On Pamela

Before I put away my novel history book, Licensing Entertainment, there is one more thing I want to say about it. In his chapter on Samuel Richardson, William Warner makes some big claims for the importance of his novel Pamela. He describes the fight over Pamela: critics and readers argued heatedly over whether she was as virtuous as she claimed to be. Warner says that Pamela and this critical conflict was partly responsible for our way of reading character:

It is at this point that English readers start engaging in the sort of sympathetic identification with and critical judgment of fictional characters that will lie at the center of novel reading from Richardson, Fielding, and Frances Burney through Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James … The following are some of the interrelated elements of this new practice of reading: Pamela’s readers “read through” the words and ideas of the novel’s eponymous heroine in order to assess her character to discover whether Pamela is what the text’s subtitle declares her to be – a personification of virtue – or its reverse, a mere sham. By conferring on a character in a novel some of the free-standing qualities of a real person, and insisting that judgments of literary character reflect as much light on those who judge as they do on the judged, both sides in the Pamela wars confer an unprecedented moral seriousness upon the evaluation of fictional characters. The strife around Pamela draws readers into particular practices of detailed reading: selecting what to read so as to emphasize one thing instead of another; being provoked by incomplete descriptions; filling out the picture to one’s own taste; using one’s imagination to read between the lines; discerning the supposedly “real” intention of the author; and, finally, distinguishing the “proper” from the “improper” in a text, in order to judge whether a text is “readable” or “unreadable.”

Isn’t it surprising, if you buy Warner’s theory (and I see no reason not to), that our way of reading characters – seeing them as real people and judging them on realistic and moral grounds comes out of the eighteenth century and particularly from Pamela? From a story about a young girl resisting rape? Isn’t the history of the novel fascinating? Don’t you want to go read some eighteenth-century novels now?

I’ve said this before, but I very much like the idea that our ideas about reading that seem so natural – that we want to identify with a character, for example, and that we talk about characters as though we might meet them in person – have a history that isn’t so very long. If you buy Warner’s theory, that is.

It comes down to the question of whether Pamela is really as innocent as she makes herself out to be. For the other side of the story, read Henry Fielding’s Shamela, which is quite funny. I read Pamela twice, for two different graduate school classes, and I can’t say the book follows any of the “rules” of good fiction that we might come up with today – the structure of the thing is terrible – but that’s judging by contemporary standards which didn’t exist at the time. Pamela the character can be infuriating and the book can get boring, especially at the end, but as far as a book that is culturally significant and that can teach you something about eighteenth-century culture, you can’t go wrong with it.

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Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

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