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.