My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As a number of observers have stated, a classic may be defined most simply as any work of art that has endured beyond the time of its production. If it is still in circulation after a few generations, then it is a classic. But this definition still leaves room for nuances; for one thing, there are different reasons why a work may endure.
Consider eighteenth-century Anglophone fictional prose narrative. One such narrative that is still widely read in the present is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Why is it widely read today? First, we might say it deals with still-relevant issues: it is a satire whose targets remain with us, from the superficialities of upper-class life to the arrogance of scientists to the base human desires that lead to war, poverty, and crime. But, as Ben Okri has recently angered a lot of smart people by observing, subject matter and theme are probably the least important elements of literature. I think we still read Gulliver’s Travels because it is an elegantly-designed narrative; it is very funny in its caricatural metaphors for those social forms it attacks, as well as being just bawdy and scatological enough to make us all laugh with rueful recognition of our common creaturely life; it is a source of rich and unforgettable imagery; it is written in a clear, descriptive style that allows for deadpan comedy but also an undertone of angry sorrow. In short, we still read Swift’s book because it is fun to read. This is one kind of classic.
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is another classic of eighteenth-century Anglophone prose narrative, but it is a different kind of classic: one we continue to read less for its intrinsic merit or interest than for its immense influence on later works. Pamela is an early realist novel told by the titular heroine in the first person as a series of letters to her parents, letters that come to be read as morally exemplary literature by the novel’s other characters. Pamela famously, concerns a poor servant girl who is sexually menaced by the noble son of her dead mistress until he undergoes a reform of character that leads the pair to fall in love and marry.
Richardson’s novel was revolutionary for a number of reasons. Sociopolitically speaking, Pamela gives unprecedented voice to a woman of the lower class, insisting on her intelligence, rectitude, and all-around human worth. The novel boldly challenges both the unwarranted hauteur of the dissolute upper classes and the sexual privilege of the landowning or noble male, empowered by social custom to treat young women of the servant or working classes as erotic prey. Richardson, himself of the working class and religiously a Puritan, dramatizes his conviction that God is no respecter of persons and values only right action and virtuous behavior. The aesthetic consequences of this ideological revolt are significant: the realist novel as a literary form becomes in Richardson’s hands a conduit for the voices of the socially marginal or excluded, the most expansive and inclusive and progressive of literary forms. When critics today call for diversity, feminism, multiculturalism, etc., in literary curricula, they are following the path cleared by Richardson (as well as his contemporary, Defoe).
Despite the novel’s troubling (from a contemporary perspective) endorsement of marriage as a male-headed institution in which the wife must obey her master, Pamela might well be called an early feminist novel due to its sympathetic narrative of a poor young woman subject to sexual assault. The scene that is the heart of the novel occurs when Mr. B., Pamela’s master, begins tearing off her clothes to get at the portions of her letters and diaries that she conceals on her person. This scene is almost more shocking than the moment of attempted rape elsewhere in the novel, for when Mr. B. assaults Pamela’s body and her narrative at once, Richardson transforms rape from its archaic meaning as a property crime (the theft of a woman from her family) to a sin against a sacred individual. Because Pamela is not only her body or her social status but also her story and her language, Mr. B. trespasses in this moment against humanity as reasoning image of God. With this new understanding of women, sexual violence, and narrative, Richardson made a revolution, one still ongoing today. With Pamela more than any other work, the novel becomes the literary form corresponding to the modern individual, and the guarantor of that individual’s rights, even if said individual is just a poor girl.
(That these rights are ultimately property rights, guaranteed not only by narrative but by bourgeois virtue, is the underside of the seemingly upbeat transformation in political consciousness effected by Richardson’s novel, as left-wing critics such as Nancy Armstrong have explained at length; Pamela may therefore exemplify the complicity of individualism, feminism, and the novel with class domination, racism, and imperialism—too big a topic to discuss here, but too important to go completely unmentioned.)
