Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).
Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.
As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.
Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).
Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.
Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”
Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.
If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”
When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”
Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.
Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
In part one of this two-part series, Meaghan O’Connell and I discussed our experience reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. At that point, we were a couple of hundred pages into the novel. Now we are back to continue that conversation, and to illuminate for our audience just what it means to read (or not read) a classic in 2016…and to no doubt embarrass ourselves further in the name of honesty, entertainment, and, of course, literature.
Edan Lepucki: I’m 80 pages from finishing David Copperfield…and I’ve given up. I just can’t do it anymore. The endless scenes with characters’ verbal tics on full display; the moralizing about the beauty of a woman’s purity; Mr. Micawber’s debts and heart; Uriah Heep’s writhing. I just can’t. I am so bored! I found that I was barely reading and when I stop reading my life takes on a sad, lifeless tone, like my hair before I get my blonde highlights. My former English professor, the brilliant David Walker, wondered on Twitter why we didn’t try Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House. Why didn’t we? I guess I wanted a comic novel, a famous crowd pleaser. But I am far from pleased.
Where are you in the novel? Are you compelled to continue?
I am left with a few thoughts from this project. The first one being, what does “Dickensian” mean? Want to take a stab at defining that, based on what you’ve read of Davy C.?
Meaghan O’Connell: Oh, Edan. When I got this email from you I cheered out loud. I still have 200 pages to go and I can barely remember what it’s like to truly love a book. I am so behind and the book is starting to feel endless. Every night I tell myself, “Okay, go to bed early. Read for an hour or more.” Then I get in bed, read two pages, and fall asleep at 9 pm or whatever it is.
I am still a little invested, mostly in D.C.’s romantic prospects, but I, too, would prefer to never read the name Uriah Heep again. I think I want to finish it, but I need to bring a few more books into the rotation, save it for when I am in a certain mood, I guess the mood to be somewhat tediously entertained?
IT’S SO LONG.
I wanted to read David Copperfield because supposedly it is the author’s favorite, and based largely/vaguely on his own life. And the book does make me curious about Dickens himself, or at least the narrator. Like, hi, D.C., please, step forward, talk to me in like 200 pages instead of 860. Maybe tell a different story altogether? Great Expectations perhaps? I probably should have just re-read that. I love reading things I read when I was younger and understanding things that passed by me then.
Dickensian. I think in casual conversation people mean it to be “about poor people”? Things that are bleak. I picture a small boy with soot on his cheeks, begging for bread, maybe a starving cat in the background. It’s all very grey. There are waistcoats, which it turns out are simply VESTS, and they are threadbare. I think this is based almost entirely on Oliver Twist?
Having read 70 percent of the book I would say that I guess that isn’t totally off, but if you said a book was Dickensian, well, for one, I would not want to read it, at least not for a long time. I would imagine it to be bloated but funny, obsessed with class, tragicomic? An orphan? A lot of failed romance but probably some sort of happy ending (I may never know the end of this, but he does reference his future children at some point — which was weird!)
It’s been strange to read a book I just like okay, to be missing that big propulsive drive in my life. This book is not really making me think about anything? It’s not inspiring, or not in any way that is conscious. I guess I am inspired that Dickens took up so much damned space. Mostly it’s felt, much as it did the last time I read his work, like homework. I need a breath of fresh air! I have no urge to write lately and I never thought I’d say this/provoke lovers of Victorian literature in this way, but I blame Charles Dickens.
Have you really abandoned poor Davey? (Edan, you know he probably has abandonment issues!!) Are you on to other books? What’s it like on the other side?! I’m really left feeling like, God, maybe I should just watch a BBC version of this book and see if he ends up marrying Agnes after all. I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not a scholar of some kind, which seems like a pretty brazen pronouncement, but, you know what, I stand by it. Do not read this book!! Life is short.
Edan: What’s amazing to me is how many people, when I told them I was reading David Copperfield, said that they had read and loved the book when they were younger. This is startling to me because, while Dickens isn’t difficult on the sentence level, there are still quite a few cultural and era-specific references that were unclear to me, as a worldly adult. (For instance, all the stuff around Copperfield’s career, before he starts writing for money, confused me.) And the intense moralizing about young women made me worried about all the women who read this as kids. Don’t run off with the hot asshole, little girls, or you will never recover! (Well, hey, that’s maybe kind of a good lesson to live by…) It did make me consider David C. as a (very) long young adult novel, or even middle grade novel. The reader, for a time, is Davy’s age, and can grow along with him. There were a lot of plot turns that I saw coming for hundreds of pages, which might be less obvious to a younger audience.
When I think about “Dickensian” I, like you, first imagine waistcoats and soot, a bad cough. Certainly orphans. But also long narratives that rely very much on coincidence. Now that I’ve read most of David Copperfield, I’d say, too, that the Dickensian style has colorful and immediately memorable characters with distinct names and ways of speaking: Peggoty, Mr. Dick, Miss Murdstone. As much as I began to dislike this novel, I’m in awe of how efficiently he brought these figures to life, and with such joy, it seems.
In his terrific introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, David Gates does a bang-up job of citing the book’s flaws, from Mr. Micawber’s anti-semitic one-liner to Dickens’s flawed and flat depiction of women, such as Agnes, whom Gates calls “the celestially backlit hall monitor.” He goes on to argue that Dickens “writes best about damaged, dark, and dangerous women.” Gates cites the scarred Rosa Dartle in the novel, whom I was also very much mesmerized by. Aside from the needless length of the book, I do think the depictions of women were what made me finally put it down. I started skimming right around when Dora asked Davy to call her Child Wife. Just no.
