Thus for nearly two hundred years Pamela has been all things to all men: an innocent child, a case for the psychiatrist, a noble woman, a Shavian superman, the glory of her sex, a disgrace to womanhood, a saint, a pervert, a martyr, an entirely normal girl. In so far as she is human and normal, she is so because she has many traits and qualities, no one of which adequately represents her without the others. Her daughters, the heroines of later fiction, too often have to get along with one trait apiece—as if the heritage had to be divided among the heiresses. Hence come the type-form heroines who may be more or less safely classified according to the traits they inherit, and we have the Prude, the Weeper, the Fainter, “The Lass With The Delicate Air” , the “fallen” heroine and the poor working girl. One or two others there are who show relationship in collateral branches. Without defining here the exact degree of cousinship we may claim them as members of the family, include them in the sorority, and discuss them all as Pamela’s daughters.
I mentioned while reviewing Munster Abbey that it had been brought to my attention in the first place by a study of the English novel, which held it up as an example of the heights of absurdity reached by the 18th century sentimental novel—and which supported its argument by quoting the marvellous passage in which a character almost drowns because all the other characters are too busy demonstrating their “sensibility” by fainting to help her. I also mentioned that I had forgotten the title of the book in question, but expected, given my predilection for books-on-books, that I would sooner or later encounter it again.
I can now tell you that the book in question, to which I am deeply indebted, is Pamela’s Daughters by Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham. The explanation for this work’s genesis is amusing, though its conclusion is very sad. This impressive work, over 500 pages in length, began life in 1920 as an idea for a magazine article—in fact, as an article for the Women’s Home Companion—on “Fashions in Heroines”. Almost immediately, however, the project got out of hand. Robert Utter, an academic at the University of California, worked at it on and off for the next eight years, at which point he began collaborating with Gwendolyn Needham. The two of them carried on the enterprise for a further eight years, trying to mould their exponentially multiplying and unwieldy material into a coherent volume. Sixteen years after its conception, the manuscript of Pamela’s Daughters was handed to the publisher…and a month later, Robert Utter was killed in a freak accident.
It’s been mentioned before, but—you bite, Reality.
The 1930s was an interesting period in literary scholarship; quite a number of studies published during that time show an admirable willingness to get off the beaten path and to use “lesser” literature as a reflection of the times that produced it. (Sadly, over the three subsequent decades academic research focused upon anything other than a short list of canonical works was sternly discouraged.) Pamela’s Daughters is an excellent example of this variety of study. Unhindered by academic expectation, this examination of the development of the English heroine from the mid-18th century into the 1920s is solid and insightful, yet also freewheeling and good-humoured; though that said, Robert Utter’s 1930s-ish views with respect to “correct” female behaviour do occasionally intrude.
Pamela’s Daughters starts, of course, with Pamela herself, discussing the reception of Richardson’s novel and the widely varying reactions to the fifteen-year-old girl who would become the progenitor-figure of generations of sentimental heroines.
Utter and Needham then briefly outline the changing position of women over the course of the 18th century, during which time, due to increasing industrialisation and its consequent financial and social alterations, women were progressively stripped of their autonomy, rendered entirely financially dependent, and even relieved of their domestic duties—with the leisured woman becoming increasingly a status symbol, a reflection of the success of her husband or father. Financial dependency made marriage the only acceptable way of life for a woman, whose single imperative duty was to free her family of her support by securing a husband. At the same time, autonomy of thought and action were not merely discouraged but prevented by a relentless narrowing of the definition of proper conduct. The literature of the late 18th century illustrates the irreconcilable outcome of these pressures:
The Helpless Female was shaped by the forces that were shaping civilisation. Just as inevitably as selection and environment mould biological characteristics, so the forces we have been tracing moulded the legacy of Pamela to her daughters and granddaughters, the sentimental heroines of the eighteenth century, and the Victorian ones of the nineteenth. Certain physical, mental and moral traits become artificially female, others, more or less antithetical, are male. Delicacy, sensibility, chastity, these three (and the greatest of these is chastity), such are the canonical virtues of Pamela’s daughter for a century and a half after Pamela… Delicacy, physical, mental and moral, becomes so essentially female that it develops into feebleness in all three categories. Mental delicacy points to spelling and punctuation as intellectual achievement and dictates the concealment of any higher powers if they exist. Moral delicacy prevents a girl from receiving money if she has so far transgressed as to earn it. With this powerful equipment of feebleness she must defend her priceless chastity. If the villain tries to violate it, she must not violate her delicacy by slapping his face; if the villain pursues her, she must not show either speed or endurance in her flight. Delicacy holds her helpless; chastity must be defended. It is an unfailing dilemma, good for five volumes of sorrows in the hands of any delicate authoress…
In “The Importance Of Being A Prude”, Utter and Needham devote a chapter to a consideration of “delicacy”, its false twin, “prudery”, and all the shadings of behaviour in between, arguing that many of the behaviours usually summed up under the heading of “Victorianism” were in fact alive and thriving a hundred years earlier. In particular, authors (usually female, but not always) devoted pages to stressing that their heroines had not just delicacy, but true delicacy.
