get at it: should you care I should see it? It could not be to your disadvantage; for I find it had no small weight with him in your favour; and I should take great pleasure to read all his stratagems, attempts, contrivances, menaces, and offers to you, on one hand; and all your counter-plottings, which he much praises, your resolute resistance, and the noble efforts you have made to preserve your virtue; and the steps by which his pride was subdued, till you were made what you now are: for it must be a rare, an uncommon story. I shall have great pleasure in reading it; and it will, probably, reconcile me to the step he has taken.’
Sounds as exciting as a novel!
I know I haven’t (yet) talked about characterization via the letters, but Lady Davers has such good things to say about that too I’ll pass them on in case I don’t get to it.
‘There is such a sweet simplicity in thy story, as thou tellest it; such an honest artlessness in they mind, and such an amiable humility in thy deportment, that I believe I shall be forced to love thee, whether I will or not. The sight of your papers, I dare say, will crown the work.’
At least, that’s the idea.
One of Mr. B’s plots against Pamela is to have sham marriage. One of her former fellow-servants sneaks Pamela a note to the effect that Mr. B is going to propose, and they are going to have a wedding ceremony, but that Mr. B has already engaged a disreputable lawyer to pose as the minister. This way he can get his hands on Pamela’s sweet virtue without the commitment.
Pamela is of course horrified by the danger of a sham marriage, because once she’s been warned about it and the idea is in her mind, there’s no real way to trust Mr. B when he does propose. In the end she can be safe and sure because he goes to the trouble of procuring a marriage license and the clergyman who performs the ceremony is known to her, but the really scary thing about the sham marriage is that there’s almost no discernible difference between the sham and the real thing.
This is even more true when you consider Mr. B’s actual plan:
‘I had intended that he should have read some part of the ceremony (as little as was possible, to deceive you) in my chamber; and so I hoped to have you mine upon terms that then would have been much more agreeable to me than matrimony. Nor did I intend that you should soon be undeceived: so that we might have lived for years, perhaps, very agreeably together; while it would have been in my power to confirm or abrogate the marriage, as I pleased.’
He lists several compelling reasons why he ultimately settled against this, chief among them the potential illegitimacy of his children with Pamela and the fact that he had once spoken out against another man who carried out a similar deceit, and didn’t want to be unoriginal. As a bonus, he uses the speech as a way to blame Pamela yet again, this time for not simply writing him to clear up the matter rather than assuming he might have evil designs.
The sham marriage, though, illuminates the absurdity with which marriage is treated by both Mr. B and Pamela. Mr. B wants to avoid getting married at all costs for the first half of the book, but he’s perfectly willing to live for years with Pamela, have children with her, and settle on her a generous income. Some of this can be ascribed to the class issues between him and Pamela, but Mr. B feels this aversion to matrimony in general, and just doesn’t want to tie himself down to anyone. Because he realizes he was spoiled as a child and just can’t put aside his selfishness to get along with anyone else.
Meanwhile, Pamela ascribes magical properties to a ritual that can’t even be reliably identified from a false version of itself. Unmarried sex=super evil, married sex=all good, and yet the whole time she can’t actually tell the difference between married and unmarried sex. And it’s not just because unmarried sex would leave her vulnerable to a loss of support. She fully believes that she would lose her virtue, be ruined, etc., if she found out years after the fact that her and Mr. B hadn’t been “really” married.
Of course, my more cynical side takes this another depressing step. That is to say, married sex and unmarried sex really are alike for Pamela; they are both rape. It’s just that marital rape is okay. She does want to avoid getting married at all, at first. She doesn’t want to marry Mr. Williams and she writes to her parents that she wants to continue in her maiden state, being so young. She seems to get particularly nervous about that maiden state as her diary entries become more and more frequent and frantic as her wedding night approaches. We never hear the least thing about it though—disappointing, frankly, after so many naughty scenes early on. But probably relevant.
Why do I hate Pamela so much? It’s because she has such a one-track mind. Virtue only means one thing: keeping your legs closed until you’re married. That might sound crude, but it doesn’t sound any less crude drawn out over 500 pages of romantic fluff, really. And virtue is Pamela’s only value.
But the value Pamela places on herself is supposed to be one of her most important qualities. She is a poor servant girl who refuses to submit to her nasty master. She bucks the feudal code and believes she has self-worth even though she is lower class. Let me quote at length from Margaret A. Doody’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition:
Mr B. is both promulgator and victim of a code which deliberately sets up not just a double but a triple standard. Men of all classes are expected to take casual sexual pleasure—though it’s better for poor men not to roam too much. Middle- and upper-class young ladies have chastity most explicitly demanded of them (for worldly reasons of family and descent) but lower-class girls are not supposed to set any such value on themselves—they are there for sexual convenience. So thoroughly has gentle society accepted this notion that a lower-class girl who makes any fuss about yielding her virginity must be guilty of hypocrisy—after all, one knows what they are all like, really. Richardson was horrified at being taken for a leveller, but this pernicious code he attacks unsparingly, and the extirpation of it demands new assumptions about class, property, authority and identity.
Pamela rebels against this code, but she has no illusions about her social condition as one of the ‘poor people’. She knows that marriage cannot be expected as the logical outcome or possible result of her resistance. It is the reader who sees that marriage is the only right end to the story, the only sexual relationship which allows of equality and integrity, acknowledges Pamela’s value as a person, not a thing.
This is, I think, not supposed to be controversial, and yet I have an impossible time buying into it. Pamela doesn’t value herself at all; she only values her “virtue.” She is worthless, only her virginity is important. When she rejects Mr. B’s advances, it’s not because she doesn’t want to be raped—it’s because she doesn’t want to be ruined. It’s not about her own desires, her own personal space, her own individuality. It’s only about virginity, virtue, chastity. If she is ruined, she is ruined—soiled, worthless, unable to ever recover. And it’s not like Pamela is even willing to credit herself with anything she does that might actually be good; that is all Christ.