Since you asked, I’ve given up D.C. for good and I’m enjoying reading again. I ate up Charles Yu’s metafictional How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is like Italo Calvino crossed with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure crossed with George Saunders. Then I read the forthcoming debut novel Home Field by The Millions staff writer Hannah Gersen, which was so beautiful and compelling that she and I joked my blurb should be: “Better than Dickens!”
Speaking of Hannah, she told me that she appreciates Dickens’s influence more than Dickens’s work. What do you think this means?
Meaghan: It’s funny you wrote today because I picked the book back up last night! I’d read enough of Charlotte Shane and then Rebecca Curtis to be ready to reenter the fore. It was very pleasant. If I can keep reading intense lyric memoirs and bizarro short stories between chapters of this doorstopper, I might just finish it.
The “my great love is so delicate!” shit is pretty tedious, though I did laugh when he described her to Agnes, making excuses for how fragile she was, how she couldn’t be troubled with this or that. Getting relationship advice from the unassuming girl everyone else knows you SHOULD be with felt so modern — a satisfying set up! If he isn’t headed for one in a series of falls and if he doesn’t end up with backlit Agnes, I will be bitter indeed.
And you’re right — efficient! Who would have thought we’d use that word to describe Dickens? The very name Miss Murdstone makes me so angry. Mr. Micawber evokes dread, awkwardness. They flit in and out of the story so any lasting impression seems like an achievement. There’s a sort of necessary hamfistedness? Or if it’s deliberate maybe it’s just over-the-top, but good over-the-top. He’s having fun with it, there seems to be this continual raised eyebrow throughout, and yet he maintains such sincerity with David Copperfield! Maybe that’s what feels sort of YA about it? He’s so pure of heart and unflagging and “honorable” and so on. He’s good-humored but never totally self-aware? It’s SO sincere even as it’s funny.
Poor kids being assigned this book in school. At least with Great Expectations there is the spider cake to cling to.
I totally get the influence versus the work thing, what a smart, gentle thing to say, like maybe he might read this. A friend, when I told her I wanted to read some Dickens, was like, “Or maybe read some Nancy Mitford? Or Jane Austen even?”
To me “Dickensian” evokes what I was trying to get at earlier, a sense of playfulness (I hate when adults say “play” but there it is), a very kind evisceration, wit, and a noble heart. It is fun, though I think it’s more fun to have that foundation and then undercut it. It’s thrilling in a way, how tired so much of it feels, while still being full of life. To have him be brilliant but also to feel like we (“we” lol) have made progress, literature-wise! Is that crazy to say? We’re better than you now, Dickens, but thank you for your service.
Edan: I love your phrase, “a very kind evisceration” — this is such an accurate description of what Dickens is up to in David Copperfield. I definitely appreciate this gift of his. But gift-appreciation is different from pure enjoyment.
Again, though, I circle back to this idea that perhaps we chose the wrong book; certainly we wouldn’t say that the contemporary novels we adore are better than, say, Bleak House, which everyone seems to agree is a masterpiece. I would bet that most Dickens scholars and lovers would choose another book of his for us to judge. Maybe David Copperfield is too of its time to truly work for contemporary readers such as ourselves. I get the sense that it was written to be an immersive, rousing text for the readers of its day; perhaps his more “serious” novels were striving for something other than immersion: complication, profundity.
All the 18th-century literature I read in college, like Pamela, or Humphry Clinker, were fun to talk about but a chore to read — their storytelling techniques were just so obvious and clunky. While David Copperfield was a far better read than those novels, I’m still having a better time discussing the book with you than I did reading said book. Back when I was in that 18th-century literature class, I remember feeling that The Novel, as a machine to entertain and move the reader, had become much sleeker and more powerful over the years. But by the 19th century, the machinery had improved considerably. We have Austen, as you mentioned. (Emma was published in 1815.) And George Eliot — my god, what brilliance! Middlemarch came later in the century, in 1874. David Copperfield, published in 1850, came between those two books. Perhaps some learned person can step forward to tell us why and how novels got so much more refined in the 1800s — only a century (or less) later. And is Copperfield’s episodic/picaresque quality (is it a picaresque?) a throwback to these older books? I wonder, I wonder.
I asked Hannah Gersen what she meant by Dickensian influence and she echoed what we’ve been saying, and she also remarked that Christmas movies owe a huge debt to Charles D. She’s right!
Will you read more Dickens in 2016? Ever? What do you take away from this experiment in ye olden classics?
Meaghan: God. It’s just TOO LONG. My edition is 866 pages. Life is too short to read something so plodding. And yet, I’m still reading it. I have a hard time giving up on books. I keep thinking maybe there will be some revelation near the end that will have made it all worthwhile. Like something big will unlock for me, literature-wise.
I am still a good 200 pages from the end and I just read the chapter about him marrying Dora (spoiler alert) and he totally elided the sex, while still referring to it in a sentence that manages to be both not quite comprehensible and totally revolting:
It was a strange condition of things, the honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home, when I found myself sitting down in my own small house with Dora; quite thrown out of employment, as I may say, in respect of the delicious old occupation of making love.
A run-on, but a lot of nice language I think. “My own small house” is good. “The honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home,” also really good, I’d say! BUT THEN, he ruins it all with “the delicious old occupation of making love.”
