Pamela: My Least Favorite Disney Princess

This is the conclusion of my recap of Pamela, the 1740 book by Samuel Richardson that gave me rage-ulcers. The full text is here, if you want to read it for yourself. The first recap entry is here. The second recap entry is here.

As always, triggers for rape, kidnapping, abusive relationships, etc., and warnings for EXCESSIVE swearing

Where we last left off, Pamela, the virtuous 16-year-old servant, has been kidnapped by her evil Master and his evil henchmen for over a year at his secluded country mansion. His convoluted plots to "seduce" her (read: rape, but yet somehow still desiring her consent; all very odd) have failed. But the Master ascribes to the philosophy that "if at first you don't succeed . . . then try dressing up like an alcoholic servant in drag and belly-flopping on your crush".

I wish there was the slightest amount of hyperbole in that last sentence.



One day Pamela and Mrs. Jewkes, the evil housekeeper, are out walking on the grounds, and a gypsy woman comes up to them and offers to tell their fortunes. She tells Pamela that Pamela will never marry and will die giving birth to her first child. She also said that the maid out with them would be drowned, and that Mrs. Jewkes would soon marry a man younger than herself.

The gypsy gets a secret note (from an anonymous friend) to Pamela that says that the Master will marry her in a couple of days, but the clergyman he hires isn’t really a clergyman and it’s all a horrrrrible ruuuuse so the Master can finally sleep with Pamela without her pitching a hissy-fit.

Back when Pamela hid all of those pens and papers to be able to write letters in a pinch, I thought it was a really good idea. But then she wasted all of those materials by writing her “memoir” (aka, the narrative we’re reading), basically leaving a giant stack of evidence for the Master to find and confiscate and get pissed off about. So he discovers her papers and tells her she won’t be in trouble if she tells him where she hid all her writing materials. She says she hid it all over the house and isn’t going to tell him all her hiding spots.

He threatens to press her to death if she doesn’t tell him, which at first I thought was a euphemism, but he means some straight-out-of-the-Salem-Witchcraft-Trials shit. She says, “Whatever, do what you gotta.” He says, “If I’m going to search my house, I’m going to start by strip-searching you.” Which, of course, she has a real problem with. Being crushed to death? No big deal for Pamela. Getting naked, even though nothing technically sexual would happen? SHE’D RATHER BE CRUSHED TO DEATH. So she tells him where all her pens and shit are. Does this mean the book is over and the next 200 pages are blank???

Nope, I guess the Master lets her keep all her writing utensils anyway, because . . . reasons. Mother fucker. But seriously, what is the point of this whole subplot?

So he finds her old writing, reads it and decides that it has melted his heart and he’s going to try to be respectful of her from now on. He manages to keep his hands to himself for a couple of days and doesn’t insult her and doesn’t let Mrs. Jewkes beat the shit out of her. So Pamela’s logical response is, “Wow, he’s managed to go two whole days without molesting me. I . .  . I think I’m in love with him.”

Are you fucking kidding me with this? I honestly had to put the book down and walk away when I first read this, I was so incredulous. I guess she’s got full-blown Stockholm Syndrome, no doubts about it now.

He then says, “Okay, Pamela, because I respect you so much, I’m going to let you go home to your parents.” And he puts her in his carriage and she drives off. The carriage takes her halfway home, but when they stop for the night the driver tells her that he was instructed to give her this letter from the Master at this point in their journey. The letter is the same usual ramblings of “Oh, I love you so much, blah blah. And I can feel a horrible sickness coming over me at your imminent departure. I’m probably going to have a brain fever and die, don’t worry about me, farewell!”

And she goes, “Oh no! My love has a brain fever? Quickly, back to Alcatraz! I must nurse him!

So she goes back. Thickest. Girl. Ever. Yeah, Pamela, this totally isn't an evil plot on his part. Also, did you kind of forget the part where your poor parents have been sick with worry for over a YEAR because they didn't know where you were or what had happened to you? But this asshole who's been nice to you for TWO DAYS after a year of insults and harassment . . . Look, all I'm going to say is that I wouldn't have to learn to manage my anger if you, Pamela, could learn to manage your stupidity.

She comes back and Mrs. Jewkes is clearly like, “Why the FUCK are you back here? Wow, you’re denser than I thought.” ILU, Mrs. Jewkes. Beat the shit out of her dumb ass. Do it for me. And the Master is like, “You came back! You have earned my trust, I will be so respectful of you, and anytime you want to take the carriage out or go for a walk, no one will bother you.”

