Come here. I want to tell you something. Not here. [carries you to the top of a desolate, wind-blasted continental plateau that was once covered in shallow tropical seas]
[Sotto voce] I love the Western Canon. [pause, leaps off the edge doing big Creed arms as vultures carry me away]
This is some general unsolicited advice for readers of all kinds, but if you are (like I was) a current student of the humanities, particularly English literature, you may find this particularly useful. I’m not sure what kind of a school you go to; it may still be teaching a fairly standard Encyclopedia-Brittanica-style curriculum, or you might be making postcolonial collages using unbound copies of Wide Sargasso Sea. But even the touchiest of feelsiest of professors who believes in the deadest Death of the Author imaginable is eventually going to have you read a book From The Past. And sometimes — if you’re not prepared, even with a head pumped full of Theory — that can be jarring, and irritating, and hard to get into, and feels like a chore.
Such a book is Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. It’s arguably the first English-language novel, so odds are if you’re taking a British literature survey that covers 1789-1914 (WHICH IS THE BEST BRITISH LITERATURE SURVEY A PERSON CAN TAKE IMHO), you’re going to have to read it. And I’m worried that you might hate it, or worse find it boring, or distractingly full of horrific sexism and classism, and miss out on a good time. It can be really tough for a humanities student who’s interested in things like feminism or womanism or post-colonialism to get behind two thousand of years of writing that have some (to get a little technical here) “real garbage elements to ’em.”
Remember “Assspen,” definitely one of the top five South Park episodes of all time, when Thumper the ski instructor tells the kids they need to “pizza” (point the front of their skis together) to slow down and “french fry” (hold their skis parallel) to move forward? He utters the immortal phrase “If you pizza when you’re s’posed to french fry, you’re gonna have a bad time.”
This is as true for careful reading as it is for skiing: if you pizza when you’re s’posed to french fry, you’re gonna have a bad time. Luckily, it is not that hard to switch from pizza to french fry, and vice versa. Let us bear in mind as we continue the words of G.K. Chesterton:
Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.
I don’t always agree with Chesterton, but he wrote The Man Who Was Thursday and I didn’t, so I’m willing to let him say a few words before I have my piece. If you’re a student of literature, you must on some level be willing to let the dead speak, even if what they say feels morally incomprehensible. You’ll find common ground, even if it’s just the dirt over their graves.
So Pamela is kind of a tricky book! The gist, as you may or may not know: beautiful, virtuous, humble serving-maid Pamela negotiates a tense relationship with her new master after his mother dies and he starts [pursuing/harassing/assaulting] her. Some things happen, then they get married. It’s…I imagine that a popular word to describe it might be “problematic.” A “seething mass of uncomfortable compromises and mental torture” might be another one. There were more than a few comments in that Pamela quiz along the lines of “I tried to read this, but I had to throw it across the room.” And, I mean, it’s your book, you can throw it anywhere you want to, but if you’re ever in a position where you have to read something you want to throw across the room, it can be helpful to have an alternative.
It was crazy popular when it first came out, like Dickens popular (this was before Dickens but after being too popular to be cool), and pretty much right away elicited very strong reactions from people. Within a year there was already a parody called Shamela (you can read it here, it takes like four minutes and kind of sucks but it’s worth having in your head as you read the original).
Do you remember how one of the best parts of Jane Eyre are their weirdly tense verbal spats, when Mr. Rochester and Jane are formally engaged but she’s being a real dick about getting fitted for gowns and punishing him mentally and he starts calling her horrible names? You know the part I mean:
In other people’s presence I was, as formerly, deferential and quiet; any other line of conduct being uncalled for: it was only in the evening conferences I thus thwarted and afflicted him. He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as “love” and “darling” on his lips: the best words at my service were “provoking puppet,” “malicious elf,” “sprite,” “changeling,” &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. Mrs. Fairfax, I saw, approved me: her anxiety on my account vanished; therefore I was certain I did well. Meantime, Mr. Rochester affirmed I was wearing him to skin and bone, and threatened awful vengeance for my present conduct at some period fast coming. I laughed in my sleeve at his menaces. “I can keep you in reasonable check now,” I reflected; “and I don’t doubt to be able to do it hereafter: if one expedient loses its virtue, another must be devised.”
