Essay: Virtue, Writing, and Truth in Richardson’s Pamela

The novel Pamela is an epistolary conduct book about a young woman who is rewarded for her virtue and piety. In her letters to her parents, Pamela claims to be a hard-working, humble, obedient, and virtuous woman; however, as the narrator, she can portray herself as a paragon of virtue despite her actions not always reflecting her supposed values. Pamela tries to be hard-working, but resists doing manual labour and suggests to her parents that she is too beautiful for such work. Instead of being humble, Pamela develops a taste for rich clothing and has trouble accepting that she must return to her parents’ humble country life. Additionally, Pamela is not as obedient as she claims to be, and her writing often betrays her wit and distaste for authority. While Pamela is supposed to be a model of virtue for all women to emulate, her incessant detail about Mr. B’s advances on her are too revealing to be considered a chaste description for any young lady to write. Despite these discrepancies, Pamela is a conduct novel, and as such, does not question the actions of Pamela but allows her to claim to be more perfect than she is. In Pamela, the epistolary genre, combined with the novel’s premise as a conduct book, allows Pamela to present herself as a hard-working, humble, obedient, and virtuous woman in her letters, but does not require her to actually endorse these values. Instead, Pamela’s writing shows a disconnect between the self she wants to present to her parents and her true personality.

Although Pamela claims in her letters that she is hard-working and willing to do manual labour at home, her language makes it clear that she believes that she is above doing hard manual labour. When Pamela attempts to scrub a pot when Rachel’s back is turned, she quickly gives up and decides that she would rather sew and do plain-work instead. Although she claims she could do it “by degrees” and that she “hope[s] to make [her] hands as red as a blood-pudding, and as hard as a beechen trencher, to accommodate them to [her] condition” ( Richardson 77). These phrases only highlight her distaste for manual labour, suggesting that she doesn’t currently have the strength to do such work, as she will have to “accommodate” her hands in order to withstand the work (77). While Pamela claims that she would be able to do manual labour if she needs to, she is eager find other employment where she “need not spoil [her] fingers” (77). By writing about her preference for plain-work in her letters, her obliging parents will most likely not allow her to scrub pots or do other manual labour. Pamela writes that she wishes she had learnt how to “wash and scour, and brew and bake, and such like,” she claims her lady only taught her to sing and dance, meaning she would have to learn these skills if she were to go home (76). Pamela also writes that her “proud heart” will make it harder for her to learn new skills (76). It is clear from her repetition that she believes she is more suited for plain-work, singing, and dancing. While she does not tell her parents that she does not want to do manual labour, she makes it clear in her letters that her skill set is better suited for more ladylike tasks.

It is clear from Pamela’s unwillingness to do manual labour that she wants to work in an upper-class household and wait on upper-class women. The tasks she describes to her parents — mostly embroidering and sewing — are those of a lady’s maid, one of the more prestigious servant positions for a woman (Anonymous 601). She also claims that her lady told her she was good at singing, dancing, and needlework, and that all she wants to learn is to draw, flower, and improve her needlework (Richardson 76). These tasks are not servants’ tasks, but aristocratic “accomplishments” for upper-class women or possibly lady’s maids, as lady’s maids were expected to be more accomplished than downstairs servants (Anonymous 601). Additionally, Pamela tells her parents how a servant man, Harry, called her pretty and “took hold of [her]” and that Mr B thinks she is beautiful as well, suggesting that she looks as pretty as an aristocratic lady (Richardson 17). Pamela not only believes that she can become a proper lady’s maid, but thinks she looks as pretty as a lady’s maid as well. Pamela is determined to learn how to behave like an upper-class woman instead of learning how to work like a lower-class woman, which means that when she tells her parents she will be happy working on the farm with them, she is lying about her true feelings. Instead of focussing on her practical skills, Pamela’s language suggests that she belongs in an upper-class house and has the skills to succeed as a lady’s maid and not a farm girl.

To further the class difference that now exists between Pamela and her parents, Pamela writes that her clothes are too fine for their neighbourhood and that she will have to find new clothes to fit in at home. When Mr. B gives her the clothes of her old lady, she describes these clothes to her parents in great detail, noting the “silver buckle,” “Flanders lace,” Holland aprons, silk shoes and stockings, and “rich” stays (Richardson 19). These items are not of the quality that lower-class women can afford, and as such Pamela is dressing above her station. She tells her parents that these items are “too rich and too good” for her and only keeps them to not insult Mr. B, but it is clear from how often she mentions the clothes that she enjoys wearing upper-class clothing. When Pamela decides she must go home to her parents, she claims the neighbours will be envious of her fine clothes and that she has “nothing on my back, that will be fit for my condition” (44). To fix this, she buys dresses off a farmer’s wife, calling it “good sad-coloured stuff, of their own spinnings,” describing them as “sad-coloured” because they are not as beautiful as her rich clothes, which suggests they make her sad as well (45). Pamela complains that her new, lower class clothes will look “poor to what I have been used to wear of late days,” but will allow her to fit in to her old neighbourhood (45). When Pamela wears these lower-class dresses, she is unrecognizable to Mrs. Jervis, her closest friend in the house. Thus, Pamela’s letter proves that she has been dressing above her station while working for Mr B and is sad at the thought of leaving these clothes behind and having to wear simple outfits again. Although she claims that she is willing to go home, her letters suggest that she is struggling to resign herself to this decision.

