1740 Shades of Grey: Pamela Part 1

Posted on May 6, 2014 by


While Ariel’s reading Entwined with You (a recently released novel about a woman and the rich, powerful, and incredibly controlling man who falls in love with her [Ariel says: My thighs are already quivering in anticipation.]), I’m going to be reading Pamela (an 18th century novel about a woman and the rich, powerful, and incredibly controlling man who falls in love with her). In case you missed what I had to say about Pamela last week when we announced our side-by-side reading of Entwined with You and Pamela, here’s the most important context:

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded is a strange beast. Published in 1740, its proximity to the development of the novel as a literary form means that it still shows up on college syllabi not so infrequently, but modern critics have observed that it’s really more like the 18th century Fifty Shades of Grey, because it’s an overwritten love story between a controlling man who falls in love with a barely developed female protagonist for no clear reason, and pretty much nothing happens. So we thought it would be fun if while Ariel read Entwined with You (the most recent and most prominent Fifty Shades imitator), I read Pamela, and we all learned just how little misogyny dressed up as badly-written romance has changed in the last 300 years.

Much like Fifty Shades right now, Pamela has its supporters (academia, for some weird reason) amongst a larger dismissal of its actual value. As the editors of the edition I’m reading from say in their introduction:

[Samuel Richardson’s] first novel, Pamela, published in 1740 to a storm of controversy, is written in the voice of a virtuous young servant who resists and denounces her oppressive master until, apparently reformed, he makes her his obedient wife.

Wait, where have we heard this before?

I must have heard this fifty times before.

I must have heard this fifty times before.

It’s the same goddamn shit! It is absolutely baffling that there are people – some of whom include people who study literature for a living – who think this is a classic, in what should be an embarrassingly similar way to how people think Fifty Shades is a classic now. [Ariel says: God, why everybody be tripping!] The plot is just emotional abuse masquerading as “risque” romance? Check! People celebrate its undeveloped female lead for her strong character, even though thinking about it for about three seconds reveals that her power is largely illusory? Check! It’s hundreds and hundreds of pages of the same scenes and conversations over and over again? Check!

And that brings us to the fun part we’ll be doing on Bad Books, Good Times. It’s eroticabuse from 1740 vs eroticabuse from 2013! Which will be more misogynistic? No, seriously, which will be more misogynistic? I could see this going either way. Let’s find out!

We joke that we're "SparkNotes for Smartasses", but Pamela actually doesn't have SparkNotes. People could legitimately be reading this blog now to "do" the reading for class.

We joke that we’re “SparkNotes for Smartasses”, but Pamela actually doesn’t have SparkNotes. People could legitimately be reading this blog now to “do” the reading for class.

Preface by the Editor

So the first thing you need to know about Pamela is that it’s an epistolary novel, which is a fancy English major term for a novel presented as a series of letters. [Ariel says: Knowing nothing about this book. I can only assume these letters read exactly like the text messages and emails between Christian and Ana.] Presenting itself as “real”, the novel is composed of a series of letters written by Pamela, which is introduced by the “Editor”, who is the actual author, Samuel Richardson, explaining his premise as though he were simply the editor of someone else’s work. Don’t worry. This is the last interesting idea that appears in the whole goddamn thing.

If to divert and entertain, and at the same time to instruct, and improve the minds of the youth of both sexes:

Oh, fuck, this is going to be preachy. [Ariel asks: Does this mean we have another, secondary competition? Which book is preachier, Betrayed or Pamela?] [Matthew adds: Everybody loses.]

Letter I

Dear Father and Mother,
I have great trouble, and some comfort to acquaint you with. The trouble is, that my good lady died of the illness I mentioned to you, and left us all much grieved for the loss of her

And thus, we are introduced to Pamela’s problems! Pamela is a servant whose master has just died. This leaves her in a bit of turmoil, since working for a lady has left her only with skills suitable for employment at similar social statuses, and those jobs aren’t easy to come by. 18th century working class first world problems, huh?

Until, of course, a man happens. In case you were wondering if Pamela would pass the Bechdel Test.

For my master [Her new master, who is her old master’s son. Oh, you 18th century people just throwing around titles and identities all willy-nilly! You cray!] said, I will take care of you all, my good maidens; and for you, Pamela, (and took me by the hand; yes, he took my hand before them all)

BEFORE THEM ALL? Holy shit! [Ariel says: No time was wasted before we skipped right to the sexy and scandalous.] An upper-class man taking the working-class girl by the hand? No wonder this caused such controversy in 1740. Whatever could he say to her now that he has done something so shocking as to hold her hand?

for my dear mother’s sake, I will be a friend to you, and you shall take care of my linen.


