In defence of virtue....[i]
27 April 1995
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela may be a rollicking tale of class bigotry, gender warfare, and sexual intrigue, but it is also a sober look at how cooperation and a willingness to submit to a greater good than one’s self can achieve genuinely positive ends for all involved. I like to view this quaint and much-maligned work as an example of chivalric literature, in which goodness triumphs over evil. Pamela Andrews, then, can be seen as the traditional chivalric heroine, because she exemplifies the complete definition of virtue.
I see chivalry as an ideal, a model, for male-female human relations. Caxton’s handbook[ii] set down the basic creeds of the good knight, but Malory and others expounded on these and gave positive and negative examples of male and female behavior in society. For purposes of this paper the definition shall be kept broad, but I feel that really any story which presents this value system can be considered chivalric literature; one of my own favourites has become Fielding’s Joseph Andrews.
One key to the chivalric code is the concept of the separate spheres: the male realm and the female realm. This can be supported by open-minded study of Aristotle, the Bible, or evolutionary theory, and certainly through a reading of Pamela. The male and female each have certain attributes, strengths, and responsibilities, and in Pamela we see the consequences when one of the two parties fails even to recognise the ideal. It is crucial to remember that the two realms do not stand in judgement of each other; if not of the same elements, they are certainly equivalent. The female may not wield the same sort of power as does the male, but the character of Pamela illustrates just how, at least in the arena of love, her power may actually be superior to that of her man.
The female’s role in chivalry is to inspire the male toward virtue. Richardson created Pamela as the paragon and champion of virtue; in his preface, he explicitly states his intention ‘to give practical examples, worthy to be followed in the most critical and affecting cases, by the virgin, the bride, and the wife’. [iii] His book will also teach the man of station– indeed, any man– how and how not to retain his dignity and good reputation in the face of temptation. The secret to it all is to embrace virtue for its own sake, and for the sake of its benefits– for virtue is its own reward.
Narrowly defined, ‘virtue’ may connote simply physiological virginity. Pamela’s words seem to bear this out, in part. For her, chastity represents the one gift which she can to give freely to her husband; as a girl without a dowry, it is all she has in body and soul. However virtue has a higher meaning here. I prefer to use the word ‘chastity’ rather than ‘virtue’ in twentieth-century vocabulary, when referring to virginity alone. ‘Virtuous’ seems more to mean ‘laden with virtues’, of which, for unmarried people, virginity– call it chastity– is one of the principals. It is a diffuse nobleness in all issues. Mrs Jervis and Mr B will exchange opinion on this, [iv] Mrs Jervis taking my view here, and Mr B assuming, as the twentieth-century reader surely does, that it is merely a pleasant euphemism for virginity– which, he insists, is the one thing he has not yet offended. In chivalric terms virtue can be said to be a deliberate tendency– that is, invoking one’s free will– toward goodness, as prescribed by God and fellow virtuous people. Pamela sums this whole debate up quite nicely for the reader, in her ‘Verses Upon Going Away’: ‘For what indeed is happiness/ But conscious innocence and peace’. [v]
Pamela embodies all that is good about Christianity: humility, piety, chastity, kindness, and especially forgiveness. She lives by the ‘Golden Rule’, a sort of trite axiom for whole of Christianity which lies at the heart of chivalry. Raised by a lay deacon, Pamela is a good Christian, and never compromises her beliefs. More than once she appears even Christlike; most notably in wishing her jailer well, and in her frequent resolutions to trust her fate to Providence rather than pray for her own designs. The Church is important to her, as the social manifestation of God’s word and law. The maintenance of her physical purity is prescribed by God; but the condemnation of its loss outside of wedlock, is prescribed by human society. Therefore, to represent virtue in all eyes, she must subscribe to both.
The moral touchstone for the entire book is her realization that ‘Virtue is the only nobility’. [vi] Pamela values the gentry by their actions, not their station. She does not consider virtue as a province solely of the rich. She laments that people too often regard themselves and each other for the good of their ancestors and not on their own actions. Principles, morality, and ethics are valuable to her, not outward appearance (which is part of the male domain). Her intentions and actions define her character, since ostensively she has no other value, and she naïvely thinks others should be valued likewise. Through everything she remains certain that her piety, not her birthrights, shall earn her a place in Heaven.
Inviting such an influence, Mr B cannot stay outside the realm of virtue forever. Though he never quite admits it explicitly, he placed Pamela upon the proverbial pedestal long ago, and his only confusion or anger has been with himself for misreading and mistreating her. In submitting to her influence, he realises that she has elevated him to a new station: that of a truly noble, respectable gentleman, blessed with the company of a woman who is his equal in all the ways she should be. He is humble enough to admit it to her: ‘I might have addressed a hundred fine ladies; but never could have reason to admire one as I do you’. [vii] It is a lovely sentiment, and the reader agrees that Pamela’s true assets are too worthy of admiration to be merely coveted.