Coming from him, it reminds me of that SNL skit where they eat meat in a hot tub and call each other lover. Also I’ll admit I don’t quite know what he means by “quite thrown out of employment, as I may say” — NO YOU MAY NOT SAY, because it makes no sense. Is he fucking too much to go to work or did she fire him from fucking her? Is he just done doing it around the clock and settling into married life? (Probably.)
Anyway, not a word about the sex except that it was delicious, which, good for you, but gross. Very Jonathan Franzen.
There is a part of me that wants to try a different book because I am so stubborn and I don’t want to have given over like six weeks of my reading life to this book that is not as good as Austen! To think they were written around the same time! I am no expert in “what the novel does or is or wants to be” but, wow, the ladies were doing it better (If I may say! And I may!).
Maybe if I read Bleak House and it’s a masterpiece that opens up my brain, this will all have been worth it? These are the thoughts I’m left with, Edan.
I just read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and it was the perfect antidote, which is what other books are to me now: antidotes to David Copperfield.
Comrade is a loaded word. Tongzhi, literally “same aspiration,” was the appropriate term of address for an entire generation of Chinese, from influential Party officials and generals to ordinary mothers, street-sweepers, and butchers. Its usage signified membership in a shared, Communist dream of equality and progress. Sometime in the late-’80s, tongzhi took on a secondary meaning for a less public community. It began to mean “gay.”
Unlike many linguistic changes, this shift was deliberate. The new connotation was proposed by Edward Lam, one of the artist-activists who organized the first Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1989. In borrowing and reshaping tongzhi, with its suggestion of unity and shared purpose, they hoped to bring gay Chinese people out of the shadows and into the broader community. That same year, the Tiananmen protests began. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed. Tongzhi took off, but the broader community it once symbolized had fallen apart. You have to wonder if activists had begun to feel uneasy about the term by 1990, and the promises it seemed to make.
Among mainland China’s earliest, best known, and most influential contemporary gay novels, Beijing Comrades (originally called Beijing Story) is also China’s first known e-novel. Its pseudonymous author (here called Bei Tong, nothing more than a contraction of the book’s title, Beijing Tongzhi) published the narrative in segments incorporating the suggestions of online readers; the first installment went live in November of 1998, nearly a decade after Tiananmen. The result was a classic of queer consciousness-raising erotica.
It was also the beginning of a vogue. As the ’90s drew to a close, Internet literature — novels, stories, articles, and essays produced online — took off. While fan fiction and other forms of Internet literature (wangluo wenhua) enjoy popularity around the world, nothing compares to Chinese readers’ passion for the form at its height. By 2012, there were more Chinese reading online literature than doing online shopping.
The popularity of Internet literature was ostensibly driven by the threat of official print censorship. More likely it was the result of expanded Web access for a wide variety of readers and writers, communicating readily, quickly, and cheaply. Users’ efforts to create a peer-to-peer network were not so different from the motives of late-’80s gay activists working to establish a community of equals. As one early Internet writer noted, “The real significance of Internet literature is that it gives literature back to the people.”
Like the Gospels, a cultural touchstone of a different stripe, Beijing Story exists in several radically different versions. Despite its outsize popular influence — Beijing Comrades was also made into a 2001 movie by Stanley Kwan — the book has never been officially published in mainland China, or rendered into English. This translation is based on an expanded version prepared by Bei Tong in hopes of a state-sanctioned (guanfang) publication, although the state’s blessing — necessary for mainland publication — was ultimately withheld.
And like the Gospels, Beijing Comrades has its own apocrypha. “There are those who believe that she is a tongqi,” translator Scott E. Myers writes of the author, “a heterosexual woman with the misfortune of unknowingly marrying a gay man. Others suggest that he is novelist and essayist Wang Xiaobo” — despite the fact that Wang Xiaobo was dead when the novel was written in 1998.
There is also this particularly tantalizing explanation: Bei Tong, author of that enduring vision of gay male affection, may be a straight Chinese woman living overseas. (At minimum, a Chinese someone living overseas; Myers remains somewhat ecumenical.) Bored and aimless as a New York expat, Bei Tong has explained, “I immersed myself in the world of the Internet: playing chess, chatting online, surfing porn sites. When I read all the pornographic stories that were out there, my first thought was: F—! What the hell is this? I knew I could write something better.”
And then she did.
Our lovers don’t meet cute — they meet dismissive. Handong, the narrator, is a self-confessed “brat” making his vague fortune in business. Lan Yu, a Xinjiang kid working his way through college, is at first unimpressive: boyish, underdeveloped, with uncertain Mandarin and a “faint anxiety in his eyes.” “Don’t your parents give you money for school?” Handong asks during one of their first exchanges. The irony of the book’s title, at least in this translation, is soon apparent. Our titular lovers are not comrades at all, with the equality of income, status, and purpose that the term implies. Lan Yu asks for a job, and Handong thinks something could be arranged. In the morning, he leaves Lan Yu 1,000 yuan and a note to forget about working and focus on his studies. Lan Yu takes only half, and as a loan. He intends to make good.
Although the novel, in its earliest iteration, was written at the turn of the century, it is intended as a decade-sweeping period piece, beginning in the mercurial 1980s. Handong rhapsodizes on
the many distractions ushered in by the so-called age of reform, the era of primitive accumulation that had promised to transform China from an impoverished nation into a powerful one…In principle even those without powerful family backgrounds could jockey for successes never before thought possible. All you needed was some guts and determination and entry into the get-rich-quick class was yours for the taking.
