The True Origins of “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”: The Problematic Start of Romance Novels

The first romance novel starts off with a bang. Read on to see just how problematic ‘Pamela’ was and why.

Book Culture Bookstr Trivia Classics Recommendations Romance
from left to right pamela a virtue rewarded by samuel richardson book cover painting of pamela asking for Sir Jacob Swinford's Blessing

Did you know that there is, in fact, a romance novel that’s considered the first written in the genre? I was unaware of this until my senior year of college when we spent months dissecting Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, and its significance.

The title alone has major significance, but I don’t want to rush ahead and miss any significant details you deserve to know. Let’s begin with Pamela’s history and content before diving into the nitty-gritty English major analysis.

Trigger Warning: The mention of rape/sexual assault may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.

British author Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela in 1740. The novel was written in epistolary form, meaning that it was written almost entirely in Pamela’s letters to her parents. The use of this form allowed Pamela to write the events as soon as they happened, keeping us readers on our toes because we didn’t know what could happen next. As the story progresses, the plot shockingly goes from sexually abusive to a love story.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Woman in a carriage being driven down the street.

Plot of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded

Pamela follows a 15-year-old servant girl named Pamela who works at the manor of wealthy Mr. B. At the novel’s start, she writes to her parents to inform them that her mistress, Mr. B’s mother, has died. Her mistress was quite taken with Pamela and told her son to “remember” her. I know that she meant well, but I wish she knew her son a little better because this backfired. Mr. B’s care towards Pamela started harmlessly; he allotted time to read and write letters, and he gifted her with some of his mother’s clothing to wear. However, we get the first taste of weariness from her father when he writes in a letter to beware of Mr. B’s kindness.

Quick reminder: Pamela is a 15-year-old girl! She doesn’t live at home, the one woman who made her feel comfortable has just passed away, and now, all of a sudden, a man is being nice to her. She has never had to deal with this behavior from a man before and, I’m sure, has no idea what’s going on or the proper way to react. Her father may see his behavior as something to beware of, but Pamela does not see anything suspicious about it. We are supposed to acknowledge her innocence and naive nature. This should not be overlooked.

Mr. B’s advances toward Pamela start very soon after her father’s warning. He attempts to kiss her when she is about to leave the manor. This jarring and uncharacteristic behavior on Mr. B’s part seems like something that would make any young woman flee, but not Pamela; she feels safe staying and delays her trip; she always finds a reason to stay. While you are reading, you may forget you’re reading her letters. For the entirety of the book, you are in the mind of a 15-year-old girl, so it is hard to judge her for her decisions, no matter how chaotic.

Painting of Pamela sitting on a bed with Mrs. Jewkes and Mr.B hiding in the corner.
Painter Joseph Highmore 1743-1744

This innocence from Pamela and harassing behavior from Mr. B only snowballs. Mr. B hides in her closet as she sleeps, writes to her parents, lying about a man Pamela had supposedly been with, and practically kidnaps Pamela, keeping her from her parents, who try to bring her home. This behavior is entirely self-serving, and he knows he can be this way because of his wealth, societal connections, and Pamela’s innocence. In reality, Mr. B is a pathetic pedophile who preys on Pamela and continues to invade her space, belongings, and body.

When Mr. B realizes Pamela is serious about protecting her virtue, he changes methods. He offers her a contractual marriage which she refuses. He begins to push down his seducing tactics and, instead, spends time with her and expresses his love for her in hopes of a true marriage. However, she hears wind that it would be a mock marriage; Mr. B would use marriage as a ploy to satisfy Pamela’s religious beliefs of giving up her virtue and allow himself the freedom of sexually pursuing her. This, once again, is Mr. B trying to gain something for himself. He is too ignorant to consider what a sham marriage and loss of virtue would do to a young girl.

Pamela is overcome with sadness that her marriage could be a sham. However, as we’ve seen in her behavior across the book, as soon as Mr. B grovels or Pamela’s innocence shines through, she goes right back to him; this time is no different. Their engagement is very pleasant, and the start of their marriage seems blissful. However, the tone of the novel becomes dark again when Lady Danvers, Mr. B’s sister, comes to the manor. She is horrified that she has a servant girl as a sister-in-law and proceeds to torment Pamela disbelieving that she could truly be married to her brother. This poor girl is having the most traumatic experiences.

Pamela is married, painting by Joseph Highmore 
Pamela and Mr. B getting married .

The conclusion of the novel is one I did not expect. Lady Danvers apologizes to Pamela and, at the same time, exposes Mr. B’s child from an illegitimate affair. It seems that even though she apologizes, Lady Danvers will do anything to get rid of Pamela. This throws everything for a loop. Mr. B is hysterical, promising Pamela that he will cut off communication. Lady Danvers is all of a sudden guilty for exposing her brother and hurting Pamela. Lady Danvers wishes to read her letters to understand Pamela and their marriage better. Pamela takes the news of a child in stride; though this was a surprise, it aligns with Pamela’s character. They visit Mr. B’s daughter, who stays at a farmhouse, and suggests bringing her home with them.

The happy ending that I take away from Pamela is that Pamela walks away with her virtue intact. The inclusion of a child almost protects Pamela, for the moment, from having to produce a child herself. This illegitimate child gives Mr. B and Pamela an immediate family.

So what was going on in 1740 England when this novel was published?

