Thursday, December 24, 2009


Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B, by Joseph Highmore

I recently, and by recently I mean in the last couple days since I put a bow on top of and kicked in the ass term one of my MA, read--okay, perhaps devoured--Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela. After four months of reading postmodern, postcolonial lit, it was a relief to sink into what I will arrogantly refer to as real literature, literature that--as Northrop Frye describes it--you can live inside.

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was written in 1740 and is often referred to as one of the first, if not the first, true novels. The eponymous Pamela, a girl born, as one character ominously insinuates, either to undo or be undone, is a sixteen year old handmaid who, when the lady who raised her out of poverty dies, finds herself the unwanted object of Mr. B's, that late lady's son's, rakish desire, even though Pamela's honesty and virtue (eighteenth-century euphemisms for, particularly, virginity but also, more generally, for an entire moral and religious ethos) are her only concerns. She resists repeatedly and steadfastly his advances, which grow stronger each time he fails to seduce her, until, just when she thought she was finally free to return to her parents, he makes her his prisoner, kidnapping her and carrying her off to a private estate where, aided by the sinister Mrs. Jewkes, his house-keeper, he hopes to force her to his will. After she continually refuses his bargains and advances, he attempts to rape her--again aided, quite literally, by Mrs. Jewkes, who holds the stripped Pamela down on the bed for her master. "What you do, Sir, do; don't stand dilly-dallying," Mrs. Jewkes encourages. (The image above is from this scene: Pamela is undressing for bed; Mrs. Jewkes, who is Pamela's jailer even when she sleeps, is ready; and Mr. B, disguised as a drunk and passed-out servant, is watching and waiting.) But Pamela, as she has several times before when Mr. B tried to force her, and because of her delicate mind and because this is, after all, the age of sensibility, falls into a fit, one so violent her attackers thought she was dying. When he sees this, Mr. B, who apparently does love Pamela quite sincerely but has grown up never having his desires frustrated, repents his actions, leaves her unspoiled, and (I'll just skip over a whole bunch here) eventually reforms, and (I'll just skip over a whole bunch more here) finally marries her, much to everyone's relief and happiness, including and especially Pamela's.

There's too much to say. The novel does so many things that my brief gloss only hints at. It upsets hierarchy, placing Pamela, a mere servant girl, in the centre of a new moral order--one in which handmaids and princesses have equal merit. It projects a moral cosmology that transcends class and gender. It offers a vision of justice and reward based on personal moral agency. It vindicates the oppressed, reforms the oppressor, and ends in a subtle apocalypse (by which I mean revelation) of an ordered, unified, purified world. Through Pamela, sort of like an eighteenth-century Beatrice, the world is made better.

What I most love about Pamela, however, is its sincerity, especially in its vision of sexuality. It could be read as a metaphor, I guess, sure, but that is not how Richardson wrote it. It is about virginity and sex; it does not treat them lightly but injects into them weight and gravitas. Which, again... after four months of postmodern lit--and here my well-documented conservative streak emerges--I was ready for a little sincerity and gravitas.

I had selfish reasons for reading Pamela and for now reading the much more formidable Clarissa (Richardson's masterpiece, the novel he will always be remembered for. It's 1500 pages long. There go my holidays). Those reasons might be guessed by those aware of my own projects. Too many of the themes found in Pamela touch very closely those of The Execution... too closely, in fact, for me not to have read it and been aware of it, though I suppose canonical influence isn't what it used to be. The central image--a girl facing the sexual menaces and devices of an all-powerful oppressor, aided only by an unassailable and impenetrable surety and purity of self--is dramatized much differently here than in my own novel, much to my relief (I was worried for a while... and still might be, having only just started Clarissa). I know now that Pamela will, somehow... I'm not sure how... creep into The Execution. It must. I've read it; I can't unread it. But perhaps, as with C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, which I've always thought of as the guiding literary light that I want to follow in The Execution, only I will see the influence.

(Just a note: inspired and slightly put off balance by Pamela, I've been compiling a list of books that I should probably read or be aware of as I continue with The Execution. It's a long list. Mostly, though... and this might sound strange... I've been coming up with a very particular list, a list of books written by men in which the central character is a woman. There is something--and I know many people who will think this sexist, so I'm sorry--about the image of woman that perfectly suits her as a symbol of moral or religious integrity. Dante uses a woman as his central image. So does Donne. So does Richardson. Dickens, too (not always). Lewis, of course. The list goes on. There are, I think, metaphors hardwired into our bodies. Into and out of our bodies can be read metaphors... some arising naturally, I think, others being scribed onto us. I'm interested in seeing what those metaphors are or can be. There might be a dissertation in there somewhere.)

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