The first thing you might notice about Pamela is that she seems too good to be true. Even by make-believe standards, she seems a little unnaturally perfect.
First of all, she's super hot. Early in the novel, a group of Mr. B's friends come over for the sole purpose of seeing her, since they'd heard stories about her good looks around town. They are not disappointed when they get their peek, with the Countess exclaiming, "Why, indeed . . . Report has not been too lavish, I'll assure you. Don't be asham'd, Child . . . I wish I had just such a Face to be asham'd of!" (26.10).
Translation: even the Countess is jelly.
Then, there's the fact that she's humble and deferential to a fault, and she can't even hate on her worst enemies. For example, when Mr. B is still in full-on villain mode, she's actually glad when he narrowly escapes drowning, even though his death would have meant freedom from his abuses: "Just now we heard, that he had like to have been drown'd in crossing a Stream, a few Days ago, in pursuing his game. What is the Matter, with all his ill Usage of me, that I cannot hate him? To be sure, I am not like other People!" (56.2).
Of course, some people might just call this Stockholm Syndrome, but it also serves Richardson slash the editor's point about Pamela's perfection.
On account of her gentleness and all the emphasis on her looks, you might be inclined to write Pamela off as a lightweight. She's delicate, self-deprecating and demure, and inclined to defer to the authority of the people around her, even when said people are attempting to rape her.
Of course, these qualities with the fact that she's a tender fifteen years old when the book opens, hardly old enough to have her driver's license. Plus, she's a woman and a servant, which in the hierarchy of the eighteenth century meant that she had about as much power as a toddler has today—and maybe even less.
You can see some of the naiveté that comes with those qualities in her early dismissal of her parents' concerns about staying with Mr. B: "I Must needs say, that your letter has fill'd me with much Trouble. For it has made my Heart, which was overflowing with Gratitude for my young Master's Goodness, suspicious and fearful; and yet, I hope I never shall find him to act unworthy of his Character; for what could he get by ruining such a poor young Creature as me?" (6.1).
Of course, Pamela is pushing back against her parents' worries because she hasn't yet seen any strong warning signs of Mr. B's future behavior. Still, questioning why Mr. B could possibly want to sleep with the most beautiful woman around? Definitely seems a bit naïve.
However, through 500-ish pages of letters and journaling, Pamela reveals she's actually quite the tough cookie. Although she's certainly wiling to defer to the judgment of her elders or employer in most things, she defends her own convictions fiercely in one particular area: her virtue, which for Pamela means her virginity. Both verbally and physically, she fights back when Mr. B attempts to convince her—and, when that fails, physically compel her—to engage in sexual relations with him.
Big deal, right? Obviously she would fight against being raped. Thing is, this was actually a revolutionary stance for a servant girl to take in the mid-eighteenth century. Pamela repeatedly insists that she has as much right as a noblewoman to protect herself from these violations:
Were my Life in question, instead of my Honesty, I would not wish to involve you, or any body, in the least Difficulty for so worthless a poor Creature. But, O Sir! My Soul is of equal Importance with the Soul of a Princess; though my Quality is inferior to that of the meanest Slave. (50.5)
This is super important, so we're going to repeat it: she says, "My Soul is of equal Importance with the Soul of a Princess." This is a slap in the face of aristocratic value systems, which literally held that servants were worth less than those of higher ranks.
She may not be leading a slave army across the Eastern Continent, but you might as well call her the Mother of Dragons.
After Pamela becomes Mr. B's wife, she sees it as her duty to stand up for herself a bit more. Case in point: When Lady Davers and her nephew come to visit, and they refuse to recognize Pamela's rightful place in the household, Pamela feels obligated to be a little bit mouthy:
I would have remov'd the Chair, to have gone out, but her Nephew came and sat in it. This provok'd me; for I thought I should be unworthy of the Honour I was rais'd to, tho' I was afraid to own it, if I did not shew some Spirit; and I said, What, Sir, is your Pretence in this House, to keep me a Prisoner here? (92.33)
Also, she is clever and dexterous with words, which earns her the admiration of others. Indeed, several characters comment on her ability to parry a witticism or a philosophical point. A prime example occurs when Lady Towers is making some vaguely salty insinuations about Pamela's beauty and its power to drive men crazy.
When Lady Towers says, "Can the pretty Image speak, Mrs. Jervis? I vow she has speaking Eyes! O you little Rogue . . . you seem born to undo, or to be undone!," Pamela responds: "God forbid, and please your Ladyship . . . it should be either!" (26.16).
This rebuttal doesn't look super clever or exceptional at first glance, but it's really pretty impressive in terms of how economical it is. She manages to dismiss Lady Towers's insinuation, affirm her own principles, and be deferential at the same time. (We're pretty sure Pamela would have killed on Twitter.)
Richardson is careful to highlight the fact that Pamela's inner qualities (as opposed to her outer hotness) earn her the "reward" of marriage with Mr. B at the end. As Mr. B says himself, "her Person made me her Lover; but her Mind made her my Wife" (99.13). In addition to her beauty, Pamela is a natural smarty-pants, which even her first mistress picks up on—that's how she learns to read and write so well.
Oh, sure, she does a lot of fainting, crying, and throwing herself on her knees to beg for better treatment, which kind of takes away from the whole tough-girl image. That said, she perseveres in protecting herself and advocating for what she holds most valuable. In the end, her actions (and words) reveal her to be extremely intelligent, clever, and resourceful—not bad for a servant girl.
We're going to leave you with one big question: is Pamela faking it? Pamela was popular when it was published, but not everyone was a fan. Some critics, like prominent writer Henry Fielding, rolled their eyes pretty hard at the idea that Pamela would actually care that much about her virtue. They saw the whole modesty performance as just that—a performance perfectly calculated to get Mr. B so hot and bothered thathe'd have to marry her.
Sure, we could trust Richardson—ahem, the editor—and take Pamela at face value. But think about all the times she could have left, but didn't; or how she managed to get herself caught dressing up in her modest clothes; or how she conveniently faints every time things start to get real.
We're not saying that Pamela is just a clever gold digger, but we're not not saying that. If you know what we mean.