“Petticoat Papers” and who wins in the end?

Our readings this week offer a great deal of insight into the questions of rhetorical concealment, paradox and duplicity on many levels in Richardson’s Pamela, such as whether the novel served as an example of virtue or was instead a “Shamela,” that promoted the very vices it claimed to discourage.

One of the debatable issues for me was who really won in the end. Although Pamela definitely managed to preserve her physical virtue, I’m not sure that she maintained her soul. I think a part of this particular debate is all sewn up in her petticoat.

Just as Pamela divided major aspects of her life into three bundles of clothing, Robert Erickson in Mother Midnight divides Pamela’s Lincolnshire journal into three major bundles – the Sunflower Correspondence, the Rosebush Papers and the Petticoat Papers.

The Sunflower Correspondence is so named because its contents consist of the papers concealed under the tile in the Lincolnshire garden near the Sunflower by the back garden door. It was the easy marker for Mr. Williams to find the items and get them safely away to Pamela’s parents.

The Rosebush papers are so named because a rosebush served as the temporary shelter for a subsequent bundle secured during Pamela’s failed escape attempt. She later retrieved the papers, only to have them sequestered by Mrs. Jewkes and turned over to Mr. B.

The Petticoat Papers consist of the final bundle of letters Pamela stitched to her petticoat, and finally surrendered to Mr. B in preparation for her role as Mrs. B. Erickson relates the surrender of this batch to the surrender of Pamela’s soul. He writes:

She has kept her story going, regenerating herself with this secret history girded round her loins; it has given order to her life and a measure of control over her chaotic and vulnerable experience with B. Now she has been coerced into giving it up, trusting B. to take a large measure of control over her future. She is dwindling into a wife.  Although she still has power to extricate the story from herself, she finds now that she will not, or cannot, extricate herself from the story – that is, from the power of B.’s essential inward collaboration in her story, his novel now.

I think Erickson captures the reason for my quandary. From the point of ripping the material out of her Petticoat and turning it over to Mr. B, Pamela has turned over so much of the independent spirit and soul of the novel.

Christine Roulston, in Virtue, Gender and the Authentic Self in 18th Century Fiction, sees some of the same kind of loss with the marriage. Roulston writes:

The structuring of marriage as a reward, in fact, ends up reinscribing the very values that the rest of the text appears to have been questioning. The distinction results primarily because marriage does not form the same all-encompassing moral structure for the masculine as for the feminine subject. It does not require the same moral starting point, as Mr. B. warns Pamela – “I pretend not to the greatest purity neither my girl” . . .

(By the way, I wrote an email to Dr. Roulston, because I found a tag for her newest book, “Narrating Marriage in the 18th Century,” but couldn’t find the book anywhere. Dr. Roulston wrote back to say the book won’t be available until June.)

So who wins in the end? Maybe everyone except, the reader :-(.


1 Comment

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One response to ““Petticoat Papers” and who wins in the end?

  1. Karen

    I think that Pamela did indeed maintain her soul; however, I think its not the soul that 21st century readers had hoped she had. It seems that Pamela (ala Shamela) is a fraud. While her sexual virtue holds out, her human virtue fails from the beginning. She is not strong. She does not fight the fight. She does not have a sense of self without either her parents or B to guide her (whether it be by their good or bad influences) along the right path.

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