The book opens with Pamela, a 15-year old waiting-maid, writing a letter to her parents mourning the loss of her lady, a.k.a. employer. In addition to being sad about Lady B's death, Pamela is worried about losing her position in the household. Coming from an impoverished family, Pamela is very anxious to keep money rolling in, plus it's a pretty cushy job. Lucky for her, Mr. B—her lady's son—offers to keep her and the other servants on.
Woohoo! Pamela is totes thrilled, but soon take a dark turn when Mr. B starts trying to get a little too friendly, if you know what we mean—and what we mean is that he tries to rape her, often enlisting the help of other servants in his attempts. (We're still in letters, here: in fact, the whole novel is told through letters.)
Pamela begs to go home or at least to be sent to serve Mr. B's sister (Lady Davers), but no dice. Mr. B alternates between being furious with Pamela's "impertinence" and saying he can't control his desire for her. Yeah, we've heard that one before—and it sounded just as pathetic then, too.
Eventually, he agrees to send Pamela to her parents. But surprise! It's a trick: instead, he sends her to his Lincolnshire estate to keep her prisoner. Are you feeling the love yet? He then writes to Pamela inviting her to be his mistress, but Pamela is super religious and proud of her virtue, so it doesn't take her long to say a big fat NO.
Meanwhile, Pamela has managed to let local preacher Mr. Williams know the deets of her very troubling situation, and Mr. Williams has agreed to help her out. In fact, he even offers to marry her to get her out of her present circumstances. Awesome! For a poor maid to marry a preacher is definitely a step up the social ladder.
But apparently it's not far enough for Pamela (we kid … or do we?), who just wants to go home. Mrs. Jewkes, the housekeeper at the Lincolnshire house, eventually gets wise to Mr. Williams's coziness with Pamela and tells Mr. B, who is not pleased and comes up with a truly diabolical and hilariously weird plan: with the help of Mrs. Jewkes, Mr. B dresses up like one of the housemaids, Nan, so he can sneak into bed with Pamela. Unfortunately for Mr. B's amorous intentions, Pamela has a fit when she realizes what's happened—like, literally a fit: a seizure so strong that Mr. B and Mrs. Jewkes are afraid she'll die.
After that incident, Pamela tells her parents that Mr. B's behavior changes. He stops trying to rape her, and he mumbles something about loving her. But even when he says he might maybe sort of think about asking her to marry him, Pamela still just says she wants to go home.
Well, fine then. He furiously sends her away to her parents … until he writes and begs her to come back. For some reason, Pamela believes all his talk about reform and admits that she has some teeny-tiny feelings for him, too. So, she heads back.
After some tedious agonizing about their class differences, they decide to marry. And … then the book starts to get a little boring. Mr. B lectures Pamela about how to be a wife, because he has some sort of moral authority now? Whatever.
And then Pamela wins over a whole series of snotty aristocratic ladies who hate that this eligible bachelor married his servant, because Pamela is the bestest ever and nobody hates her. Finally, the book closes on a super weird note: Mr. B introduces Pamela to his daughter from a youthful dalliance, who believes Mr. B is her uncle. Pamela is thrilled to have her in the family and begs Mr. B to let her come live with them, like you do when you discover that your husband has a secret love child.