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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

I. Richardson

§ 3. Pamela: its qualities and extraordinary success

Pamela’s supposed indebtedness to Marivaux’s Marianne has been discussed, and definitively negatived, by Austin Dobson, in his study of Richardson. It seems safer to consider the first notable English novel of sentimental analysis, in the light in which its author looked upon it, as an entirely spontaneous production, the rough outline of which had been suggested to him by facts. From this point of view, it is impossible not to agree with the verdict generally passed upon the book, as, in truth, a crude first attempt, redeemed by unmistakable genius. The originality and power of Richardson are recognisable throughout; but, both matter and manner are spoiled by his characteristic faults, which are here at their worst. The novel, as a whole, lacks unity of conception and construction; one readily perceives that the plan was not decided upon from the first, but that it grew on the author as he became more conscious of his faculties and aim. The two volumes added as an afterthought are a mere tag and make a very heavy demand upon the reader’s patience; whatever interest we may take in Pamela’s fate, her triumph and happiness bring all our anxieties to an end, and we should like to be spared her married experiences, together with all the new ensamples furnished by her unfailing virtues. If she no longer appeals to us, so soon as her persecutor has been reformed into her husband, it is because she is the least sympathetic of Richardson’s heroines; and this, again, is closely connected with the fact that his moral teaching, in this work, is at its lowest. The deeplying energy of the puritan spirit makes itself felt in its most uncritical and narrowest form; it relies entirely on our acceptance of religious utilitarianism as an all-sufficient principle and motive. That Pamela’s honour should be threatened is held out as an irresistible demand on our sympathy; that her resistance should be rewarded, as an edifying conclusion and a most improving lesson. That Pamela’s innocence should be self-conscious and designing is an unavoidable corollary of a moral ideal of this nature; and the indelicacy implied in the plot and in the treatment of many scenes is only a natural consequence of the hard, materialistic, calculating and almost cynical view of virtue and vice stamped on the whole book.

But the student of literature cannot forget that the publication of Pamela produced an extraordinary effect; it swept the country with a wave of collective emotion; indeed, few readers, even in our days, are likely to give the story a fair trial without feeling its grip. The most interesting feature of Richardson’s works, in general, and more particularly of his first novel, is that he should have found a substitute and an equivalent for conscious art in the creative power of moral earnestness and imaginative intensity. The instrument which the new writer had unwittingly chosen for himself was shapeless and unwieldy; the difficulties and conventions implied in the development of a narrative by means of letters make themselves felt more and more, as the action proceeds; a moment soon comes when Pamela’s epistles are exchanged for her journal, and, though the patience and fertility of correspondents in Richardson’s circle may have equalled the stupendous performances of his heroine, yet, it is difficult to reconcile an impression of truth or likelihood with the literal record of lengthy conversations. Nevertheless, the reality of the story grows upon us from the very first. It is due, partly, to the vividness of presentment which the epistolary form makes possible; partly, to that realistic grasp of minute facts which Richardson shared with Defoe, though, perhaps, not in the same measure. This faculty may be traced back to the positive bent of his middle-class instincts, as well as to the mysterious affinity of the traditional puritan genius with the concrete. Throughout the story, the reader remains aware that the unspeakable importance of each trifling event in the moral order of things, according as it makes for eternal life or perdition, is the source of the unfailing attention which it exacts from him, as well as the incentive to the imagination which forces the series of events upon his notice. Only the grim pathos of the lifedrama of all religious souls can account for the strange and cruel power with which Richardson wrings the very heart of his heroine—and the hearts of his readers.

Last, the energy of the puritan scrutiny of motives and searching of conscience develops into a wonderful intuition of character. Richardson’s experience had made him acquainted with the nature of women; and his tremulous, sensitive temperament was spontaneously attuned to theirs; so, by far the most remarkable of his creations are feminine. Mr. B. is almost a woman’s man; of the secondary figures, only those of Lady Davers and Mrs. Jewkes are carefully particularised, and testify to Richardson’s power of bitter realism; but Pamela herself stands out in strong relief. Our predominant impression of her is not, as might have been expected, that of a tame and rose-pink, or dull and priggish, character, marked with conventional idealism or moral pedantry. Though there is a good deal of both in her, she is far more real than the heroines of works against which Richardson’s common sense and puritan strictness rose in protest. The artist in him, unknown to himself, got the better of the moralist; and Pamela’s personality seems to grow, as it were, independently of his purpose, according to the inner law of her being. Her little tricks and ways, her conscious or semi-conscious coquetry, her more than innocent weakness, counterbalance the almost miraculous correctness of her conduct, as judged by the author’s ethical standard. The growth of her affection for her master and persecutor, the subtle traits which reveal it to us and the fine gradation of her confession of it to herself, belong to an order of artistic achievement and psychological truth to which English literature had hardly risen since the decay of the Elizabethan drama.