Pamela Andrews is a lively, clever, pretty, and virtuous servant-girl, age 15, in the county of Bedfordshire in England. For the past three years, she has served as waiting-maid to the kindly Lady B., who unfortunately has just died. Lady B.’s son, the twenty-something Squire B., becomes Master of the country household. After a period of mourning in which he decorously restrains himself from making any advances on his late mother’s favorite, Mr. B. begins flirting with Pamela incessantly. In letters to her parents, who are destitute through no fault of their own, Pamela reports her Master’s attempts and vows that she will suffer any injury or social penalty rather than sacrifice her chastity. Her parents encourage this devotion to her virtue and advise her to leave Mr. B.’s employment and return to home and poverty if ever Mr. B. makes a physical attempt on her.
The attempt comes, sooner rather than later, and Pamela resists it vigorously. Disconcerted but only temporarily deterred, Mr. B. tries to bribe Pamela to keep quiet about the incident; she relates it, however, to her parents and to the motherly housekeeper, Mrs. Jervis. Mr. B. begins to make noise about Pamela’s gossiping about him in her letters home, prompting Pamela to suspect him of stealing her mail. Further offenses ensue, including an incident in which Mr. B., hiding in a closet, spies on Pamela as she undresses at night and then rushes out to have his way with her. Pamela, however, displays a marked tendency to fall into a swoon whenever her Master approaches her with lewd intentions, and this peculiarity has the convenient effect of diminishing the Squire’s libido.
In spite of Mr. B.’s continued harassment, Pamela does not manage to make the departure that she so frequently threatens. Various impediments, among them her obligation to finish embroidering one of Mr. B.’s waistcoats, prevent her return to her parents. Finally, she resolves to go and, having resisted a final effort of Mr. B. to tempt her with money for her parents and marriage to a clergyman, packs her bags to leave. Unfortunately, her driver is the coachman from Mr. B.’s estate in Lincolnshire, and her destination turns out not to be the one she intended.
Mr. B., who has intercepted and read all of the correspondence between Pamela and her parents, writes to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews with a consoling but phony explanation for her failing to appear in their village as planned. Mr. Andrews sees through the ruse and approaches the Bedfordshire estate, bewailing the disappearance of his daughter, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Pamela has arrived in Lincolnshire, where the crude and malignant housekeeper Mrs. Jewkes watches her every move.
Pamela continues writing letters while in captivity, but as she does not know when she will be able to send them, she dispenses with salutations and signatures, so that they run together into one continuous journal. She begins plotting her escape immediately, and she soon settles on the clergyman Mr. Williams as her only likely ally. Mr. Williams does indeed turn out to be a willing helper, though his competence remains in question. They arrange a system of secret correspondence whereby they will hide their notes to each other beside a sunflower in the garden.
Mr. Williams tries and fails to enlist support for Pamela among the local gentry, who all suspect his and Pamela’s motives. The clergyman eventually suggests that he and Pamela get married, whereupon the Squire would no longer have any authority to detain her. Pamela declines this offer, only to find soon after that Mr. B. has written to the clergyman making the same suggestion. Pamela again rejects the idea.
When a group of thieves attacks Mr. Williams on the road and searches his pockets for papers, Pamela becomes concerned that Mr. B. sent them to steal her letters, which the clergyman was carrying. The incident prompts her to make her first escape attempt, but her own nerves prevent her even from making it across the garden. Soon a further impediment appears in the person of Monsieur Colbrand, a hideous Swiss man whom Mr. B. has sent to guard Pamela.
Mr. B., suspecting Mr. Williams of colluding with Pamela, sends him to prison for debt. Pamela concludes that she has run out of options and makes a desperate escape attempt in the middle of the night. The attempt fails when a crumbling wall causes injury to her head and legs. Despairing, Pamela considers drowning herself in the garden pond, but a sudden renewal of her commitment to life and virtue, which she credits to a divine intervention, saves her. In the morning, the other servants find her lying wounded in an outhouse, and her captivity continues as before.
A few days later Mr. B. arrives in Lincolnshire. He serves Pamela with a set of terms on which he proposes to make her his mistress, but she refuses them scornfully. Changing his strategy, Mr. B. gets close to Pamela at night by impersonating a drunken maidservant. Pamela’s swooning fits come to her aid again, and after this episode, Mr. B. shows signs of being genuinely chastened. He again attempts to woo her but does not employ force. Then, in a heart-to-heart, he explains to her that he has come to admire her character and in fact deeply loves her, but his aversion to marriage prevents making an honest proposal. Pamela feels moved by this confession and hopes fervently that it is sincere.
Mr. B. leaves the Lincolnshire estate for a few days, during which interval Pamela receives from a gypsy fortune-teller a note warning her of Mr. B.’s plans for entrapping her in a sham-marriage. This note causes Pamela to react strongly against Mr. B. and against her own softening feelings for him. When he returns from his trip he receives from Mrs. Jewkes a set of Pamela’s recent writings; inferring that her “scribbling” has proceeded unabated in Lincolnshire, he demands to see the rest of her literary output, which Pamela reluctantly hands over. His reading of these papers only increases his admiration of her character and virtue. He tells her how deeply the writings have moved him and expresses his regret over his rough usage of her, promising to make amends. When Pamela, still fearing the sham-marriage, nevertheless repeats her request to return to her parents, Mr. B. is hurt and finally, in anger, allows her to leave.
