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?
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.