Sunday, 12 January 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Pamela by Samuel Richardson

published 1740



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES






[Pamela, a young maid, is virtually being kept prisoner in her employer’s house, with an older woman guarding her]

But I begin to be afraid my writings may be discovered; for they grow large: I stitch them hitherto in my under-coat, next my linen.

[Her employer is demanding to see her writings. He says:] I have searched every place above, and in your closet, for them, and cannot find them; so I will know where they are. Now, said he, it is my opinion they are about you; and I never undressed a girl in my life; but I will now begin to strip my pretty Pamela; and I hope I shall not go far before I find them. I fell a crying, and said, I will not be used in this manner.

Pray, sir, said I, (for he began to unpin my handkerchief,) consider! Pray sir, do!—And pray, said he, do you consider. For I will see these papers. But may be, said he, they are tied about your knees, with your garters, and stooped. Was ever any thing so vile and so wicked?—I fell on my knees, and said, What can I do? What can I do? If you'll let me go up I'll fetch them to you….

And so he let me go up stairs, crying sadly for vexation to be so used. Sure nobody was ever so served as I am! I went to my closet, and there I sat me down…. I must all undress me, in a manner, to untack them… So I took off my under-coat, and with great trouble of mind, unsewed them from it.



observations: This entry arose from my Diaries piece published in the Guardian books blog this week: as I said then, Pamela sews her account of her life into her petticoat. Could there be a finer metaphor for the history of women and their stories over the past 500 years?

This book is confounding. It constantly tips up your 21st century expectations – one moment it feels quite modern, the next you are left open-mouthed with shock at the attitudes of 250 years ago.

Pamela has been maid to Lady B, and when her mistress dies, she is ‘inherited’ by the son, Mr B. She is beautiful and innocent, and he has designs on her, which she strongly resists. He plots and schemes to seduce her, and the twists and turns of the story at this stage are engrossing. Some people can be trusted and some people cannot. Eventually he carries her off to a different house, where she knows no-one.

You can understand why the book was a huge bestseller in its day, because you really do want to know what will happen to Pamela, and it’s not always guessable. Apparently, groups of people would get together to read it aloud, ooh-ing and ah-ing at the tribulations of Pamela – like an early form of a radio serial.

The first part of the book is in the form of letters from Pamela to her parents. Later, she writes a journal for them – these are the papers she sews into her clothes above. And around the halfway mark, things start going wrong to modern eyes.



SPOILER AHEAD – this really is a book where it is best not to know what is going to happen, so if you think you’ll ever read it, bail here.



The book has a hugely happy outcome as far as Pamela is concerned: because Mr B, the man who has tried to at best seduce and at worst rape her, decides (rather as in Mr Darcy’s first proposal in Pride and Prejudice) that he can overlook her low common background, and he stoops to marry her. And she is delighted: ‘such excess of goodness and condescension’ she says. After he chats to her a bit, she says ‘An ample recompense for all [my] sufferings did I think this sweet conversation only.’

Very difficult for modern women to understand….

There will be more entries on the book.

The picture of a woman and her garter is by Edouard Manet, 150 years later, and is from the Athenaeum website.


12 comments:

  1. It's a lovely photo, Moira. As I live by myself now, there's no need for me to hide anything ;-) But I have done in the past...

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    1. I think we all have... private is private, and we all need to know some things are secret.

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  2. Interesting. I went and looked this title up and discovered it was published 1740. And was best seller in it's day

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    1. Nice to see you Scott - a bit different from Nick Carter and Carter Brown! But the book was popular with everyone at the time, in a way it was the pulp fiction of its day....

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  3. Moira - Oh, that is such an apt metaphor! Stitching one's story into one's petticoat. Just perfect! This really does sound like an engrossing look at lifestyle, expectations and life in that era. I admit I scrolled quickly down from your 'spoiler alert' to her, so I don't know how this all comes out, but it makes me want to know what happens to Pamela. And it makes me shake my head (and not in a good way) at the assumptions for the sexes and classes of that time.

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    1. Yes - and there's still plenty to think about. There are probably aspects of modern life that would shock Pamela to the core....

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  4. Interesting, but I think you've read it so that I don't have to, thanks!

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    1. That made me laugh - I shall say the same when you have some particularly gruesome manly book on your blog...

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  5. This sounds very interesting but I cannot see adding it to my plans for reading. However, I did skip over the spoiler, just in case. Even though I really wanted to know what happened to Pamela.

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    1. It is a good book, but very long - belonging to an age where a long book was better I think. So it's quite a project to take it on...

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  6. Lovely picture, and yes, I must look up this book when I get a moment! I'm studying an OU module on Reading Literature at the moment - Wuthering Heights is the current book, and I did wonder why it was so long - I know it has a complicated plot in some ways, but it does seem to go on a bit (long time since I first read it, and I'm more used to reading shorter fiction these days I guess). I did wonder whether there were editors in those days (and in the earlier eighteenth century), who might have shortened these novels if they had the chance?

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    1. People say that readers in those days *wanted* longer books because they were short on entertainment, they weren't being distracted by the TV and internet - I'm not always convinced people have changed that much. In some cases it was that books were serials, an instalment a month over as long as two years, where the author would actually be trying to make it long to fill it out, and it would only be published as a book afterwards. But I don't think either Wuthering Heights or Pamela has that excuse....

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