In the Midst of Vice: Confronting Hypocrisy in ‘Pamela’
Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela, is an epistolary work of fiction that exposes the hypocrisy of eighteenth century England’s high class citizens. The disparity between the upper class and the lower classes of society, though traditionally measured through wealth, land, family name, and property, is instead measured in Pamela with virtue and honesty, qualities which Richardson emphasizes are the most important treasures to possess, so much so, that he employs a fifteen year old servant girl the main voice of this story. Through the eyes and ears of the titular character, Pamela, Richardson opens a gateway into the private relations between servants and their masters, or more specifically, between some of the wealthiest members of society and the poorest. By writing in epistolary form and using the antiquated “virtue and honesty” reputation of women in society, Richardson delves deep into the hypocritical world of the upper class in England, showing the readers that behind closed doors, the just, honest, and revered qualities of the high class are truly cloaks of deception meant to hide wickedness, lust, and ungodly behavior.
What better way to infiltrate the on goings of the wealthy than through their servants? They are truly the only members of the lower class that get to be in close contact with their masters in closed quarters, and the simple privacy of a master being in his own house on his own land (because land owners of the time were almost exclusively male), creates an environment where moral behavior is simply made up and governed by the master himself. Placing such a responsibility as narrating the story of Pamela, onPamela, the fifteen year old female servant of Mr. B, not only enables Richardson to depict a story that has high realistic probability, but also warrants the epistolary novel a sense of honesty and truth. For some, however, the plausibility that a servant would have the education and tenacity that which Pamela possesses would be slim to none, and so Richardson immediately quells this doubt within Pamela’s first letter to her parents:“…my Lady’s Goodness had put me to write and cast Accompts, and made me a little expert at my Needle, and other Qualifications above my Degree..”, and then again in the same letter, only affirmed by the master, Mr. B, himself: “…Pamela, you write a very pretty hand, and spell tolerably, too. I see my good Mother’s Care in your Learning has not been thrown away upon you.”(Richardson 11-13) Notice here that Richardson did not stop the justification of Pamela’s unusual eloquence and education at her own account, but additionally uses the voice of Mr. B, the master character, to reassert the education and writing skills the young Pamela has obtained. The master’s voice is a voice that conventionally can be accepted as truthful, which subconsciously instills in the reader the believability of someone such as Pamela to obtain an education beyond her “degree”. If the master says it is so, well, then it is so.
In fact, emphasis on honesty and virtue is heavily placed in the book from the start, as in the first letter Pamela sends to her parents initially establishes Pamela as the epitome of the perfect young lady. From the proper sign-off at the end of the letter: “Your most diligent daughter,” to yet again the reiteration of Pamela’s dutifulness by the voice of Mr. B: “You are a good girl, Pamela, to be kind to your aged Father and Mother… be faithful and diligent, and do as you should do, and I like you the better for this.”, Richardson doesn’t hesitate to drill into his readers the virtuous nature of his protagonist (Richardson 12). It is important to point out the immediate establishment of Pamela’s credibility, because in order for Richardson to effectively criticize the hypocrisies of the upper class, the mode in which he does so has to be absolutely believable, enabling readers of any class to align themselves with the virtuous Pamela, who possesses all of the qualities of which high society professes to be the vision of morality. We understand that she is honest, eloquent, humble, and dutiful all from within the first letter she sends to her parents about her predicament. Richardson doesn’t tread for too long in the seemingly secure virtue of the protagonist, as straightaway in the second letter, this time a response to Pamela’s first letter by her parents, the subject here is the worry over Pamela’s reputation:“But our chief trouble is, and indeed a very great one, for fear you should be brought to any thing dishonest or wicked, by being set so above yourself…for what signifies all the Riches in the World with a bad Conscience, and to be dishonest?…for we had rather see yo all covered with Rags, and even follow you to the church-yard, than have it said, a Child of ours preferred worldly Conveniences to her Virtue.” (Richardson 13-14)There are several important gears being set into motion within this letter. Foremost, the father acknowledges the possibility of dishonesty and wickedness presenting itself when Pamela is “set so above” herself. Richardson is already subtly suggesting that the attaining of status opens the door for wickedness to sneak in to one’s moral disposition. This is further underscored when the father quite clearly states “what signifies all the Riches in the World… to be dishonest?”. For them, honesty is worth more than wealth, and it rings true, too, when the father says he’d rather see Pamela poor or dead than see her virtuous reputation ruined. By using the voice of a poor man, who’s only valued treasures are is family and his honesty, to give such a warning to Pamela suggests that it is the poorer citizens who see through the designs and falsities of high class airs, and even begins to suggest that they are more willing to do what is morally right over the offer of any amount of wealth or status.
