Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Shamela" by Henry Fielding

Shamela (1741) is Henry Fielding's biting and hilarious response to Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson.   Fielding, most famous as the author of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews published this work under the name Conny Keyber and in fact never acknowledged authorship but it was from the start known to be his work.  

Pamela, told in epistolary fashion, is the story of a young country maid whose master continually makes many improper advances on her.   We see her attempts to ward of his advances and her virtue is eventually rewarded by her  marriage to her master. We also see her  transformation to an upper class wife.  Throughout the work Pamela is seen as a complete innocent, utterly naive in the ways of the world.

Pamela  was   extolled as an account of how virtuous young ladies should deport themselves.    It has been widely condemned by some as suggesting the women are simply commodities who lose their value when they lose their virginity.   The master is clearly a near rapist exploiting his position of power to abuse Pamela.   Other than his money, he seems a completely despicable person.

In Shamela (44 pages) we learn from the letters Shamela writes her mother that this was not quite how things were.   Shamela (that is revealed to be the real  name of Pamela) completely plans it all out.   She wears clothing designed to flatter her figure.    She allows the master to kiss her breasts while she fends him off by so inadvertently pushing him away with her hands in a way calculated to inflame him  even more.   Of course a simple country girl like Shamela is deeply humialated by all this and it is not her fault if her hands went astray during the encounter.  After all a simply country girl like Shamela did not realize  the master might somehow be more inflamed by this accident than reproached by it.

Here is some of the maternal advice that Shamela receives in a letter from her mother

When I advised you not to be guilty of follow, I meant no more than that you should take care to be well paid before hand, and not to trust to Promises, which a man seldom keeps, after he hath had his wicked Will.   And seeing you have a rich fool to deal with, your not making a good market will be the more inexcusable.
Shamela, as her mother pointed out, has already had a romantic encounter with Parson Williams.   Her mother is quite afraid her daughter will follow her example and tie herself to men of no economic value out of romantic attraction, only to be discarded once the bloom of youth is gone.   Shamela is a fast learner.   Her master returns home in a coach and she springs into action

I immediately run up to my Room, and stript, and washed and drest myself as well as I could, and put on my prettiest round ear'd Cap, and pulled down by Stays, to shew as much as I could of my Bosom, (for Parson Williams says that is the most beautiful part of a Woman) and then I practised over all my Airs before the glass.
Her mother advises Shamela not to worry once she gets the Squire to marry her she can indulge herself with Parson Williams or any other man she fancies as long as she is discreet.   One day the Squire comes into Shamela's room.   She pretends to sleep while he climbs into bed with her and takes considerable liberties with her person.  Just in time she awakes and begins to weep that a man she so loves would try to take advantage of her before marriage.   At last the wedding day arrives.   She tells her mother all about it.

Henry Fielding
In my last I left off at our sitting down to Supper on our Wedding Night, where I behaved with as much Bashfulness as the purest Virgin in the world.   The most difficult task for me was to blush.   My Husband was extreamly eager and impatient to have supper removed, after which he gave me leave to retire into my closet for a quater of an hour..I employed the time in writing Parson Williams, who as I formed you in my last, has been released, and presented to the Living with the Death of the last parson
Shamela (her nickname is "Sham"-I guess Fielding wanted to be sure his readers got that this was satire!) then pines for a man just out of prison who seduced her, using his position to his advantage just as he had done many times before.   As married life proceeds Shamela explains how a wife should use the misbehavior of a husband to extract the most guilty gifts from him.

Nothing can be more prudent in a wife, than a sullen Backwardness to Reconciliation;  it makes a husband fearful of offending by the length of his punishment.
As the marriage proceeds we see how Sham is preoccupied with finding ways to be with Pastor Williams.   She presents him to her husband as her spiritual adviser.   We see, Shamela alas does not, that the Parson cares nothing for her other than as a source of gratification (that is really not a big deal for him as it can easily be obtained) and hopes to find away to use her marriage to the squire to extract large donations to the church.  Shamela is both the shammer and the shammed.  

There are letters by several different persons in this work.   Each person has their own style of writing.   The spelling and punctuation were different in 1741 than they are now of course.   Shamela is depicted as an avid reader and has educated herself well above her station.   She is a very smart woman treated without condescension by Fielding.   Her mother has learned some hard lessons and tries to pass them along to her daughter.   Her mother knows Shamela is a fool for a handsome well spoken man like the Parson and tries to guide her daughter without browbeating her over her mistakes.   Clearly the mother has made some mistakes of her own.   The mother does profit from the marriage as was part of her intention all along, of course.   

