What's not to love about a book that can be read as soft-core pornography and an instructional manual for how to remain virtuous when your rich, sexy employer is constantly trying to get you into bed?
Pamela is the story of a teenage girl named Pamela, because apparently Richardson wasn't a very creative namer. (Other books: Clarissa, about a girl named Clarissa; The History of Sir Charles Grandison, about a guy named Charles Grandison.) When the book opens, we find out through a letter Pamela's writing to her parents that she's been working as a waiting maid for a wealthy gentlewoman, Lady B, who recently passed away. (Brain Snack: we don't get the full name of the "B" family because we're supposed to believe, or pretend to believe, that this is True Story and Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent.)
Usually, it's not good news for your job when your boss dies. In this case, Pamela gets lucky: Lady B's son and heir, Mr. B, decides to keep her on payroll.
Wait. Did we say something about "lucky"? Turns out, it's a punishment in disguise, which Pamela quickly learns when Mr. B starts a relentless campaign of sexual harassment and attempted rape against her. But it's cool. Eventually, Pamela's virtue convinces Mr. B that wants to put a ring on it, and they fall in love.
Despite this totally and completely unproblematic plot in which Pamela falls in love with her would-be rapist, Pamela has ruffled some feathers over the years. Shocking, right? Richardson apparently intended for Pamela's character to serve as a model of virtuousness and piety for young people, but some of his contemporaries weren't so convinced. In fact, just like a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, the novel was a lot sexier than Richardson claimed he meant it to be. In fact, plenty of readers saw the novel as flat-out pornographic. (And some people, like Henry Fielding, who wrote the parody Shamela, found it flat-out hypocritical and boring).
Regardless of whether the book makes you swoon or gag, Pamela is undeniably an Important Work (you'll see a lot of seemingly random capitalization when you read it, so we thought we'd throw some in here to prepare you). The novel was a veeeerrry young genre when Pamela was written, and Richardson goes into a level of depth and detail with his characters' psychology that was virtually unprecedented. (Most of that psychology comes out thanks to the letters; this is an epistolary novel, meaning it's all written in the forms of letters a.k.a. epistles to Pamela's parents.)
Plus, he spent all that time on a housemaid. If readers weren't writing angry letters to the editor about the book's inappropriate sexiness, they were writing angry letters to the editor about why anyone should both reading 600 pages about a servant. The eighteenth century wasn't exactly known for its egalitarian attitudes, you feel us?
Richardson's work may or may not convince you to be pious and virtue, but there's a lot to love (and hate, and love to hate) about it anyway. Put on your best Angry Commentator face and get ready to dive in.
Think of Pamela like the Gwyneth Paltrow of eighteenth-century lit. (Only less aristocratic, we guess.) She's beautiful, intelligent, and pious; if she ran a lifestyle website today, it would feature endless pictures of her exquisite needlework and link out to $500 fichus.
In other words, she's just a little too good to be true.
But look a little closer, and you will find that Pamela is largely a story about the abuse of power. Before his miraculous reformation, Mr. B thinks his class, gender, and physical strength give him the right to try to harass and rape Pamela, who's a low-born servant and thus, according to Mr. B's aristocratic attitudes, not capable of having opinions about the way she wants to use her body.
Sound familiar? Well, hopefully not in exactly the same form. That said, similar violent and sexual abuses of power are all too common in our own world.
Pamela may seem like an unlikely symbol of resistance to bullying and violence; she's meek, gentle, extremely self-deprecating, and conditioned to defer to the judgment of her superiors (like any and all men). Also, she faints. A lot. Nonetheless, when confronted with threats to what she most values—her "honesty"—she's actually pretty fierce.
Her obsession with sexual purity probably doesn't resonate too strongly with you, since, thankfully, in most places being raped no longer makes you worthless. But if you've ever had to stand up for your beliefs when the people around you—adults, teachers, politicians, friends—think you're making a big fuss about nothing, then Pamela has a lot to teach you.
And if you want some rich, pervy guy to put a ring on it—well, Pamela has a lot to teach you about that, too.
If you don't feel like lugging around the paper copy, Gutenberg has an online edition just for you. Plus, you can search for exactly how many times Pamela says the word "virtue."
Is He Into You?
Take a Pamela-inspired quiz over on the-toast.net to find out if your master likes you or likes you likes you.
Teach the Controversy
Back in the 1740s, Pamela was controversial stuff. Check out the short blurb on academic publisher Pickering & Chatto's site to get a taste of the arguments from both the "Pamelist" and "Antipamelist" camps.
Sleep Your Way to the Top
People were still arguing about Pamela's motives in the 1970s, as this pair of letters to the editors proves. (Plus, it contains an unprintable insult. Good times!)
Mistress Pamela (1974) is a loose—no pun intended--adaptation of Pamela, with all the production values you expect from a 1970s movie.
Watch It for the Scenery
In 2003, Italian TV adapted Pamela as Elisa di Rivombrosa. Come on, BBC: we need a new English-language Pamela in our lives. (You know you want to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Mr. B.)
O la virtù premiata
Carlo Goldoni wrote a libretto for Niccolò Piccinni's comic opera La Buona Figliuola, which was based on Pamela. It was first performed in 1760, and you can check out Act 1 of a production at Northwestern University's School of Music.
Text is so 1740
Have a long car ride in your future? A free audiobook version of Pamela is available online.
Hey, Mr. Postman
BBC's delightful Melvyn Bragg talks on Radio 4 about epistolary literature—including Richardson's Pamela. (And Clarissa, if you're really up for a challenge.)
Think of it like fan art: artist Joseph Highmore's painting of Pamela's run-in with Lady Davers. Too bad he didn't have a Tumblr to share it on.
Going to the Chapel
Joseph Highmore also gave us a scene of Pamela and Mr. B's wedding. We love happy endings.
Adventures in Cross Dressing
Joseph Highmore was a bit obsessed with Pamela. Here's his painting depicting Mr. B dressed as Nan and about to attack Pamela.
Check out this Web page devoted to images from the 1742 illustrated edition. (Warning: future editions introduced some plot changes.)