By giving direct access to the feelings of a common person through epistolary form, Richardson opens up a new dimension in fictional narrative: the concern with human consciousness that will preoccupy the realist novel from Austen to James to Woolf to Bellow to today. As Margaret A. Doody notes in her introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, Richardson begins the novelistic project that in many ways culminates in high modernism with stream of consciousness narration.
So this novel is an important one in literary history—far more important, in most ways, than Gulliver’s Travels, which was an honorable and brilliant entrant in several longstanding literary traditions (satire, travel narrative, utopia, romance) but not a world-shakingly original, genre-defining work. Swift’s book is a masterful narrative, but Richardson’s has a claim to being one of the first modern novels, a book that influenced the whole course of European literature, affecting everyone from Rousseau to Goethe.
On the other hand, Pamela is not very much fun to read. The narrative is shapeless, moving from intense and active scenes of confrontation or flight to plodding descriptions of minor matters with no sense of design for emotional effect. Richardson blundered into writing a novel; his initial goal was to write a set of model letters for young ladies. Thus, the novel is relentlessly didactic, instructing us over and over and over again about God’s Providence, the importance of virtue, and the necessity of social forms. The only well-developed characters are Pamela herself, Mr. B., his sister, and his grotesque servant Mrs Jewkes. The latter is perhaps the novel’s most vital character, a sharp-tongued and cynical woman who is possibly—we are never quite sure, because Pamela is not—a former procuress or bawd and who seems to harbor homoerotic designs on the heroine. Alas, she repents too by the end: no one is spared the novel’s culminating reign of virtue. Most other characters blur together, insufficiently developed. Also, while I grasp the novelty of Richardson’s emphasis on emotion, the novel’s endless effusions, and the ocean of tears shed by every character in it, become tiresome.
In her introduction, Margaret A. Doody puts a positive face on all these flaws, praising the novel for its life-like impurities, excesses, and organic vagaries. I suppose I understand that assessment of Richardson’s achievement in a purely intellectual sense, but it does not lessen my extreme boredom with the novel qua novel—especially its lethal second half, a pageant of “virtue rewarded” wherein Mr. B. shows off Pamela to all his friends and demonstrates her many merits. Thankfully, Mr. B.’s sister shows up late in the second half to create some drama—poor Pamela has to jump out of a window to get away from her—but she ends up repentantly weeping too. No wonder I immediately thought of Swift on finishing Pamela: his bitterness is a needed corrective to Richardson’s sentimentality.
But more than making me wish for Swift, Pamela made me grateful for Jane Austen: she was the one who took Richardson’s materials and put them in order, discovering how to write a realistic novel of consciousness and common life in a more effective and economical way: she dispenses with the cumbersome and occasionally ludicrous epistolary apparatus (where does Pamela find the time and energy amid all these other events to write what is effectively a 500-page novel?) and instead conveys thought and emotion through a supple third-person narration marked by free indirect discourse. It is via Austen that we get from Richardson to Woolf, and through Austen that the realist novel becomes a form of art rather than a vehicle for didacticism.
Those less aesthetically reactionary than myself and Austen will no doubt see the transition from Richardson’s loose and baggy propagandistic monsters to the mute and well-wrought urns of modern fiction as a loss in cultural energy and complexity, a sacrifice of the radically social to aesthetic quietism; for Richardson was not only a proto-modernist explorer of the inner life, but (as Terry Eagleton discusses in his study of the writer) the popular ringleader of a coterie of devoted (largely female) readers, whose revisions and redactions he solicited and incorporated into his texts. A contemporary analogue to Richardson would be less a distinguished literary novelist like Philip Roth or Ian McEwan and more a master of a sentimental YA fan empire, such as John Green or Stephanie Meyer. Isn’t Twilight just Pamela with a dark Gothic glitter, the same old story of a girl from nowhere who tames the fierce and dangerous bad-boy aristocrat so as to be assimilated into the ruling elite? I would rather read Philip Roth.
For all that, any student of the novel’s history or of cultural history more broadly should read Pamela. A massive bestseller and cultural phenomenon in its own time, it is a book that helped to make our world and our literature, for better and for worse, and that is enough to make it a classic that cannot be ignored.