Pamela’s all swoony over him because he’s OMG SO RESPECTFUL NOW, and they’re totally in love, and he’s not violating her, and sunshine and daffodils and unicorns for EVERYONE! You know, right up to the point where he rapes her, which is CLEARLY coming

Then the Master says, “My sister wrote me this letter, here, please read it.” The letter basically says, “Dear brother, I heard that you have kidnapped and imprisoned our mother’s former maid, probably for rapey purposes. Here’s the thing—it’s really not great for you to ravage young virgins. You’re better than that. Let the poor girl go. On the flip side, I hear that you’re super-duper in love with her and have even talked about marrying her. Bitch, we’re from OLD bloodstock. You can’t marry some dirty peasant, mmmkay? I will never speak to you again if you marry her. So just . . . like . . . let her go home. Nothing good can come of her staying there.”

Gee. How much do you want to bet that this is some hideous plan of his to convince Pamela that he will spit in the world’s face and “marry” her anyway, because LOVE CONQUERS ALL, when really it’s a sham wedding, just like the gypsy said.

Oh my god, I’ve always wanted to say “Just like the gypsy said!” and I did so completely unintentionally. This may be the best day of my life.

Sure enough, five minutes later the Master is like, “I have rejected my sister’s snobbery and am going to marry you!” And Pamela is overjoyed and accepts, and goes on this nauseating bender for about 10,000 pages where she tells him all the dutiful things she’s going to do as his wife. But then she thinks about what the gypsy said and goes, “But is it all a trick?”

Okay, here’s where the tiniest degree of forethought would come in handy. All she has to do in order to make sure that his motives are pure is to say, “Hey, I’ll happily marry you, but it would mean so much if we could get married in my hometown, by my local clergyman who I know is definitely a clergyman and will make this thing legal and so my parents can attend the wedding.” That is the SMALLEST of favors, considering he’s been keeping her hostage for over a year, and probably something that Pamela would have liked, anyway. If he refuses something that little, she can be damn sure he doesn’t actually intend to marry her.

But does our good old friend Pammy say that, or do anything to protect herself in the face of a direct warning that looks like it’s probably coming true? WHAT DO YOU THINK? Nope, instead she says, “Golly gee, I can’t wait till we get married, oh, any by the way, a gypsy gave me this letter and it’s been giving me such a headache thinking about it. You don’t intend for this to be a sham wedding, do you?

The Master recognizes the handwriting as that of his lawyer and gets pissed off at him, I suppose reasonably, because client privilege and all of that. The Master tells Pamela, because he’s a real winner, that yeah, he had once upon a time concocted that exact plan for a fake wedding and that way they could live very happily together for many years, unless it didn’t work out, and then he’d be able to ditch her. But the plan is totally off, no need to check any further than his word, nope, totally called off, this marriage is legit.

And she says, “Okay.” Then he tells her to buy herself lots of pretty new clothes and announces to the staff that they’re getting married, and, oh, *cough*, the marriage will be private, and held in the house in just two weeks, nothing shady about that. And Pamela is all twitterpated over it.

Then she says, “Wait, instead of getting married in the house, can’t we get married in church? I’m super religious and need this holy rite to happen in a holy place.” And he says, “Erm, how about I have my servants empty out my own private chapel on these private grounds that has just been used for storage for the last 100 years? That way it’s holy and private.” Pamela says, “Welp, I can’t see anything wrong with this plan. Oh, can I tell my mom and dad about the wedding?” The Master says, “Uhhh, sure, but make sure they don’t tell anyone about it.” And Pamela says, “Okay, everything sounds great!”

Wow, maybe I have Stockholm Syndrome, because I'm starting to root for the Master.

By this point, Pamela’s parents have been getting ridiculously happy letters from her and they’re like, “This shit was written under duress. There ain’t no way this is fo’ real.” So her father, who has now been told where she is being kept prisoner, shows up at the Master’s country mansion and is like, “DAUGHTER. NOW. PLS AND THX.” But Pamela and the Master are able to convince him that, no, really, they’re getting married. And he thinks it’s WONDERFUL NEWS, and actually, could they hurry the wedding up so he can see it before he has to return home?

Goddamn it, Papa, you were the one person in this story who wasn’t a moron. You were the brightest crayon in the box! And you failed me.

The Master gets a new clergyman named Mr. Peters, but he also springs Mr. Williams from jail to perform the ceremony because Pamela has taught him about forgiveness. I think Mr. Williams, who we know is actually a clergyman, performs the wedding ceremony, but Mr. Peters is also involved and I’m not sure how legal all of this is. Hmm. Time will tell.

They drive back home after the wedding to FINALLY consummate the world’s most painful seduction, only some of the Master’s aristocratic buddies show up spontaneously at his house and demand to be entertained, and the Master is like, “Goddamn it, I can’t let them know that they’re interrupting my wedding night because this is supposed to be a secret, but they are also pretty likely to party until dawn. You go up to bed and I’ll try to join you as soon as I get rid of them.”

