High-Meriting, Low-Descended

John Mullan

Samuel Richardson’s account of a servant girl’s defence of her virtue against the advances of her lascivious master (‘Mr B’), given in her own letters, made what we now call ‘the Novel’ (though Richardson never attached this label to his book) respectable. Pamela caused an unprecedented stir, exciting something like a national argument about the purposes and value of fiction. It was the model for a new literature, whose influence we still feel.

For a long time it has been the business of academics to build genealogies for the Novel that challenge Ian Watt’s narrative of its ‘rise’ via Defoe and Richardson and Fielding. Yet the many prehistories of the Novel that try to make Richardson’s achievement appear less surprising miss a simple truth: his contemporaries did think that Richardson’s creation was unprecedented. Many disliked it for just this reason. As the anonymous work’s authorship became known, the fact that he was a 51-year-old printer, a businessman with no literary track record, emphasised the sense of Pamela as a book that came from nowhere. In a rush it became disputed, admired, parodied, reviled. Suddenly, and, as it happened, irreversibly, the Novel became a genre with the potential to be morally serious.

For anyone interested in the history of fiction, and certainly for anyone interested in 18th-century literature, there could scarcely be a more significant book. Yet the novel that burst on the world in 1740 is almost entirely unknown. This new Oxford edition of Pamela is the first British one ever to return to Richardson’s original. In America, Richardson’s biographers Duncan Eaves and Ben Kimpel produced for Riverside a version of the 1740 Pamela, but it was rarely used in the US, and usually unavailable in Britain. For more than twenty years, most British readers have known the novel through the Penguin edition, which is based on a substantially corrected version left by Richardson after his death. We no longer have his manuscript corrections, only the edition produced from them by his daughter Anne in 1801. Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely, the editors of the Oxford edition, suggest that Anne might well have included changes of her own, as well as those of Richardson’s other daughter, Martha, who had died in 1785. They quote from letters in which Martha yearns to ‘alter some particular phrases, &c.’ and Anne claims that further changes to the novel ‘wou’d make it infinitely more perfect’.

Whether they intervened or not, the text is a long way from the original version of Pamela; reading this polished and sometimes decorous narrative, it is hard for the modern reader to see why it ever had such an impact. During Richardson’s lifetime, it had already gone through many revisions. As its printer, Pamela’s author was in an unusually good position to fiddle with the text. He was as fussy and fastidious as many great writers, prone to restless and often tiny adjustments. He was also anxious and imperious in equal measure, and driven to an endless activity of rewriting that has no parallel I can think of among novelists. On the one hand, he was extremely sensitive to criticism, and always making changes to meet objections (especially concerning morality or manners). On the other hand, he was convinced that his fiction was likely to mend or confirm the morals of his readers, and therefore that all his editorial fussing was a near-religious duty. His seriousness of purpose, of course, made him a particularly tempting target for critics and parodists.

In one sense, there is no original version of Pamela that pre-exists criticism, debate and revision. The first edition included introductory letters by admirers of the novel (gleefully parodied in Fielding’s Shamela). They indicated that the work had been scrutinised by selected readers before it ever reached ‘the Publick’ (Richardson was ahead of his time in using this word for his imagined, all-inclusive readership). One of these letters, celebrating the novel’s ‘Spirit of Truth’, its arousal of ‘Concern and Emotion’ and its exemplary ‘Instruction and Morality’, was also printed, on the eve of publication, in the Weekly Miscellany. It now seems that the novelist had been calling in a debt by arranging this hype. The journal’s editor was William Webster, who had owed Richards0n £90. Webster’s letter (or perhaps the letter that Richardson wrote for him) is written as if to persuade the ‘Editor’ out of his reluctance to publish the work: ‘I can’t conceive why you should hesitate a moment as to the Publication of this very natural and uncommon Piece.’ Richardson is happy to present Pamela as already argued over, its author hesitant to let it loose but egged on by his literary friends.

In the second edition of Pamela, which appeared three months after the first, alterations had already been made. More significantly, new readers were made aware that the novel was controversial, that it had been attacked. A new introduction declared that, because of the ‘kind Reception which this Piece has met with from the Publick . . . some Notice should be taken of the Objections that have hitherto come to hand against a few passages in it.’ The phrasing of this is characteristic of Richardson: because the book has been such an extraordinary success, he owes it to his fans to reassure them that they have not been wrong. So he piles up more letters of praise, the first of which expresses surprise to have found ‘under the modest Disguise of a Novel, all the Soul of Religion, Good-breeding, Discretion, Good-nature, Wit, Fancy, Fine thought, and Morality’. This looks like an obdurate defence of the high purposes of the fiction, but all the while Richardson was tinkering with the text to defuse criticism.