The plot of Beijing Comrades is, in part, the story of Lan Yu’s self-making under Handong’s watchful eye. Lan Yu works a string of more or less menial jobs that span the range of his worlds: as a tutor, as a construction worker pulling 12-hour shifts in the summer, much to Handong’s amusement. “‘Five-hundred yuan a month!’ I repeated with a derisive laugh. ‘A motel hooker’s asking price is four times that!…Besides, what the hell kind of job is that?’”) Handong offers him instead a series of easy luxuries and interest-free loans, which Lan Yu virtuously resists.
Erotic fiction is a careful trick to manage: detailed enough to feel fresh and compelling, spare enough to feel — in the reader’s hands — participatory. The characters themselves, particularly Lan Yu, have the blank, Mad Libs quality of much romantic fiction. “He had the clean, soapy smell typical of young men,” Handong considers. “When I looked at his face, I saw not just a handsome young man, but the breathtaking power of youth.” In his afterword, Petrus Liu refers to Lan Yu, perhaps charitably, as a “role model of nonidentity.” Still, this too is the tactic of much romantic fiction, at least since Pamela and Pygmalion: as the audience imagines its personal Lan Yu, Handong shapes one in his own image. Handong’s “nefarious agenda,” as he playfully admits, is “to make [Lan Yu] shake off the cultural and intellectual arrogance of the new world and learn to enjoy the material pleasures of the new one.”
As Lan Yu holds firm, Handong begins to wonder “which emotion was stronger, my affection or my resentment.” Affection wins out, as it must. For Handong, Beijing Comrades is a story of slowly softening and falling in love. Although he initially sees his time with Lan Yu as no more than a sexy hobby — “like horse-racing,” as he explains to his distraught mother — he eventually wises up and sees the error of his ways. He swears devotion, just in time for the Year of the Snake.
As a tribute to the ’80s, the novel is sweetly nostalgic. The Teresa Teng cassette sitting on a dresser will bring back memories for Chinese of a certain age, as will chunky Big Boss cell phones and the ideological preciousness of characters’ names — Handong (defend Mao), Aidong (love Mao), and Jingdong (revere Mao) make for formidable siblings. There are references to West Berlin, and the capital’s beautiful blue skies in the summer, when “[f]or three solid months, there wasn’t a bicycle lot in Beijing that wasn’t jam packed.” By the end, as the millennium approaches, our heroes are stepping out of their “burgundy Cole Haans” and slipping into the boudoir.
“The intensity of two men making love can never be matched by straight sex,” Handong proclaims, and Bei Tong makes you believe it. The book falls significantly higher on the erotica spectrum than Fifty Shades of Gray. The lovers’ sexual adventures are compellingly rendered by Myers, who, by marvelous coincidence, was working at a gay bar in Beijing even as Bei Tong was writing her novel in New York. Like the love affair, his translation begins a little stiltedly, but becomes increasingly assured. Slang is a barrier never fully crossed, but Myers makes capable work of “the local vernacular, which was so legendarily vulgar it had its own title: Beijing Bitching.” It’s a plausible summary of the book, from Lan Yu’s perspective.
Once firmly united, the lovers’ romance is strikingly sweet and normative. “He smiled and pushed his nose against mine as if he were a bear rolling its cub…‘I don’t have to come,’ I whispered into his ear. ‘I just want to hold you.’” The novel finds new tension in an implausible series of disasters: tonsillitis, coma, cerebral hemorrhage; suicidal parent, wicked stepmother; seedy prostitutes, sexual assault; criminal investigations, stints in prison; reversals of fortune, sad parting after sad parting after sad parting. Tiananmen features as a plot point, but only as a winsome threat to poor Lan Yu. Ditto the cringe-worthy red herrings about AIDS. (“If you meet someone new,” Handong warns, “you have to be careful. I don’t want to hear through the grapevine that you’ve caught some kind of disease!”)
For all its sad, socially conscious pillow-talk (“Do you think gay people can have everlasting love?” Handong asks), it would be a mistake to view Beijing Comrades as an accurate chronicle of the Deng Xiaoping era, or as a representative document of gay Chinese romance. The novel is, ultimately, the stylized erotic fantasy of a (straight? female?) expat, with considerable help from online readers, produced 20 years after the fact.
But despite the author’s likely inexperience, Beijing Comrades is filled with confident, jaded insider tips — how to treat virgins, what types of women to avoid. Handong speaks with same assurance on these topics as he does on Deng Xiaoping’s China. “There’s no doubt about it,” he declares, “it’s a hell of a lot easier to seduce a man than a woman.” When it comes to women, the novel’s tone is consistently snide. Characters, plagued by needy girlfriends and manipulative spendthrift wives, complain of “the typical flat ass of most Asian girls” and their friends’ “shrill, housewife bitching.” “When a woman has sex with you,” Handong explains, “it’s because of something you have… or because they want to find someone who will let them be a parasite forever.” When Lan Yu feels jealous, Handong orders him to “Stop acting like a woman. Every little thing makes you so damn suspicious.”
It’s a curious structural misogyny, perhaps the result of a misunderstanding on the author’s part, a belief that men love men because they hate women. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between disdain for a conventional mainstream life and hatred for women, who never come off well. Nor do foreigners, for that matter — neither the “damn Japanese” nor the Western “imperialist aggressors.” The solution is a gay socialist utopia built for two.