Shamela is a very funny Novella.   Pamela is often portrayed as an anti-hero by feminist critics.   She is seen as a near fool whose whole purpose in life is to get a wealthy near rapist to marry her.   Her conditioning does not allow herself to enter into any sort of romantic encounter with a man she does not love so her economic needs force her to deceive herself into thinking she is in love.  Once married, it is obvious to every one but Pamela that
 her future husband will abuse her and lose interest in her as she ages.   Now the question becomes if Pamela is the feminine anti-hero is Shamela a hero?   Is Shamela an 18th century woman asserting her rights who has the intelligence to see through the claims of the squire to love her?    Shamela knows what she is doing with her master, Pamela is in bad faith and either does not know what she is doing or more likely has it buried very deep in her consciousness.   (It has been about 15 years since I read Pamela and Clarisa.   There is a great deal of depth and artistry in these works.   Both of them have lot  to tell us about issues related to this challange.   Richardson was not, as he is often portrayed, a literary oppressor of women.  Clarisa is one of the longest novels in history).

Shamela is also a fool for Pastor Williams.   It looks like Shamela will out grow the Pastor as she ages and settles into her role of wife of a squire.   She is into The Reading Life and this has helped he develop her self consciousness and her insight.   My first guess and hope is Shamela will long outlive her husband and will go own to have lots of adventures, use the squires money to buy books and fancy clothes for herself and her mother.   I think maybe Shamela will always have a weakness for an attractive but somewhat wicked young man of the lower gentry but she will learn to have fun with that.   Pamela will end up a widow also but she will not be able to escape the roles society has imposed on her.   Shamela is a woman with a much greater sense of freedom in her life than Pamela and is much more in control of her life than Pamela. 

When I first decided I would include this work in the Women Unbound Challenge I had some serious reservations.   After all it does show a woman whose life revolves around a man and this  is not quite in accord wth the values of the challenge.   But then I thought more, Shamela has to live in her times, she has to use the only assests she has.   She does this well and is in charge of her life more than we might think.   As I predicted, she will out live her squire husband and be a well off woman fully in charge of her own life for many years.   There were very few options for advancement to  a lower class woman in England in 1741.    Shamela in under fifty pages gives us a vivid look at the life of an 18th century woman that we can today relate to, believe in and even like.  

Shamela can be read without reading Pamela first.   You may need to slow down a bit when you read it and the spelling and punctuation seem eratic by our standards.   To me it is a very funny very well written book that any one with a sense of humor and a little patience with the sentence structure of another era will enjoy.   I see it as totally deserving of a place on the Women Unbound Challenge.   We can learn as much from it as we can from the very poltically correct works of the 21th century.  

This is my fourth post for the November Novella Challenge.   I enjoyed participating in the challenge a lot and hope to be back in November 2010.


JoAnn said...

Another excellent review, Mel! Have been curious about Shamela, but always figured I'd need to read Pamela first. Clarissa is actually on my shelf, and each year about this time, I think about doing a 'real time' read. The letters don't start until January, so I have a little more time to decide...

Suko said...

Mel, you're really delving into your reading challenges! Shamela almost sounds like a farce. From the points you make in your review, I, too, think it qualifies for the Women Unbound reading challenge.

Mel u said...

Joann-it took me a long time to read Clarissa-I read several books at once nomrally-I thing it took me 6 months to finish Clarissa-Starting In January for a real time read is a brilliant idea-it really is a marvelous work of art-its extreme length turns away many readers and keeps it from being read in University classses

Suko-yes it is a farce (in the old fashion sense of the word)-the more I think on it the more I am convinced it for sure qualifies for the challenge-and it is also a really fun and funny read-Shamela is a strong intelligent woman (and a reader)-

Aarti said...

I read Shamela before and really enjoyed it. Actually, I think Pamela is only famous now because of Shamela being a classic (possibly the first book mocking another one?). And I agree- a good choice for Women Unbound!

Mel u said...

Aarti-I think anyone who can read all the way through Pamela owes it to themselves to read Shamela

Care said...

Great choice and wonderful review for Women Unbound. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I think there is no enough textual evidence suggesting that Shamela is also shammed by Williams. Her marriage indeed benefits Williams but it doesn't mean that he sees her as a source of gratification. They like each other before her marriage to Mr. B.