Samuel Richardson’s reputation, for so long as bad as it could be among critics, has in recent decades had something of a revival. This is generally among literary scholars, as the length of his works is enough to put off all but the most geekish or courageous of readers (count me among the said geeks). These days, the subtlety of his characterisation, and the complex significance of his use of incident, are now discussed as avidly as once were the scorn and disgust aroused in readers by his self serving Puritanical morality.
Typically awkward, I think this is a loss, because I fully agree with Coleridge’s conclusion about Richardson’s work:
‘I confess it has cost, and still costs, my philosophy some exertion not to be vexed that I must admire, aye, greatly admire, Richardson. His mind is so very vile, a mind so oozy, so hypocritical, praise mad, canting, envious, concupiscent.’
In fact, after ploughing through ‘Pamela’ ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’ ‘Clarissa’ and part of ‘The History of Sir Charles Grandison’ I can safely state that Richardson is devoted to purple prose.
Unfortunately, this may be why – with his favourite theme being that of female virtue besieged – in an age discovering ‘sensibility’, so many of his inner circle of toadying admirers and literary advisors were women. They wished to explore the ‘female sphere’ of the emotive that this male writer was prepared to take seriously in his writing, and in their enthusiasm for this they seem to have blinded themselves both to the inadequacies of his verbose, florid style and the dismal limitations of the sort of respect for women offered by his Puritanism.
It is intriguing that in their discussions, they often employed much the same arguments that are used today in defences on the literary value of the romance novel. In fact, current writers on the value of the romance novel take a stand against the ‘anti-Pamela-ists’ precisely because they define ‘Pamela’ as the first romantic novel.
Richardson wrote two hundred years before Freud’s discoveries of sexuality and the unconscious laid bare the source of his appeal, already hinted at in the satires of Henry Fielding and Eliza Heywood. In D H Lawrence’s words, he offered voyeuristic ‘Calico purity and underclothes excitement…Boccacio at his hottest seems to me less pornographic than ‘Pamela’ or ‘Clarissa’.
If this seems wonderfully biting, then the critic V S Pritchard in ‘The Living Novel’ goes further:
‘Prurient, and obsessed by sex, the prim Richardson creeps on tiptoe nearer and nearer, inch by inch…he beckons us on, pausing to make every sort of pious protestation, and then nearer and nearer he creeps again…’
This is hilarious, and very apt.
Another critic, Frank Bradbrook in his essay on Richardson in ‘The Pelican Guide to English Literature’ remarks trenchantly: ‘Pamela is sentimental and obscene; its obscenity is a direct result of its sentimentality.’
I have to agree with these criticisms, which makes me into an ‘anti Pamela-ist’. But I am even more of an ‘Anti Mr B-ist’ I don’t think Richardson’s heroine is alone in being a hypocrite. Mr B is even more of one than Pamela herself.
Regarding Pamela’s hypocrisy, as soon as her master offers to marry her, he ceases to be a villain in her eyes, and she never asks for an explanation or apology for his abusive treatment of her until his sister insists on his making one. In elevating her to his own status, Squire B has put his late mother’s lady’s maid under such a sense of obligation that he can only be her ‘beloved Master’ even if he did attempt to rape her at least once, and sexually assaulted her on numerous occasions.
As for M B’s hypocrisy, apart from his absurd earlier outrage that she has dared to defy him and write accounts of his attempts on her, there is his later astounding self complacency. He is supposed to have undergone a moral metamorphosis triggered by reading her journal. One might think that this would have made him a little confused and diffident about himself, and the value of his opinions. Far from it. As soon as he gives up his attempts on her and decides to marry her, he suddenly shows an incongruous tendency to express pompous views about marriage and a wife’s duty.
Here he is clearly Richardson’s mouthpiece. Still, the contrast between this new persona, and his former behaviour as a self confessed rake, are purely ludicrous.
The revival of Richardson’s reputation seems to have been partly promoted by the writings of the US academic Mark Kinkead Weekes, and in particular his 1973 book ‘Samuel Richardson: Dramatic Novelist’.
I recently read this, having ploughed through ‘Pamela’ (read and detested in 1991; re-read and detested even more recently); ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’ (hooted over in 1993; skim read again recently) and ‘Clarissa’ (ploughed through, and to some extent, grudgingly admired, two years ago).
I found Kinkead Weekes’ book intriguing, though I disagree with his conclusions, while I found the parts which defend both heroine and the anti hero Mr B in ‘Pamela’, not only unconvincing but downright offensive to women readers.
It has to be said in Kinkead Weekes’ defence, that this book was written in 1973, when the views about the depiction of sexual violence against women in novels was very different.
It is an intriguing thing that Kinkead Weekes considers the scheming unrepentant Lovelace – the rapist anti-hero of ‘Clarissa’ – as a very evil man. But Mr B, by dint of his facile reform is another case altogether.
In ‘Pamela in her Exalted Condition’ Richardson was later to have Mr B deny that his first seeming attempt on Pamela, where he leaps out of a closet, climbs into bed with her and the housekeeper and thrusts a hand down her bosom was an atempted rape, and indeed, it is hard to see how he would have contemplated carrying one out in front of Mrs Jervis. However, that piece of punishment through sexual assault is ugly enough, and later in the novel, he does carry out a genuine rape attempt.
Kinkead Weekes goes on to say of Mr B’s second attempt (also made in the presence of another woman, this time the wicked housekeeper Mrs Jewkers: she holds Pamela down, as do the prostitutes in ‘Clarissa’; Richardson did seem to have a rather odd thing about exhibitionist rapes)
‘The final attempt does begin with the intention of rape, though for revenge and subjugation, not desire- but it continues in stubborn pride, unwilling to give in to fear of wrongdoing, and trying hopelessly to salvage something. …It is the last kick of B’s pride, brought remorselessly to face its consequences in the ‘death’ (Pamela has a fit)
of the girl he loves. The result is tenderness, and there is no need for B’s subsequent change to seem surprising.’
I see; readers have been told that they are not ‘reading carefully’ if they find Mr B’s subsequent reformation abrupt and unconvincing. We are also told repeatedly that Pamela is not a hypocrite for accepting such a man when he changes to making ‘respectable’ offers of marriage.
‘It is open to the critic to say that it is immoral to love a man who has behaved like B, even if he seems to have made a break with his past, and that it is immoral to be able to blot out that past in a forgiveness excessive enough to rank repentant sinners ‘in the rank of the most virtuous’. Only, if that is what we want to say, let us say it clearly, in awareness of what saying it implies. Let us not, on the other hand, talk too much about the jewel market.’
I see. What I would say in response to that, is of course, Pamela should have forgiven such a man as Mr B. But she should not have married him.
Strangely enough, Kinkaed Weekes thoroughly endorses Clarissa’s combining forgiveness of Lovelace with an absolute refusal to marry him. While it might be argued that this is because Lovelace never really repents, he says he does. He is willing to marry Clarissa, believing that will put matters right.
I see very little moral difference between the two rapist anti heroes, save that the first is less of a compulsive schemer, and more of a hypocrite, who decides he will obtain more pleasure in joining Pamela in ‘innocent pleasures’ with her as his servile worshipper, and in going about with her giving the neighbours tedious moral lectures, than in jumping out at her from closets and thrusting his hand down her bosom.
Tastes change, I suppose…