But if this heroine was born in the 18th century, she reached her apotheosis in the 19th:
Of all Pamela’s daughters, the one most moulded by prudery is the god-daughter of Victoria… In the beginning, before her lover comes, she is unawakened, virginal as virginity itself. She is at one and the same time as sexless as a china doll and as feminine as a practised coquette. Her innocence is really abysmal ignorance, but the effect of it is the same as that of the completest sophistication and circumspection. She is perpetually on guard against evils of which she cannot know anything, alertly sensitive to acts, words, implications which could not conceivably have any significance to her; their danger she is supposed to recognise by instinct… There is no evidence that she is anything but a head and a pair of hands attached to a costume… In her ball dress she may show us that her “bosom is faultlessly moulded”, but the rest is silence. We infer that she might nourish children, but know no possibility of her conceiving or bearing them. That she might have any sexual feeling is unthinkable. That even in married life she has any sexual experience is not hinted. It is true that between the last two chapters she has managed to produce three or four fine children, but no-one could guess how she did it…
Intriguingly, though the authors are discussing heroines rather than real women, what the find in the novels they are examining reflects the real-world pressures that we examined in Martha Vicinus’s Suffer And Be Still (rendered most vividly in Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s hair-raising contention that a truly “good” girl was one with the capacity to sense evil without recognising it):
Nothing illustrates this fact better than the history in the novel of the first principle of prudery, that where innocence is ignorance ’tis criminal to be wise, or what you don’t know won’t hurt you. When this was the guiding principle, the best armour for the protection of maiden purity was supposed to be a stout pair of stays and complete ignorance of the nature of chastity and its enemies. Virginity seemed no less of the mind than of the body. Its delicacy was such that if a girl so much as knew she had it, it was tarnished, and if she knew more, it was gone…
In “Liquid Sorrow”, Utter and Needham trace the rise of the cult of “sensibility” in the 18th century, examining its birth and evolution as a counter-force to the cool, emotionless tenets of the Age of Reason in the broader context of the historical significance of emotion in the development of European literature. They point out that tears have held an important place in literature since its very inception, and that for centuries it was male tears that directed the reader’s response; a man crying was a shorthand signifier of extreme circumstances. However, male crying went out of fashion during the pragmatic age that followed the Glorious Revolution. When tears returned as an important literary signifier, it was in an entirely different social context.
The evolution of the sentimental novel is then examined, from the earliest appearances of those definitive counterforces, corrupting civilisation and the untouched natural world populated by noble savages. By the 1740s, sentiment had taken root in the English novel, and the crying hero made a reappearance. For those who like to make a simple, masculine / feminine divide between the novels of Fielding and Richardson, it is pointed out that Fielding’s heroes are some of the most persistent criers of the era. Novels became less about the hero’s adventures, and more about his feelings, with Henry Brooke’s The Fool Of Quality and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It was at this time that the heroine came into her own: with the focus on feelings rather than events, a woman’s heart became sufficient subject matter for an entire novel. New ideas about “nature” also became an important aspect of literature. Eventually these various threads were melded into a new literary form called the Gothic novel.
The sentimental novel is treated fairly here. It is pointed out, for example, that these books were an important vehicle for concepts like sympathy, compassion, and charity, and played a part in instigating reforms in both prison conditions and the treatment of the mentally ill. However, in the long run this variety of novel became exaggerated beyond the point when anything about them could be taken seriously. What in the 1740s was an expression of honest emotion became, by the 1770s, a perverse variety of performance art, with crying, fainting and even dying of grief intended as a measure of an individual’s “sensibility”; while by the 1790s, expressing the appropriate emotion was all but a fulltime occupation.