As a conduct novel, Pamela’s list of rules for wives should be thoroughly supported by the narrator herself. However, Pamela resists some of the rules and writes comments after them, claiming that some will be difficult to follow or that they are unreasonable. In Mr. B’s sixth rule, he says that she “must bear with him, even when [she] find[s] him wrong,” to which Pamela adds “This is a little hard, as the case may be!” (Richardson 448). Her comment suggests that she will not always be able to “bear with him” depending on the situation, meaning that she does not plan to obey this rule entirely. She also resists Mr B’s statement “That if the husband be set upon a wrong thing, she must not dispute with him, but do it and, expostulate afterwards,” replying, “Good sirs! I don’t know what to say to this! It looks a little hard, methinks! This would bear a smart debate, I fancy, in a parliament of women” (450). In this response, she admits she will have trouble not disputing his faults or errors, despite it being highly unacceptable at that time for a woman to question a man’s decision. She asks if Mr B will “allow a little” imperfections in her after his 47th point says that “his imperfections must not be a plea for hers,” showing how she knows she is flawed but wants Mr B to ignore these flaws (451). Thus, Pamela does not agree to entirely obey Mr B’s rules for an upper-class wife. Her written responses to his rules demonstrate her true nature; that despite appearing to be modest and humble, she is unwilling to become the perfect upper class lady and still maintains some of her stubbornness and wit.

Although the title page claims that Pamela is a virtuous girl who is appropriately rewarded for maintaining her chastity, her writing is too vulgar and detailed to be considered chaste. A truly virtuous lady might be a bit hesitant to mention that the letter her parents were at one point hidden in intimate places on her body, yet, Pamela is constantly describing how she hides letters in her dresses (Dickie). She writes about sewing letters into her under-coat, hiding paper, pen, and ink in her bosom, and hides practically every letter she writes in her bosom for safekeeping (Richardson 12, 29, 122, 130, 134). These details are too intimate to tell her parents, as it would be highly inappropriate for her father to hear about her under-garments and bosom. Additionally, Pamela also goes into great detail about where Mr B. has touched her, details that are not only unnecessary for her parents to hear, but most likely highly distressing. By telling her parents that Mr B. put his hand in her bosom instead of simply glossing over it and saying he touched her inappropriately, Pamela is causing her parents more distress and discomfort than she needs to. Twice she mentions his hand in her bosom, once she mentions his attempt to, and another time she mentions that his hands were around her, after already explaining she was naked in bed (30, 63). These details not only horrify her parents, but are also highly inappropriate to write down, especially for such a virtuous and pious young girl (Dickie). Thus, Pamela’s writing demonstrates that she is not the person the novel claims her to be, as her words often betray her less-than-ideal qualities.

As an epistolary conduct novel, Pamela should portray a flawless paragon of virtue, not a woman who’s writing betrays her true nature. Pamela’s writing betrays her inner personality and allows the reader to see through her virtuous persona. Although Pamela is still quite innocent, she is not the ideal woman that the novel sets her up to be. Her unwillingness to do manual labour, her rich taste, her disobedience to her husband, and her lack of propriety all suggest that she is not the perfect woman the novel presents her as. The epistolary aspect of the novel undermines its purpose as a conduct book, suggesting that even the most perfect woman is only acting the part and is not truly as virtuous as she appears. Pamela’s flaws make her realistic, and the fact that she works with her flaws to secure her husband and befriend everyone she meets is a more important lesson than the strict, controlled behaviour that prescribed in most contemporary conduct books. For Pamela, her flaws make her more realistic, presenting an achievable model instead of the unachievable model that other conduct books called for. Although Pamela’s letters contain lies and misrepresentations, she is still a good model for Victorian women to emulate, as her innocence and charm tend to negate any faults she has.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “Duties of a Lady’s Maid”. Scribner’s Monthly, vol. 17, no. 4, Feb 1879, pp. 601–602. American Periodicals. Web.

Dickie, Simon. “Pamela II.” ENG322Y1Y — Fiction Before 1832. University of Toronto, Toronto. 20 Oct. 2016. Lecture.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela. Oxford, Oxford World Classics, 2008.

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