Pamela departs the Lincolnshire estate, though not in so happy a mood as she had expected. During a stopover at a country inn, she receives another letter from Mr. B. in which he avows that further reading in her papers prompts him to request her return to Lincolnshire. Pamela, having reconsidering, decides to trust him and complies. Upon her return, they discuss the likely social fallout from a marriage between a squire and a serving-maid; undeterred, they enter on their engagement. Pamela then tells Mr. B. the story of the gypsy fortune-teller, and he admits to having considered perpetrating a sham-marriage but says that he thought the better of it.
The neighboring gentry, who once refused to aid Pamela’s escape, now come to dinner and inspect Mr. B.’s betrothed. Pamela impresses everyone with her beauty and comparative refinement. On the same day, Mr. Andrews arrives, expecting from a letter he received that he would find his daughter a fully corrupted mistress of the Squire. An ecstatic reunion ensues, of which all the dinner guests are eager witnesses. Over the next few days, there are a series of chariot rides, several arguments over the wedding date, and reconciliation between Mr. B. and Mr. Williams, whom he has liberated from debtors’ prison.
On a Thursday, two weeks after the start of the engagement, Pamela and Mr. B. are married in the family chapel. Mr. Williams presides over the ceremony and Mrs. Jewkes attends the bride. The newlyweds originally plan to keep their marriage a secret from the neighbors for the time being, but after several days Mrs. Jewkes lets the news slip “accidentally” while serving drinks before a dinner.
That same evening, Mr. B. goes to attend a dying acquaintance. By the next morning, he has not returned, so Pamela is alone when his sister, Lady Davers, arrives to browbeat the Squire and his beloved, whom she does not know to be married. Lady Davers badgers and insults Pamela at some length, detaining her against her will with the help of a nephew and a waiting-maid. Finally, Pamela escapes through a window and, with the help of her new allies Mrs. Jewkes and Monsieur Colbrand, makes it to the home of Sir Simon Darnford, where Mr. B. and the neighbors are expecting her. There she regales the company with the tale of her experience with Lady Davers.
The next morning, Lady Davers intrudes on the newlyweds in their bedroom, and a conflict ensues between the brother and sister, where the sister refers to a duel that Mr. B. fought in Italy. Lady Davers walks off in a huff, but a tentative reconciliation occurs over dinner. After dinner, however, Lady Davers refers to a woman named Sally Godfrey, prompting Mr. B. to explain a few things to Pamela. He gives the extenuating back-story on the Italian duel and confesses to a liaison with Sally, a young woman he met during his college years. He is furious at having been forced into these confessions before he was ready to make them, and Lady Davers suddenly regrets having antagonized him so far. She and Pamela join forces to calm the Squire and effect a reconciliation, to which he eventually agrees. Later, reflecting on his fit of temper, Mr. B. explains to Pamela all about the upper-class temperament and marital dynamics, delivering a lecture from which she derives, rather sardonically, a set of rules for married life.
The next morning, Pamela visits Lady Davers in her room, and they chat amicably about Mr. B.’s character. Pamela promises to grant her new sister-in-law’s request to see all her writings.
A few days later, Pamela and Mr. B. return to the Bedfordshire estate, where they receive a rapturous welcome from the servants. Mr. B. arranges to set up Pamela’s father as the manager of his estate in Kent. Later they go shopping for clothes and entertain the local gentry, who are uniformly impressed with Pamela.
Eventually Mr. B. takes Pamela to meet Miss Goodwin, a little girl at a local boarding school, who Pamela rightly concludes is his daughter by Sally Godfrey. Pamela is delighted with the child and requests, though in vain, to take her in as part of the Bedfordshire household. Mr. B. fills out the story of Sally Godfrey, detailing the circumstances of their affair and her eventual flight to Jamaica, where she is now happily married.
On their second Sunday in Bedfordshire, Pamela and Mr. B. attend church twice, with Pamela appearing in a spectacular white-and-gold dress. All the neighbors are appropriately stunned, and the local poor gather to receive alms from the new Lady Bountiful. A few days later, Pamela and Mr. B. walk together in the garden, are caught in a shower, and shelter in the summerhouse. There he explains the provisions he has recently made for her in his will. Near the end of the week, the newlyweds host another dinner for the neighbors; it is an occasion for Pamela to reflect piously on the goodness of providence and to plan for future good works.
In a conclusion, the “Editor” of Pamela’s letters reveals that Pamela’s later life continues to be a happy one: she receives semiannual visits from her parents and bears several children. She remains popular among the local gentry and nobility, and even Lady Davers continues on good terms with the Squire and his wife. Pamela succeeds in establishing the moral character of Miss Goodwin, who does not repeat her mother’s mistakes.