The rewriting went on and on. Over the course of twenty years, there were nine authorised editions of the novel, each different from its predecessor. Five of them appeared within a year of the first publication. Sometimes the alterations amounted to a few stylistic adjustments; sometimes subtleties of phrasing were altered; and sometimes new passages were added. Pamela’s editorial history is inextricable from its contemporary impact, for Richardson was always reacting to his critics (and sometimes to the criticisms of his friends).

You can see what he was up to by looking at Pamela’s first letter in the Oxford and Penguin editions. She is writing to her virtuous, impoverished parents to tell them of the death of her mistress and the apparent generosity of Mr B, her son, the new master of the house. He has promised to ‘take care’ of all the servants and has given Pamela some money to send home. In the Penguin version, punctuation and diction are quite proper. Speech is marked off from narrative by quotation-marks. In the Oxford version, following the first edition, there are no quotation-marks and, throughout the book, Pamela’s narration, the things she has said and the things said to her all merge into one. Everything is ‘written to the moment’: Pamela punctuates with hasty dashes when she recalls affecting scenes (her attendance at her lady’s deathbed; her new master’s ominously smiling approach to her, alone in her late mistress’s dressing-room, as she is finishing this very letter). Richardson eventually did away with these dashes. The original Pamela turns readily to colloquialism: she has experienced God’s graciousness ‘at a Pinch’; she does not want to be ‘a Clog upon my dear Parents’. In the later version, the first is deleted, the second turned to ‘burden’.

These are small things that cumulatively amount to a great deal. There are also larger interventions. The revised versions are distanced from events by a series of justifications put into Pamela’s voice, which appear to be Richardson’s anxious second thoughts. Some are already doing their clumsy work in the first letter. In the original, Pamela gushes about ‘Four golden Guineas’ that she has been given by her master, and which she now sends to her parents. Later, Richardson ditched the ‘golden’ (presumably the heroine must not be too dazzled by lucre) and added a clunking sentence which allowed us to know that Pamela was already a steady contributor to family finances: ‘I formerly sent you such little matters as arose from my lady’s bounty, loth as you was always to take anything from me.’ Why would she tell her father and mother what they already know perfectly well? Richardson is, of course, telling the reader. Worried, too, that Pamela’s dutifulness might seem improvident, he had her add: ‘I have made, in case of sudden occasions, a little reserve (besides the silver now given me) that I may not be obliged to borrow, and look little in the eyes of my fellow-servants.’ In the original she was naively confident that ‘God will not let me want.’ The later Pamela, with her prudent deposit account, reflects rather more abstractly, ‘Providence will not let me want.’

By not wanting his heroine to appear ‘little’, Richardson made her seem petty to the modern reader. He even erased some of his own most acute touches. In a postscript to her first letter, Pamela tells of being found by her master folding up the letter she has just finished. ‘Let me see how you are come on in your Writing!’ he commands. His sinister pretence to a benevolent concern for her intellectual advancement has become the less unsettling ‘let me see what a hand you write’ in the later version. ‘O how I was sham’d! – He, in my Fright, took it,’ Pamela recalls. Her exclamation was first ‘corrected’ to ‘O how ashamed I was!’ and then removed completely. Yet, in its clumsiness and incorrectness, it more accurately conveys Pamela’s sense that she has done nothing wrong, though she is made to feel as if she has. Her expression of still sharp feelings conflates her mortification about her prose style with some vaguer sense that she has been put in the wrong. Even the colloquialism of the first version is psychologically precise: she has been put to shame, rather than made to feel ‘ashamed’. The predator is onto her. Needless to say, Richardson also ironed out the brilliantly appropriate contradiction in the next sentence. ‘In my fright’ should explain something that ‘I’ do, but the syntax shows us that Pamela is frozen, letting her master take over from her. The very text that we have just read has already been through his hands.

