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Virtue Rewarded?: Pamela’s Appetite-Driven Progression in Richardson’s Epistolary Novel

Issue 3

Christina Boyle | May 7, 2018

Although appetites for food and sex are rather different, they are both yearnings of the body, and are both desires which Pamela experiences in Richardson’s 1740 novel of the same name. Pamela, although naive, is rather admirable at the start of the novel. She is a virtuous young woman who denies any advances from Mr. B, and is so innocent that she does not at first even recognize them as such. She must have extraordinary endurance to continue in a situation that repeatedly tests her resilience. In this way, she is a paragon of strength. She does not simply and thoughtlessly submit to the will of a person who has two advantages over her: his sex and social rank. However, this initial classification of Pamela as a strong-willed woman changes. There is a shift in Pamela’s original morality. Although she is virginal, a dimension of her personality causes her to enjoy opportunities in which she can triumph.

Her moral transformation is traceable through the evolution of her appetite. There is a sexual hunger or, at the very least, a sexual curiosity that arises within the heroine. Since Richardson provides proof that Pamela consummates her marriage with Mr. B, there must be a change in her view of sexuality. She submits to the act that Mr. B pursued all along. Although it is lawful and legitimate and no longer a violation of her virtue, it is still the end of her virginity, a concept which has defined her throughout the entire novel. I argue that her changing appetite for food marks this increasing sexual interest. As she gradually begins to crave physical intimacy with Mr. B, readers witness her commensurate appetite for food; this serves to highlight her growing hunger.

Pamela is constantly overcome with emotions, whether they are devastating or euphoric. Although this is broadly traceable by the altering treatments of various characters, Pamela’s thoughts may be noted in even more detail through her changing appetite. Richardson pays great attention to Pamela’s diet, and she is often either lacking an appetite or is oppositely fearing that she will not be provided with enough nourishment to satiate her. Pamela’s distress over either hunger or malnourishment reflects her misery while Mr. B. preys upon her. When she sets out to leave for Lincolnshire, believing that she is returning to her parents, Pamela shares her food with the coachman. As she realizes, “I had Cause for greater and deeper Grief”, her hunger decreases (102). She gives away “some Cake, and two Glasses of Canary Wine” (102). As her dismay rises, her appetite diminishes, and she gives away her food as a way to experience vicarious nourishment. She refuses to give into her own hunger. If she cannot satisfy her own appetite, she can at least see that the coachman satisfies his. To allow herself to feel hungry is to admit her other physical appetite for sex. Her “Grief” cited above is the realization that she is hungry, and for more than food. This can be seen on the previous page, when she silently exclaims: “O, preserve me, Heaven, from his Power, and from his Wickedness!” (101). At this moment, Pamela believes she is being sent home. There is no reason for her to pray to be free of his power and wickedness, since, to her knowledge, she is already liberated. This can therefore be read as a plea for strength to resist the temptation of his wickedness, which is ultimately his sexual invitation. She also expresses sorrow as she readies to leave Mr. B: “…he bow’d his Head to me, which made me then very glad he would take such Notice of me; and in I stept, and was ready to burst with Grief” (102). This dejection reflects her growing love for B. She is not elated as she leaves, but rather feels grief and prays for strength to avoid temptation. She does not explicitly outline this conflict of emotion in the letter to her parents, since she is not yet ready to recognize her growing appetite for Mr. B. To accept that she craves flesh is unacceptable to her at this time, since it would endanger the virtue she has suffered to preserve.

In Peter Sabor’s article, “Feasting and Fasting: Nourishment in Pamela”, he cites this same scene in the novel, arguing that she is more concerned for the coachman’s well-being than her own (147). Pamela’s gift of nourishment to the seemingly weary coachman is a method of coping with her own anxiety. As Pamela is unable to enjoy the food herself due to her worry over her increasing hungers, she provides nourishment for another, hoping that she will rid herself of such shameful emotions.

Pamela does not give into her own hunger, but she will allow herself to partake if someone else urges her. She can evade guilt if she does not give into her appetite on her own, but is coerced or forced by another. Sabor recognizes this as well: “Pamela...can enjoy her food only when she is eating it at someone else’s behest, or when consumption is a form of social decorum” (147). This aligns with Pamela’s budding sexuality. Like any woman of her time, she could not initiate any romantic relationship, since this would suggest desire. Similarly, she cannot appear hungry at any time, since it can be easily construed as a form of lust, and therefore as vice. Just as she is apparently free of any sexual desire, she is also free of any yearning for the pleasures of food. This interpretation is consistent with that of Sabor (147). This happens more than once, with both Mrs. Jewkes and Mr. B encouraging her to eat. Even when she has feasted already on “a whole Breast of a Chicken”, she continues to eat when she is told to do so: “[Mr. B] put a Wing upon my Plate, let me see you eat that...he said I must eat it for his sake, and he would learn me to eat heartily: So I did eat it...Mrs. Jewkes...[urged] me to take a little Bit of Tart” (Richardson 212). By being subservient to Mr. B even with her eating habits, Pamela is fulfilling her submissive role. She is often told to consume some form of nourishment, and she acquiesces hesitantly, allowing her persuader time to convince her to partake.