Contrary to what the English upper class of the eighteenth century wanted society to believe, the dishonesty and wickedness lurking behind every corner of the house does not belong to Pamela, but instead the master, Mr. B, as foreseen by Pamela’s discerning father. As the book progresses, Mr. B tries on three separate occasions to sexually assault Pamela, giving in to his base and vulgar pleasures. The first time Mr. B makes his attempts on Pamela, the two are alone: “for now no Soul was near us.”(Richardson 23). When Pamela tries to escape from his onslaught of kisses, Mr. B “held me back, and shut the Door.” Once the door is shut, Pamela says, “…Well may I forget that I am your Servant, when you forget what belongs to a Master.” In addition to this, after Mr. B tries to convince her to “keep this Matter secret”, he offers her money which she doesn’t accept (Richardson 23-24). There are several layers at play during this scene. First, the interaction occurs strictly between master and servant, in a closed area where no third party could witness the vile behavior of the master of the house. Then, Pamela reminds Mr. B that he forgets his place and duty as a respectful, honorable master before refusing his attempt to buy her silence. This is the first instance in which Richardson graphically exposes the disgusting behaviors of people in power over people in servitude while simultaneously driving home the opinion that people in servitude have more honor than those in power. This is shown when Pamela refuses the money, reminding readers that true honesty and virtue cannot be bought.
The second attempt Mr. B makes on Pamela’s virtue occurs once again when the two are alone in a room. When confronting Pamela about disclosing the summer house encounter with Mrs. Jervis, he says, “and so I am to be exposed, am I, said he, in my House, and out of my House, to the whole World, by such a Sawcebox as you?”(Richardson 31). Quite literally, this is what Richardson intends to do. Through Pamela’s honesty, her confiding in Mrs. Jewks is a way of upholding her virtue, and to Mr. B, it is her way of exposing him within his own house. . Another example of the immoral behaviors the upperclass indulges in behind closed doors occurs during the third attempt Mr. B makes on Pamela’s honor. Quite literally behind a closed door: “my wicked master had hid himself, base Gentleman as he is! In her Closet…” (Richardson 60), Mr. B watches Pamela and Mrs. Jervis undress and ready themselves for bed. Richardson is exposing the vulgarity of the upperclass within their own homes out to the world through first hand accounts from a “sawcebox” such as Pamela. Once again, Mr. B tells his servants to keep the matter a secret, further incriminating the upperclass by showing them trying to cover their tracks and use their power and wealth to hide their wicked behavior.
Richardson also sheds a light on the commonality of abuse between the upper class and the lower class. On page seventy, the vulgar and lustful behavior of another landlord nearby is mentioned: “there is ‘Squire Martin in the Grove, has had three Lyings-in, it seems, in his House, in three Months past, one by itself; and one by his Coachman; and one by his Woodman; and yet he has turned none of them away. Indeed, how can he, when they but follow his own vile Example. There is he, and two or three more such as he, within ten Miles of us; who keep Company and hunt with our fine Master, truly; and I suppose he’s never the better for their Examples.” (Richardson 70)After all of the abuse Pamela has suffered, it is mentioned, too, that this is a normal occurrence between masters and their servants, and Richardson is explicitly calling out the wealthy on their collective behaviors. There is no one to change the “vile Example,” because it is up to the wealthy to set the example. Therefore, if the wealthy are the only ones entertaining each others’ immorality and vice, who is there to hold them accountable? Especially when they themselves are often times the judiciary of their own land and therefore servants? In an attempt to justify this type of behavior as pertaining to people of wealth and status, Mr. B says, “We people of fortune, or such as are born to large Expectations, of both sexes, are generally educated wrong… We are usually so headstrong, so violent in our Wills, that we very little bear Control.” (Richardson 169). In contrast to this, people like Pamela, poor servants and hard workers of the impoverished, less esteemed classes are used to sticking to their morals and honesty, with nothing but self control to rely on.
Pamela’s situation alone depicts this: she is punished for standing up for herself. She is called a “sawcebox,” a “slut”, and a “hussy” all because she chooses to protect her honor in the face of a man who has too much power and has given in to his base desires. Richardson further implicates the wealthy class’ obsession with namesake and appearances, not so much the true and honest care for those who are in need. Lady Davers is a perfect example. Mrs. Peters says, “Lady Davers, when a Maiden, was always vastly passionate… and she’d make nothing of slapping her Maids about, and begging their Pardons afterwards, if they took it patiently; otherwise, she used to say The Creatures were even with her.” This type of behavior rings true with the aforementioned quote from Mr. B that a lack of self control affects both sexes of the upper class. Lady Davers implicates herself in her letter to Mr. B on his proposition of marriage to Pamela: “Consider, Brother, that ours is no up-start Family; but is as ancient as the best in the Kingdom; and, for several Hundreds of Years, it has never been known that the Heirs of it have disgraced themselves by unequal Matches.” (74) This clearly indicates that Lady Davers has no real concern over Pamela’s situation, and is more troubled by the prospect that her brother marrying a poor, low-society girl would ruin their family name, a feat apparently more grave than that of a fifteen year old girls honesty and reputation, which means nothing in the eyes of Mr. B or his sister.
Ultimately, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela successfully is a criticism of the hypocrisy of the upper class of eighteenth century England. By delving into the point of view of a powerless figure, the truest, most basic forms of the revered members of high society are candidly displayed for the whole world to see. Through the honesty and grace of poor Pamela, the stark contrast of the vulgarity of her masters is even more notable in this controversial epistolary novel.
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