In eighteenth century England, a prominent social concern arose in regards to one’s social and economic status. Three broad categories of status existed, including the gentry (consisting of aristocrats and nobles), the middle class (consisting of civil servants and merchants), and the lower classes (consisting of craftsmen and farmers). Samuel Richardson displays the tension and emphasis placed upon social and economic classes of eighteenth century England in his novel Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded, as Pamela, an adolescent servant of the lower class is exposed to the aristocratic world through her employment and later marriage to an aristocratic man, Mr. B. Theoretically, it was impossible to climb the social scale in eighteenth century England, but it was not a common occurrence. While it was not so difficult to work one’s way inside a social group, actually jumping to another, higher, social group was more difficult and rarely achieved if not by a fortunate marriage, like Pamela. This immense social contrast and tension between Pamela and Mr. B.’s environment exemplifies the transformation of Pamela’s perception of herself from being lowly and poor, to her new position in the aristocratic class once she is married.
Another social concern, predominantly within the female community, included the need to maintain or defend one’s virtue. Samuel Richardson portrays the heavy influence of social class upon Pamela, which strengthens the assertion that her true intention for defending her virtue is to advance up the social scale. Pamela describes extensively the low value of her clothing to incite pity, and to support the proud image of poverty in which she has for herself. She describes the clothes her lady gave her as “too rich and too good for me, to be sure” (Richardson 18). When Pamela plans to return to her impoverished parents, she buys “a good sad-colour’d Stuff” from farmers in order to better fit into their social and economic class. By describing the clothes as “sad,” she invites readers into her association of poverty with feelings of displeasure and sorrow. However, once she is married to Mr. B., a wealthy aristocrat, she elaborately describes the fine clothing she has started to wear again: “And so put on fine Linen, silk Shoes, and fine white Cotton Stockens, a fine quilted Coat, a delicate green mantua silk Gown and Coat, a French Necklace, and a lac’d Head, and Handkerchief, and clean gloves… but I forgot not to thank God, for being able to put on this Dress with so much comfort” (Richardson 303). This event discredits everything she had once said about her poor, sad clothing, as well as her longing to return to her comfortable, familiar lifestyle with her parents in poverty.
It is through Pamela’s desire for fine clothing and its connection to high social class that calls to question Pamela’s true intentions of saving her virtue. The word “poor” is not only used to describe Pamela’s clothing but also her life before her marriage into the aristocratic sector of society, in which she prides herself on, as well as the low social status of her parents. The use of her poor status in life craftily disguises Pamela’s reasoning for protecting her virtue, in the presence of Mr. B. and her parents. Pamela writes to her parents, “I owe everything, next to God’s Goodness, to your Piety and good Examples, my dear parents, my dear poor parents, I will, because your Poverty is my Pride, as your Integrity shall be my Imitation” (Richardson 54). When she is to be married to Mr. B., whom requests her to go back to using the fine clothes she used before she thought she was to return to her parents, Pamela replies: “I will beg of you, Sir, not to let me go fine in Dress; but appear only so, as that you may not be ashamed of it” (Richardson 265). Pamela, then, even though she will be elevated to the upper class does not appear to think that she deserves to show this too well. She again remembers the humble background she comes from. However, this persona changes as she is exposed to the female members of the aristocratic world.
Upon Pamela’s entering the upper class, her modest and proud attitude diminishes, which exposes her true intent of guarding her virtue in order to join and be accepted into a high social class. Pamela is drawn into this lavish social world and disregards her humble beginnings, which is exemplified after a woman of the upper class, Lady Towers, compliments her. Pamela writes of her response, “Dear good Madam, said I, how shall I suitable return my acknowledgements! But it will never be a Pain to me to look back upon my former Days now I have the kind of Allowance and Example of so many worthy Ladies to support me in the Honours to which the most generous of men has raised me” (Richardson 491). Pamela’s adoration to the neighboring aristocratic women illustrates her ambition to rise in social status as she now considers herself a gentlewoman. However, Pamela also receives negative remarks by aristocratic women, most notably through an interaction with Mr. B.’s sister, Lady Davers. Lady Davers requests to talk to Pamela, stating, “I will see the Creature” and “Bid the Wench come down to me” (Richardson 380). Despite Pamela’s new arrival to the aristocratic class through marriage, Lady Davers still does not view Pamela as an equal due to her past experiences in the lower class. This harsh judgment portrays the great differences in treatment due to one’s social or economic status. Pamela was once a part of the lower class, thus other members of the aristocratic class will never treat her as a completely aristocratic woman, despite her virtuosity.
Pamela is heavily affected by the tension and pressure to maintain her virtue and advance up the social scale. The wide gaps between social classes cause Pamela’s persona of humbleness and meekness to shift to one of boldness and confidence, which uncovers her veiled intention to save her virtue in hopes of becoming an aristocratic woman. Pamela succeeds in this intention as she marries Mr. B., ultimately indicating the substantial impact of eighteenth century society upon an individual of the lower class.