In one of the novel’s happiest moments, Handong and Lan Yu driving through the hills, goofily singing the March of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army: “’The hope of our people is on our backs, an invincible power are we!… March on! Our troops march toward the sun! To the victory of the revolution, and the entire nation’s liberation!’ We fell into peals of laughter. Never had a song felt so good.”
The cultural order may have fallen with Mao Zedong, but Bei Tong finds that lost feeling of political and social cohesion in an ideal same-sex relationship, placing all the charged meaning of tongzhi, in its traditional sense, in a gay couple. Created on a website, crowd-sourced in serial, Beijing Comrades is the people’s public fantasy of intimacy. Handong wonders “whether two ‘comrades’ could be lifelong partners, loving one another and taking care of each other til the end.” Beijing Comrades is one generation’s best effort.
I read a lot of headlines about the Sony data hack before I mustered the interest to read anything else about it. There are so many things to click, and the headlines seemed to concern only empyrean Hollywood types, and I am on maternity leave and partially brain-dead. Someone was racist, a woman made less money than a man, something about Angelina Jolie. But eventually the headlines became so relentless that I finally clicked, like an old bloodhound heaving her bulk from the porch and loping off in the direction of a rumpus. I began with one exchange of emails between Sony bigwigs Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal and was immediately so enthralled that I went hunting for others that had been published on the various news sites.
Last year I was sent a copy of the highly experimental Nanni Balestrini work Tristano, the result of a machine randomly shuffling 10 different chapters of an already experimental 1966 novel to create eerie nothings like this:
A long thin rivulet of water slowly advances on the asphalt. She moves slowly under his body. The woman answered no certainly not.
I found Balestrini’s novel alien and repugnant because I am wedded to more traditional narratives; for me all intention and meaning had been stripped from its words by virtue of its reshuffling. But Pascal and Rudin’s emails, which are basically incomprehensible to anyone outside of their industry, are somehow more compelling by virtue of their incomprehensibility, Amy Pascal’s sibylline utterances full of a surprising sort of illiterate pathos and mystery:
I would do this for you
You should do this
Miranda July capitalized on the seductive nature of other people’s mail in the summer of 2013 with “We Think Alone,” an art project whereby people could sign up to receive forwarded emails from celebrities’ inboxes. This was an inspired choice; snooping around people’s emails hits pleasure centers arguably more primal than those tapped by schlepping to a museum, paying $25, and getting a headache after 30 minutes looking at a pile of cat food cans welded together. And while for some people it’s the snooping itself that makes other people’s mail interesting, readers with qualms about privacy could feel secure in knowing that the celebrities themselves had provided access. (N.B: while personal correspondence should be off-limits unless the recipients have consented or are dead, I feel okay about quoting from the Sony leak, and the Wikileaks emails below, because they are ostensibly corporate records, and not personal ones.)
Some commentators observed that Miranda July’s curated emails did not reveal anything particularly titillating about these celebrities (among them Kirsten Dunst and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but I found the voice of their communiques as compelling as the things disclosed therein. Note the lilting, seemingly non-native English of Kirsten Dunst’s email here:
I also have some great experiences from yesterday as I was in a photo shoot for Bulgari, and there were so many elements and people. I have very strong Ideas to talk about.
I’ll do the second assignment tomorrow, I have a night flight to Boston and it’s hard for me to get in a comfortable place in sleep to dream.
If Kirsten Dunst’s email selections revealed that there is a level of fame at which you don’t really need to worry about what you sound like, to the extent that you are willing to forward your strange musings to thousands of strangers, Pascal and Rubin’s emails indicated that the more money and prestige are attached to your job, the more your professional correspondence is likely to be composed and punctuated like a comment on a Huffington Post article. But more importantly, they show a mode of communicating that has been molded by the melodramatic conventions of the very industry that produced it, plaintive lines like “Don’t pretend all thoes things didn’t happen cuz it makes me feel like I’m going crazy” or “Why are u punishing me”; admonitions like “You’re involving yourself in this massive ad pointless drama that is beneath you”; or the more ominous “You’re about to cross a line that won’t get uncrossed after you do it.”
In 2012, Wikileaks published millions of emails harvested from Stratfor, a global intelligence research firm in Texas. Wikileaks and the news media were interested in these emails for their geopolitical implications, but they also represent a veritable cornucopia of narrative pleasures, all the more delectable because they are strange and secret and real. They likewise reflect a very particular professional sensibility, sometimes self-conscious, often comic, and full of bravado. Even a fractional survey of the emails’ subject lines is evocative: “Fucking Tajikistan;” “Fucking Europe;” “Fucking Russian Defense Guys;” “Fucking Abottabad;” “fucking Mubarak;” “fucking guatemalans;” “fucking Belgium;” “fucking kangaroos;” “fucking hipsters;” “what a fucking shit show;” “Get ready to be hit in the fucking face with a fist full of friendship;” or the succinct command, “pay the fucking utility bill.”
There is no way that a person could read all of them, and random clicking might yield all sorts of tantalizing fragments, à la Balestrini by way of Graham Greene:
I mean look, I never said that the fact these camels/horses came from tourists
meant it wasn’t organized, right. I was just saying that the horses/camels
don’t mean anything in of themselves. There are horses/camels near the
city and in considerable numbers.