So I’m thinking that the marriage isn’t legal and it’s God's way of protecting her from losing her virginity. But nope, I guess the author just wanted to string us out for a couple of pages over NOTHING, because the Master is able to get rid of his frat buddies pretty soon, and he forces some booze on Pamela, and I guess they have sex finally, but of COURSE they’re not going to show it, even after 400 pages of build-up. Whatever, Richardson. You’re a hack, anyway. Wait, isn't the subtitle of your book called Virtue Rewarded? Is that sarcasm? I mean, she's no longer virtuous, and there is no WAY she's going to get rewarded for it, so . . .

I'm going to speed through some of this nonsense because, at this point, either Pamela or the Master HAS to die a really violent death and I can't wait any longer to get to it.

So, they're happily married for a while, except the Master's sister is being a total See You Next Tuesday about the marriage (oh, maybe her letter was real and not part of the plot?) because Pamela is poooooor, and poor people SUCK. The Master's sister keeps harassing Pamela, because Jesus Christ, you can't get away from harassment in this family.

Finally, she tells Pamela that the Master had seduced another girl awhile back and she had his BABY, and how can you trust a man who would do that? He's not virtuous and he's probably scamming you and you're probably not really married, and why don't you just go DIE, Pamela?

Wow, I think his sister is my spirit animal.

But then she's proved not to be, because Pamela is obnoxiously kind and gentle and WINS THE SISTER OVER. Dammit, sister, you were the one person I could trust in this book to scorn everyone's bad life choices.

Eventually Pamela and the Master go visit his illegitimate child, whose mother is now conveniently out of the picture, living in Jamaica, as you do. And Pamela's like, "Maybe we should take your daughter in, and we can be one biiiiig haaaaappy family," and the Master says, "Aww, that would be nice."


Seriously. That is the plot of the book. Girl is kidnapped and almost raped several times, girl resists, rapist breaks down and marries girl for real, they are happy.

I'm sure that in 1740, no one had a problem with the redeemed rapist trope of this novel, but guys–it does NOT translate well to a modern audience. As someone who has very little background in the social mores of 1740s England, all I can do is go with my personal feelings on this one, and my personal feelings are OUTRAGED. I don't even have space on this blog to enumerate all of the things wrong with this setup.

On top of that, the writing in general was painful. This story could have been told in about a third of the space. There was so much back and forth, and so many plots that never really went anywhere . . . I was told that many consider this to be the first English "novel", so part of me is willing to cut Richardson a little bit of slack for the general sloppiness in his storytelling, but STILL. Plays were a very prevalent thing; authors understood story structure and character arcs, of which there are NEITHER in this novel.

The thing I had the most difficult time with, apart from the whole morality/rapist/whatever/nonsense, was that I read this book as a modern reader, who is used to reading a more established form of the novel. I'm used to more polish in my prose. So when Richardson loads Chekov's housekeeper (Mrs. Jervis), or Chekov's hunky clergyman (Mr. Williams), or Chekov's evil Swiss guy (What'shisface), and Chekov's evil gypsy plot, and NONE OF CHEKOV'S GUNS GO OFF, I get really frustrated.

You know what this book feels like? It feels like Richardson got drunk with a buddy and stayed up all night spinning this crazy story, only they kept forgetting things they'd introduced into the plot and kept forgetting what had already happened, so you have the exact same series of events taking place three and four times in a row, or plot points that have been introduced but never go anywhere. And then, around dawn, when his buzz was wearing off and he was tired, he just went, "Eh, and they lived happily ever after, the end. NIGHT!"

Thus is my take on Pamela. Go forth, my children, and read better things.

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6 Responses to Pamela: My Least Favorite Disney Princess

  1. hearts_blood says:

    Now that you’ve read this… thing, I’m obligated to ask if you plan to read Shamela or Joseph Andrews next.


    • I just looked up both of those novels and they sound AMAZING. I think I might have to read them. Thanks so much for alerting me to their existence–early 18th century literature is all waaaaay outside of my comfort zone (obviously).


      • hearts_blood says:

        I had a college professor who was devoted to picaresque novels, so we spent a lot of time on Pamela/Shamela, but Joseph Andrews was her favorite. …That was centuries ago, of course, so I’m going to have to re-read it myself, soon. 😉


  2. stagbeetle says:

    I love this blog!

    On Pamela, you might like Dr Johnson’s comment (and he was a fan): “Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.”

    Given the dodginess of many of the sentiments, I’m not sure it helps, but it’s nice to know that people were complaining about the plot in the 18th century, too.


  3. Pingback: Bad “Pamela” Book Covers | BizarreVictoria

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