As a soon-to-be-graduating senior at an all-lady college, I have to take a capstone-ish (using those hyphens yet, eh?) class in my major. My major being English Literature and Language, the largest department at my school, I had four options: one) Film Noir, two) Shakespeare at the Movies, three) 19th Century Literature, and four) Servants in Literature and Film. If you're confused as to why three out of four of these involve film, so was I, but I ended up in Servants in Literature and Film because one) boring teacher, no literature, two) took it already, and three) taught by Professor WTF, who I'll have to tell you about some other time, because right now, I need to talk about Samuel Richardson's Pamela or Virtue Rewarded—and yes, that is the actual subtitle.
|Enticing title page. TRUTH.|
The second novel assigned for the class (nine books and three films, I can accept that proportion), Pamela is a 500 page metal crocodile that will rip you apart and put you back together only to rip you apart again. Pamela, the title character, is a servant. This is my Professor's sole reason for having us read this book. The woman even got our book list to us pre-Christmas in order to make sure we had a month to read it, acknowledging openly how boring and mind-numbingly repetitive the book is.
Before the book even starts, there's a bunch of letters talking about how peerless an example of virtue Richardson's book is, which the notes in the back tell you were most likely written by Richardson himself. So, in all fairness, the people who study this book warn you advance.
The novel opens on Pamela, a servant in the esteemed gentleman Mr. B's household, who is narrating the book by way of writing letters to her parents. They start out with her lady (Mr. B's mom) dying after she teaches Pamela to be a lady, blah blah blah and then Mr. B accosts her and she thrashes about because he is wicked and her master and RATHER HER LIFE THAN HER VIRTUE. This is her mantra throughout the entire book. Then he jumps out a closet while she's undressing, so she has some sort of crazy fit and almost dies, and since that didn't work he kidnaps her. You know, the normal workplace hazards.
|Richardson really looks like a man with a |
keen understanding of sexual harassment.
So Pammy is absconded with to the countryside where Mr. B's evil housekeeper tells her to whore herself out, because it's better than cleaning chamber pots. Some choice expletives are thrown around: Slut, London-Prostitute, and, my personal favorite, Sawce-Box. By the way, at this point, she's had multiple chances to escape or just leave and hasn't taken them so she's chosen this. Essentially, she's no longer a servant, but a mistress who never puts out, which kind of makes her a terrible employee.
There's a near engagement to a local preacher in order to escape, where she has to get to lane to meet him and decides on the most ridiculous way to get out of the house—something about climbing an apparently unstable garden wall, throwing all her clothes in the lake...basically, she almost dies again and Mr. B puts the preacher in prison, because he can just do that while keeping a 15-year-old girl hostage. Ah, the social hierarchy of England.
I just want to remind you all: she's been writing her parents about all of this. That's how we know what's going on at all. They even know where she is. Her dad shows up eventually, but only after Mr. B asks him to come. Parental love.
He jumps out of a few more closets, she keeps almost dying, and then, suddenly, decides to marry her. Because her virtue has won him over. I guess that whole cow and milk analogy has a place in literature, if not reality. The thing is, she's kind of an unreliable narrator and there's a bunch of clues that THIS ENTIRE BOOK IS HER MANIPULATING EVERYONE, because Mr. B has been reading all her letters and people are constantly calling her manipulative, but then she cries and bats her eyelashes and almost dies, so they back off. In retrospect, it's kind of amazing how a book trying to humanize the servant ends up reinforcing stereotypes.
|I mean, fair enough. That is a fine-looking couple.|
Anyway, his sister shows up and is outraged, so Pammy attacks this titled lady and jumps out a window and everyone commends her. Apparently, this is not an overreaction. And he dresses her up and she's so wonderful everyone loves her, because besides where she was born she's already more educated than everyone she meets. To be honest, she's kind of rude to everyone, but they keep saying she's charming, and the reader's head explodes just as she discovers Mr. B has an illegitimate child and ruined a woman. Of course, she's unbothered because just like you obey a master, you obey a husband. And then the book ends.
Yep. That's it. That's 500 pages. Of near rape and kidnapping and how that's the basis for a healthy relationship. In her own words. As told to her parents.
So, I give you Pamela: a cure for insomnia, an affirmation of the manipulative qualities of both women and servants, an incitement to suicide, and what my school has deemed literature worthy of study.
Original title page and illustration from Pamela courtesy of Wikipedia.