There are many more alterations in the three paragraphs of this one letter, almost all small ones calculated to rescue Pamela from stylistic inelegance. Between the Oxford and Penguin texts as a whole, there are thousands of differences. Yet Richardson’s gradual ‘improvement’ of Pamela’s blunt diction and unsophisticated sentence construction almost everywhere gives the impression of a retreat. The author’s last thoughts were invariably his worst. Yet, as isn’t the case with Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example, readers have not been able to see this for themselves and make their own judgments. Many of those who have read Pamela in 20th-century editions will have wondered why the novel was ever spoken of as daring or innovative. Even Pamela’s prose style seems prim, as well as implausibly polished for someone of her occupation.

The polish was entirely misconceived: the point of the novel was its immediacy. Not only was it written largely in the voice of a 15-year-old servant girl; it was also written in such a way that her letters would supposedly chart the fluctuations of her feelings. ‘I am going on again with a long Letter; for I love Writing, and shall tire you,’ Pamela writes in semi-apology to her parents early on. Anti-Pamelists from Fielding onwards have been quick to hear in this love of writing the artificiality of Richardson’s chosen genre. Yet the original novel caught the ingenuous babble of its protagonist, naively recording the happy circumstances of her household as her master closed in on her. Soon this turns into fear, as she recognises the dangers of her situation. ‘– But I must break off, here’s some-body coming! – ‘ Then it is fitted to the heroine’s ‘cruel Doubtings’, as she wonders while she writes whether Mr B is indeed reforming, or is trying another ruse.

Some admirers recognised that the heroine’s lack of refinement was the novelist’s achievement, and at first Richardson himself seems to have been content to have intended this. Jean Baptiste de Freval (a French translator whose work Richardson had published) praised her as ‘the high-meriting, tho’ low-descended, Pamela’. Richardson duly placed his letter as a preface to the novel. De Freval’s praise conflates the novel and its heroine – the paragraph begins ‘Little Book, charming Pamela! Face the World, and never doubt of finding Friends and Admirers.’ The heroine is ‘low-descended’, though we find out that her father digs ditches for a living only because he has undeservedly lost his job as a schoolteacher. From the first, Richardson wanted to show that she was better than her station had made her – although at other times he tried to suggest that she had a natural gentility that was some part of her virtue. Yet the book itself is also ‘low-descended’ – modest in its stylistic pretensions and happy to risk a plebeian status as an unrefined work. The implication, unashamed or defensive depending on one’s ear, is that the novel shares its heroine’s proud humility.

‘Low’ was the word most often used of novels by their antagonists. It was often used of Fielding, and even to such a resourceful critic as Johnson it was the natural adjective. Applied to Fielding it was a reflex of moral disapproval that perturbed him rather little. His narratives were ‘low’ because an educated, erudite, gentlemanly writer was stooping. For Richardson, the self-made former apprentice boy, who later gave Clarissa the appearance of literariness by inserting gobbets from a dictionary of literary ‘beauties’, the charge was altogether more significant. The originality of Pamela was its transformation of Richardson’s anxiety: the low book and its low heroine were ‘high-meriting’. The servant girl was a paragon for the modern age, as fierce as her descendant Jane Eyre a century later in her belief that her soul was worth as much as her master’s. French readers are supposed to have found it politically shocking. And this low tale was designed, with unabashed moral seriousness, to tutor or reform an age.

Many, such as Fielding’s cousin Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, would go on laughing at Richardson the anxious arriviste for his ‘low’ pretensions to gentility. His next and greatest novel, Clarissa, featured aristocratic characters and made him vulnerable to readers able to catch his errors of etiquette (errors about which he was extremely sensitive). In the original version of Pamela, however, gentility and lowness are animating themes. ‘I will make a Gentlewoman of you,’ is her master’s threatening promise, if only she will give him what he wants. We are reminded of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, whose narrator ruefully recalls aspiring as a young maidservant to be a ‘Gentlewoman’ like a woman in her village who sits at her window dressed in fine clothes. Everyone laughs, for this model of social advancement is the local prostitute. Pamela, too, echoes with the ironic meanings of ‘gentleman’ and ‘gentlewoman’. When Pamela first realises what her master is up to, she expresses herself with a vivid mixture of moral outrage and offended propriety. ‘This very Gentleman (yes, I must call him Gentleman, tho’ he has fallen from the Merit of that Title) has degraded himself to offer Freedoms to his poor Servant!’

