Samuel Richardson’sPamela is often described as the first English novel. To see why Pamela has earned that distinction, we might contrast Richardson’s work with Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess. Although the two works share many of the same themes and situations, Haywood’s characters are types, while Richardson’s people are distinctive and complex—not least because their feelings are so often in conflict. Our relationships to the characters are also very different. In Haywood, we wonder what the characters will do, while in Richardson, we also share in their feelings and participate in their development.
In Pamela, Richardson pits an innocent servant girl against her domineering and sometimes abusive master. At the beginning of the story, Pamela is 15 years old. She has worked for several years in the service of a wealthy woman, and her talents and intelligence have not gone unnoticed. Her lady has just died, however, and there is some question about what will happen next. Because her parents are in financial trouble, the idea of returning to live with them is unappealing to her.
Complicating Pamela’s situation is the presence of her lady’s son, “Mr. B,” who soon makes it clear that he would like her to become his mistress. Though Pamela is attracted to Mr. B, she refuses to give in to him. Even after she is offered a handsome financial settlement, she insists on maintaining her virtue. As he fleshes out this basic situation, Richardson creates an explosive image of class conflict.
Though a servant, Pamela represents the middle class, drawn to a master she no longer really trusts. At times, she appears morally admirable—at other times, merely self-righteous. Mr. B stands in for the ruling classes. Grasping and possessive, impatient and explosive, he may nevertheless prove capable of reform. This conflict proved irresistible to Richardson’s audience, igniting debates throughout the country. Our interest in the debate is sharpened by the form of the work, because Pamela is an epistolary novel, told through the heroine’s letters and diaries.
The ending of the novel suggests that Richardson was hoping not merely to reflect social change but also to influence it. The ending is comedic: Pamela and Mr. B eventually do get married, and she becomes the lady of the house in which she once worked as a servant. As Pamela demonstrates her worth and value to Mr. B, we begin to see that social assimilation and reconciliation are not only possible but desirable for all parties. Pamela benefits from the marriage in obvious ways, but Mr. B benefits as well, earning a chance to fulfil his social obligations. Inspired by Pamela’s goodness, he may finally live up to his duty as lord and master.
Thus, although Richardson often protests against the abuses of the ruling class, he eventually reaffirms the traditional values of communal solidarity and mutual respect. In the end, he wants to convince his middle-class audience to hope and, perhaps, even to work for the rehabilitation of those older structures. Like most of the novelists we will study, he is a reformer, not a revolutionary or a radical.