Confession: I like Pamela.
Her insistence on retaining her "virtue" makes perfect sense to me, for a girl in her position. Sexually harassed and abused, then abducted, by her employer's son, Pamela must constantly outwit him and his loyal servants, continually extricate herself (however temporarily) from the power he wields and uses against her, and commit herself repeatedly to protecting and preserving her "innocence."
Apparently the book was a smash hit. Not just a popular success, Samuel Richardson's story of Pamela also became the subject of moralizing sermons/lessons in which she was represented as the model maiden, the perfect example of a young woman that all young women ought to emulate. Of course, this is infuriating. Keep your legs closed, girls! Or be ashamed for the rest of your life. Pamela is, unfortunately, an example for women even today. Because she must vigilantly protect herself from the ever-present threat of rape. In the beginning, she avoids Mr. B as much as she can and appeals to his matronly housekeeper for protection. Avoidance is not the long-term solution she needs, though, so she attempts to remove herself from his space/house by quitting her job (after which he abducts her and fires the housekeeper and other servants who helped protect her). Still, she runs when she can, encodes a message for her parents that subtly alters the text she is told to transcribe verbatim, repeatedly sends secret messages to those on the outside who might be able to break her out of her prison, and even fakes her own death in an escape attempt. What's more, she records it all. Every action, every event. The narrative strategy of this epistolary novel, in which Pamela's letters are urgent appeals written with the immediacy of documenting what has just happened, lends authority and an air of authenticity to her testimonials. If not letters, Pamela is the diary of a would-be runaway servant. Thus, suspect. As this woman's letter and this guy's spin on a different national case have proven, we are all Pamela, as we must be vigilant in protecting ourselves; we are all Pamela, solely responsible for the actions of predators, abusers, rapists who roam freely among us, and, too, we are subject to judgment, blame, and ridicule should we fail.
Pamela, though, ends up married to Mr. B., which seems a case of Stockholm Syndrome to me, but becomes the focus of Henry Fielding's ridicule in his satirical response, Shamela. Pamela is all performance, Shamela maintains. Even her name is a ruse. Shamela's a con artist, a master manipulator, and she is the threat to Mr. B., who is the real victim. Shameless, that Shamela! Just as Pamela was preached from the pulpit to instruct young women on proper behavior around men who are not and will not be held accountable for their sexual behaviors, advances, aggressions, Shamela is a cautionary tale for men: Keep your legs free of ball and chain, boys! Or else be made a fool.
These two texts from the 1700s remind us: despite all the gains feminists have fought for and even made, not a lot has changed. Seriously, Shamela exposes the anxieties of men who don't just fear, but assume, they will be duped into marriage by a conniving woman and, adding insult to injury, of course also cuckolded and robbed of all their money. Shamela isn't funny. It's insulting and all too familiar a joke. (I'm thinking of an episode of the rebooted Hawaii Five-0, which ends after Steve, the toughest of them all, has been held prisoner and tortured, then rescued by his own team that has backup support from Seal Team Nine. In the rescue chopper, Chin tries to lighten the mood and announces he's getting married. Danny, the embittered ex-husband twice dumped by his ex-wife, grumbles about it and then advises, "Just find a woman you hate." A chorus of Seals delivers the punch-line, in perfect unison: "And buy her a house!" Only Catherine, the only woman in the chopper, doesn't say it. But she might as well have, since her response is to smile good-naturedly.) And yet, where Shamela falls flat, perhaps Pamela is more than a primer on proper behavior that polices and commodifies women's behavior and bodies; it may also be a proto-feminist fable about a woman whose survival exposes the problems inherent in a society that requires her to be constantly and relentlessly engaged in acts of self-defense.