‘I hope I shall always know my place’ is Pamela’s dictum as a servant, but like Jane Eyre she also has an angry sense of the obligations of a ‘gentleman’ and a refusal to be much impressed by the fine ‘ladies’ she meets. (The truculence and resentment with which she describes these encounters are erased in later editions.) There is surely something of the author’s own scorn for upper-class mores in Pamela as she comes to understand that a whole class accepts quite naturally that she is fair game for her master (‘master’ rather than employer: she has not reached waged status). Mr B’s sister knows what is going on but just shakes her head. When Pamela is spirited away to a remote country estate where she is kept prisoner, the neighbouring squire will not give her refuge. He, too, seduces his servants. ‘I can but wonder what these Gentlemen, as they are called, can think of themselves for these vile Doings?’ There is a war of low against high in the novel, which generates a real sense of paranoia about the power of the governing class. The clergyman who tries to help Pamela warns her that too many men owe their bread to the squire: ‘You don’t know how you are surrounded.’ In Richardson’s first version, Pamela’s lowness constantly sharpens her account of her ordeal.

Not even the novel’s strongest advocates can ever be as dedicated to its nuances as Richardson was, and only a few scholars will ever try to follow the implications of his changes through every stage. But at least we can now say that we have accessible and affordable modern versions of the novels as they were at the beginning and at the end of Richardson’s life of rewriting. The Oxford and Penguin editions represent what Eaves and Kimpel, in their standard account of Richardson’s revisions, called, respectively, ‘the Pamela whom Richardson actually imagined’ and ‘the Pamela he thought he should have imagined’. The Penguin edition is carefully annotated and does make clear, at least to the reader who pauses at the prefatory material, that it is based on the latest possible copy text, while the long overdue publication of the edition that originally caused such a stir should also alert us to the influence of other ‘revised’ editions, whose transformations are less evident.

In America, the most widely read Pamela is the Norton edition, first published in 1958. Although the current paperback version talks on the back cover of the novel’s ‘hugely successful publication in 1740’, it is not based on the 1740 text. In fact, there is no indication of its provenance. It appears to be based, though with alterations of layout and punctuation, on what’s usually called the ‘eighth’ (in fact the ninth) edition of the novel, published in 1762. Though not quite as polite as the Penguin version, it nonetheless represents the work late in the process of revision. This edition, however, is commonly treated as standard in American academic texts, including several authoritative studies of the history of the Novel. Typically, these take the furore surrounding the 1740 Pamela as providing a good reason for looking closely at the novel, yet rarely if ever mention that this is not the book they go on to analyse.

Other readers have unknowingly been victims of a more extraordinary misrepresentation of the novel than even Richardson himself managed. Until the Penguin came along in 1980, the most widely available text in this country was the Everyman edition. Students read it and critics, wishing to find an edition widely available to their readers, referred to it. Like the Norton, it doesn’t state which text it is based on. In fact, Peter Sabor has shown that it derives directly from an abridged version of the novel prepared by the London bookseller Charles Cooke in 1811. Cooke, or his hack, went through the ‘eighth’ edition rewriting phrases that appeared too colloquial or idiomatic and simplifying sentences that rambled or changed direction. He deleted notionally superfluous words and phrases (‘indeed’, ‘by the by’, ‘somehow or other’) which are distinctive of Pamela’s style. He also made more substantial cuts, often inspired merely by the thought that Pamela was not being succinct enough. Parentheses and qualifications are shed, and in the process actual information is lost. We do not know from this text how educated Pamela’s father is supposed to be, for instance, because Cooke cut a passage about his attempts to set up a school.

This travesty of Richardson’s novel became the most frequently reprinted edition of the early 19th century. In 1914 it was used for the first Everyman edition of Pamela, and in this guise it continued to be reprinted and continued to influence the perception of Richardson as a curiosity of literary history – an ‘important’ writer whom it was no longer possible to esteem – until the appearance in 1984 of a Penguin edition of the ‘original’ 1747-48 Clarissa made his work seem fresh and audacious again. Even in the last couple of decades, Pamela has often been treated as an unadventurous or unappealing apprentice work – a stage that Richardson had to go through before he could get around to something worthwhile. It is true that Clarissa is a wonderful and complicated novel, at its most subtle and perturbing in its original version. With this edition of Pamela, which will surely become the standard text, we can see more clearly why Richardson’s first novel also mattered so much.