The Humor of 18th Century Writers--Really!

Humor is surprisingly non-translatable. A few years ago, in a forlorn effort to compete with American Idol, another network held a talent contest which included a humor section. The producers eventually dumped the humor section. Unlike singing (one is either on key or not), humor is so entirely personal and subjective, the judges and contestants and audience were continually at odds.

On the other hand, laughing at puns and prat-falls is part of the human condition. Shakespeare is very funny although in his case, a literal translation (what do those words mean?) helps.

In writing Mr. B Speaks! I wanted to show how (deliberately) funny Richardson could be. In my novella, much of Mr. B's testimony (where he retells the story of Pamela), especially his recitation of the dialog, matches the original text (only, not as wordy).

Pamela herself is not always amusing. The text's humor arises from the quick-fire exchanges between Pamela and Mr. B. Like Bones and Booth, Nick and Nora, Pamela and Mr. B thrive on playing off each others' words. (This is one reason the second book is markedly less successful than the first, although still interesting: Pamela and Mr. B are reduced to fighting and making up rather than verbally sparring.)

Pamela is the perfect straight-woman.

The following scene, which is recounted by Pamela in Letter XVI, shows how Pamela will take hold of Mr. B's words to support her own argument.
I’d stopped by Mrs. Jervis’s parlor to tell her my travel plans to Lincolnshire where our family’s original estate is located. She was interviewing a farmer’s daughter; I didn’t want to disturb them, so I went to the back parlor and rang for Mrs. Jervis.

"Is your visitor Farmer Nichols or Farmer Brady’s daughter?" I asked when she arrived.

She laughed. "If your honor won’t be angry, I will introduce her, for I think she outdoes our Pamela."

And she brought in Pamela dressed in plain muslin with a black silk kerchief and a straw hat on her head.

A country miss, in fact. Pamela is no fool; she knows clothes make the station.

I got up and came around the oak writing desk. "You are far prettier than your sister Pamela," I said.

"I am Pamela," she told me with a quick upwards glance.

"Impossible," I said. "I can be free with you," and I kissed her lightly on the lips.

She bolted out of the room. Mrs. Jervis clucked.

"What’s she up to?" I said.

"It’s her new wardrobe. She’s been collecting odds and ends over the last week or so."

Damn Pamela and her practicality.

"Get in here," I yelled towards the door, and Pamela sidled in, scowling. "This is pure hypocrisy," I said, waving my hand at the country dress. Pamela didn’t want the life that dress represented.

"I’ve been in disguise ever since your mother brought me here. These clothes are more suitable to my degree."

I was leaning against the desk, my face almost level with Pamela’s. We studied each other, and I noted her set lips and dark, unhappy eyes.

"Oh, Pamela," I said and drew her into my arms.

She didn’t struggle—not this time. "You have to leave," I said to her hair, "only I don’t want that." She tensed instantly, but I strengthened my hold, and she relaxed again, her cheek against my waistcoat. Poor Pamela sent off in disgrace to a life that would sap her dry.

I let her go and addressed Mrs. Jervis. "I’ll submit myself to this hussy for a fortnight and then send her to my sister. Do you hear what I say, statue?"

And Pamela muttered, "I might be in danger from her ladyship’s nephew."

Never imagine that Pamela’s memory is bad. [Mr. B earlier resisted sending Pamela to his sister's because of the nephew.]

"Damned impertinence," I said.

"What have I done that you treat me worse than if I robbed you?"

I almost laughed then because whatever was between me and Pamela was very much like being robbed—of sense or self-preservation.

She wasn’t done. "Why should you demean yourself to notice me? Why should I suffer more than others?"

"You have distinguished yourself above the common servant," I said. She couldn’t have it both ways—she couldn’t write and read and befriend Mrs. Jervis and then want me to treat her like a scullery maid. "Didn’t my good mother desire I take care of you?"

She muttered. I took her chin and forced it up, and she said, nearly spitting, "My good lady did not desire your care to extend to the summer-house and dressing room."

The latter part of the argument is described thus in the original text:
Do you hear, Mrs. Jervis, cried he again, how pertly I am interrogated by this saucy slut? Why, sauce-box, says he, did not my good mother desire me to take care of you? And have you not been always distinguished by me, above a common servant? And does your ingratitude upbraid me for this?

