Samuel Richardson may have based his first novel on the story of a real-life affair between Hannah Sturges, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a coachman, and Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Baronet of Northampton, whom she married in 1725. He certainly based the form of the novel on his own aptitude for letter-writing: always prolific in private correspondence, he had recently tried his hand at writing fictionalized letters for publication, during which effort he had conceived the idea of a series of related letters all tending to the revelation of one story. He began work on Pamela on November 10, 1739 and completed it on January 10, 1740.
Richardson’s objects in writing Pamela were moral instruction and commercial success, perhaps in that order. As he explained to his friend Aaron Hill in a famous letter, his goal was to divert young readers from vapid romances by creating “a new Species of Writing that might possibly turn young People into a Course of Reading different from the Pomp and Parade of Romance-writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which Novels generally abound, might tend to promote the Cause of Religion and Virtue.” The nature of this “new species of writing” may seem obscure at first. Richardson felt that the best vehicle for a moral lesson was an exemplary character; he also felt that the most effective presentation of an exemplary character was a realistic presentation that evoked the reader’s sympathy and identification, as opposed to an ideal one that rendered the character as inhumanly perfect. For the project of rendering an exemplary character in a realistic manner the appropriate form, he reasoned, was the novel, providing as it did ample scope in which to flesh out psychological complexities and mix dominant virtues with smaller but significant flaws. In itself, Richardson’s idea of combining instruction with entertainment was, of course, hardly original; then as now, it was a highly traditional argument for the moral utility of art. Richardson’s innovation was a generic one consisting, in part, of his producing a respectable and morally elevating work in the despised genre of the novel, hitherto the province of only the cheapest diversions.
Pamela achieved extraordinary popularity among three groups whose tastes do not often coincide: the public, the litterateurs, and the professional moralists. It went through five editions in its first year and inspired a market for Pamela-themed memorabilia, which took such forms as paintings, playing cards, and ladies’ fans. Pre-publication hype doubtless encouraged sales, as the novel’s backers secured and publicized endorsements by such major literary figures as Alexander Pope, and there is some indication that Richardson, with his many connections in the London literary world, may have incentivized some of this “buzz” under the table. The novel had a legitimate claim to its wide audience, however: in addition to its moral utility, there was the aesthetic achievement of Richardson’s narrative method, quite avant-garde at the time. The epistolary form presented Pamela’s first-person jottings directly to the reader, dispensing with the imperious traditional narrator and allowing unmediated access to her personality and perceptions. The intimacy and realism of this method, which Richardson called “writing to the moment,” combined with the liveliness of Pamela’s language and character, proved highly attractive.
Not all were won over, however, and part of what makes the publication of Pamela such a phenomenon in English literary history is the controversy that greeted it and the legion of detractors and parodists it inspired. A Danish observer went so far as to say that England seemed divided into “two different parties, Pamelists and Antipamelists. . . Some look on this young Virgin as an Example for Ladies to follow. . . Others, on the contrary, discover in it the Behaviour of an hypocritical, crafty Girl . . . who understands the Art of bringing a Man to her Lure.” Some critics, then, accused Pamela of being less innocent than she puts on to be and of simulating sexual virtue in order to make herself more desirable. In Henry Fielding’s Shamela, for instance, the “heroine” boasts: “I thought once of making a little fortune by my [physical] Person. I now intend to make a great one by my Vartue.” Fielding’s savagely funny send-up was one of many parodies of Richardson’s novel (Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela is another notable contribution); it burlesques not only the moral pretensions of Richardson’s heroine but also her vulgar tongue and her penchants for recording voluminous detail and writing in real time. (For instance, Shamela happens to have her pen by her and goes on scribbling during one of her Master’s rape attempts.)
Richardson was sensitive to the criticism and ridicule, and it influenced his many revisions of the novel. In particular, in subsequent editions of the novel he elevates Pamela’s style of writing and speaking, progressively eliminating rusticisms, regionalisms, and other markers of her lower-class status. These changes were in response to a widespread critique that held that a young woman of admirable character should speak in a way that commands admiration; as one of Richardson’s correspondents put it, “The Language is not altogether unexceptionable, but in several Places sinks below the Idea we are constrained to form of the Heroine who writes it.” Other casualties of Richardson’s gradual accommodation of literary and social decorum include Pamela’s “saucy” reactions to her superiors, both in dialogue and in her private thoughts. The result is that by the time Richardson was finished tinkering with his explosive first novel, it had become a smoother, more polished, and often less challenging text.
(Note: These extensive revisions mean that modern editors of Pamela have many options when choosing a text on which to base their editions. They tend to prefer one of two versions, either the original version of 1740 or the posthumous version of 1801. This study guide refers to the Oxford World Classics edition, which is based on the 1740 text. Readers using the current Penguin volume or other modern editions based on the 1801 text will confront inconsistencies and may become confused.)