The authors spend some considerable time gleefully attacking the absurdities of this literary era—and lo! – if the novel most held up for ridicule is not our old friend, Munster Abbey!!
AND—a second masterpiece of sentimentality is also brought to our attention:
In sentimental fiction, tears are by this time a bottomless ocean raging with storms of passion… On it we ship with Charlotte Palmer in Female Stability, 1780, five volumes of unmitigated misery whence comes the pearl of price which adorns the head of this chapter. (“She stopped and wiped her gentle eyes, that swam with liquid sorrow.”) We have met the heroine, Adeline, who exhibits female stability by a ceaseless flow of tears for a dead lover and unwavering refusal of a series of high-voltage suitors. The plot of this thanatopsis is contrived for the sole purpose of turning up tearful situations in rapid succession… [Tears] flow on and on, from page to page, from paroxysm to paroxysm, from volume to volume. At the end Adeline subsides into a middle-aged routine of weeping, a mere daily dozen at the tomb of the lost Augustus, which we may imagine keeps her happy for the rest of her life…
Naturally enough, this chapter on crying is followed by one on fainting (“Cut My Lace, Charmian”), which in turn yields to a consideration of evolving female fashion, and from there to a much more detailed examination of physical fashions—that is, of how woman were depicted in both word-pictures and visually, in novels and in art (“The Lass With The Delicate Air”). The traditional dichotomies are examined – blonde / brunette, Snow White / Rose Red – as are the seemingly limitless examples of stories featuring physically contrasting heroines, who meet contrasting fates apparently pre-determined by nature. Walter Scott, a leading exponent of this trope (Rebecca / Rowena, Rose Bradwardine / Flora MacIvor), is given a thorough airing—as is George Eliot’s passionate cry, courtesy of Maggie Tulliver, in defence of “the dark, unhappy ones”.
(My own observation here is to note the significance of Rebecca being invariably listed first—the only instance I know of in this context, of the brunette being given “billing”.)
A prime example of the kind of unexpected digressions that punctuate Pamela’s Daughters appears in “The Lass With The Delicate Air”, wherein the authors suddenly divert from the their consideration of the female body in art to give a brief history of depilation—offering such factoids as that the so-called “Brazilian” has a much longer history than we might imagine, and that leg-shaving was a consequence of a push-back against stockings, which in turn was linked to a greater emphasis on female exercise, and therefore upon clothing facilitating freedom of movement, and the rise of the “beach culture”. I was mildly disappointed that not much was said about underarm shaving; I often find myself, while watching period dramas, wondering to what degree modern fashions are incorrectly imposed upon the characters.
A consideration of women who never married (“Aunt Tabitha”) segues into one of those novels dealing with women who decided that marriage wasn’t necessary and the consequences (almost invariably disastrous) of that decision (“Some Do”); and from there into an examination of the endless depictions of young women staunchly defending their virtue against wicked men of all descriptions (“Some Don’t”). The shifting view of female virginity over the centuries, from a mere accident of nature not important in itself, to the be-all and end-all of female existence, is examined, as is the changing face of “the woman who did”. It is stressed that during the 18th century, virginity became a commodity to be sold—in marriage as well as in brothels; a woman who “did” on her own account, robbed not herself but her family or her pimp, and that in the crudest financial sense. By the 19th century, however, these bald economic facts had become obscured by a dense mist of sentimentality and pseudo-moral hand-wringing. By the end of the 19th century, although the burgeoning women’s rights movement was making all sorts of previously unthinkable suggestions, for the most part novels remained strictly conservative; it was a rare and brave novelist indeed who suggested that a girl’s loss of virginity might not be the end of the world.