These are corporate records, but they are also full of human currents, intimations of complex, even tender relationships:
Reading this, I get the sense that you, in some sense, fear and crave
change at the same time. You find beauty in the concept of change, but to
a limit. You fall back to the comforts of familiarity, the languid
The joy of reading other people’s mail is a well-known, well-documented phenomenon. Anyone who has spent time in an archive has found themselves wandering through the hedge maze of correspondence, which can lead either to fruitful new projects or simply leave the reader floundering in some voyeur’s backwater, pointlessly obsessing over the sheer novelty of the way that people communicate with one another. We have epistolary novels, of course — themselves a product of human interest in other people’s mail and the narrative possibilities thereof. No sooner had the novel been invented than it had been given the epistolary treatment, in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa.
Contemporary novels use correspondence not only to drive a story, but to attempt the herculean work of capturing the spirit of an age — past, present, or future. Some of these are convincing — better, even, than reality — like A.S. Byatt’s divine Possession, built around an amazing fabricated correspondence that works to make the novel simultaneously a mystery, love story, and postmodern work of criticism. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story constructs a textual future English patois, told through the “Globalteen” messaging accounts of two young women. But these and other wonderful novels that have successfully used the epistolary format cannot scratch the very specific itch of the leaked email, the archived letter. As Shteyngart’s sad sack anti-hero Lenny Abramov writes in his diary, describing his new electronic device: “I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen…the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.” There is a fundamental inauthenticity to the epistolary novel; we cannot forget that it sprang from the mind of its author.
The ludicrous Tumblr, “Texts from Bennett”, which purports to be the SMS record of a Midwestern white boy with delusions of hood status, seems cognizant of the disappointment that undergirds epistolary works of art, guaranteeing in its header that it is “100% Real.” It’s not real, though, and its offerings are ultimately unconvincing, a collection of zany, “urban”-inflected bon mots:
like I said I luv anamels alot 2. i used to rescue rockwilders im one of da highest paid members of PITA.
If “Texts from Bennett” is obviously fake, it is grasping at the heart of leaked mail’s allure. The Tumblr was so popular that it was in fact turned into a novel, one with a surprising number of positive reader reviews, many of which expressed sentiments along these lines: “We all know an incredibly white person who attempts to act as ghetto as possible, but Mac Lethal knows whats up with Texts From Bennett.” (Reading Amazon reader reviews, like Internet comments, comes close to scratching the epistolary itch. Reading comments can be irresistible, not for the opportunity to wallow in outrage about the ignorance or malevolence of your fellow clicking public, or not only that, at any rate — it’s that intimate glimpse at the way people communicate, the things that they say and the ways that they say them. There is nothing like a YouTube comment for revealing our humanity in all its forms.)
Most correspondence we have the opportunity to read is of the highest caliber, composed by great minds and published (perhaps even written, at some level) for the public’s edification. So we have the letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rilke, or Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire née Mitford. These are gorgeous pieces of writing, but they assume an unrealness by virtue of the genius of their authors; they are artifacts of an age and class for which correspondence was understood as an art form. I remember the surprise, the electric thrill, of reading, at of one of my many past part-time archival jobs, a letter written by a regular enlisted man in World War I. Far from the texts of my college Modernism curriculum — the majesty of the war poets, the self-conscious zip of BLAST or the raffish style of the Wipers Times — the letter was rife with misspellings and homey sentiment, the product of a semi-literate young man sending a short and melancholy message home to his mother. I had never thought about what a normal person might sound like during that era. There can be great style and meaning in unstylishness, “Texts from Bennett” notwithstanding. (The Telegraph published a batch of WWI letters written in a similar vein: “I am very sorry for what I done when I was at home and will pay you back when I get some more pay.”)
We are awash in narrative these days. We are in a golden age of television, where highly polished narratives are whipped up by streaming video companies, tailored to our mined preferences, and basically guaranteed to be addictive. Even our news gets a narrative now: something happens — like the Sony leaks, for example — and we have not only the text, but the meta-text, the commentary on ethics and implications. We have lovingly and expensively produced radio plays based on real-life murder cases, and rounds and rounds of narrative about whether they are bad or good and what they say about our culture. Forget the forest/trees taxonomy; we are so spoiled for narrative that we have multiple forest visualizations — time, space, temperature.
Readers and writers, I think, are particularly susceptible to the narrative delights of real correspondence, which will always exceed the limits of any one novel’s philosophy. A building of Paris’ Palais de Chaillot is inscribed with a verse of Paul Valéry:
It depends on those who pass
Whether I am a tomb or treasure
Whether I speak or am silent
The choice is yours alone.
Friend, do not enter without desire.
Archives are a public good, but they are predicated on this desire. In one sense, my interest in the recent leaked emails is narrative hunger taken to its most pathological reach. Rather than lament the implications of the Sony emails (that insanely rich and powerful white people are still a bunch of crummy racists; that people spend millions of dollars to make shitty movies while the world burns) or the grim findings of Wikileaks (that there is a revolving door between the government, business, and security sectors), I treat these documents as another avenue for narrative desire. But there’s nothing like the magic of an authentic human document. We are surfeited on the “what” of the narrative. Leaked emails give us that rare and precious thing, the “how.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Jason Rogers
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Samuel Richardson—writer, printer, author of the 1740 bestseller Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded—often told a couple of stories about his school years. He liked to relate how, though not a stellar student, he was popular for his ability to spin a yarn:
“I recollect that I was early noted for having invention. I was not fond of play, as other boys; my school-fellows used to call me Serious and Gravity; and five of them particularly delighted to single me out, either for a walk, or at their father’s houses, or at mine, to tell them stories, as they phrased it. Some I told them, from my reading, as true; others from my head, as mere invention; of which they would be most fond, and often were affected by them.”
