by Sonya Chung
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded (Oxford World’s Classics) is a novel that has been frequently recommended to me by literature-professor friends—as an early example of both the epistolary form and a female first-person narrator. Clarissa, Richardson’s second novel, is another oft-suggested title.
As Nicki Leone wrote earlier this week, both Pamela and Clarissa were major commercial—and for the most part critical—successes. Pamela was praised, at the time, for its moral message and heartfelt honesty; it was new and shocking enough—both in its descriptions of licentious behavior on the part of Pamela’s tormentor-cum-husband and in its narrator’s plain-spokenness—that perhaps critics were not sure how to treat it, aesthetically. Regardless, it was an absolute blockbuster. The book was often read aloud, incorporated into sermons, and commercialized into fan paraphernalia such as Pamela-themed prints, paintings, life-sized waxwork figures, and playing cards.
Clarissa is commonly considered Richardson’s masterpiece. Even Henry Fielding, Richardson’s ostensible rival following the publication of his satire Shamela, wrote to him in all sincerity,
Can I tell you what I think of the latter part of your Volume? Let the Overflowings of a Heart which you have filled brimfull speak for me.
When Clarissa returns to her Lodgings at St. Clairs the Alarm begins, and here my Heart begins its Narrative. I am Shocked; my Terrors are raised, and I have the utmost Apprehensions for the poor betrayed Creature.–But when I see her enter with the Letter in her Hand, and after some natural Effects of Despair, clasping her Arms about the Knees of the Villain, call him her Dear Lovelace, desirous and yet unable to implore his Protection or rather his mercy; I then melt into Compassion.
Samuel Johnson praised Clarissa as “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.” And according to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “no one, in any language, has ever written a novel that equals or even approaches Clarissa.”
Richardson’s detractors either found the novels too racy—Coleridge described Richardson as having “so very vile a mind, so oozy, so hypocritical, praise-mad, canting, envious, concupiscent!”—or the protagonists impossibly upright. Fielding, in his spinoff Shamela, mocked Pamela’s obsession with chastity, and his was not the only satire to portray her as feigning innocence in order to gain social standing.
This is how Richardson’s work was received in his own time. What’s fascinating to me about novels like Pamela and Clarissa is how they age. After all, my modern academic friends—women, mostly—continue to recommend these books. Do they offer them as “artifacts” of a certain groundshifting moment in literary and social history—perhaps more teachable than readable? Or do these novels, according to the very definition of a classic, stand the test of time for the general (non-professional) reader?
Consider, in particular, the very project of a 50-something year-old man—successful in business, having spawned a total of 12 children, four of whom were named Samuel (although sadly, only five of whom, all girls, survived their father)—writing a sexual morality novel in the voice of a poor young woman. None of the research I’ve done about Pamela’s reception brings the project itself into question; no one seems to have asked, Who does he think he is, impersonating a female voice and thoughts and emotions? Not surprising, perhaps, since most literary critics, and authors, at that time, were men.
But come to think of it, we don’t seem to dwell too much on the question of cross-gender writing today, either. Or, if we do, the discussion is more or less secondary to other concerns. For example, I’ve heard passionate opinions, for and against, Jonathan Franzen’s Patty Berglund in Freedom, but nothing to discredit the novel as a whole; and about his own writing of women, Michael Chabon said in a recent Salon interview: “I’m on this never-ending quest in my writing to bring my female characters up to the level of importance and plausibility of the male characters. It’s something I’ve been struggling with since the beginning, and I feel like with each book I’ve made progress in that regard.” Readers seem divided on Henry James—master of the complex heroine—depending on the novel. (How could he do that to Isabel Archer? is a common lament. Only a man would write that ending.) Even so, these are all asides, for the most part. Our demands as readers are not circumscribed by what is “allowed,” but rather by whether, whatever the project, it is done well.
But back to Richardson: a quick perusal of one-star reviews at Goodreads yielded some interesting (and entertaining) comments, from a modern perspective, that do bring into question Richardson’s ability to write a woman’s story.