THAT’S SOME MESSED-UP STUFF AND I LOVE IT. Wouldn’t want to do it in my day-to-day life, but it’s ten kinds of bananas, which is my favorite flavor of Gothic literature. LOOK AT THIS SHIT. LET US RECOUNT THE FACTS:
- They are engaged to be married. Think about most engaged people you know. Probably do a lot of things together, right? Hold hands, and so on? If they scratched and mocked each other in front of you, you’d feel…weird about it.
- During the day, she acts like she’s still his servant, not his fiancé, which must be maddening. “Darling, do you want to have lunch today?” “Sir, I fear that would not be proper.”
- As soon as the sun sets, she transforms herself from a sullen Best Buy employee to a human embodiment of the word No. She’s just a massive dick to him, and he half loves it and half wants to shoot his own face off. WHAT.
- He calls her A CHANGELING DEMON AND PINCHES HER ARMS and she thinks it’s hysterically funny and thinks of ways to drive him even crazier after they’re married. Guys, I love this book, but that is messed upppppp.
So that’s pretty much all of Pamela. It’s so incredibly over-the-top that somewhere after the kidnapping but before the secret sunflower letters you start to feel like Richardson’s making you watch someone strip in front of you while insisting they’re not getting naked. You start to feel insane. Is this really happening, you keep asking yourself. Nope, Pamela says. I really think it is, though, you say. No idea what you’re talking about, she says back. Everything’s normal here.
Pamela’s been writing letter after letter to her parents telling them what kind of a danger she’s in — breathlessly recounting all of the times Mr. B. is so overwhelmed by her beauty that he hides in her closet and buries his hand in her corset and just, like, intensely smells her in the hallway and calls her a witch. It’s terrifying! It’s fraught! Her parents beg her to come home!
“Oh my GODDD,” she says. “I totally, totally would, because he is just so obsessed with me that I’m afraid for my virtue and my life but I just do not have anything to wear on the road home!”
“Sometimes I thought I would leave the house and go to the next town, and wait an opportunity to get to you; but then I was at a loss to resolve whether to take away the things he had given me or no, and how to take them away: Sometimes I thought to leave them behind me, and only go with the clothes on my back, but then I had two miles and a half, and a byway, to the town; and being pretty well dressed, I might come to some harm, almost as bad as what I would run away from; and then may-be, thought I, it will be reported, I have stolen something, and so was forced to run away; and to carry a bad name back with me to my dear parents, would be a sad thing indeed!—O how I wished for my grey russet again, and my poor honest dress, with which you fitted me out.”
“If I had that dress, I’d definitely come home. Definitely. But my clothes are too nice to travel in now. Do you think I should keep all the hats he’s been giving me?”
Look, don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t The 120 Days of Sodom (thank God) or some neo-feminist tract in disguise. Pamela is obviously in an incredibly fraught situation: she’s a woman, she’s working-class, she’s separated from her family, and her virginity is her only weapon against a man of wealth and status who for all practical purposes already owns her. But! In that incredibly rigid framework, there are some subtle ways for her to maneuver, if she’s very careful. Like that scene in Entrapment (okay, like that scene in the Entrapment trailer) Catherine Zeta-Jones has to sexy-yoga her way through that room full of red trip wires. Pamela sexy-yogas her way through a morass of incredibly tricky 18th-century social mores to get to the big diamond or whatever Catherine Zeta-Jones was after in that scene.
The mistake Shamela makes, I think — and the mistake a lot of readers make — is thinking that if Pamela is at all aware of her situation, or in any way trying to make the best of a difficult position, then she must be a completely disingenuous person who’s only pretending to act in good faith. And for a modern reader, it can be really hard to get excited for Pamela’s “reward” for fighting off seduction and social/economic ruin to be getting to marry the guy who’s been causing all the trouble in the first place. (“Congratulations! You get to marry your boss, who’s been watching you change at night in your room by hiding under your bed!”)
But, you know, we don’t get to go back in time and change the 1700s (if we could, the absolute first thing I would do is ensure a successful Jacobite uprising, damn those Hanoverian usurpers). So think of it like a video game: there are arbitrary rules to follow (Why would Pamela’s life be over if she had sex with Mr. B? Why won’t he listen to her when she asks him to leave her alone? Why does Mario die when a barrel touches him in the original Donkey Kong? Because he does, that’s why) and there’s a prize at the end (Why does Mario even want the pink blob Donkey Kong’s holding? It’s a pink blob, she doesn’t even really have a face. Doesn’t matter! The prize is the prize, and the point is to get to it). You either play or you don’t (insert your own War Games reference here, but only if you must).