And it's already as sexy as Fifty Shades of Grey.

And it’s already as sexy as Fifty Shades of Grey.

Pamela tells her parents in her letter that all will be well, because this kind man is surely looking after her well-being, despite his being so bold as to touch her on the hand, and thus finishes her letter:

Pray for your Pamela; who will ever be
Your most dutiful DAUGHTER.
I have been scared out of my senses; for just now, as I was folding up this letter in my late lady’s dressing-room, in comes my young master! Good sirs! how was I frightened!

So right after Pamela writes her letter, she has an interaction with her Master, but because time passes independently of Pamela writing her story out in a letter, it just jumps straight to a postscript, like, “Hey, speak of the devil! Guess what just happened!” Sure, it seems kind of cool now, but wait until Pamela starts running into closets in the middle of conversations to write ten page letters, like a normal person totally would. Then let’s see what that does for Pamela‘s contributions to realism in the Western canon, academics.

I went to hide the letter in my bosom

This will not be the last time Pamela hides a letter in her bosom. Not… not even remotely…

He reads her letter, and tells Pamela to fear not, for he is not angry, but advises her “to be wary what tales you send out of a family”. Well, that wasn’t too harmless! Our bland leading lady has met the imposing leading man and no one even comically fell on their face. This doesn’t seem so bad so far.

Letter II


Dear Pamela,
You letter was indeed a great trouble, and some comfort, to me and your poor mother. […] I hope the good ‘squire has no design […] Why should he take such a poor girl as you by the hand, as your letter says he has done twice?

Pamela’s father responds to her letter, and has some… very specific concerns…

Why should he stoop to read your letter to us; and commend your writing and spelling?

Well, clearly, he just wants to bone you. He commended your spelling! [Ariel says: They just don’t make em like they used to. My boyfriend never complements my spelling 😦 ] 

We are, ’tis true, very poor, and find it hard enough to live […] but the loss of our dear child’s virtue would be a grief that we could not bear

Spoiler: “virtue” means “virginity”. This is basically 500 pages of “don’t lose your virginity!”

If, then, you love us, […] if you find the least attempt made upon your virtue, be sure you leave every thing behind you, and come away to us; for we had rather see you all covered with rags, and even follow you to the churchyard, than have it said, a child of ours preferred any worldly conveniences to her virtue.

Also, wow, Pamela’s dad. I get that it’s the 18th century and feminism wasn’t invented yet or whatever, but you could maybe loosen up on this “We would rather you died than get sexually assaulted by a dude. Love, mom and dad” stance. [Ariel says: I am definitely missing something. Where is all of this even coming from? I guess taking her by the hand is a bigger deal and/or indicator of sexual assault than I ever would have imagined.] [Matthew adds: It’s coming from two places, 1) the patriarchy, in general (and the 18th century patriarchy to boot! That’s a pretty intense patriarchy), and 2) their differences in social class (we’ll get into this more in a bit).]

Letters III-V

Pamela writes back that her parents should trust her honesty, and assures them that her master, and even the housekeeper (Mrs. Jervis) and all the other servants are all very affable and civil to her, and “they can’t all have designs against me,” because that’s totally not all going to go to shit. The master’s sister, Lady Davers, visits. There’s some talk that Pamela might go work for her (so long as Pamela heeds her advice to stay away from boys because she is a pretty wench – oh, 18th century), but please we know what’s up. Realizing she’s probably staying with her master, Pamela comes up with another reason why everything will be just fine that we – especially us 21st century readers – haven’t thought of yet:

I am sure my master would not demean himself, so as to think upon such a poor girl as I, for my harm. For such a thing would ruin his credit, as well as mine

Because, you know, they have social class to worry about!

downton abbey don't be defeatist

She’s totally safe because he’d totally have to debase himself to pursue her, because she’s all working class and gross! Georgian Era one, 21st century zero! And how about that Pamela, totally holding her own as a woman in the 18th century. Look at all that power she yields by being of a lower class. Groundbreaking shit, right here. [Ariel says: It’s funny, in the Crossfire series, Eva is always quick to point out that she totally can’t just want Gideon for her money because she is totally super rich too and doesn’t even care about money (except when she uses it to buy a sick apartment in New York.) Look at all the power Eva holds by having her stepfather’s money and not Gideon’s!] [Matthew adds: Crossfire isn’t sexist! Just classist! Much better!]

