In this article, we are going to study one of the first English novels by one of the earliest novelists, Samuel Richardson. He stands out as one of the early English novelists because he invented and popularised the epistolary genre of the novel. We shall therefore start with an explanation of the epistolary novel. We will also present his background, works and a brief analysis of his first novel, Pamela. Richardson’s Pamela is often credited with being the first English novel.
However like we discussed earlier, it is difficult to ascribe the first English novel to a particular novel. Some ascribe it to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe while others claim it is Richardson’s Pamela. However, no one contests the fact that Richardson was innovative in his concentration on a single action, and telling the story in the form of letters. He therefore pioneered the epistolary novel. He also “…pioneered in showing how his characters’ sense of class differences and their awareness of the conflict between sexual instincts and the moral code created dilemmas that could not always be resolved” (Doody 1996,32). These characteristics reappear regularly in the subsequent history of the novel. Above all, Richardson is said to be the writer who made the novel a respectable genre. We will discuss another English novel, Pamela by Samuel Richardson. This novel is written in an epistolary form which has become a genre of the novel.
Background of the Author
Samuel Richardson was an 18th-century English writer and printer who was born on August 19, 1689 and died on July 4, 1761. He wrote mainly in the epistolary form and the best of his epistolary novels are Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48). His contribution to the development of the English novel is the invention of the use of the letter format in writing novels and this format is known as the epistolary form. He started his writing career late as Pamela was published when he was fifty years old.
He received moderate education and was apprenticed to a London printer but later set up his own business on completion of his apprenticeship. His personal life was not so pleasant as all the six children he had from his first marriage died in infancy or childhood and his wife died also. He remarried and two of his children in the second marriage also died in infancy but fortunately, his four daughters survived him. It is suggested that his bereavements contributed to the nervous ailments he had in his later life.
However, he was a successful and prosperous printer as his press was adjudged one of the best three in London in the 1730’s. He was later commissioned to write a collection of letters that might serve as models for “country readers,” a volume that was known as Familiar Letters on Important Occasions. The subject matter of some of these letters continued in subsequent letters sometimes in reply to earlier ones. For instance after a letter from “a father to a daughter in service, on hearing of her master’s attempting her virtue,” he supplied the daughter’s answer. In this way he built up the stories into a novel (Armstrong 1987, 32). His novel Pamela is said to have evolved from such letters. He used the technique of the letter, and developed a plot based on the story being discussed in the letter and combined it with a real life experience of a
serving maid who preserved her virtue and was rewarded by marriage. With these, he started writing the novel in November 1739 and published it as Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, a year later (1794). Luckily, Pamela was well received by the reading public and Richardson decided to cash in on the popularity of Pamela to write a continuation of her story, Pamela in her Exalted Condition (1742) but the work “…did little to enhance his reputation” (Keymer and Peter 2005, 42).
Richardson revised his works indefatigably; consequently, the various editions of his novels differ greatly. Much of his revision was said to have been “undertaken in anxious, self-censoring response to criticism but the earliest versions of his novels are generally the freshest and most daring” (Keymer and Peter 2005, 50). You will recall that we said that critics to a large extent influenced the early English novelists. By the end of the 18th century, Richardson’s reputation was on the wane both in England and abroad. It was reborn in the late 20th century, however, and Clarissa is now widely admired as one of the great psychological novels of European literature (Keymer and Peter 2005, 50).
The Epistolary Novel
By now you know what the epistolary novel is. It is a novel that is written in form of a letter. It could be one full length letter as we see in Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter or written as series of letters. It could also be in form of a diary. This form of the novel was made popular especially during the 18th century, mainly because of Richardson’s Pamela. Richardson and his contemporaries argued that the letter allowed the reader greater access to a character’s thoughts. Richardson claimed that in the novel, he recorded Pamela’s thoughts nearly simultaneously with her actions (Armstrong 1987, 38). Richardson started writing Pamela as a conduct book, but as he progressed, he was able to turn the series of letters into a story. He then decided to experiment with it and the result was the birth of a new form in novel writing.
Many novelists from the mid-18th century and well into the 19th century wrote in this new form and claimed legitimacy through the ability to teach as well as entertain. In this novel the novelist uses Pamela’s letters that are classified into two groups. The first group of letters at the beginning of the novel comprises the letters she wrote to her parents on her uncertainty on how long she could stay on with Mr. B after his mother’s death. In these letters, she seeks her parents’ advice on how to wriggle out of her various moral dilemmas. The second group is a compilation of her writings while she is held in bondage by Mr. B. It is therefore considered a diary because she wrote them not being sure if her parents would receive them or not.