So Pamela’s position is fixed, and Mr. B’s position is fixed, and there’s only one winning move that she can make, and that is topping from the bottom like a motherfucker. And she DOES. GUYS, SHE DOES IT SO WELL. She drives him bananas and pretends she’s not doing it at all, which of course makes him even more bananas, and it’s terrific. He jumps out of a corner and makes scary ooga-booga noises — that’s kind of his only move, is leaping out at her and making threats — but she lays siege to his mental landscape. She passes out in front of him and makes him watch her not move for hours, then threatens to kill herself if he talks to her but won’t leave the house. She dresses like a great lady of the world but won’t stop sewing his clothes for him. And she wins. She wins everything. By the end of the book, he’s showering her with gifts and begging to visit her room and treating her like a queen who could have his head removed from his neck at any second. That’s love, guys.
OH! Do you enjoy sexually tense pseudo-lesbian power plays with intense inter-class dynamics set in drawing rooms? Then you’ll love the scene where a group of rich ladies come to Mr. B’s house and demand he present Pamela to her, because they’ve heard so much about her beauty. It’s…guys, it does not take a lot of reading between the lines to realize there are some HEAVING BOSOMS and FLUTTERING HEARTS in this scene. They just want to look at her. And she doesn’t want to do it. But if she has to do it, she’s going to make them eat their fucking hearts out. And they’re a little jealous and a little turned on and a little angry and they’re all dressed up and she’s half-naked in a shift and it’s fantastic.
“I believe they are coming; and will tell you the rest by and by. I wish they had come, and were gone. Why can’t they make their game without me?” Baby, you are the game.
The countess took me by the hand: Why, indeed, she was pleased to say, report has not been too lavish, I’ll assure you. Don’t be ashamed, child; (and stared full in my face;) I wish I had just such a face to be ashamed of. O how like a fool I looked!
Lady Arthur said, Ay, my good Pamela, I say as her ladyship says: Don’t be so confused; though, indeed, it becomes you too. I think your good lady departed made a sweet choice of such a pretty attendant. She would have been mighty proud of you, as she always was praising you, had she lived till now.
Ah! madam, said Lady Brooks, do you think that so dutiful a son as our neighbour, who always admired what his mother loved, does not pride himself, for all what he said at table, in such a pretty maiden?
She looked with such a malicious sneering countenance, I can’t abide her.
Lady Towers said with a free air, (for it seems she is called a wit,) Well, Mrs. Pamela, I can’t say I like you so well as these ladies do; for I should never care, if you were my servant, to have you and your master in the same house together. Then they all set up a great laugh.
I know what I could have said, if I durst. But they are ladies—and ladies may say any thing.
Says Lady Towers, Can the pretty image speak, Mrs. Jervis? I vow she has speaking eyes! O you little rogue, said she, and tapped me on the cheek, you seem born to undo, or to be undone!
God forbid, and please your ladyship, said I, it should be either!—I beg, said I, to withdraw; for the sense I have of my unworthiness renders me unfit for such a presence.
I then went away, with one of my best courtesies; and Lady Towers said, as I went out, Prettily said, I vow!—And Lady Brooks said, See that shape! I never saw such a face and shape in my life; why, she must be better descended than you have told me!
And so they run on for half an hour more in my praises, as I was told; and glad was I, when I got out of the hearing of them.
How does she know how long they talked about her? Also, how great is that line “ladies may say any thing”? If that doesn’t illustrate the class divide that still plagues modern feminism, I don’t know what does. Born to undo, or to be undone. Goddamn, you guys. That’s hot stuff.
If I have convinced you to give Pamela a second (or a first, or a fifth) try, remember that you do not have to be convinced of my methods. You might find it a useful perspective, and you might not. It might fit some scenes better than others. But it’s a lot more fun than throwing the book across the room.
My favorite part of the book comes in the first third, when Pamela is writing her parents again about how unhappy she is but still refusing to come home. “Don’t your heart ache for me?” she writes.
Imagine her writing that with a carrot in her mouth, winking at the camera, just like Bugs Bunny did in those old cartoons. “Ain’t I a stinker?”
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.