Another tale, also possibly apocryphal, involved his favor with the neighborhood’s young women—although not for the reasons you might think. At thirteen he was not of an age to be wooing the daughters of the local gentry, but he did have a reputation for turning a nice phrase, and they often sought his advice in answering their love letters: “…these young women, unknown to each other, having a high opinion of my taciturnity, revealed to me their love-secrets, in order to induce me to give them copies to write after, or correct, for answers to their lover’s letters.”
It’s an engaging thought that the man who would become famous almost forty years later for writing Pamela—a novel in letters of a young woman struggling with a love affair—would have spent his early days surrounded by young women, helping them write their own love letters. Such a story at least ought to be true, which is perhaps why Richardson—usually notoriously vague on the subject of his childhood—was careful to tell it.
Samuel Richardson was already in his fifties, a successful London printer whose contracts included printing official reports for the House of Commons and several daily newspapers, when two bookseller friends first approached him about producing “a little volume of Letters, in a common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers, who were unable to indite [sic] for themselves.”
Up to that point, Richardson’s life had been that of an industrious middle-class craftsman. The son of a joiner—a carpenter specializing in finished woodwork—he had some schooling, although not the intense classical instruction preferred by the era’s educated circles. With little family money, no obvious patronage to support his “storytelling,” and neither the talent nor inclination for woodworking, in 1706 he apprenticed himself to a London printer named John Wilde. Richardson did well in Wilde’s shop, rising to oversee operations. He married Wilde’s daughter, scraping up the funds to start his own print shop, and by 1722 was successful enough to take on his own apprentices.
Eighteenth century London was ripe with opportunity for a printer. Literacy was on the rise. The middle class—people with some leisure to read—was growing in both numbers and influence. Pamphleteering was the Internet of the era, and everyone with something to say needed a printer to help them say it. Alongside political tracts, booksellers found a high demand for nonfiction, especially of the instructional variety. Housekeeping handbooks, etiquette guides, gardening manuals, books on treatments for various illnesses, books on improving one’s memory, treatises on how to live a good and righteous life—self-help, it turns out, is a favorite subject no matter what the era. One of the first books Samuel Richardson ever wrote was a manual for apprentices on how they should conduct themselves. (He advised them to avoid the theater, taverns, and gambling.)
So it wasn’t entirely unusual for a couple of booksellers, sensing a potential market, to suggest to Richardson, a successful printer known for his way with words, that he pen a book on the art of letter-writing. What was unusual was the result of the endeavor, a wholly new kind of novel: Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded.
An epistolary tale written as a series of letters from a young servant girl to her parents, Pamela is the story of the eponymous heroine who, finding herself the object of her master’s unwanted attentions, resists his advances and repeated seductions until he at last consents to marry her properly. She then assents to his proposal and the two live happily ever after—that is, once Pamela’s virtue, beauty, humility, and good sense win over those members of her husband’s family who object to his marrying so far below his station.
Modern readers might be somewhat amused to learn that this bodice-ripper is regarded as one of the early examples of “realistic” fiction. Is there any plot less true to life than the lord of the manor marrying his serving girl? Pure fantasy that, albeit a lucrative one for a writer or bookseller.
But Pamela’s realism has little to do with the plausibility of the story. It lies, instead, in the novel’s scope and language. Richardson, and some of his literary colleagues like Daniel Defoe, were writing stories not based on rehashed plots from mythology, Biblical parables, or ancient epics, but instead wholly invented and entirely contemporary. The language was deliberately casual, rather than poetic. “I thought,” Richardson would later say when asked about how he came to write Pamela,
“the story, if written in an easy and natural manner, suitably to the simplicity of it, might possibly introduce a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue.”
Usually when a writer starts talking about “a new species of writing,” we gird ourselves for something opaque and avant-garde. Richardson’s novel was certainly experimental, but the experiment was in bringing literature down, so to speak, to the level of the everyday. Pamela herself is a working girl (in the literal sense of the word). She has good principles, but no resources. Her most valued possession is her virtue, and her highest ambition is to not shame her mother and father by losing it. Her one conceit is an addiction to “scribbling”—as her frustrated seducer calls her constant letter-writing.
Pamela’s language is simple and straightforward. So simple, in fact that some readers complained of her “coarseness” in early editions, and Richardson would continually refine her language in later printings. Her letters home were filled with both accounts of her trials and detailed descriptions of her day: “I had a pretty good Camlet quilted Coat, that I thought might do tolerably well; and I bought two Flannel Under-coats, not so good as my Swan-skin and fine Linen ones; but what would keep me warm, if any Neighbor should get me to go out to help ‘em to milk.” It is a wonder, wrote one critic, that we are not told the exact number of pins Pamela had about her, and how many could be bought for a penny.
