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Richardson's Pamela as management treatise

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Friday, Jul 13, 2007

Don’t ask me why, but I was daydreaming today about what it would take for there to be a resurgence of popular interest in 18th century novelist Samuel Richardson and concluded that he would need to be repackaged as a business author. No one was more insistently didactic (and patronizingly pedantic) than Richardson, and this was once a strong source of his appeal, when he was the most popular author writing in English, for about 30 years, from 1740 to 1770. Today, we eschew didacticism in novels but embrace it, no matter how simplistic the advice is, in business and management manuals, which are genially simplistic and generally moronic. And it seems like you have a fair chance of success if you take some historical artifact—the Art of War, the travel diary of Shackleton, etc.—and proclaim you’ve derived all these ingenious truths about how things work from it. Maybe this strategy could work with Pamela, Richardson’s first novel, which, after all, is all about employer-employee relations, about workplace politics, and human-resources dilemmas. Though the novel originally evolved out of Richardson’s money-making scheme to supply a stock of pre-written letters for the newly literate (Familiar Letters for Domestic Occasions), and became quite explicitly a conduct manual for women of the emerging middle class, nevertheless, when viewed from the proper perspective, it can be understood as the story of how you make a disgruntled, frightened employee into a docile, complacent one, especially if you include the sequel, which only graduate students and other boredom junkies bother to read these days.


The story’s told in letters and a diary written by Pamela—which her boss, Mr. B, naturally reads—so the derived business bestseller could be billed as “What your employees really think of you—and how to turn it to your advantage.” The story includes another employee, “odious” Mrs. Jewkes, who serves as a useful point of comparison for highlighting important differences among workers. Jewkes dutifully follows orders but with perhaps too much relish, and she secures the contempt of her fellow worker, Pamela, who describes her as “a broad, squat, pursy fat Thing, quite ugly, if any thing God made can be ugly” and notes that she “glories in her Wicked Fidelity.” Management tip: set boundaries around your instructions, so that workers don’t become overeager. Ideally, you’ll make your orders seem like your workers’ idea, just as Pamela does when, after some harassment, comes to see her compliance to Mr. B as her own intention.


The novel puts a lot of stock in the value of Pamela’s virtue, which is conceived as being sexual in nature. But her virtue, her innocence, her inner purity—perhaps these could be understood as that essential labor value that Mr. B the manager must seek to extract and employ economically (as he eventually will in Pamela 2 by which time Pamela has become a fearsomely efficient domestic worker). Pamela would have us believe that God protects her in all the attempts on that innocence she is born with, but does God make it so precious? Her parents put a lot of stock in it, enough to enjoy seeing Pamela put to the test (“What blessed things are Trials and Temptations to us, when they be overcome?”). It may be we are being invited to see that virtue as the only kind of dowry the Andrewes are able to give their daughter, and while they don’t want it squandered, they certainly don’t mind seeing its value go up through those trials and temptations. So is that virtue so valuable because it replaces money for a poor family? That doesn’t seem to go far enough to explain Pamela’s satisfaction in it, though it seems to explain the parents’ attitude: “Let none ever think Children a Burden to them; when the poorest circumstances can produce so much riches in a Pamela! Persist my dear Daughter in the same excellent course, and we shall not envy the highest estate, but defy them to produce such a daughter as ours.”


The value of Pamela’s virtue to Pamela is that it organizes her experience, gives coherence to it to make it able to be narrated. It puts her to that particular kind of intellectual work, begins her transformation from blue to white collar worker. It’s what makes her management material. The more she writes, the more sturdy her virtue seems, the more it seems to be proven. She seems like an ideal candidate to keep the minutes at meetings or compose memorandum after memorandum.


