From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:
“In my last [letter] 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 could have done. The most difficult Task for me was to blush; however, by holding my Breath, and squeezing my Cheeks with my Handkerchief, I did pretty well” (297).
Reading Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded, as I recounted in my previous review of it, is not for the faint of heart; but I am happy to say that it was all made worthwhile just this past week as I listened to a Naxos AudioBooks recording of Henry Fielding’s masterful parody fittingly entitled Shamela. Many know Fielding for Tom Jones, but his satirical powers are at full and outrageous height in Shamela. In a quarter of the number of pages found in the original story, Fielding highlights and lampoons all of Richardson’s characteristic tropes, transforming Miss Pamela Andrews from a paragon of female virtue into an archetypical scheming hussy. The great irony is that, as shamefully vicious as Shamela maybe, she is a great deal more fun to listen to than her saintly prototype.
Central to Richardson’s sentimental plot was Pamela’s virtue. By virtue, readers must understand two things: her honesty and her virginity. Understandably, Pamela insists on protecting these, since they are her only means for attracting a worthy and, hopefully, wealthy suitor. Because these two meanings of virtue are at the heart of the conflict in Pamela, Fielding places them squarely at the heart of his comedic retelling. Shamela, as her name implies, is anything but honest. In her letters to her mother, she makes it plain that her every action toward Squire Booby (Mr. B’s new name) is aimed at provoking the young man’s sexual passion as a means to coerce him into marriage. Accordingly, her protestations against that gentleman’s sexual advances, while they mirror Pamela’s, are all pretense. She would like nothing better than for her employer to seduce her, but not before she secures a share of his fortune for herself. As she tells Mrs. Jervis: “…Fellows have often taken away in the Morning, what they gave over Night. No, Mrs. Jervis, nothing under a regular taking into Keeping, a settled Settlement, for me, and all my Heirs, all my whole Liftetime, shall do the Business–or else crosslegged, is the Word…” (283). Of course, as the quote with which I opened this review indicates, Shamela is no virgin anyway!
As you might have guessed, Pamela is not the only character whose personality Fielding changes for comedic effect–all the major characters are the opposite of their originals. Mr. B is a fool, Mr. Williams is a lascivious skamp, Mrs. Jervis is a coconspirator, and, best of all, Pamela’s parents are low-class trash. Indeed, while the original Pamela’s father writes ad nauseum to his daughter about her Christian duty, Shamela’s father is serving time in prison. And Shamela’s mother is little better. Readers are told she “sold Oranges in the Play-House,” a not so subtle way to say she was a prostitute (280).
In fact, Shamela’s mother–whose regal name, Henrietta Maria Honora Andrews, belies her tawdry lifestyle–steals this story’s spotlight, for it was her corrupting influence that produced Shamela. As a result, Shamela repeatedly articulates pithy proverbs of vice in her letters to her mother, as if to illustrate just how well she has been schooled. For example, she writes, “What a foolish Thing it is for a Woman to dally too long with her Lover’s Desires; how many have owed their being old Maids to their holding out too long” (294). When things go sour between mother and daughter, however, the result is a venomous act of retaliation on the part of Mrs. Andrews: the publication of her daughter’s letters–an act to which we owe Fielding’s “corrected” version of events.
Since Richardson’s Pamela was aimed at didactically preaching the rewards of virtue, then Fielding’s parody presumes to take the same stance, mocking the original Pamela for its sexual lewdness, its rather scathing portrayal of the vices of the upper class, and its encouragement of disobedience in servants (279). Ironically, however, the two authors actually manage to achieve the same end–the condemnation of hypocrisy–just through very different means: Richardson through sentimentalism, Fielding through satire. Fortunately, Jane Austen was a fan of both authors, and she perfectly combines and tempers, sentimentalism and satire in her novels by adding a healthy portion of realism. True, her early short works like “Love and Freindship” and “Lesley Castle” lean more toward the absurdities of Fielding, but by Lady Susan, she has already learned to soften her satire with realism, making it clear she supports virtue and condemns vice, but not at the cost of her sense of humor. She, like Fielding, enjoys a good laugh at the follies of others, but that is because she doesn’t like to take herself or others too seriously. After all, the ability to laugh was just as important to the Austen family as the ability to pray.
That said, I highly recommend the audio recording of this hilarious work, which I award five bright stars. After listening to Pamela, you will laugh out loud when you hear the same voices transform their accents, grammar, and diction, bringing to life the scandalous characters and conflicts that make Shamela an impressive example of parodic humor.
5 out of 5 Stars
Shamela,by Henry Fielding, read by Clare Corbett
Naxos AudioBooks (2013)
Unabridged audio recording (2) CD’s, 1 hour, 30 mins
Cover image courtesy of Naxos Audiobooks © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2014, Austenprose.com
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