From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble.
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, a novel by *Samuel Richardson, published 1740-1.
The first of Richardson's three novels, Pamela consists, like them, entirely of letters and journals, of which Richardson presents himself as the 'editor'.
He believed he had hit upon 'a new species of writing' but he was not the inventor of the *epistolary novel, several of which already existed in English and French. He did however raise the form to a level hitherto unknown, and transformed it to display his own particular skills.
There are six correspondents in Pamela, most with their own particular style and point of view, but Pamela herself provides most of the letters and journals, with the 'hero', Mr B., having only two. Pamela Andrews is a handsome, intelligent girl of 15 when her kind employer Lady B. dies. Penniless and without protection, Pamela is pursued by Mr B., Lady B.'s son, but she repulses him and remains determined to retain her chastity and her unsullied conscience. Letters reveal Mr B's cruel dominance and pride, but also Pamela's half-acknowledged tenderness for him, as well as her vanity, prudence, and calculation. Angrily Mr B., separates her from her friends, Mrs Jervis the housekeeper and Mr Longman the steward, and dispatches her to B— Hall, his remote house in Lincolnshire, where she is imprisoned, guarded, and threatened by the cruel Mrs. Jewkes. Only the chaplain, Mr Williams, is her friend, but he is powerless to help. For 40 days, allowed no visits or correspondence, she keeps a detailed journal, analysing her situation and her feelings, and at the same time revealing her faults of prudence and pride. She despairs, and begins to think of suicide. Mr B., supposing her spirit must now be broken, arrives at B— Hall, and thinking himself generous, offers to make her his mistress and keep her in style. She refuses indignantly, and he later attempts to rape her and then to arrange a mock-marriage. Two scenes by the pond mark a turning point in their relationship. Both begin to be aware of their faults, and of the genuine nature of their affection. However, Pamela again retreats and refuses his proposal of marriage. She is sent away from B— Hall, but a message gives her a last chance. Overcoming her pride and caution, she decides to trust him, accepts his offer, and they are married. In the remaining third of the book Pamela's goodness wins over even lady Davers, Mr B's supercilious sister, and becomes a model of virtue to her circle of admiring friends; but (as in Pamela, Part II) the author's creative drive becomes overwhelmed by his urge to moralize.
The book was highly successful and fashionable, and further editions were soon called for. Richardson felt obliged to continue his story, not only because of the success of Pamela but because of the number of forged continuations that began to appear. Pamela, Part II appeared in 1741. Here Pamela is exhibited, through various small and separate instances, as the perfect wife, patiently leading her profligate husband to reform; a mother who adores (and breastfeeds) her children, and a friend who is at the disposal of all, and who brings about the penitence of the wicked. Much space is given over to discussion of moral, domestic, and general subjects.
*Shamela (1741, almost certainly by *Fielding) vigorously mocked what the author regarded as the hypocritical morality of Pamela; and Fielding's Joseph Andrews, which begins as a parody of Pamela, appeared in 1742.