There was a significant rise in literacy among people, and not just in the upper class. Though it was not at an all-time high and many people of all classes still struggled with reading, the 1700s newspapers became popular, allowing reading to be for the public. This advancement of the time is seen in Pamela’s character as she writes letters to her parents and is known to be well-read. Her skills are thanks to her deceased mistress and her parents, who ran a school.

By this time in England, what was left of the hierarchy system was rich families with estates and much poorer families with farms (think Pride and Prejudice: the Bennets versus Mr. Darcy). Those with little money but marriage-age women would often try to create marriages between the classes or, for Pamela’s sake, work for the upper class and send money home. This is attributed to why Pamela was unable to run away from her situation, which may be a question you have been wondering all along. Employers would pay their staff in advance, so if she ran, she could be arrested for stealing.

Romance Themes and Tropes Established

The good-ole marriage plot. This was the topic of almost all novels from this time period because it hung heavy in society at the time. There were two types of marriage: social and economic growth, such as an arranged marriage or a marriage of love. It’s disheartening that many women writers of the time were writing marriage plot novels and love-based unions because the best possible outcome from marriage was only found in fiction. Those were few and far between in real life.

The English Major Analysis I Promised

Pamela, even at 15, holds her ground against Mr. B. She may be naive to his advances and terrible at realizing she should leave his estate, but she holds tight to her virtue and beliefs. She should be admired for that. She stands up to Mr. B more often than not (even though there was a time when she faints, from her innocence and avoidance of the situation) and does attempt to dismiss his pleas for marriage. However, she eventually gives in.

The relationship between Mr. B and Pamela is a battle over morals and, eventually, love. Bringing it full circle back to the title of the novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, “virtue rewarded” is a subtle acknowledgment that Mr. B never actually has sexual relations with her, and through marriage, she was “rewarded” with her virtue. Her dedication to protecting this part of herself ultimately overpowers Mr. B’s lust-driven actions, thus his proposal of marriage. Richardson wanted readers to feel like even though she was only a young girl, she “won” this battle between her and Mr. B.

Pamela’s innocence towards men and their advancements is a focal point of the novel, and yet the power of virtue swayed a man into changing his actions. Richardson paints the picture that if you are a young faithful woman, your dedication to belief will protect you from sin. There is a bubble of protection around Pamela, even if she doesn’t notice, and it continues to foil Mr. B’s advancements every time. Upon reading this novel for the first time, I thought it was a bit unbelievable to think Mr. B never succeeded in any of his sexual attempts. Through analysis, it is clear that Richardson wants us to think that way, and again, it is faith and dedication that allows her to “win.”

Who was Samuel Richardson anyway?

Richardson was a 50-year-old prudish British man who believed in the right of women’s education. He writes Pamela as a girl who fears being sexually assaulted by a man; this is an extension of his own feelings toward women. He expresses his stance against sexual assault towards women by giving Pamela a defensive voice.

Painting of Samuel Richardson by Joseph Highmore 1750

Though he may feel certain ways about women’s education and protection of virtue, he is not willing to end his novel with marriage. He believed there was more to marriage and didn’t want to give the wrong impression that marriage solves all conflicts. Richardson makes it very clear that though a marriage happens near the end of this novel, it doesn’t stop Mr. B’s craved nature and past from coming to the surface.

Can Mr. B be more pathetic? Yes, in fact, he can. Before this novel makes a transition to a marriage plot, he confesses his love for Pamela, and she states she can’t hate him (c’mon girl…). He then struggles with these emotions because he can’t bear the thought of marrying a servant girl, but proceeds to attempt sexual assault anyway! Richardson may be trying to show the anguish that men experience during love and how it overpowers them to the point of wanting the woman so badly, but it can be read that Mr. B is a potential rapist.

Pamela’s Affect on Romance Novels Today

Pamela was considered the first romance novel, and it starts the genre off with the men-wanting-young-girls-for-their-own-sexual-desires trope. Sadly, this started a trend of very problematic romances. It has also aided in the creation of tropes that I personally don’t care for (i.e. the glorification of virginity).

Observing Pamela with a 2023 lens, Mr. B is seen as a predator though this was not Richardson’s intent. When we see a man who can’t keep it in his pants, even in the presence of a young girl, what else are we supposed to think? Pamela observes that he struggles with the level of her class when he confesses his love, and yet it doesn’t stop him from pursuing her.

What Richardson showed us, seemingly unintentionally, is that neither age nor class will stop a man from making unwanted sexual advances toward a woman. They had a one-track mind in the 18th century, and they continue to have a one-track mind in some modern romances today. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of smut and passionate romance novels. But there is a history of them being done distastefully. However, now we are slowly getting to a point where writers are less inclined to write about extensive age gaps just with underaged girls. There are a variety of ways to write a romantic piece the right way; one way is not to pursue a minor. Duh.

Pamela Asks Sir Jacob Swinford's Blessing painting by Joseph Highmore 1743-1744

This was the novel that set the stage for romance novels to come. I’m speaking hypotheticals here, but who knows if we’d have the kind of romance novels today without Richardson’s being the first. It’s a double-edged sword because this novel is so chaotic and traumatic, but could I live in a world without my mafia romance? Without the “Who did this to you?” trope? All of our favorite dark and unhinged romances come from this novel being the framework.

This novel is a piece of history, and I am grateful we have it so we can learn from it and know where men got to thinking that they could write this way about a woman. I can only be deeply grateful that men have finally taken the backseat on romance writing and given the reins to the women. Get Thomas Hardy and Richardson out of here. Women know what other women want to read and, most time, do a much better job.

For more of our trivia articles, click here!