Reading Pamela’s Private/Public Literacy

Gerard Terborch, “Woman Writing a Letter,” 1655

Pamela’s first letter to her parents sets up many of the themes for the remainder of the novel: Pamela’s duty to her parents, her love for writing, her thankfulness to God, and her distinction from other servants– along with potentially untoward advances by Mr. B (“and he took me by the Hand; yes, he took me by the Hand before them all” (11)). In the postscript to her first letter, she tells her parents that Mr. B has frightened her by entering her dressing room and desiring to inspect her writing. Confused, she fears that he will be angry, but he states, “I am not angry with you for writing such innocent matters as these: though you ought to be wary what tales you send out of a family…. Why, Pamela, you write a very pretty hand, and spell tolerably too. I see my good mother’s care in your learning has not been thrown away upon you” (12).

This intrusion in the first chapter sets up an interesting problem: Pamela’s developing literacy cannot stay private. But, as her father questions, why should Pamela’s literacy be a matter of public discussion at all? “Why should he take such a poor girl as you by the hand, as your letter says he has done twice? Why should he stoop to read your letter to us; and commend your writing and spelling? And why should he give you leave to read his mother’s books?” This is indeed the question in the reader’s mind as s/he delves through these volumes of Pamela’s letters. Why is such a private activity such as literacy– reading or writing to oneself– suddenly of interest, not only to Mr. B, but to Pamela’s fellow servants, Mrs. Jervis, Mrs. Jewkes, Lady Davers, and then finally society at large?

I don’t have a particularly settled answer to this question, but I do have a potential method to discover the answer. Perhaps we can turn to rhetorical criticism and read Richardson’s Pamela as a literacy narrative, using the framework established by Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen. Eldred and Mortensen define this process as follows: “When we read for literacy narratives, we study how the text constructs a characters’ ongoing, social progress of language acquisition” (512). This inherent assumption– that language acquisition, in Pamela’s case and in all cases, is social– seems counterintuitive because Pamela’s writing (especially when she switches from letters to journal entries) is meant to be private. However, it seems that Pamela’s literacy from the beginning is much more public than she intends it to be.

We could also explore Pamela’s experience within the framework of the literacy myth: the assumption that literacy necessarily equals a direct path to social progress. In one way, Richardson’s text affirms the literacy myth– it is her letters that cause Mr. B. to fall for her, and which lead to her eventual social rise. Yet in another way, literacy dislodges her from her social place, just as Eldred and Mortensen discuss with relation to Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Pamela’s story could also be read as a narrative of socialization: “stories that chronicle a character’s attempt to enter a new social (and discursive) arena” (Eldred and Mortensen 513).

We might also explore Pamela’s relationship to generational literacy. If female literacy is so transgressive, what is the significance that ostensibly both her father and mother can read and write, since she addresses some letters only to her mother? Is there an added significance to the fact that she did not learn literacy from them, but from her mistress? Does this change the kind of literacy that Pamela possesses?

We also might use Deborah Brandt’s idea of literacy sponsors to recognize and explore the communal nature of Pamela’s literacy — for example, some of Pamela’s sponsors are her mistress, Mr. Longman (the kindly gentleman that gives her writing paper), her father and mother who encourage the letters, and even Mr. B by the end of the book. This might allow us to better understand why Pamela’s writing is necessarily social. It also might alert us to recognize ways in which language in the eighteenth century serves as a mark/divider of social class. Based on our understanding of literacy, we also might read Pamela more as an emerging self rather than an exploited/victimized young girl. Is it her literacy that leads us to this conclusion, as we watch her make sense of her feelings and thoughts on paper?

Conversations about gender, power, and exploitation in Pamela are valuable, but perhaps they are leading us too far away from the central issue. Maybe, however, Pamela’s literacy is at the forefront because the novel’s main theme is language itself: how it is acquired, shaped, and constructed, and how characters use it to shape their own identities.

Works Cited

Eldred, Janet Carey, and Peter Mortensen. “Reading Literacy Narratives.” College English, vol. 54, no. 5, 1992, pp. 512–539. www.jstor.org/stable/378153.

2 thoughts on “Reading Pamela’s Private/Public Literacy

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