Letters VI-VIII

Pamela writes to her parents that her master gave her some of her late lady’s old silk clothes. Naturally, everyone loses their shit over this, because the 18th century was really boring. But soon enough, Pamela must write to her parents again and tell of a far more shocking and scandalous gift her master has given her:

I was inwardly ashamed to take the stockings

THE PLOT’S REALLY MOVING NOW. Haha, just kidding. Nothing ever happens in this book.

he smiled at my awkwardness, and said, Don’t blush, Pamela: Dost think I don’t know pretty maids should wear shoes and stockings?

I wonder what kind of answer one would have for that!

there was no answer to be made to this

Oh. Okay. I… I guess these stockings are a really big deal. [Ariel says: This seems like the equivalent of telling your parents your boyfriend just bought you a sexy new bra from Victoria’s Secret. Just why, Pamela, why are you telling them this?] 

I must double my diligence.

Holy shit, Pamela, we’re talking about socks. As you might have imagined, if you thought Pamela was freaking out, her dad is super pissed about the stockings.

Dear Pamela,
I cannot but renew my cautions on your master’s kindness, and his free expression to you about the stockings.

I wonder if he can segue from this conversation about stockings to how she should kill herself rather than lose her virginity.

Arm yourself, my dear child, for the worst; and resolve to lose your life sooner than your virtue.

Oh, good. I was worried he wouldn’t have been able to get that supportive message to her twice.

Be sure don’t let people [tell] you, you are pretty […] for you did not make yourself, and so can have no praise due to you for it. It is virtue and goodness only, that make the true beauty.

It's like this, except with virginity.

It’s like this, except with virginity. Eighteenth century!

Letters IX-X

“Okay, Matthew,” you might be thinking. “The stockings are all well and good, but this master guy is hardly up to any Christian Grey controlling/emotional abuse shit yet.” Well, get… excited? Is excited the right word? What are you guys getting out of reading this blog anyway?

to be sure, now it is too plain, that all your cautions were well grounded. […] This very gentleman (yes, I must call him gentleman, though he has fallen from the merit of that title) has degraded himself to offer freedoms to his poor servant!

Shoot. You mean that thing about him demeaning himself and ruining his credit didn’t work? Dang! This sounds pretty serious! What did he do?

somebody stole my letter, and I know not what has become of it. It was a very long one. […] I will tell you all, the next opportunity, for I am watched very narrowly

“I have to write you a letter about how I can’t write you a letter about what a jerk this guy is because he’s reading my letters and then he’ll know I think he’s a jerk.” Yes, Pamela. Better safe than sorry.

Letter XI

Pamela writes that she and Mrs. Jervis were in the summer-house in the garden, and when Mrs. Jervis went away for a moment, her master came in. She tried to leave (because of social class) but he told her had something to say to her (because what the whaaaat).

Because you are a little fool, and know now what’s good for yourself. I tell you I will make a gentlewoman of you, if you be obliging […] and so saying, he put his arm about me, and kissed me!

I'm actually way behind on Downton Abbey. I just really like using Downton Abbey gifs for Walking Disaster.

Start taking bets on how many Downton Abbey gifs I wind up using throughout Pamela.

(You may have noticed they didn’t really do quotation marks back then, so I’m gonna go ahead and edit this next part so it makes more sense to a modern reader:)
And he said, “I’ll do you no harm, Pamela; don’t be afraid of me.”
I said, “I won’t stay.”
“You won’t, hussy?” said he. “Do you know whom you speak to?”

Guys, tell me this doesn’t read almost exactly like Fifty Shades of Grey, even with the outdated language (and outdated gender roles, I should point out I guess). Female character says, “No, I don’t want to do that”, male character gets angry and says, “You won’t? BUT [BLAH BLAH I AM A MAN MY UNDERSTANDING OF THE PATRIARCHY IS CONFUSED BLAH BLAH]”. Rinse, lather, repeat. If I told you this was an excerpt from Fifty Shades:

“I’ll do you no harm, Miss Steele. Don’t be afraid of me.”
I said, “I won’t stay.”
“You won’t, hussy?” Christian murmured. “Do you know whom you speak to?”

You’d probably believe me, yeah? And probably not just because I’ve established myself as such a reliable voice in the field of Fifty Shades of Grey mockery on the internet.

As you know.

I mean, that face just screams “reliability”.

But we’re only just diving into the rabbit hole. Let’s see just how bad the sexism and misogyny and heteronormativity look in this new trend of “erotic” “literature” when held up against the sexism and misogyny and heteronormativity of a book that was written almost three centuries ago.

Yeah, I'm probably going to be using this gif a lot too.

Yeah, I’m probably going to be using this gif a lot too.

Anyway, Pamela’s parents must get a ton of mail.

Posted in: Pamela