About Pamela , or, Prim & Proper is Coming Back

Like many Pride & Prejudice take-offs, including my own, my latest novella Mr. B Speaks! retells a classic story from the hero's, rather than the heroine's, point of view. Mr. B delivers his point of view in a trial which will determine whether or not he stays married to Pamela.

Despite the voice now being Mr. B's, Pamela still takes center stage. Her personality is all important. Is she, as Henry Fielding believed, an insincere, ladder-climbing tease or a frightened, young girl who just wants to go home?

It is easy, and tempting, for modern audiences to adopt Fielding's point of view because Pamela can, admittedly, sound too, too prim and proper. Personally, I think prim & proper is coming back, but Pamela (or, rather, Richardson speaking through Pamela) can get a tad officious.

However, Fielding wasn't reacting like a modern. His main problem with Pamela was her status as a servant (who "catches" the man of the house), not (necessarily) her "don't touch me don't touch me don't touch me" speechifying. In other words, Fielding perceived Pamela as a slutty lower class trollop tarting her way into places she shouldn't be.

My first order of business, therefore, was to decide how seriously to take Pamela. My view is that Pamela's uneasiness is justifiable. Her choices, as Mr. B, her seducer, acknowledges, are extremely narrow (all excerpts are from Mr. B Speaks!):
I knew that sending Pamela home was a death sentence. She would fade into one of those tired women who sit on their stoops, plaiting wool. She could hardly have arguments about classical literature with the local sheep herder.
To put it simply, Pamela can either be extremely poor (as a working peasant) or moderately less poor (as a servant). There's no community college for her to attend, no local organization to help her to better employment. She also can't just pick up and leave, a solution broached by the judge:
"If Pamela knew her, uh, virtue wasn’t safe, why didn’t she just leave?" Judge Hardcastle said.

The Committee for Literary Fairness clucked in collective reproach. "Blaming the woman—" Gary, the professor, began.

He was interrupted by Mr. B. "She would need a carriage to take her home."

"There wouldn’t have been any downtown buses," said Lonquist from Readers for Authorial Intent.

The judge scowled. "I realize that, but I gather people did walk places in the eighteenth century. Unlike today. No—?" in exasperation; Mr. B was shaking his head.

"It wouldn’t have been safe," Mr. B said. "A female peasant could possibly walk unmolested but not a girl in Pamela’s situation."

"Was the countryside so dangerous?" The judge was shaken. Eighteenth-century literature was proving more treacherous than his usual venue: twentieth-century 'Golden Age' mysteries.

"It was not un-dangerous, and Pamela was no longer a part of that environment. She couldn’t have moved through it without attracting notice."
As neither peasant nor servant, companion nor member of the gentry, Pamela has no place. This makes her waffling about her future understandable.

I also decided to take seriously Pamela's fears of losing her virginity. Practically speaking, in this period of history, losing one's virtue, for a woman, was much more like losing one's entire savings account than like losing a shoe on the side of the road. When Mr. B argues, "Pamela was more concerned with her virginity than her rights," an audience member replies:
"I doubt she saw a difference. Holding out for a decent marriage was more or less her purpose in life. Rape would have ruined her forever."
And even Mr. B later admits:
Right or wrong, fair or unfair, in our world, a woman’s wholesome reputation can smooth her path to a respectable and stable future, while a damaged reputation can block that path for a lifetime. I would become the villain of our story to ensure Pamela’s role as heroine.
And the truth is, sexual revolution or not, this issue still concerns women (who, through pregnancy, bear the greater risk in the area of sexual exploration). It is also, I believe, why Regency romances sell so well. The risk is admitted/made real. Female characters are given socially acceptable reasons (and infrastructure) to keep themselves non-pressured. Prim & proper are acknowledged as useful traits for a woman to espouse.

The one major difference between Pamela and most current romances is that most current romances (even historical ones) don't include the religious context. I don't blame the writers for this; religious context, unless one is a true believer, is difficult to write, and, even for a true believer, can so easily sound static and heavy-handed.

Richardson was a true believer, and I admittedly toned down much of Pamela's religious context (it is hard to imagine even a sincerely religious 15-year-old spouting off some of Richardson's arguments). The important point for me is that everything Pamela says and does comes from the absolute conviction that some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter what society has to say about them. This comes up when Mr. B confronts Pamela for telling another servant that he "molested" her (what constitutes "molestation" is discussed throughout the trial):
I stomped off to find Pamela scribbling in my mother’s dressing room. She folded the letter and tucked it in her dress. She didn’t say anything or curtsy, only watched me, remote and guarded.

"You’ve been spreading rumors about me," I said—true rumors but rumors nonetheless.

"I talk to hardly anyone."

"You little equivocator," I said. “What do you mean by hardly?” Mrs. Jervis, my housekeeper, was a great deal of very.

"Why should you care what I tell Mrs. Jervis—if you intend no harm?"

Pamela could be a barrister.

She continued: "I told her what happened in the summer-house because my heart was broken, but I told no one else."

"You wrote a letter, Pamela," I said.

"Did you take it?"

"I should let you expose me?"

"It isn’t exposure if I write the truth."

At that point, I realized I was exchanging extremely heated words with my mother’s companion in the middle of my mother’s dressing room.

"Insolence," I said. "Should I let a servant question me?"

Pamela retreated. It’s what she does when she panics. She becomes instantaneously demure.

"I don’t wish to lose my employment."

"How can you work for me unless you are willing to follow my commands?"

"Should I follow your commands at the expense of my principles?"

I rolled my eyes. "If that’s what you fear, I might as well give you real cause," I said and took her on my knee. She stilled, eyes slewing towards me.

"Be easy," I said. "Let the worst happen. You will have the merit, I the blame, and then you can write a very interesting letter."

Her lips curved into a half-smile. She stared hard at the parquet floor.

"Nobody blamed Lucretia," I pointed out and kissed her neck.

She lifted her chin to frown at me, and I kissed her lips.

"Should I kill myself like Lucretia did?"

Trust Pamela to start a literary argument in the middle of a seduction.
Like Elizabeth Bennet, like Jane Eyre, Pamela won't be overwhelmed (despite Mr. B's best efforts). She has to think her way through the problem, and she does this by sticking to her beliefs.

More about Pamela's character, specifically her acerbic side, will follow in a later post!

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