Most novelists went to the other extreme, showing how it was absolutely the end of the world, or near enough. The 19th century’s prevailing view on the issue is illustrated via reference to its very first work on the subject: Amelia Opie’s Father And Daughter, published in 1800, which features in its opening paragraph the primal scene of the erring daughter, illegitimate baby in arms, fighting her way through a storm back to the parental home from which she was seduced:
If this is, as it seems to be, the first appearance of this famous necessary scene, Mrs Opie deserves a monument from the writers of melodrama of the nineteenth century. We who were brought up on it scarcely need, as Mrs Opie’s readers perhaps did, to read the next seventy pages in order to learn that “Agnes Fitzhenry was the only child of a respectable merchant in a country town…” and so on to page seventy where we read, “But to return to Agnes, who, when she beheld in her insane companion her injured father, the victim probably of her guilt, let fall her sleeping child, and, sinking on the ground, extended her arms towards Fitzhenry, articulating in a faint voice, “O God! My father!” then prostrating herself at his feet, she clasped his knees in an agony too great for utterance.” This tale is worth citing because it is true melodrama growing directly out of Puritan moralising… It is melodrama because the author is bold enough to impose a major catastrophe on her heroine, but not brave enough to enforce the full penalty. It shows the weakening of tragedy by sentimentality…
Conversely, girls defending their virginity until marriage remained a perennially popular novel-plot, and by the end of the century they were even defending it actively, and not passively through sheer ignorance. In fact, this plot became more popular as options for women opened up and they began to venture out into the world on their own account, into colleges and into the workforce. Very little had changed is essence, however: merely, marauding rakes had been replaced by marauding employers.
The highlight of this section of Pamela’s Daughters is its examination of “working girl” fiction. The heroines of these novels, Utter and Needham contend, were in truth “Pamela’s daughters”, since just like Pamela herself they were virtuous working girls clinging to a moral code in a world full of dangers and temptations. In most (again like Pamela), it was economic necessity rather than choice than launched the heroine into the world, and by the end of the novel she was relieved and happy to surrender all ideas of autonomy and make a conventional marriage. And most like Pamela of all, many of these heroines were truly working-class, not the “distressed gentlewomen” who populated the progenitor of this form of literature, the “governess novel”. In this branch of popular fiction, “mill girls” and “shop girls” abound; “office girls” came a little later. George Gissing’s Thyrza is the most serious and literary example of this sort of fiction, though the sub-genre is better represented by Geraldine Fleming’s Only A Working Girl. The danger of physical attractiveness in a working girl is a recurrent, even obsessive, theme:
Pamela’s father and mother feared lest Pamela’s beauty should lead to her downfall. So in the nineteenth century it is less often the heroine herself who thinks of beauty as a curse than her family and friends. The sister of “the little beauty of the Passaic Cotton Mills”, Hazel Easterbrook, had “one earnest prayer to Heaven”; it was that “little Gay’s rare beauty would not prove a curse to her, for no man ever looked twice at that saucy, roguish, irresistible face whose heart was not conquered by it She was only sixteen, yet she could count admirers by the score.” Only by the score? There must have been hundreds, then, who looked but once. The mother and sister of Elsie Brandon “prayed fervently that her beauty would not be a curse to her”. The idea is explicit in the title of The Curse Of Beauty; or, The Cloakmaker’s Model.
As early as the late 19th century there were books in which the heroine was allowed to enjoy her work, and even to display a degree of ambition. However, in most cases this ambition fulfilled itself via marriage to the boss. Alternatively, the working-class heroine improves herself through her aspirations to be “a lady”; although sometimes her efforts in this respect also pave the way for a rapid rise up the social ladder via marriage. In light of all this, a special mention should be given to The Typewriter Girl by Grant Allen (the progressive, not to say radical, author of the scandalous – and hugely popular – The Woman Who Did), which concludes with its Girton Girl heroine stepping out of a love triangle (involving, yup, her boss) and devoting herself to her career instead: she does so partly because her romantic rival, in stark contrast to her intelligent, competent self, is traditionally “feminine” to the point of being completely helpless. It is wryly noted that Juliet, Allen’s heroine, is a brunette, her romantic rival a blonde:
The authors of these novels think that their readers prefer blondes. A check of many working-girl novels of the nineteenth century indicates that in every hundred heroines we have eighty blondes, ten brunes, and ten red-heads. The authors have little skill [and] for the most part their heroines appear only through raptures and ravings… In general, too, these authors follow the age-old tradition of behaviour patterns, at least to the extent that the brunettes take a more active part in the action of the tale…
Though Pamela’s Daughters has by now wended its way well into the 20th century, at this point its authors step back to take a look at the changing face of the heroine across the 19th century (“New Girls For Old”). On the whole the trend is positive: “the lass with the delicate air” with her crying and fainting begins to give way to a more grounded type of girl; physical fragility is no longer so prized; and though there is still plenty of sentimentality around, displays of strong emotion are now indicative of a lack of well-bred self-control, and frowned upon accordingly. But alas, few novelists are capable of giving the reader a thoroughly nice, thoroughly believable heroine. We are not exactly surprised when Utter and Needham jump back across the century for a visit with Jane Austen:
It is this refusal of Jane Austen to go to extremes in either direction that brings her to her supreme achievement. The best of heroines before her time, Clarissa Harlowe, Sophia Western, Emilia Gauntlet, are fine upstanding girls of whom any age might be proud, but their main attraction is that of their sex; they are men’s women, created to express the charm that women have for men. They do not exhibit what Jane Austen seems to give us for the first time, the best of womanhood, as endearing to women as to men, shining through any and all colours of fashion and undimmed by the changes of time… Meredith shows this figure at its best. Dickens was not up to it. Scott and Thackeray show it, but not until Jane Austen had shown it to them. Trollope has it more often than any other.