Richardson wrote Pamela in a flurry of productive energy, beginning, according to his own account, on the 10th of November, 1740, and finishing exactly three months later. As he completed each new section, he gave it to his wife and her friends to read—his own personal focus group for the novel’s target audience. Because the morally conservative, professionally ambitious Samuel Richardson had a definite goal for his “new species of writing”: he wanted the book to sell. And he knew that even then, as now, women bought fiction.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Pamela must be regarded as one of the most successful novels of all time. It spawned a flood of both imitators and satirical “anti-Pamelas,” as well as a plethora of unauthorized “sequels” that purported to continue the story of the love between Pamela and her Mr. B.—“fan fiction” has apparently always been with us. One of the best and most hilarious satires was Henry Fielding’s Shamela—a riff on the novel that started a literary “war” between Fielding and Richardson that may or may not have been staged (historians are divided on the subject), but did have an excellent impact on the sales of both authors’ books. (“O,” moans Shamela as she feigns a faint in response to her suitor’s attempt to get her clothes off, “what a Difficulty it is to keep one’s Countenance, when a violent Laugh desires to burst forth.”) Richardson himself wrote a couple of sequels, which flopped; Pamela, in these later works, demonstrated a tedious habit of talking philosophy. The moralizing that could be endured for the sake of the original’s more salacious plot was insupportable on its own.
And salacious it is. If the book’s wide appeal was founded on the fact that every female reader saw herself as the virtuous Pamela, they were also deliciously shocked and scandalized by the trials she faces and the advances she must defend herself against. Mr. B., the young, impetuous master of the house who is hell-bent on seducing this servant girl, is not at all circumspect. He traps her in a garden and puts his hand down her dress. He molests her whenever he can get her alone—which, since he is master of the house, is whenever he likes. He hides in her bedroom closet and watches her undress. He attempts to get into bed with her and rape her, even though the housekeeper is watching. When Pamela begs to be sent home, he kidnaps her, imprisons her at another estate under the guard of a leering woman who continually urges her to just give in and let the master have his way with her. He tries to purchase her favors with money, making promises to aid her poverty-stricken parents followed by vague threats about what might happen to them if she doesn’t give in. He fires, ruins, or arrests anyone who tries to help Pamela out of her predicament. He even concocts a plan to hold a sham marriage with a false priest.
After all this, it is something of an about-face when Mr. B., defeated by Pamela’s steadfast refusal to compromise her virtue, insists that his passion has turned to love and offers to marry her for real. And for the modern reader, Pamela’s happy acquiescence is inexplicable:
“Well I will, I think, trust in his Generosity! Yet is it not too great a Trust? —especially considering how I have been used! But then that was while he vow’d his bad Designs; and now he gives me great Hope of his good ones.”
In other words, Mr. B. has changed. Even better, she has been the one to change him—the secret hope and desire of every woman ever trapped in a bad relationship. No wonder Pamela was so popular.
In his excellent book The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt suggests that Richardson wrote Pamela as both an indictment against the state of marriage in an England rife with clandestine, sham, and “Scottish” unions (Scotland being the favorite destination for eloping couples since the age of consent there was only sixteen, and parental permissions were not required), and as an illustration of the ideal married state: one based on mutual respect, virtue, and most importantly, openly proclaimed and legal proceedings. England in the mid-18th century suffered from a surfeit of unmarried women, while men were marrying later and later—ostensibly because it wasn’t proper to start a family until one could afford to keep one, but in reality because, as the 17th-century Christian writer John Bunyan so eloquently put it, “Who would keep a Cow of their own, that can have a quart of milk for a penny?” The birthrate of illegitimate children was skyrocketing. Richardson, a man who liked to make moral arguments in print, attacked the dissolute state of English matrimony with the capable and forthright pen of Pamela.
And it is here, perhaps, that Pamela becomes “realistic” to a modern reader, emerging as a real woman amidst the moral lessons and unlikely romancing. As powerless as this servant girl is against the forces arrayed against her, as bereft she may be of either the physical strength to resist an assault or the financial resources needed to flee, she does have one thing—her voice. Pamela will not shut up. It drives her licentious Mr. B. to absolute distraction. She has an answer for every improper advance he makes, a pithy response to every debauched attempt upon her person. He accuses her of being “saucy”—a word with more serious implications than it has now—and “a slut,” which at the time meant something like a bold hussy, not a girl who slept around.
But Pamela is not to be silenced: “And what is left me but Words?” she asks, again and again to anyone in hearing distance. “And can these Words be other than such strong ones, as shall shew the Detestation, which, from the Bottom of my Heart, I have for every Attempt upon my Virtue?” Throughout the story Pamela makes several attempts to escape her captivity, which are usually thwarted by her unfortunate tendency to faint when frightened. The one thing in which she is always successful, however, is procuring pen and paper. In the end, it is all the armor she needs.
Samuel Richardson would go on to write two more successful novels: Clarissa in 1748—all 900,000 words of it regarded on its publication as his “masterpiece”—and The History of Sir Charles Grandison in 1753, which he purportedly wrote in response to reader demands for a “male Pamela.” By this point, however, he was in poor health.
While he continued to write, most of his energy was spent on nurturing and mentoring other writers. He famously rescued Samuel Johnson from a near brush with debtor’s prison, earning that author’s eternal gratitude. Richardson also went to great effort to support women writers, including Sarah Fielding, the sister of Henry Fielding, suggesting that the supposed rivalry between Richardson and Fielding was an amicable one.
By the time of his death in 1761, Richardson had abandoned writing epistolary novels in favor of writing real letters to his many friends. His collected correspondence is staggering. Even so, it is in the voice of an impassioned young woman, not of a wise old man, that Richardson will be remembered.