Lights-Camera -Action – PAMELA / RICHARDSON

7 Jun


 The origins of the Adventure genre found in the eighteenth century novel “Pamela” by Samuel Richardson 

   The modern action adventure story owes much to Richardson’s “Pamela.” With a plot that shocks and entertains, and with rip-roaring action throughout, “Pamela” is a riot of lust, suspicion, and double dealing. Every facet of modern literary intrigue can be found within its pages, and it’s likely that contemporary novels all owe a degree of provenance to it.  “The Riddle of the Sands”, an early twentieth century novel by Erskine Childers, is often acclaimed as the first espionage novel of modern times and yet, many of the stories twists and turns can be traced to “Pamela.” Incidents of secret meetings, hidden messages, near misses, daring escapes, and mysterious comings and goings are all imagined by Richardson, who proves through his novel to be a patriarch of the genre. Pamela although not the first female action-adventure-hero of eighteenth century literature, is definitely one of its finest. A young woman, she must guard her chastity and endure impossible – if not improbable – situations despite seemingly insurmountable odds, using only common sense, guile, and home spun morality. Pamela beseeches the Almighty to save her in her moment of need, “… Angels and saints and all the hosts of heaven defend me,” (p.63) but her bootless cries fall on a deaf heaven, and so is forced to fend for herself.

               Richardson recognized that a novel should encourage the reader to read further; what today we would call a page-turner. Rather than a didactic epistolary he chooses to suspend the reader’s sense of disbelief to the extent that the line between credulity and incredulity is continuously crossed. Just when one imagines that the story has been told and that the book is finished, a short, sharp, shift, in gear takes one deeper into a fresh sub-plot. According to Graemme Shimmin author of “A kill in the Morning” – an espionage novel of some renown – “in order to be memorable, an intrigue novel must contain the following six sub-genres.”(Shimmin)

1. Stunning opening

2. Dynamic protagonist

3. Realism

4. Action

5. Cliff hanger scenarios

6. Startling twists.


               Whether or not Shimmin is aware of Richardson’s work is unclear however, he describes “Pamela” to a tee. Richardson’s novel embodies each of these categories, demanding as it does the reader’s attention at every line.

               The novel opens with a young, beautiful, serving girl at the death bed of her mistress. Her world is about to crash about her ears, as without her lady’s patronage she must leave the luxury of a substantial country-pile and return to her impoverished parents and the misery of a country hovel. Although accustomed to mixing with her betters and trained by her mistress in the arts of high-society, she’s doomed to endure a world of rural mediocrity. Fortunately there’s a reprieve. Upon her death bed the Lady of the house insists upon her continued service under the protection of her son, whom she asks to take care of her. The foreshadowing of a new benefactor after the death of an original is enough to alert the seasoned reader. Pamela, as we can guess, is about to go from a happy ordered existence into one of intrigue and danger. The naivety of the girl plays a huge role as unbeknownst to her Mr. B, unlike his dying mother, does not have her best interests at heart. After giving her a sum of money he tells her to be a, “… a good girl, faithful and diligent,” and that, “… he would be a friend to [her] for [his] mother’s sake.”(p.43)

               Pamela is a dynamic protagonist whose natural beauty and purity of mind are her fatal flaws. Determined to defend her chastity at all costs, she outwits myriad intrigues and manages dexterously to extricate herself from desperate scenarios despite, in some instances, over whelming odds. She’s a character with moxy, who’s unafraid to speak her mind despite her lowly station, and who’ll defend to the very best of her Christian sensibilities that to which she clings so dearly. Her ability to think clearly under pressure, hiding her correspondence and managing to escape the machinations of a master with a penchant for hiding in closets is worthy of “007” himself. When overcome by impossible odds, or just when we think she is about to succumb, Pamela relies on her innate female ability to faint at will. A necessary skill she’s honed to perfection.

               Pamela, having to extricate herself from the wretched advances of the lascivious Mr.B, is an exceptionally believable character. Given the plight of eighteenth century women, the disparate societal gap – both educationally and financially – between the upper and lower classes, is well documented. Countless novels have been written about indentured servitude and consequently Richardson doesn’t take us into a realm of disbelief, but rather offers us a quotidian drama that we can readily accept. A young woman pestered by a man of higher status is conceivable. Pamela is an every-woman who crosses the boundaries between the lives of the rich and poor, and who gives us insight into both. She’s our eyes and ears as she introduces us to the inequalities of hierarchical society, where everybody, except Pamela and the insatiable Mr. B, knows their place and acts accordingly.

