Samuel Richardson

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Pamela makes teaching easy.

Pamela Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Samuel Richardson's Pamela. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson was most likely born in 1689 in Mackworth, Derbyshire, England. Richardson kept some aspects of his life, including his birth, private, possibly to disguise the fact that he grew up in poverty. One of nine children, Richardson became the apprentice to a printer, in part because his father couldn’t afford to pay for Richardson’s education as a clergyman. Richardson showed a talent for telling stories at an early age and he sometimes helped others write letters, including helping girls he knew write responses to love letters. Despite this, however, Richardson didn’t publish his first novel, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, until he was 51 years old, after many years of running a successful print shop in London. The novel sold very well and was also a critical success—today, it’s considered one of the first modern novels in English, if not the first. Pamela spawned several parodies and sequels from other authors, but Richardson’s own sequel (Pamela in her Exalted Condition) was much less successful than the original. A few years later, however, Richardson wrote Clarissa; or, the History of a Young Lady, which revisited and expanded on many of the ideas of Pamela, earning even greater praise. He died of a stroke at age 71.
Get the entire Pamela LitChart as a printable PDF.
Pamela PDF

Historical Context of Pamela

Richardson wrote Pamela during the Enlightenment, a period lasting from around the late 17th century to about the end of the 18th century characterized by new developments in science, philosophy, and culture. The central idea of Pamela—that an impoverished servant girl could prove herself worthy of living among the gentry—bears some similarity to the Enlightenment political concept of egalitarianism, the idea that all humans are of equal value and so should be equal under the law. On the other hand, the Christian morality of Pamela conflicted with the increasingly secular beliefs of many (although not all) Enlightenment thinkers, including Denis Diderot (Encyclopédie) and Voltaire (Candide). When Richardson wrote Pamela in 1739, the concept of the United Kingdom (then consisting of just England and Scotland, not Ireland) was relatively new, having only formed in 1707. This also means that Pamela takes place during the relatively early days of British Empire, meaning that despite the book’s relatively isolated setting, the wealthy characters would have been connected to the rest of the world through Britain’s extensive network of global trade routes. One of Britain’s many colonies at the time, Jamaica, appears briefly in a subplot involving the character Sally Godfrey, illustrating the global reach of the new empire.

Other Books Related to Pamela

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is one of the first modern novels in English, with some even considering it the first. Other candidates for the first modern English novel include Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666), John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). All these works came before Pamela, are novel-length, and helped influence the development of the English novel, but some critics exclude them by classifying them as a different genre (for example, some critics consider Le Morte d’Arthur  a “chivalric romance” instead of a novel). One of the most important inspirations for Pamela may have been the anonymously published Vertue Rewarded—in addition to its similarities with Pamela’s subtitle, the work of prose fiction also deals with a young woman of low status who tries to reform a wealthy libertine who isn’t interested in marriage. Shortly after its publication, Pamela spawned several sequels by other authors (because copyright law didn’t exist in its current form) as well as several parodies. Among the most popular were The Anti-Pamela by Eliza Haywood and Henry Fielding’s Shamela and Joseph Andrews. Some critics also believe that Justine, a controversial book by the Marquis de Sade about a woman forced into sexual slavery, was a response to Pamela based on its subtitle “The Misfortunes of Virtue.”
Key Facts about Pamela
  • Full Title: Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded
  • When Written: 1739–1740
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1740
  • Literary Period: Enlightenment
  • Genre: Epistolary Novel, Psychological Novel
  • Setting: Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire, England
  • Climax: Pamela marries Mr. B and is accepted into upper-class society.
  • Antagonist: Mr. B’s wicked behavior
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Pamela

Too Close to Home. One of Samuel Richardson’s most famous critics was Henry Fielding, who produced not one but two major parodies of Pamela (Shamela and Joseph Andrews). Fielding’s real life bears some similarities to the life of the fictional Mr. B—Fielding also allegedly attempted to kidnap and marry a 15-year-old girl (his cousin Sarah Andrew).

On Second Thought... Samuel Richardson revised his own novels extensively over the course of his lifetime. Many critics prefer the earliest versions (which are most commonly printed today), believing that Richardson self-censored the later ones in response to criticism.