In response to:
Women's Liberator from the February 10, 1972 issue
To the Editors:
Notwithstanding the extravagant claims Ellen Moers makes for the influence of Samuel Richardson [NYR, February 10], her review of the new biography by Eaves and Kimpel of the printer-novelist is full of questionable judgments of taste. To say that “Richardson made the English novel the vehicle for sexual reform” is to mistake intention for performance. As Fielding immediately perceived and expressed in his parody Shamela, the sexual reform in Pamela was really a form of sexual pragmatism in which enticement and sensual attraction became a means of personal advancement. “Virtue Rewarded” may be more accurately phrased as sexual coyness rewarded. (In my teenage days we called such girls “cock-teasers.”)
Ms. Moers’s assertion that Pamela is coming into her glory today, having been in the twentieth century overshadowed by Clarissa, must stagger anyone who teaches eighteenth-century novels to young people. Pamela may have taught Fielding “how to write to please,” Ms. Moers approvingly quotes Richardson, but it is far more likely that Fielding’s satire of the dubious morals of Pamela taught Richardson that in Clarissa sexual purity and worldly advantage are inconsistent; hence the tragic denouement of the later novel. This is why of his three novels Clarissa is still read for the compelling story it is, despite its flaws, and Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison are read nowadays for their historical interest, like The Castle of Otranto.
In talking about Richardson’s influence, Ms. Moers not only puts Fielding in his debt but claims a vast slice of literary history in the names of Austen, Rousseau, Goethe, and a good many nineteenth-century female novelists. Where Eaves and Kimpel were apparently cautious in tracing this liberating effect on literary females, Ms. Moers has no qualms in calling Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot “Richardsonians all.” Yet she does not mention the “anti-Pamelas” that the novel spawned, of which Shamela and Fanny Hill are still remembered. Moreover, she conveniently forgets the avalanche of prurient novels, slick magazine fiction, and movies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which a heroine is pursued by a lusting male who in turn is caught in marriage by the triumphant female; these are also the offspring of the Richardsonian novel, closer really to the original parent than anything written by Austen, the Brontës, or George Eliot. Ms. Moers’s final recommendation that “the generation of readers now…reviving beards, handicrafts, feminism, and other Victorian fancies” now take up the priggish Grandison, if meant seriously, only affirms Eaves’s and Kimpel’s good judgment that “most of his work is unreadable,” like a good many Victorian fancies.
Arthur J. Weitzman
Ellen Moers replies:
I plead guilty to the accusation in Mr. Weitzman’s letter, and in other mail I have received, that I am trying to encourage people to read more than one Richardson novel. Let me make my confession complete and say that I’m in favor of a wide reading in the works of Fielding, Smollett, Defoe—and have nothing against a visit to The Castle of Otranto. These letters remind me that eighteenth-century attitudes toward society, sexuality, and morality have become regrettably inaccessible.
For example, the phrase Mr. Weitzman culls from teenage memories is mellifluous but inapposite, for it applies only to sexual relationships among equals, hardly the situation of Pamela and Mr. B. Of course Pamela manipulates her sexuality to thwart the predatory intentions of her master, and to advance her social position from zero to the top. Perhaps it is regrettable that, because she was female, she did not have all the opportunities open to, say, Robinson Crusoe, who ventured on the slave trade. But readers of my piece know that what interests me most in the novel is Richardson’s brilliantly worked out suggestion that writing skills, as well as sexual schemes, are available to women of spirit. (Had the editors of The New York Review indulged my weakness for a pun, the piece would have been called “Write On!”)
It may be true that Clarissa is read for “the compelling story,” but surely only in one of the available abridgments (whereas Pamela is just short enough to be widely read as a whole); and I wonder whether Mr. Weitzman has finished even an abridged version. Clarissa’s grim end is the result of her being deflowered, not of her purity; and both she and Lovelace are too well off, alas, to bother about worldly advantage. Fielding did not teach Richardson that “sexual purity and worldly advantage are inconsistent.” Richardson firmly believed the contrary—and Fielding? May I remind Mr. Weitzman that the tragic denouement of Fielding’s life was his unhappy second marriage to a maid in his household whom he had got with child and married to appease a conscience more insistent and a heart more tender than Richardson’s.
I did not invent but only partially summarized the vast claims made for Richardson’s influence from Samuel Johnson to—Arthur J. Weitzman. (Incidentally, Fanny Hill, which immediately followed Clarissa, I like to think of as John Cleland’s attempt to correct Richardson’s appallingly naïve account of life in a brothel in his second novel, a naïveté which Eaves and Kimpel show to be the result of honest ignorance.) But he misses my point about Richardson’s importance: his establishment of the Anglo-American love story as one between a poor girl and a rich man, and his examination of it from the woman’s point of view. That is why Pamela is a tale told to little Jane Eyre by servants in the nursery, and why George Eliot prompts more than one female observer of Gwendolen Harleth’s progress to rejoice that “real life was as interesting as ‘Sir Charles Grandison.’ ”
Grandison priggish, indeed! Mr. Weitzman must have read a version cut to include only the male characters and none of the women. But one of the latter, Harriet Byron, must conclude this note: “What can a woman do, who is addressed by a man of talents inferior to her own? Must she throw away her talents? Must she hide her light under a bushel, purely to do credit to the man? It is said, Women must not encourage Fops and Fools. They must encourage Men of Sense only. And it is well said. But what will they do, if the Men of Sense do not offer themselves? The men, in short, are sunk, my dear; and the women but barely swim.”
April 20, 1972