               The action is nonstop as Pamela crashes from one crisis to the next. Richardson cracks a thundering pace, and it’s only through Pamela’s correspondence that we’re provided pause to the wickedness she experiences. The subterfuge of her fellow servants allows Pamela no respite, and just when she thinks she’s safe, she’s always closest to danger. We see this in both Mrs. Jervis and Mrs. Jewkes who assist in her attempted rape. Mrs. Jervis by allowing Mr. B. to hide in the closet so that he can jump out when Pamela least expects and ravish her, and Mrs. Jewkes who actually pinions Pamela whilst the master attempts to mount her. With drunken, complicit maids and a cross dressing member of the gentry, this is undoubtedly the most disturbing scene of the entire novel.

               Pamela’s daring escape through the window, and the horror we experience as readers when we realize she’s unable to extricate herself from the garden is masterly. Her incredible luck when she just happens to “recollect” a ladder, only to be foiled by poor masonry that nearly kills her when the brickwork of the wall comes crashing down about her.  We know that she’ll be discovered in the wood shed, despite her pretense of drowning, and yet hold our breath in false hope as the clock strikes twelve, and she , “hied away to the pond…[on a] dark and misty night, … of which [she isn’t] sensible,”(p.210) until she’s ultimately discovered. All this along with Gypsies, skulking strangers, sham marriages, foreign gentlemen, a mysterious incestuous neighborhood where nobody is prepared to help her, a jailed priest, hidden correspondence, hateful sister-in-laws, disapproving neighbors, false friends, midnight carriage rides and imprisonment: the list goes on and on. Pamela is nothing but action from beginning to end, leaving one quite breathless and unprepared for what’s to follow!

               Solely dependent on her “scribbling” to affect her liberty we’re offered several cliff- hanger moments where the discovery of her correspondence is all but inevitable. The awful moment when the master decides he’s going to strip her, to discover whether or not she’s secreting letters about her person, “I will now begin to strip my pretty Pamela, and hope I will not go far before finding them.”(p.271) Fortunately her tears of protest force him to relent although, as we learn later, her letters are hidden in her skirts the whole time. The terrifying scene when Pamela is about to be raped; naked and vulnerable, she’s held down by the wicked Mrs.J whilst the master straddles her. In a last minute reprieve, in a fit of conscience, Mr.B recovers himself and lets her go. Breath-taking, heart-stopping seat-of-the-pants action, that Richardson skillfully weaves into his novel.

               The masterful twists offered by Richardson are totally unexpected, although in retrospect, exactly what one would expect of an adventure novel of the quality of “Pamela.” The love, hate, relationship that exists between Pamela and her antagonist who, despite the gut-wrenching fear he incites in his determination to bed her, unexpectedly turns into a love match! Pamela surprisingly suddenly sees him as an honorable gentleman, “…he is a handsome, fine gentleman,”(p.235) and when requested by Mr. B to return to the place of her former imprisonment immediately acquiesces, “Away with my fears,” says she, “… and with all my apprehensions…I will return. I will obey him!”(p.288) Despite earlier enmity and the pressure of public opinion, they marry and later have children. This twist is so dramatic that it divides the novel in two. Rather than suffer the rapacious efforts of Mr. B, Pamela must endure the consequences of her choice and the alienation of an unappreciative privileged class. 

               Although one may at first mistakenly dismiss the idea that “Pamela” is nothing more than a collection of letters from a lovelorn serving girl, one has to remember the period in which it was written and the genesis of the novel itself. The novel was a new format, and the potential for this new literary vehicle appears to have been poorly understood by the first initiates of the craft. Suffering an embarrassment of riches many early authors dumped as much material as possible into their novels with no real thought to construction or even sequel. This is why we have for example, the ridiculous wolf scenes in Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Had this been eliminated from the original text, it could possibly have been the spark for a follow up, and would certainly have shortened a somewhat verbose masterpiece by at least fifty pages.

               “Pamela” embodies a similar theme, and it’s clear that Richardson doesn’t know when to stop, or how far he should carry his novel. His decision to include two novels in one demonstrates, I suggest, his immaturity and lack of finesses as a novel writer. Richardson could very easily have created a second novel, but instead decided to bind together what reads more as epic literature rather than genre fiction. Richardson had grasped the blockbuster theme, but as with most original concepts – think early science fiction novels – doesn’t quite know what to do with it. That being said “Pamela” personifies the advent of adventure fiction by offering larger than life depictions and a heightened sense of reality. Pamela is a fully fleshed character that one can get behind, and for whom the edge of one’s seat is more than sufficient to experience her trials and tribulations.



Works cited

Shimmin, Graeme; Writing spy fiction with an unputdownable plot;; web.


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