“A lower class woman eventually marries her upper class would-be-rapist. This novel somehow manages to be more misogynistic and offensive than the collected works of de Sade. It’s also boring.” (2011)
“I really didn’t like this book. My British novel professor assures me that my affection for it will grow over the years, but I somehow doubt that at this point. Pamela is a dangerous picture of womanhood… she is largely responsible for the whole ‘women have power in powerlessness’ idea that left many, many women abused and riddled with the sexually transmitted diseases their husbands brought home in the 18th and 19th centuries. Because of Pamela, I’m sure they often believed that if they were just virtuous ENOUGH, their husbands would be shamed into changing their ways. Richardson is also clearly fascinated with the many near-rape scenes he writes in great detail […]” (2008)
“I did not finish this book. Because it is a million pages that boil down to:
PAMELA: I am a lowly maid. Yet my virtue, look at it.
MASTER-OF-THE-HOUSE: Ooh, dazzling. How ’bout you let me avail myself of some of that virtue?
[Insert cross-dressing in-bed-hiding country-house-involving shenanigans.]
MASTER-OF-THE-HOUSE: Your virtue, it has won me over. Marry me?
PAMELA: But of course.”
This is a random sampling, and not representative; but what I appreciate about these comments—and about most reader comments in general—is that you sense genuine disappointment. These readers wanted to feel differently, and they care about what message the book sends about women. They want a so-called classic to age well, to earn its canonization.
To his credit, Richardson did recognize the challenge before him. For some time, he passed himself off as the editor of the “real” Pamela’s letters, rather than the author, and the first editions did not mention Richardson’s name at all. He also revised the novel with each new edition and consulted a “reading group” of women as he did. And according to Austin Dobson’s Samuel Richardson, he felt that his scribbling of letters on behalf of young women during his youth (you can read about this in more detail in Nicki Leone’s piece) “did little more for me, at so tender an age, than point, as I may say, or lead my enquiries, as I grew up, into knowledge of the female heart”—going on to claim that he did not fully understand the female until writing Clarissa. Maybe Richardson did, in fact, get better at depicting a woman’s heart and mind, in a timeless way, with practice and effort. Consider: at Goodreads, Pamela has garnered 2,930 ratings, with an average rating of 2.6 out of 5: Clarissa—2,318 ratings, with an average rating of 3.22.
The challenges notwithstanding, male novelists have not shied away from imaginatively inhabiting women characters. A bit of research, along with a quick crowd-sourcing, produced this list of examples (the asterisks mark enthusiastic recommendations):
- David Markson’s Kate, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
- Kazuo Ishiguro’s Kathy, Never Let Me Go*
- Jim Harrison’s Dalva, Dalva
- Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis, Atonement
- Norman Rush’s unnamed narrator, Mating*
- Lawrence Hill’s Aminata Diallo, Someone Knows My Name*
- Charles Portis‘s Mattie Ross, True Grit*
- Ian McEwan’s Serena Frome, Sweet Tooth*
- Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary*
- Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas, The Crying of Lot 49
- Wally Lamb’s Dolores Price, She’s Come Undone*
- William Thackeray’s Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair*
- Scott Westerfeld’s Tally Youngblood, the Uglies series
- Colson Whitehead’s Lila Mae Watson, The Intuitionist
- Thomas Hardy’s Tess, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
- Keith Maillard’s Gloria Cotter, Gloria
- Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
- Leo Tolstoy’s Anna, Anna Karenina (and a lesser-known story called “Family Happiness”)*
- Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge*
- Peter Cameron’s Coral, Coral Glynn*
- Simon Mawer’s Marian Sutro, Trapeze*
- Daniel Woodrell‘s Ree Dolly, Winter’s Bone*
- Larry McMurtry‘s Patsy Carpenter and Emma Horton, Moving On and Terms of Endearment*
Have male authors gotten better at telling women’s stories over the last two-and-a-half centuries? At the very least, one would assume that male authors are no longer setting out to show the masses how a woman “ought” to behave. Yet still, perhaps contemporary writers can take a page out of Richardson’s book. I can see it now, on the classifieds page of the NYRB—Wanted: educated ladies for male novelist’s focus group; anti-Pamelists encouraged to inquire.
Click here to read Nicki Leone’s “Persuading Pamela.”
Sonya Chung is the Founding Editor of Bloom and author of the novel Long for This World.
Image: Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the film TRUE GRIT (2010)