The First English Novel

Mr. B Speaks! begins with Mr. B being pulled out of his novel into the "real" world to be tried for his supposed crimes as a rake.

When he is put on trial, Mr. B has already been married several years; his wife, Pamela, has just given birth to their third child.

We know about Mr. B and Pamela's children from Pamela, Volume II by Samuel Richardson. Pamela, Vol. II; or Pamela's Conduct in High Life details Mr. B and Pamela's life together as a married couple while the first volume, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded--upon which Mr. B Speaks! is based--details their courtship and first few weeks of marriage. The two books were published approximately a year apart.

Both books were wildly popular in the 18th century although the first book was more popular and lasted longer (think Star Wars IV: A New Hope and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back). In fact, Pamela I was so popular, it immediately attracted plagiarists hoping to capitalize on the book's fame with a false sequel. That doesn't sound too different from, say, a modern-day writer producing a satire of Pamela for her own enjoyment. The difference is that since copyright laws were close to non-existent in Richardson's day, his plagiarists were under no compulsion to give him nominal credit. (They could even claim to be Richardson, and nobody could do a thing about it.)

Richardson wrote Pamela II partly in response to criticism but mostly to defend himself against these false sequels. Like with Harry Potter fan fiction, many of the ideas in Pamela II had already showed up in the false sequels, and the novel eventually devolves into a series of essays about education. However, Richardson does manage to capture the oddly modern feel of Pamela and Mr. B's relationship in several sequences. (His sequel is also far less melodramatic than the false sequels.)

After Pamela, Richardson went on to write his classic (and currently, better-known) novel Clarissa. Although Wikipedia claims he wrote Clarissa because interest in Pamela was wavering, it would be more accurate to say Richardson wrote Clarissa because he figured out with Pamela what he was trying to do. Clarissa is more novel-like (and much, much longer) than Pamela.

However, Pamela bears the merit of being the first English romance novel and, for many people, the first full English novel, being told from a character's point of view, containing a clear plot structure (rising and falling action) and being its own reward--that is, the story is told for the sake of the story, not to support a travelogue or satire or sermon. Granted, Richardson skirts the line when it comes to the last. Pamela can get rather preachy; it's also a lot of fun!

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