The same passage above also demonstrates how Pamela’s appetite functions as a metaphor for her repressed sexual desires and curiosity. After she dines with Mr. B and Mrs. Jewkes, Pamela says: “If I can but keep myself virtuous, ‘tis the utmost of my Ambition; and, I hope, no Temptation shall make me otherwise” (212). Pamela insinuates that she is tempted to surrender her virtue. At this point in the novel, her feelings for Mr. B have already been revealed in her letters, and the assumption may be made that she increasingly hopes to give her beloved what he desires in order to both please him and to gratify herself. His tender affections have been tempting her, and she begins to doubt her ability to continue to guard her virtue. In this dinner scene, she consumes an unusually large portion. Thus she satisfies one appetite since she cannot fulfill the other: her budding sexual desire.

The development of Pamela’s sexual appetite, of course, does not happen over the course of a few pages. This lengthy process develops as she becomes increasingly enamored with her captor. In “P/B: Pamela as Sexual Fiction,” Terry Castle describes Pamela as “persecuted and aroused” (469). Castle claims that Pamela’s sexual transformation is actually reliant on her interaction with the nature of gender: “This plot has to do with the discovery of the ‘nature’ of male and female, and with the response of the self to this disclosure” (472). This reading credits Pamela’s understanding of the world as the source of her sexual progress, rather than her physical and emotional responses to Mr. B. Although this argument is compelling, it seems to suggest that Pamela’s appetite is not a result of her own gradual acceptance of sexual curiosity. I argue that Pamela’s sexuality starts as a small bud that begins to bloom as she realizes her love for Mr. B, and which reaches full maturation once she marries him and consummates their relationship. It is therefore a product of her emotional attachment to Mr. B, as well as the desire he stirs in her. Pamela’s changing appetite maps this sexual self-repression and progression. Once she is engaged to Mr. B, there are two instances when she has difficulty eating but is coaxed into feasting. The night before her wedding, Pamela is expected to dine with her future husband, but tries desperately to be exempt from this communion:

I begg’d to be excus’d Supper, but he brought me down himself from his Closet...I could not eat, and yet I try’d, for fear he should be angry. He kindly forbore to hint any thing of the dreadful, yet delightful to-morrow! and put, now-and-then, a little Bit on my Plate, and guided it to my Mouth...Well, said he, if you won’t eat with me, drink at least, with me: I drank two Glasses by his Over-persuasions, and said, I’m really asham’d of myself. (333)

In this instance, Pamela is “asham’d” of the desire she has begun to feel for Mr. B. She is excited to be married, yet is filled with confounding emotions. Such confusion is manifested in her tentative appetite. She cannot eat food, yet she can drink at the urging of her master. The drinking without eating is also a symbol of the lowering of her inhibitions. She becomes inebriated by drinking more than she would by her own inclinations.

The intoxication mirrors Mr. B’s attempts to seduce Pamela—efforts which are increasingly closer to being successful as their wedding approaches. I suggest that this drinking is Pamela’s invitation to Mr. B to be her husband and lover. Now, she allows this same man to lead her into emotional vulnerability. She is unable to consume the food that will nourish her and allow her to think clearly, but she instead chooses to listen to Mr. B and drink the wine that will darken her thoughts and welcome lustfulness. Pamela, armed by the wine, then delights in the affections of her fiancé: “[he] put his kind Arms about me, and said the most generous and affecting Things that ever dropt from the Honey-flowing Mouth of Love!” (Richardson 333). This utter admiration for Mr. B indeed reflects her new love for him, but also is overly romanticized due to her alcohol intake. A sober Pamela compliments her beloved. A drunk Pamela showers him with unconditional love, using words that are completely devoid of any of the fear with which she previously regarded him. She has been lured into Mr. B’s “kind Arms” with his carefully timed sweet words and tender actions. By pressuring her to drink, Mr. B remains the lecherous villain, seeking to fuel Pamela’s desire rather than to help nourish her body.

The other moment when Pamela’s appetite is rather telling is on the day of her wedding. She eats “a bit of Apple-pie, and a little Custard, but [has] no Appetite to any thing else” (349). This lack of an appetite, which is typical for her, is due in part to sexual anxiety. Pamela is frightened by the thought of finally surrendering her virginity, since it has defined her character until this day. Mr. B notices this: “I will indulge my dear Girl’s bashful Weakness so far, as to own that so pure a Mind may suffer from Apprehension, on so important a Change as this” (351). Without her virginity, she will no longer be defined solely by her virtuousness, causing her to panic over this impending “Change”- a transformation of her identity. This does not escape her thoughts, yet her difficulty eating can also be read as symptomatic of typical wedding-night anticipation. Aware that she will be soon begin conjugal acts with Mr. B, she is naturally nervous. Since Mr. B has desired her for so long, there is a chance that their first sexual encounter may not live up to his high expectations. Pamela, as any unmarried woman should be according to the contemporary social norms for eighteenth-century women, is completely inexperienced. She has seen the fiery temperament of her beloved; she wants to please him and retain his devotion. She also is apprehensive about their physical union since she has become increasingly attracted to Mr. B. She has grown to love him, and since it is a romantic love, it also includes physical attraction. She cannot eat much on her wedding day, as is clear above, because her thoughts remain solely on the impending consummation.

