There are quite a few candidates competing for the title of the first novel in English literature. You can make a strong case for Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, or Gulliver’s Travels of 1726, or even – at a push – argue for Sir Philip Sidney’s Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, issued over a hundred years before, but one of the super-heavyweight contenders will always be Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel-in-letters, Pamela.
When it first appeared Pamela was as much of a sensation as the X Factor and Fifty Shades rolled into one, a genuine ‘multi-media event’ more than two hundred years before that phrase was even coined. Part of that impact was down to the simple fact of its novelty – no-one had literally ever read anything like it before – but a good deal of the rest was the result of its explicit sexual content, and an extremely astute publicity campaign orchestrated by its printer-turned-author.
Pamela began life as a book of ‘familiar letters’ – a version of the conduct books that had been popular since the Middle Ages and continued to be published well into the eighteenth century. In Richardson’s case, the letters in question were between a demure young serving girl and her parents, as she asks their advice about how to fend off the advances of her lascivious employer, known only throughout as Mr B.
Right from the start, Pamela polarised its readers – the opposing camps were so violent and so vocal in their views that contemporaries coined tribal names for them: the ‘Pamelists’ on the one hand, and the ‘Anti-Pamelists’ on the other.
There was no more passionate Pamelist, needless to say, than the author himself. Richardson subtitled the novel ‘Virtue Rewarded’, and he was a fervent believer in the improving qualities of Pamela’s story, saying he believed it would ‘promote the cause of religion and virtue’. The novel did indeed generate a rash of gushing praise for both its principles and its propriety, and Richardson rather unwisely decided to reproduce much of this material in the introduction to the second edition, earning a good deal of scorn from the critics in the process. But other readers and reviewers disagreed profoundly with this judgment, and the ‘Anti-Pamelists’ condemned the novel as both lewd and corrupting.
The intriguing point here is how far Richardson himself – consciously or unconsciously – exploited the sexual content of the book to promote its sales. The evidence is sketchy, but it’s possible he may have been secretly involved in the production of a pamphlet called Pamela Censured, which denounced the novel as pornographic, but – cunningly or not – did this by describing at length exactly those filthy passages it claimed to deplore (with page numbers included for easy reference):“’I think it is very artfully work’d up, and the Passions so strongly touch’d that it is impossible for Youth to read it without Sympathy, and even wishing themselves in such a Situation, which must be attended with very bad Consequences… The … amorous Conflicts [are] so agreeably and warmly depicted, that the young Gentleman Reader will at the best be tempted to rehearse some of the same Scenes with some Pamela or other in the Family, and the Modest Young Lady can never read the Description of Naked Breasts being run over with the Hand, and Kisses given with such Eagerness that they cling to the Lips; but her own soft Breasts must heave at the Idea and secretly sigh for the same Pressure; what then can she do when she comes to the closer Struggles of the Bed, where the tender Virgin lies panting and exposed, if not to the last Conquest, (which I think the Author hath barely avoided] at least to all the Liberties which ungoverned Hands of a determined Lover must be supposed to take?’ [Pg 24]
As you can imagine, this had a predictably healthy effect on sales of the novel. And before you accuse me of cynicism in implicating Richardson, Pamela Censured was actually printed by one of his friends. Richardson himself had been a professional printer long before he was a writer, so he knew exactly how the book business worked when it came to ‘self-publishing’ his own book. He employed all the tricks of the eighteenth-century trade to plug his Pamela, including newspaper leaders, celebrity endorsement, and ‘pre-pub’ quotes. Before the novel had even been published it had been recommended from the pulpit of St Saviour’s, Southwark (quite possibly at Richardson’s instigation), and the poet Alexander Pope had been overheard to say it “would do more good than many sermons”. This chance remark was in all probability nothing of the kind, since the incident apparently took place in a fashionable Bath bookshop owned by Richardson’s brother-in-law. It was the eighteenth-century equivalent of a celebrity retweet, and it very quickly went viral
The combination of pro-Pamela promotions and Anti-Pamelist allegations of depravity added up to such a successful marketing campaign that the novel soon turned into a literary sensation. There were five editions by the end of 1741, and an estimated 20,000 copies sold. Soon Pamela fans could buy a Pamela fan, visit the Pamela waxworks, buy souvenir prints of Joseph Highmore’s paintings inspired by her, cheer on a racehorse named after her, watch a stage adaptation at the Goodman’s Fields theatre, and end their evening at the Vauxhall pleasure-gardens admiring two paintings of scenes from the book which decorated the supper-boxes there.
Richardson himself made no money from any of this add-on activity, of course, there being no such thing as merchandising rights in 1740, and he also had to contend with a lax to non-existent legal framework when it came to copyright, which meant he couldn’t stop several pirate alternative versions of his book, or an unauthorised sequel. Nor – much to his horror – could he prevent the publication of a satirical spoof entitled An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews.
Richardson didn’t know – at least at first – that Shamela was the work of Henry Fielding, and when he did discover the culprit he never forgave him. But you only have to look at the opening pages to appreciate how close and clever a pastiche this is, as Fielding exactly captures the quirks of Pamela’s present-tense style:
“’Thursday Night, Twelve o’Clock
Mrs Jervis and I are just in Bed, and the Door unlocked; if my Master should come – Oddsbobs! I hear him just coming in at the Door. You see I write in the present Tense, as Parson Williams says…’
More than one critic has pointed out that the actual events of Shamela are almost identical as those in the relevant parts of Pamela – Fielding doesn’t change the facts, simply the spin put upon them, as a way of pointing up the real object of his satire: the inherent unreliability – and potential hypocrisy – of any first-person account. And to be fair, he wasn’t the first to do this, just the cleverest: plenty of readers before him had lambasted Pamela as no modest maiden, just a wily little schemer who was out for what she could get, and astute enough to use her virginity as a bargaining chip. As the author of a 1754 pamphlet later put it, Pamela was ‘a pert little minx, whom any man of common sense or address might have had on his own terms in a week’.
250 years later this question of Pamela’s character and motivation remains one of the critical cruxes of Richardson’s novel. Is Pamela as innocent as she seems, or is she deliberately leading Mr B on? Does the novel really promote religion and virtue, or is it just eighteenth-century mummy-porn masquerading as improving literature? One thing is certain: you can agree or disagree about whether Samuel Richardson really was the father of the novel, but when it comes to book promotion, he was the daddy indeed.
This post was written for The Spectator in 2012