Sentimentalism and Morality in novel Pamela

Sentimentalism and Morality in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela

Sentimentalism and Morality in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela : In 1740, Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela was first published. This novel stood out through its use of the epistolary form, its female protagonist and its use of sentimentalism. Incorporating a deliberate appeal to the reader’s sentiment was a new development that had started during the Restoration (1660 – 1700) but was not commonly used yet in prose fiction by 1740. Pamela is therefore widely regarded as the first epistolary novel that explores sentimentalism as such and has supposedly paved the way for further exploration and development of this kind of narrative.

Sentimentalism and Morality in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela

 It is generally accepted that with Pamela, Richardson originated the first epistolary novel (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica), which is one of several key features that made the novel stand out. The other notable key features are its marriage plot, the female protagonist and consequently the female narrative perspective, Richardson’s use of sentimentalism and of course the overall theme of the importance of virtue. In order to examine the significance of Pamela to the rise of the sentimental novel, it is important to establish what is meant by sentimentalism, as well as how this relates to developments in early-eighteenth-century British literature.

This chapter will also look into the significance of the novel’s epistolary form and Richardson’s emphasis on morality.  Sentimentalism is a term applied to the pathos and sympathy the author attempts to extract in the reader. In regard to eighteenth-century literature, Abrams summarizes “sentimentalism” as “highly exaggerated forms of sympathy and manifestations of benevolence” (Abrams and Harpham, 291). Richardson incorporated sentimentalism in his work through what he referred to as “writing to the moment”: using the epistolary form and having his characters experience the events they describe.

This technique is used in Pamela and it gives the reader an intimate view of Pamela’s thoughts and feelings and, more importantly, her experiences as they occur. In Letter Twenty, Pamela writes to her parents about the new clothes she bought with money she earned so she could leave all of Mr. B’s presents behind when she would return to them, but she has to end her writing abruptly: “So, as I was saying, I have provided a new and more suitable dress, and I long to appear in it, more than ever I did in any new clothes in my life; for then I shall be soon after with you , and at ease in my mind. But I am forced to break off. – Here comes Mrs Jervis” (45).

The reader lives through every moment and experience together with Pamela through this technique.  Janet Todd gives the following description of “sentimentalism”: “the arousal of pathos through conventional situations, stock familial characters and rhetorical devices is the mark of sentimental literature. Such literature buttonholes the reader and demands an emotional, even physical response” (2). This is a rather negative view on sentimentalism, and indeed the word itself has a derogatory connotation nowadays, but this is not how sentimentalism or sensibility were regarded at the time Pamela was published.

For eighteenth-century readers, sentimentality “spoke to the moral virtue of being able to imagine yourself in another’s situation” (MacKay 204), something Pamela’s popularity at the time attests to. Inspiring the reader through stirring up (strong) emotions was exactly what Richardson aimed for, as Pamela was meant to highlight and inspire virtue in its readership. After all, the subtitle on the title page to Pamela is “Published in order to cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes”,  and is followed by a preface that states as its purpose: “to effect all these good ends, in so probable, so natural, so lively a manner, as shall engage the passions of every sensible reader, and attach their regard to the story” (ix). 

Engaging the reader in such a way that they could imagine being part of the story is precisely one of the ways in which Pamela was revolutionary, and Richardson accomplished this through his use of the epistolary form: “Richardson’s use of the letter form also induced in the reader a continual sense of actual participation in the action which was until then unparalleled in its completeness and intensity” (Watt 25). The epistolary form is a vehicle that lends itself particularly well to sentimentalism, as it gives the reader a direct, intimate view into the inner life, thoughts and feelings of the letter writers.

Todd explains that “Richardson used the epistolary form to investigate the key problems and concepts of sentimentalism: the expression and moral implications of sensibility and the ideal of benevolence and social harmony. In addition he made the sentimental construction of woman a dominant motif and the minute recordings of emotional and physical states a central purpose” (66).

Watt elaborates further in explaining Richardson’s use of the epistolary form:  The letter form, then, offered Richardson a short-cut, as it were, to the heart, and encouraged him to express what he found there with the greatest possible precision, even at the cost of shocking the literary traditionalists. As a result, his readers found in his novels the same complete engrossment of their inner feelings, and the same welcome withdrawal into an imaginary world vibrant with more intimately satisfying personal relationships than ordinary life provided, that they had afforded Richardson in the writing: both author and readers, in fact, were continuing the tendencies and interests which had originally led to the development of the formal basis of the narrative mode of Pamela – the development of the cult of familiar letter-writing. (195-196)

The emphasis on virtue is perhaps the most important feature of Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded; the inclusion of virtue in the very title of the work is as deliberate as it is a crucial element in its relation to the sentimental novel. “The sentimental work reveals a belief in the appealing and aesthetic quality of virtue, displayed in a naughty world through a vague and potent distress. This distress is rarely deserved and is somehow in the nature of things; in later sentimental works it even overshadows virtue, which may in fact be more manifest in the sympathy of the observer than in the sufferer” (Todd 2-3).