And how to spin Mr. B’s lechery into management lessons? It’s not much of a stretch to argue that Pamela’s virtuous posture is only acceptable in light of her elaborate expositions of Mr. B.‘s transgressions. Mr B is half-right to fling this accusation at Pamela (as he does frequently), and that he gives her a story to tell is most of why she eventually falls in love with him (in spite of his many attempts to rape her). Mr. B’s attention turns a “helpless and even worthless young Body” into a soul, she notes, with an identity and a center that coheres. It might be going too far to claim that her innocence has its origin in his delinquency; but he is probably as much the source of it as her parents and God, the other two things Pamela loves so much. Pamela loves them because they make her aware of her innocence, which makes her aware of herself as a separate self, an individual whose “soul is of equal importance with the Soul of the Princess.” But this is the paradox that makes this book so interesting: Pamela becomes a worthy soul, an individual soul by becoming an “equal” soul, a soul that is quantitatively the same as someone else’s. If souls are virtue and virtue is equal only to its reward, than this paradox is impossible to surmount, you become a somebody by being somebody else. You become Pamela by becoming Mrs. B. You become a complete individual by being a better cog in the machine, by disappearing into the role assigned you. The book immerses in the subjective perceptions of what it is like to be an object, what it is like to finally accept yourself as an object, a pawn of God’s Providence. Pamela finally writes herself, over the course of pages and pages, into nothing; she writes to foster her resistance to Mr. B, and those writings then eliminate what had to be resisted; her written words are given credit for reforming Mr. B, though this is a pretty dubious reformation. It’s Pamela who changes in writing. If we make the claim that her identity appears in her writing, then it is an identity that seeks to annihilate itself. Providence, if it operates, leaves no place for individual identity, any more than a well-run company does—it needs interchangable parts.


Like any worker, Pamela needs to feel valued and rewarded, yet she can’t have too much of a sense of her own agency. Richardson solves this problem by having Providence and that proxy for it, God-given beauty, weigh heavily in her destiny. With beauty comes responsibility, Mr. B points out, through words and deeds—responsibility for his lechery and his reform. Beauty, Mr. B seems to think, generates certain responsibilities in its possessor to be compliant. This seems to be the source of what Mr. B terms her hypocrisy. Her beauty leaves Mr. B “bewitched,” and having created this in him, she must be able to remedy it, or accept the consequences of it, or else she becomes a hypocrite. (In Pamela’s eyes it works like this, though: her beauty is what allows her to have any kind of pride, and that pride is then used to disavow the importance of her beauty, that she is more than that.) The management lesson? Use your employees abilities against them; make them believe that they owe it to themselves to let you exploit their capabilities to the maximum.


This is drifting off topic a bit, but there’s a famous scene in the novel when Mr. B catches Pamela in her peasant clothes and finds himself “inflamed.” What she thought would be a more fitting a natural way to present herself is taken by Mr. B as a scheme—he denies her the ability to achieve naturalness, to feel authentic in herself. The scene is interesting because it conflates disguises, identity and beauty all together. Mr. B sees her and pretends to think she is someone else to allow himself some liberties with her. Pamela protests her identity: “I am Pamela, indeed I am: Indeed I am Pamela, her own self!” The clothes she wears threaten to steal her identity from her; she is in danger in becoming merely what she appears, with no consistent core or center. The disguise one appears in dictates how one is to be treated, or how one is to be treated. Pamela, in trying to dress in a way she feels is appropriate to her station suddenly becomes less herself to Mr. B. She tries to explain to him about how she had been in disguise, and that she is now more herself, but he end result is to give us a sense that all is a shift of disguises with shifting perspectives. Implied is that Pamela’s beauty somehow disguises her true nature, as it invites assaults upon itself that she doesn’t wish, while at the same time, those assaults are necessary to establish that virtue. Perhaps that is why only the beautiful can be truly virtuous. Beauty becomes the necessary prerequisite for proving virtue. Her beauty becomes the costume or disguise which paradoxically provides her with a sense of herself, even while she feels the stability of that sense slipping out of her control. She wants to look like who she is, but who she looks like, the effects of her look are not hers to determine. Anyway, Pamela feels that her identity, as she has pictured it, has been stolen from her in some way, reduced to a disguise, but Mr. B tells her that she has “robb’d” him—stolen from him his peace of mind, I suppose, and his wish to see her in the way he wants. Mrs. Jervis tells her that “you owe some of the danger to the lovely Appearance you made.” Pamela claims she “expected no Effect from them, but if any, a quite contrary one.” This is quite a typical claim of Pamela’s. First she disavows any agency or intent—what she does is for herself, but then she confesses the truth, that she wanted to affect Mr. B with her humility.


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