Pamela and the Early Origins of the Romance Novel

For Valentine’s Day, we wanted to take a look at the romance literature within the DeGolyer Library.  Romance novels make up the biggest share of the publishing market–in 2018, they accounted for 25% of all books purchased, and in 2022, an estimated 19 million printed romance novels were sold.  But where did the genre begin? Many people point to the works of Jane Austen, Frances Burney, and Charlotte Brontë as representing the birth of the romance formula, where the story centers on the love story between the main characters, who overcome obstacles to join together as a happy couple by the end of the novel. When looking at the origins of the genre, Austen, Burney, and Brontë certainly wrote works that established a blueprint later built upon by Georgette Heyer, Daphne Du Maurier, and Jean Plaidy, to name a few.

But the DeGolyer stacks also contain Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, printed nearly a century before Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy were introduced to the world. Pamela is often suggested as the first English novel (a topic of heated debate) as well as the first popular romance novel.

Published in 1740, Pamela is an epistolary novel (a story told through devices such as letters, journal entries, and other documents), recounting the story of a 15-year-old maidservant, who becomes the subject of repeated sexual advances and harassment by her employer, Mr. B.  Pamela struggles to avoid Mr. B attempts at seduction, which escalate to an abduction and attempted assault.  Pamela’s commitment to her virtue is rewarded as Mr. B reforms and offers to marry Pamela and elevate her social station.  Pamela accepts and spends the rest of the novel adjusting to being an upper-class lady.

Engraving of Pamela and Mr. B
Illustration of Pamela: or, Virtue rewarded, from a 1741 printing

While the story, centered on sexual harassment and assault, does not resemble modern romance, the novel and its impact when published is complex. Pamela is more accurately grouped with sentimental novels, a genre popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that celebrated sentimentalism. Despite the disturbing nature of the plot, it is often suggested as the first romance novel because it was the first popular novel that centered on the relationship between the two main characters, who end the novel as a happy couple (at a time when a tragic ending was more popular) and was told from the perspective of the heroine.

The first page of PamelaRichardson’s work was intended and received as a moral work, with a clear message: Pamela’s goodness and commitment to her virtue were rewarded by the elevation of her station–she begins the story as the daughter of poor laborers and ends the tale as a happily married woman and member of the gentry. Mr. B’s actions were understood to be wrong, but the reform of his character was written as sincere. But many readers found the work pornographic in its descriptions of Mr. B’s acts.  In addition, it was criticized for its disregard for class barriers, but earned praise from readers and later literary scholars for giving insight and voice to its working-class female protagonist, while interrogating power and abuse between the classes and the genders.

Richardson’s goal when writing Pamela was to create a work of conduct literature, a type of work that dates back to the Middle Ages and was popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, that intended to educate a young reader–typically female–on social norms and propriety.  Conduct literature was traditionally didactic; however, Richardson’s narrative spin on the form appealed to a far broader range of readers. As Pamela became a best-seller, it ushered in the modern novel, it also led to the downfall of conduct literature, as publishers and readers moved onto novels for entertainment as well as for educational reading.

If you’d like to see how Pamela stacks up against modern romance novels, you can see DeGolyer Library’s 1810 edition of the novel, published in four volumes, or check out a number of printings, spoofs, adaptations, and interpretations from Fondren Library.