Pamela consistently places her virtue above her life; she reassures her parents time and again that she is their “dutiful daughter”; she beseeches the farmer and his family that she meets on the journey to Mr. B’s Lincolnshire estate to “take pity of a helpless young maiden, who valued her honour above her life” (116); and even though she already suspects Mrs. Jewkes is Mr. B’s true accomplice, Pamela tries to appeal to her better nature when she asks her “And do you not think, that to rob a person of her virtue, is worse than cutting her throat?” (129).

Sentimentalism and Morality in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela

Richardson meant for the novel to become a religious and moral inspiration to the young men and women of his time. This is clearly stated in the preface by the editor: “to divert and entertain, and at the same time to instruct and improve the minds of the YOUTH of both sexes: If to inculcate religion and morality in so easy and agreeable a manner, as shall render them equally delightful and profitable” (ix). Pamela’s insistence on protecting her virtue with her life and making this well-known in her conversations as well as her writings gains her everything a girl of her time could dream of and turns out very profitable indeed. 

According to Watt, “sentimentalism in its eighteenth-century sense denoted an un Hobbesian belief in the innate benevolence of man, a credo which had the literary corollary that the depiction of such benevolence engaged in philanthropic action or generous tears was a laudable aim” (174). This certainly rings true for Pamela’s characters on the whole. While she can be quite judgemental of others at times, Pamela starts out and remains good and virtuous, and also brings out the benevolence in other characters. Her virtue inspires both her friends like Mrs Jervis and Mr Longman to try to help her against their master’s orders, but also Mr Williams, who is a stranger when she first asks him to help her escape from Mr B’s estate.

Most importantly, however, Pamela’s virtue turns Mr B from a relentless would-be rapist to a virtuous man and redeems him to the point where he has become fit marriage material for her. After her marriage, it is her virtue that convinces her new peers that her low birth is not an objection to her new station at all and, much against Pamela’s own expectations, they all welcome her into their ranks.  Pamela is very clear throughout her journey: living a virtuous life is of the utmost importance, and this life is only temporary and a preparation for the eternal. When her virtue is still under siege from Mr B, she briefly contemplates suicide through drowning herself in the pond when she sees no other escape, but she experiences an epiphany: “How knowest thou what purposes God may have to serve, by the trials with which thou art now exercised?

Art thou to put a bound to the Divine Will, and to say, ‘Thus much will I bear, and no more?’ And wilt though dare to say, That if the trial be augmented and continued, thou wilt sooner die than bear it? Was not Joseph’s exaltation owing to his unjust imprisonment?” (204). She resolves to leave her fate in the hands of her God and prays for Mr B to come around. She writes about this in her letters as well, and when these eventually are confiscated by Mr B it is her letters to her father that convince him of her true innocence and honest, pious nature. This starts his redemption, and Pamela’s exaltation.

Her captors are forgiven and redeemed because of her virtue and she gets a marriage above her station and delivers her parents from poverty through it when Mr B pays off all their debts. It is Pamela’s beauty that drew Mr B’s attention, but it is her virtue that makes him decide to marry her once he is convinced of her nature: “You, my Pamela, are not good by chance; but on principle” (383).  While at times tedious to read, Richardson’s message on virtue is unmistakably clear, and the novel’s contemporary popularity indicates that at least the plot resonated well with the public. Richardson was one of the first writers in British literature who did not take his plots from mythology, history, legend or previous literature (Watt 14).

He was inspired by a real-life account of a servant who protected and preserved her virtue and was allegedly rewarded with a marriage (Sale). During a time when the future of women depended “much more completely than before on their being able to marry and on the kind of marriage they made, while at the same time it was more and more difficult for them to find a husband” (Watt 148), this was an important theme that helps explain the novel’s enormous success at the time. Watt states that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu “thought that Pamela’s matrimonial triumph had made her ‘the joy of the chambermaids of all nations’” (148). 

As stated at the start of this chapter, Pamela stood out through several key features, including the epistolary form and virtue as a theme. Richardson’s use of the epistolary form and sentimentalism proved both influential and inspirational to the development of the sentimental novel as well as other authors, one of whom was Frances Burney. 

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