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Rediscovering Pamela: the 1740 blockbuster that’s pure #MeToo

An illustration from Samuel Richardson's Pamela, painted by Joseph Highmore
An illustration from Samuel Richardson's Pamela, painted by Joseph Highmore Credit: Getty

When I first read Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded as a 19-year-old student of English literature I thought it absurd. Why would Mr B, a wealthy young squire and politician, spend so much time hiding in closets before bursting out on an innocent serving girl and trying to have his wicked way with her? Why would this ingénue keep putting herself in situations where Mr B could put “his Hand in my Bosom”?

Fast-forward to October 2017, when claims started circulating about Harvey Weinstein asking innocent young actresses to his hotel room, where he surprised them by bursting out of the bathroom in an attempt, it is alleged, to force himself upon them. The most sinister episodes in the book, in which other servants are enlisted to help Mr B seduce his prey, are chillingly matched by the Weinstein allegations (all of which he has denied).

So you can see why the National Theatre wanted to stage Martin Crimp’s new play When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: Twelve Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – which opens in preview this week, starring Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane.

So far Crimp has said very little about the characters and scenarios he’s developed in the play, which has a contemporary setting. But when you revisit the Richardson’s original text – first published in 1740 – you can guess at likely themes for the drama. Pamela was the first novel to study the politics of consent and was all the more topical for examining the way sexual double standards and social hierarchies affected a woman’s ability to say no.

As the 15-year-old heroine, whose genteel employer has just died leaving Pamela vulnerable to her son and heir Mr B, says: “Those things don’t disgrace Men, that ruin poor Women, as the world goes.”

Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane star in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other Credit: Gillian Hyland/National Theatre

Richardson, who was one of London’s foremost printers by trade (often writing copy for clients), started plotting his novel after being asked to compile a book full of letter templates and etiquette advice for semi-literate “country readers”.

One hypothetical scenario, based on a true story, involved letters from a young female servant whose master was trying to lure her into bed. Richardson became swept up with the tale and put the instructional letters aside in favour of the vibrant immediacy of an epistolary novel. Pamela’s thoughts seem to be happening in real time, making it the first serious exploration in novel form of what Richardson called “the Recesses of the human Mind”. Until then, the novel had been a genre dominated by lurid romances that nobody took seriously.

Pamela was English literature’s first true blockbuster novel, running to five editions in its first year of publication, plus a version in French, pirate editions and Pamela merchandise in the shape of fans, cups and pictures. Alexander Pope recommended it and London clergyman Benjamin Slocock lauded it from the pulpit. There was even talk of the world being divided into Pamelists and Antipamelists. The Antis believed the novel was vulgar and titillating, and the heroine’s supposed virtue was disingenuous. Some criticised Pamela’s lively vernacular and in later editions Richardson made her language more polished. The printer’s own social stock was rising with his book’s renown and he became susceptible to peers’ snobbish concerns that only a relatively refined woman should marry into the gentry.

All these controversies meant that the novel inspired a raft of parodies (putting you in mind of Fifty Sheds of Grey), including, most famously, Henry Fielding’s Shamela. Fielding turned Richardson’s ingénue into a manipulative slattern who says slyly: “I once thought of making a little Fortune by my person. I now intend to make a great one by my Vartue.” Fielding isn’t a million miles off the mark. One of the factors that makes Pamela so gripping is the dawning realisation that our ravishing heroine isn’t perhaps as helpless as she first appears.

A 1750 portrait of Samuel Richardson by Joseph Highmore

The 18th-century reader would, as Richardson intended, note the young woman displays strength of character through her virtue and gritty determination to say no to Mr B, whatever his threats or inducements. But there’s also a real sense that extraordinary beauty has its own currency and rules: it may invite unwelcome advances, but it also holds people in its thrall.

Mr B speaks as if it is he who is defenceless against the teenage Pamela, saying to his housekeeper Mrs Jervis: “I believe this little Slut has the Power of Witchcraft, if there were a Witch, for she inchants all that come near her.”

However, it’s Pamela’s emerging sense of personality and tireless battle against injustice that makes the novel so engaging. She breeches social conventions by addressing her superior Mr B directly, tells him when he errs. When Mr B calls Pamela a “Sauce-box, and a Bold-face, and pert”, what he’s really describing is a woman of lower status who has the temerity to reject his advances and counter them with her own persuasive rhetoric. At the same time, he’s fascinated by this upstart maid, with her firm opinions and lively literary style (he gets his manservant John to slip him Pamela’s letters to her parents). The dastardly squire isn’t the only character to perform a volte-face.

In our post-Freudian age it’s irresistible to point out that Pamela’s subconscious desires may pull in a different direction from her stated intentions. In the novel’s early stages she’s free to leave Mr B’s service and return home to her parents, but keeps insisting she must first finish embroidering a waistcoat for him. Later, when Mr B has kidnapped Pamela and incarcerated her at his Lincolnshire estate, she fails to escape because she’s frightened of some cows, mistaking them for bulls. Eventually Pamela admits to her divided heart: “What is the matter, with all his ill-usage of me, that I cannot hate him?” Some modern critics have suggested a clear case of Stockholm syndrome, where the abductee becomes sympathetic to their captor. The pivotal episode in the novel is a bizarre scene where Mr B dresses as a maid and inveigles his way into Pamela’s bedchamber, aided and abetted by the malevolent housekeeper Mrs Jewkes. His intention is rape, but Pamela’s a great one for a well-timed swoon and Mr B desists. This is the point at which the squire finally realises he doesn’t have the stomach for forced seduction and begins to woo Pamela instead – eventually marrying her.

Many readers (whether past or present) have found it hard to come to terms with Pamela’s capitulation to Mr B, although the author proposes that her virtue has transformed him. But this again echoes many high‑profile cases of sexual assault where victims have engaged in warm correspondence after an alleged attack. The book – and presumably Crimp’s play – raises uncomfortable questions about the unruly nature of desire. Does animal attraction overrule cool reason? Can we be drawn to people who seem at first to repulse us? These are Beauty and the Beast issues that fascinate.

Female scholars have found much to intrigue them in Pamela, despite the theme of sexual exploitation. This, after all, is a young woman who manages to save and better herself through mastery of language. She is of low rank but refuses to comply with the role of a subordinate, saying her soul “is of equal importance with the Soul of a Princess”.

Given the rich source material, it will be fascinating to see how Crimp tackles the psychological cross-currents and fluctuations of power. Dillane has offered one clue when he quoted a line from the new play: “I took you – against your will – was it against your will? – jury’s out.” As Dillane said, that’s the central question, “Who’s doing what to whom?”

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is in preview at the National Theatre now and runs until March 2. Tickets: 020 7452 3000; nationaltheatre.org.uk