Thursday 9 November 2017

Sex and power revisited

Like me, Samuel Richardson was the son of a joiner and one of nine children. Those are just two of the reasons he interests me. He showed a precocious talent for writing. By the age of 13 he was helping girls of his acquaintance reply to love letters, which brought him close to the drama of romantic love at an early age. Too poor to train for the ministry, he was apprenticed to a printer, after which he opened his own printing shop and went on to earn a very good living as a publisher. He had a dozen children, of whom four daughters and one son survived into adulthood. He came to fiction late. His first novel Pamela was published in 1740 when he was 51. It was a huge success, immediately resonating with the novel-reading public.

Early in the story the young maid, Pamela Andrews, is cornered in the summer-house by her master. This (edited slightly for length) is from her account of the experience:

Well, says he, I have a mind you should stay to hear what I have to say to you. I stood confounded, and began to tremble, and the more when he took me by the hand; for now no soul was near us. He said, I tell you I will make a gentlewoman of you, if you be obliging, and don’t stand in your own light; and so saying, he put his arm about me, and kissed me!

Sobbing, Pamela pushes him off and angrily tells him that he should treat her properly. The master, “vexed and confused”, does his best to calm her down:

If you can keep this matter secret, you’ll give me the better opinion of your prudence; and here’s something, said he, putting some gold in my hand, to make you amends for the fright I put you in. Go take a walk in the garden, and don’t go in till your blubbering is over: and I charge you say nothing of what is past, and all shall be well, and I’ll forgive you.

I draw three conclusions from this scene: there’s nothing new about narcissistic or unscrupulous men exploiting their power for sexual purposes; there’s nothing new about women not liking it; and there’s nothing new about the perpetrators wanting to hush it up. All that’s changed is that the hushing up is getting harder to do.

No doubt there were people who bought Richardson’s book for its tabloid content, because they liked being shocked and enjoyed the salacious details. But enough readers must have strangely anticipated modern progressive opinion in finding the master’s behaviour thoroughly reprehensible, while others, like today’s scoffing fogeys, dismissed such disapproval as political correctness gone mad.

Henry Fielding responded to Richardson’s success by writing a parody called Shamela. Here’s how his heroine recounts her experience of being molested:  

He took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy: Laud, says I, Sir, I hope you don’t intend to be rude; no, says he, my Dear, and then he kissed me, till it took away my Breath – and I pretended to be Angry, and to get away, and then he kissed me again, and breathed very short, and looked very silly…

Fielding had had considerable success as a playwright, but this was his first attempt at fiction. Meanwhile Richardson, coming from nowhere as a writer, had more or less invented the bodice-ripper. With some justification, Fielding found Richardson’s style overheated. He was also bothered by the way Pamela’s story reduced moral virtue to a bargaining chip on the way to an advantageous marriage, and the hypocrisy of readers who tutted with disapproval as they lapped up the sex. Fielding’s parody turns the woman into the predator. Shamela is on the make and ready to use her assets to trap a wealthy squire.  

CoverFielding was on a roll. He followed Shamela with a novel-length gender-bending narrative, in which Pamela’s virtuous brother Joseph, also a servant, has to fight off the sexual attentions of his mistress, Lady Booby. Then, having created his very own comic-epic style, he wrote Tom Jones and the rest is literary history.

Fielding has generally been considered the better writer. Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, is more highly rated than his first. But at a time when women’s voices were rarely heard, in Pamela he gave voice to a female perspective, opening a window on a problem that, in real life, wasn’t funny then and isn’t funny now.