Richardson’s point is that neither sex has a monopoly on virtue in the chivalric ideal. Pamela is the chaste female who favourably influences the male toward goodness, and readily welcomes him when he at last embraces it. Mr B is touched when she, goodness incarnate, honors him by calling him ‘good’, and so he willingly returns to what Lady Davers praises him for, his ‘usual generosity of spirit’.[viii] In the argument with his sister he defends his marriage, in terms to illustrate his full understanding of what good has been done him: ‘A man ennobles the woman he takes, be she who she will’. [ix] For him, Pamela deserves no less than the very best he can give her: his love, his respect, and his family name.
Richardson does not end the novel with the marriage and a promise of ‘happily ever after’. Pamela’s virtue carries on, to idealise the genteel, modest female in a variety of social situations. She endures, capable, intelligent, responsible, self-effacing, never haughty. The new Mrs B assumes her role as gentleman’s wife with reserve and grace, almost out of character for a modestly cultivated servile-class teenager. True to the chivalric code, she acknowledges her responsibility to continue as his lantern of virtue: ‘To be sure, a woman cannot be too good’. [x]
Yet she will expect the same standard of behaviour from him– in fact, from all men. She favorably impresses her sister-in-law and all the ladies of Mr B’s society, who find new inspiration in witnessing Pamela’s humility and graciousness; they marvel as she gives silver to the poor squarely in front of them all. Pamela acknowledges her responsibility: ‘God raised me to a condition to be useful to better persons than myself’. [xi] All along she has been an instrument of God– which, after all, is the only truly noble calling.
I believe this is a book for idealists. It must be monotonous to read such a high ideal so relentlessly idealised if one is not in total agreement with the principle. But ideals, and idealists, have their place. It is the purpose of an ideal to be universal, to transcend race, ethnicity, natural law, God’s law, and socioeconomic station. Richardson very plainly intends ‘to instruct and improve the minds of the youth of both sexes’, [xii] and touts this as a realistic ideal, one which should be presented to youth on down through the ages. He was very mindful of the new order he was proposing: ‘The ideal in human relations… is direct emotional contact with another person’. [xiii]
After all, why must virtue ever be out of date? In my view Pamela still stands as a model for female behaviour, and the early Mr B, of course, as the precise opposite of desired male behaviour. Pamela’s responses to his 48 rules for married bliss indicate that here is a woman two hundred-odd years ahead of her time, a champion of equal treatment in gender discourse. In a period when wives were considered chattel, she proposes that women exert some degree of free will over their husbands– but always in their best interests. She embraces what the Soviet jazz musicians of the Cold War era knew, when faced with a potentially oppressive environment, that there is liberty in ‘improvising within the system’.
As a novel Pamela succeeds gloriously in the two most basic purposes of all literature: to delight and to instruct. In its day it was popular for being fanciful and devotional at once. I feel it ranks with any piece of chivalric literature, as an example of how noble ideals are to applied to situations in which anyone’s word may be suspect, duplicity is a practised art, and no-one is quite what they seem. Dickens’ John Jarndyce advises in Bleak House that the prudent approach is to trust only in God’s hand and in one’s own efforts. All else may be forfeit– but if so, one’s goodness survives until it may be of the most use for others who need it.
Fifty years hence, Mary Wollstonecraft would propose a standard of conduct for both genders in society, based on merit and not appearance, insisting, ‘Elegance is inferior to virtue’. [xiv]
No doubt Pamela would agree.
* * *
[i] As an uncanny coincidence, the word count on the original of this paper is 1741– the same figure as the year Richardson declared his edition of Pamela completed –JC
[ii] Caxton’s handbook - In about 1485 William Caxton, an English historian and contemporary of Malory, set down in A Book of Chivalrie what he perceived to be the rules of chivalric code, which became widely read and emulated throughout Europe –JC
[iii] to give... the wife - Richardson; Pamela, p. 31
[iv] exchange opinion on this - Ibid, pp. 59-60
[v] For what... peace - Ibid, p. 122
[vi] Virtue is the only nobility - Ibid, p. 83. There is some debate about the origin of this statement; its gist appears in Juvenal's Satires and elsewhere since.
[vii] I might... you - Ibid, p. 309
[viii] usual generosity of spirit - Ibid, p. 294
[ix] A man... she will - Ibid, p. 441
[x] To be sure, a woman cannot be too good - Ibid, p. 470; on his Rule 47
[xi] God raised me... myself - Ibid, p. 515
[xii] to instruct... both sexes - Ibid, p. 31
[xiii] The ideal... another person - Golden, p. 128
[xiv] Elegance is inferior to virtue - Wollstonecraft; A Vindication on The Rights of Woman; 1793