In Pamela therefore, the letters are almost written exclusively by the heroine so the story is told from her perspective. This style like the first person point of view narrative technique restricts the reader’s access to the other characters and actions outside Pamela. The reader sees only Pamela’s perception of them. However, the style adds to the authenticity of the novel and realism in the novel. In other novels by Richardson (Clarissa (1748) and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753), the reader sees the letters of other characters and so is in a position to evaluate the characters’ motivations and moral values objectively and effectively.
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded tells the story of a beautiful fifteen -year old maidservant named Pamela Andrews who was a maid to a noble woman. After the death of the woman, his son Mr. B became her nobleman master and was infatuated with Pamela and made amorous advances towards her. Initially, he was attracted to her by her beauty and later by her innocence and intelligence. Unfortunately, he could not propose marriage to her because she belongs to the lower class in terms of social status.
It appears therefore that he just wanted to violate her. He abducts her, locks her up in one of his estates, and attempts in vain to seduce and rape her. She persists in her rejection of him but realised that she was gradually falling in love with him. He intercepts her letters to her parents and by reading them becomes attracted to her the more because of her innocence, intelligence, and continuous attempts to escape. Her virtue is eventually rewarded when he sincerely proposes an equitable marriage to her. In the second part of the novel, Pamela attempts to build a successful relationship with him and to adapt to upper class society.
The story, a bestseller of its time, “…was very widely read but criticised for its perceived licentiousness” (Mckeon 1987. 45). The plot is presented in a chronological causal arrangement. The novel opens after the death of Lady B and her maid Pamela Andrews is presented as a pious, innocent young lady in Bedfordshire. The squire Mr. B begins to pay Pamela more attention by being generous towards her, later made several attempts to seduce her but she rejects him. He also tries in vain to bribe her to keep the amorous attempts secret. Pamela is not happy with this situation and considers returning to her poor family so as to preserve her purity and innocence.
Mr. B intercepts her letters to her parents and tells them that she is having a love affair with a poor clergyman and that he will send her to a safe place to preserve her honour and abducts her to Lincolnshire Estate. Pamela is maltreated by the House Keeper but no one is willing to liberate her because of Mr. B’s social position. She makes futile attempts to escape. Mr. B resolves to leave her alone and actually stays away for some time and asks her to be his mistress but Pamela refuses. Eventually, after reading a parcel of letters which Mrs. Jewkes seized from where they were hidden by Pamela, Mr. B regrets his actions, feels
pity for what he has put her through and decides to marry her. Initially, she doubts his sincerity and insists on going home. He allows her to go with a letter wishing her a good life; she then realises that she is in love with him. When she receives a second note asking her to come back because he is ill, she accepts. In the resolution, they get married and everybody including Pamela’s father is happy. Even his sister Lady Davers is won over.
The main theme of the novel is virtue. Richardson explores this theme from the perspective of perseverance. Pamela perseveres in the preservation of her virtue and upholding her honour and is rewarded in the end. The novelist presents Pamela’s dedication to the preservation of her honour irrespective of the pressures and hardships as an act that is worthy of emulation.
The novel was so popular that it was read by countless readers and was also read aloud in groups. Usually, the audience is happy in the end of the novel at the happy turn of fortune which brings the hero and heroine together in marriage. Another theme explored in the novel is that of class distinction or social stratification. Richardson, through the portrayal of Pamela shows that those in the lower strata of the social class ladder are not ignorant, stupid, unintelligent and debased. In spite of her poor background, Pamela shows strength of character and sound intelligence and morality.
The novel is set in 18th century England. However towns like Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire are mentioned and the mention of real places adds to realism in the novel.
In this article, we have discussed another early English novel, Pamela. This novel is written in the epistolary mode which incidentally, is an invention of Samuel Richardson. Epistolary novel is a novel that is written in form of letters. The letters in this novel were written mainly by the heroine and the main idea explored in the novel is the reward for a virtuous life.
The novel studied in this unit chronicles the experiences of a maid servant, Pamela, whose mistress dies and her son who becomes Pamela’s master tries to seduce her. Pamela perseveres in her earnest determination to preserve her virtue and prefers to go back home to her poor parents instead of living a life of immorality in affluence. Her honesty, innocence and intelligence are made manifest through the letters she writes to her parents. Her tormentor, Mr. B. who just lusted for her, falls in genuine love with her and marries her. In the second part of the novel, Pamela tries and eventually wins over those who disapproved of the marriage on the basis of the difference between their social classes. The story is presented from the heroine’s point of view.