Her difficulty is again highlighted when Mr. B toasts to her parents: “I could hardly taste…he made me drink two Glasses of Champaign, and afterwards a Glass of Sack; which he kindly forced upon me, by naming your Healths: And as the Time of retiring drew on, he took notice…how my Colour went and came; and how foolishly I trembled” (352). She can “hardly taste,” because she is so concerned with the coming intimacy. She does not choose to drink, but is “made” to, and blushes while she does, perhaps because she shyly looks forward to the consummation. She does not refuse the drink, but once more allows herself to be persuaded to consume, and blushes as she does so. She reddens while she drinks, since it mirrors the approaching satiation of her sexual appetite. Of course, she could never explicitly admit that she is excited about such a matter, especially to her parents. However, her appetite portrays her emotions without any need for her to candidly express them in words.

Samuel Richardson did not intentionally create Pamela as a sexually developing woman. Contrarily, his entire design was to praise a realistic woman who had remained virtuous and to encourage all other women to follow her example. Pamela was intended to be a conduct book, a common genre of literature in the eighteenth century devised to instruct the young population on morality and acceptable behavior (“Conduct Books”). In Richardson’s letter to Aaron Hill written in 1741, Richardson explains his inspiration. The real-life unnamed model for Pamela “had been taken at twelve years of age for the sweetness of her manners and modesty...her parents, ruined by suretiships, were remarkably honest and pious, and had instilled into their daughter’s mind the best principles” (Carroll 39). Richardson chooses to depict an angelic female figure. This young woman valued her virtue, and was so admired for her dignity and innocence that rather than continue to pursue an illegitimate relationship with her, her master chose to marry her. Richardson was so impressed by the young maid’s ability to positively influence her master, leading him away from sinful pursuit and into a loving marriage with a truly virtuous woman, that he decided to write Pamela to set an example for young women (Carroll 39-42). Although this was his original intention, Richardson clearly allows Pamela to develop as a sexually budding woman throughout the course of the novel. She certainly begins as a complete innocent, but readers can clearly see the marked progression of her sexual appetite and view its reflection in her appetite for food.

Despite Richardson’s intention to create a pure character in Pamela, she can easily be read as a woman discovering her own sexuality. Pamela is somewhat confused about her own social identity. She is aware that she is below Mr. B’s station, which is one of the main reasons she resists his advances for so long. As Christopher Flint deduces, since Pamela’s mistress has favored her and provided her with clothes and gifts far above what is fitting for her position, she feels more accustomed to high society than she does to her current station (489-92). Her parents, however modest, previously were much wealthier than they are now, having lost their fortune. Pamela certainly spent more of her life surrounded by fineries than she has as a common maid. Despite all of her claims of unworthiness, this indicates that she feels comfortable among those of a higher station, such as Mr. B. Her parents instilled a true devotion to virtue in her, which is the more probable reason why she clings to it so tightly. Women of any class would need to maintain their virtue in order to find a suitable husband and to avoid being a fallen woman like poor Sally Godfrey. When the Andrews family lost their high social stature, virtue became the one major source of dignity and desirability that Pamela could maintain. Her parents therefore urged her to guard that virtue, even encouraging her to surrender to death before losing her virginity.

Pamela does safeguard her virginity until it is socially acceptable to relinquish it to her husband, but not without experiencing a growing sexual desire that develops along with her love for Mr. B. The more that this sexual appetite grows, the more her hunger for food and drink also increases. The two appetites are unbreakably linked, and they mirror one another. She is first barely able to consume food, as she righteously rejects a sexual relationship with Mr. B, but slowly her palate evolves and leads her to become hungrier. In the meal scenes when Pamela grapples with her budding sexuality, Richardson pays close attention to her appetite for food and to her difficulty in allowing herself to eat without reluctance. On the morning after their wedding, her and her new husband partake in a meal. However, there is no longer any shame or conflict that is demonstrated by Pamela’s appetite. Instead, she only mentions the meal by stating, “At Breakfast” (Richardson, 353). The two appetites are now acceptable, normal, satisfied.

Works Cited

Carroll, John, Ed. Samuel Richardson. "To Aaron Hill." Letter. 1741. Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson. London: Clarendon, 1964. 39-42.

Castle, Terry J. "P/B: Pamela as Sexual Fiction." Studies in English Literature 2.3 (1982): 469-89. JSTOR.

“Conduct Books”. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, edited by Ian Ousby, 2 nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2000. Credo Reference.

Flint, Christopher. "The Anxiety of Affluence: Family and Class (Dis)order in Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded." Studies in English Literature 29.3 (1989): 489-514. JSTOR.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Sabor, Peter. "Feasting and Fasting: Nourishment in the Novels of Samuel Richardson." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 14.2 (2002): 141-58. JSTOR.