Heroines, like the young women who inspired them, became more active over the 19th century—and here the chapter diverts into a consideration of the changing silhouette, in a discussion of the battles waged progressively over stays, corsets, and eventually bloomers and bathing-suits. From this distance it can be hard to grasp just how deadly seriously these matters were taken, and the degree of outrage that attempts to popularise women’s clothes that allowed for greater freedom of movement provoked: the battle raged both in the streets themselves, and even more so in the letters pages of the daily newspapers. Ludicrous as this fashion war now seems, make no mistake: the battle over women’s clothing was a hugely important aspect of female emancipation. In fact, as the authors point out, underwear in novels becomes a marker of passing time:
In the novel we see in retrospect a girl’s graduation from waists to girdles in Ruth Suckow’s Odyssey Of A Nice Girl, 1926, and in Una Hunt’s Young In The Nineties, 1927, though in the novels of the nineties underclothes were kept out of sight. In these books also we see the reaction toward lighter clothing on the part of women who were forced as girls to wear prickly flannels and starched drawers, heavy waterproofs and winter coats, rubbers and galoshes…
By now, we are well into the 20th century. Victoria is long gone, and so is much of what she represented (justly or otherwise). The final chapter of Pamela’s Daughters, “Victoria, Where Is Thy Victory?”, considers how novelists dealt with rapid shifts in social mores and the dreaded topic of S-E-X. I may say that I was quite startled to learn that during the 1920s there was a significant sub-genre of novels dealing bluntly with, ahem, “girls who did”; although we should note that these books were more common in the US than in Britain. Shedding both their corsets and the expectation of ignorance, the heroines of these novels were only too eager to experiment with sexual experience – and perhaps most surprisingly of all, this experimentation does not always end in death or even in pregnancy. Quite often, having found out what she wanted to know, and learned to give sex its proper weight, the heroine settles down with an equally advanced young man, who is sometimes her erstwhile lover, sometimes not, but who either way considers her neither “sinful” nor “damaged”.
It is, by the way, quite clear from the tone of Pamela’s Daughters at this point that Robert Utter (if not necessarily Gwendolyn Needham) did not entirely approve of this particular turn in the history of heroines—and of real girls—though the role of WWI in bringing about this drastic shift is given fair weight. Another swing of the pendulum was in progress, however, by the time Utter and Needham drew a line under their history of heroines; and they close with some reflections upon what they consider this particular era’s exemplar novel, Nalbro Bartley’s The Premeditated Virgin, and by comparing Bartley’s Mary Ann Plowden with her great-great-great-grandmother, Pamela:
Pamela and Mary Ann Plowden are both premeditated virgins, but they wear their premeditation with a difference, and we may gauge the difference as a measure of progress. Pamela’s choice was a narrow one; she was held pretty helpless by the society of her time. In her game against fate her scope is restricted, her moves are sharply limited. She wins not only because she moves shrewdly but because luck is with her. Hers is a sort of poker game in which all the skill and intelligence she can bring to bear are, when the game is legitimately played, subordinate to luck. Mary Ann Plowden plays a different game, one in which skill, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, may have much more scope… Mary Ann does not lean on authority, on social order, or on God. She does not seek a verdict from society. She does not pray, or “invoke the protection of Heaven” for herself or her virginity. For any protection that she must have she invokes her own brain and summons her own powers. She “stands unshook” upon such truth as she can find, and she finds it in herself…