But she mostly isn’t all that good. She’s vain and silly, she’s not actually willing to stand up to Mr B. about anything but her virginity—why in the hell does she finish embroidering his waistcoat if she wants to go home so badly?
To Mr. Williams:
‘Were my life in question, instead of my virtue, I would not wish to involve any body in the least difficulty for so worthless a poor creature. But, O sir! my soul is of equal importance with the soul of a princess, though in quality I am but upon a foot with the meanest slave.
‘Save thou, my innocence, good Heaven! and happy shall I be, although an early death were to be my lot; since that would put an end to all my troubles.’
She could hardly make it more clear. (And this also gets back to Richardson and his levelling. I don’t see how he can deny it, as there’s language like this all over, especially after Mr. B proposes.) Pamela’s life is worthless, only her virginity is important, she would rather die than be ruined.
Her good, poor, honest parents feel the same way. When her father shows up at Mr. B’s, after God knows how long letting her stay there kidnapped, the first thing he says is: “‘I will ask you sir,’ said he, ‘but one question till then, that I may know how to look upon her when I see her? Is she honest? Is she virtuous?’”
And how should he look upon her if she’s not? “‘But you say I shall see my child! And I shall see her honest! If not, poor as I am, I would not own her!’”
I can’t get around it: Pamela’s father is utterly reprehensible. He well knows that if Pamela isn’t “honest” it’s because she’s been violently forced to sleep with someone who is imprisoning her against her will, but he would disown his own daughter all the same. No, these people are not virtuous.
And to get back for a moment to the very end of the passage I quoted from the introduction—do other readers really see marriage as “the only right end to the story”? Marriage to the man who has kidnapped Pamela, kept her locked away, and abused her physically, sexually, and emotionally? I go for a lot of bad-boy romances; I liked Rochester, I liked Heathcliff (um, sort of). But the way Mr. B is able to take advantage as the head of his servants, the justice of the peace, the owner and mortgagor of all the surrounding villages, to commit grave, grave crimes against what should be a free woman, I just could not handle. If Pamela would truly rather die than be ruined, she should have done her utmost to fight off Mr. B and Mrs. Jewkes violently; she would have been well justified in killing them for the way they’ve violated her rights. And I’m supposed to view marriage as the “right end”?
Further, that marriage is supposed to be “the only sexual relationship which allows of equality and integrity, [and] acknowledges Pamela’s value as a person, not a thing.” You mean the marriage where Pamela continues to call Mr. B “master”? Or perhaps the marriage where he harangues her on how to behave and scolds her harshly for what only an egomaniac would consider offenses? The marriage where Mr. B constantly accuses Pamela of maybe, just maybe being interested in other men? Or where he gives “awful lectures”—oh, I mean “agreeable injunctions” and “indispensable rules for my future conduct”? No, it must be the one where he belittles her in front of his friends, saying,
‘Pamela, in the time of her confinement, as she thought it, one Sunday was importuned by Mrs Jewkes, whom she considered as her gaoler, and whom she thought employed in a design against her honour, to sing a psalm.
“As she thought it”; “whom she considered as her gaoler”; “whom she thought employed.” Yeah, right.
I don’t expect an eighteenth century marriage to be one of equals, but I won’t listen to Pamela describe herself as “a poor bit of painted dirt” and pretend that she values even herself as a person, not a thing. And remember, girls, Pamela was “published in order to cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes.”
It took me, shamefully, almost a month to read Pamela. Where to begin? How about with the fact that it made me more angry than just about any novel I can remember reading.
This tortures me, actually, because it makes me feel unfair. Who am I to judge the events of Pamela anachronistically? But I simply must. It is offensive, horrific, frustrating, and just straight up upsetting to read.
I’m not usually one to complain of swooning heroines who don’t live up to the demands of contemporary feminism, but Pamela herself is an idiot. The novel starts up quite quickly into the real action, with Pamela’s mistress dying and her new master hitting on her right away. Pamela’s puritanism is so annoying I found myself immediately rooting for Mr. B.
But then I realized, wait, I am rooting for an attempted rapist. Not cool.
So once it became clear exactly how evil Mr. B. is—and he is pretty unbelievably evil—I was stuck. I couldn’t go with him, even though he was at least not utterly pathetic, but Pamela is almost as abhorrent.
Wait, you say, Pamela abhorrent? But our subtitle is “virtue rewarded,” is it not? Well, Samuel Richardson was pretty wrong about what was virtuous, is all I can say. And pretty wrong about what a reward is too.
Even though much of it is bad, there is a lot to say about this book, and I will try to keep this week’s posts as far from rants as possible. I’ll have to do some complaining first, and then move on to the structure.
Much of the book is supposed to be comical, or is slightly comical, but the line that really cracked me up was toward the beginning, in a letter from Mr. B. to Pamela’s father. As I said, the novel gets underway pretty quickly, and is pretty lurid and titillating. I tend to think Richardson took himself a bit seriously, since it was all meant to be edifying, and I guess a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but he does have this to say:
…I must tell you, that you ought not to have countenanced such culpable freedoms in the girl. Nor would you, I presume (for I am told that you are a prudent man), if you had known, as is the truth, that ever since the death of her kind lady, she has given herself up to the reading of novels and romances, and such idle stuff, and now takes it into her head, because her glass tells her she is pretty, that every body who looks upon her is in love with her.
If only Pamela did read some novels and romances, she might not have been so irritatingly pious.