Saturday 11 October 2008

The surprise hit of the season

Yesterday, I finished reading Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded and rewarded myself by going out to lunch and savouring the very silly and very contemporary The Light Fantastic. Indeed, I'm still enjoying Pratchett's book and am wishing it were longer than it is - but I guess that's what books 3-756 of the Discworld series are for.

Now, about Richardson's novel: Pamela is considered by many to be almost a manual on good conduct for randy young men and women. However, this book was much kinkier than Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister; what Pamela lacks in descriptions of physical exploits it more than makes up for in a both extremely disturbing and uncomfortably compelling examination of the psychology of powerlessness, subjection, and submission. Let's call it, instead, a manual for earlier practitioners of BDSM.

Samuel Richardson looks like a pretty straight-laced guy - but don't they always?

Spoiler Alert!
As noted, I have been compelled to read Pamela for dissertation reasons, but up until Pamela and Mr. B- married, it was, to my infinite surprise, a really compelling page-turner! Pamela, a young maid for a rich lady recently deceased, is beset by the lady's libertine son and as she resists he becomes more and more obsessed with her.

She's ultimately kidnapped and taken to his remote country house where she's subject to several instances of attempted rape, attempts to be bought, and her own almost suicidal despair - not to mention her growing love for her persecutor!

Richardson was such a good writer that I didn't find Pamela's constant pieties and innocence at all irritating as I would have with a lesser writer; indeed, I think literary historians may be right to attribute the first "modern" novel (this book) to Richardson, for Pamela displays a consciousness and verisimilitude that makes her and the book stand out from earlier prose pieces (like Behn's interminable Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister!) which tend to represent characters that read more like cardboard cut-outs than people.

That said, Richardson almost lost me when, having converted Mr. B- through her enduring goodness, Pamela marries him. Upon their marriage, there followed approximately 100 pages of extreme marital politeness which went something like this: Pamela: "Oh, Sir, you do me too much honour! How shall I ever repay you!"; Mr. B- : "The beauties of your mind do much to recompense me, sweet Pamela!"; Pamela (throwing herself at his feet): "Oh, you're too kind! I shall be overwhelmed."

During these endless and endlessly similar exchanges of respect and marital felicity, Pamela and Mr. B- move dangerously towards become mere caricatures but Richardson redeemed himself and his novel near the end when Mr. B- takes Pamela to meet his illegitimate daughter. Indeed, I found Pamela's meeting with the young Miss Goodwin really quite affecting and like the cry-baby I am, I actually teared up!!

So, I don't know if I'll read Richardson's Clarissa (still, I think, the longest novel ever written in English - it clocks in at over 1 million words!) but I'm glad I read Pamela and think I should probably read more 18th-century fiction - but not right now. Right now, I've got to, for work, move on to Dorothy Osborne's letters to Sir William Temple. And once I'm done The Light Fantastic, I'll have to find another short and hopefully hilarious good read to help me keep my sanity.


Rohan Maitzen said...

Although I haven't read it since my Ph.D. coursework days (when, for my sins, I took a seminar entirely devoted to Richardson), my memories of Clarissa are that it was infinitely more compelling and sophisticated than Pamela--reading the whole thing was (or seemed at the time) one of the great reading experiences I'd had. Mind you, I never went back to it....

Anonymous said...

i read Clarissa. aha aha aha. except for about the last 50 pages - the ending bits. basically the suicide notes, because by then, i mean seriously. SERIOUSLY? too much with the redundancy.

Bookphilia said...

Rohan: Even though you haven't gotten back to Clarissa, I'll still take your recommendation. :)

Fathima: Why/how would you skip 50 pages after reading the first 11,000 already? I think you're tougher than I am. Having gotten that close to a book's conclusion, I'd feel too guilty not to finish it!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The length of Clarissa is preposterous, but much of it is just as good as Rohan says, and the villain is one of the great characters of English literature.

The last 50 pages are definitely among the good parts.

Sorry about recommending such a ludicrously long book. It would be more helpful to say "don't bother," I know.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: no, no, I appreciate the recommendation. I'm not sure when I'll get to it but I will now make a point of keeping an eye out for it.

Mel u said...

Henry Feilding's "Shamela" is a must read hilarious spoof on "Pamela". I read "Clarissa" on and off for a very long time-well over a year. Upon completion I was glad I had read it and see it as a great reading experience, more than just a novel.

Bookphilia said...

Mel: I will get to Shamela one of these days. I read Joseph Andrews a long time ago and enjoyed that. And of course, Tom Jones is also excellent.