I said something mutteringly, and he vowed he would hear it. I begged excuse; but he insisted upon it. Why, then, said I, if your honour must know, I said, That my good lady did not desire your care to extend to the summer-house, and her dressing-room.
Which brings me to the issue of Pamela's "sauciness." (She is described this way more than any other.) The word sounds coy and playful and when I first started working on Mr. B Speaks! I was confused by the disparity between Pamela's acerbic comments, Mr. B's reactions, and the references to her as some kind of giggling flirt.

However, in the second book, Pamela writes a letter to Lady Danvers in which she describes her personality: I am naturally of a saucy temper: and with all my appearance of meekness and humility, can resent, and sting too, when I think myself provoked.

In this context, "saucy" clearly does not denote pleasant flirting but rather sarcastic zingers. This is far more in keeping with Pamela's personality as delineated by Richardson in the first novel. Although Pamela is often portrayed by anti-Pamelites as leading Mr. B on, she is actually fighting to preserve her own space with the best tool available: her quick tongue.

She could hardly anticipate Mr. B would get a huge kick out of verbal sparring!
Pamela didn’t want me to read the letters; she was worried I would be offended by their bluntness. I couldn’t imagine Pamela could be blunter to the page than she was to my face, but I told her to have more confidence in me. I wanted the honest Pamela, not the Pamela who spoke round and round and round a topic, hiding her thoughts and motives.

"I have read many of your barbed reflections," I said. "And yet I’ve never upbraided you on that score." Not very often, at least.

"As long as you remember I wrote the truth from my heart," she said, "and that I had the right to defy this forced and illegal restraint."

"You have a powerful advocate in me," I said and went to my library to read.

The packet contained not only Pamela’s letters to her parents but letters from Williams [a clergyman who proposed to Pamela] and drafts of Pamela’s letters to him. I glowered over them. Pamela had certainly pled her case to Williams most affectingly, and he had definitely presented himself as more a romantic than disinterested savior.

"Do you find I encouraged his proposal?" Pamela said when I called her down and taxed her about her "love letters."

I didn’t, but, "What about the letters before these?" I said. The ones I had started nearly two weeks after I sent Pamela to Lincolnshire. I knew from Mrs. Jewkes that Pamela and Williams began corresponding immediately after her arrival.

"My father has them."

I remembered then that Mrs. Jewkes believed Pamela had given Williams a packet to send to her parents. Mrs. Jewkes had tried to retrieve it by arranging an attack on the poor man. I would not have condoned such a crude scheme, especially since it failed in its purpose.

"I want to read everything you’ve written," I said. "You create a pretty tale of romance around your troubles."

She raised her chin. "You jeer at my misfortunes."

"Considering the liberties you take with my character," I said, brandishing the letters, "I’d say we are equally outspoken."

"I would not have taken liberties if you had not given me cause. The cause, sir, comes before the effect." Pamela’s voice gets quite steely when she’s riled. I held back a smile.

"You chop logic very prettily. What the deuce do men go to school for?"

"You wouldn’t mock me if I were dull."

"I wouldn’t love you half so well," I pointed out.

She flushed. "I’d be better off married to a plough-boy," she told the worn rug, which she knew and I knew wasn’t true.

"One of us fox-hunters would still have found you," I said. I hoped I would have found her. I couldn’t imagine never having met Pamela. "What about the most recent letters, the ones after these? Are they on your person?" And when she remained silent, "You know criminals who don’t confess are tortured."

"Torture is not used in England," she retorted.

"Oh, my torture will fit the crime," I said. "I’m going to strip you, Pamela." I crossed to her and began to slowly untie the lace handkerchief that masked her bosom. She gazed at me, open-mouth, and for a heart-stopping moment, I thought she wouldn’t stop me. But she slapped my hand and darted backwards.

"You’ll give me the letters?" I said.

"Yes," she said and fled.
The underlying sexual threat is something I plan to address in a later post. It is also the one area where Pamela is not completely comfortable. The rather remarkable thing about Richardson is that he was a great observer of human nature. When Pamela actually does behave her age (and isn't just acting a spokesperson for Richardson), she behaves that age with utter believability. Like many a teenage girl, she can be ironic and sarcastic and sardonic and, frankly, rather obnoxious--but, when placed in a setting outside her knowledge, she will get completely bewildered and scared.

Unfortunately, Richardson didn't have the consistency of characterization that would place him at the forefront of English novelists (and I'm not sure he cared), but he definitely had the skill to create strong--and witty--characters.

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