The First Best Seller

On Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and the prehistory of the romance novel.

By Pamela Regis

Friday, July 24, 2020

Pamela Is Married, by Joseph Highmore, c. 1743.

Pamela Is Married, by Joseph Highmore, c. 1743. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Lapham’s Quarterly is running a series on the history of best sellers, exploring the circumstances that might inspire thousands to gravitate toward the same book and revisiting well-loved works from the past that, due to a variety of circumstances, vanished from the conversation after they peaked on the charts. We are also publishing a digital edition of one of these forgotten best sellers, Mary Augusta Ward’s 1903 novel Lady Rose’s Daughter, with a new introduction, annotations, and an appendix. To read more about the project and explore the other entries in the series, click here.

If Pamela is not the first novel in English, nor yet the first romance novel, it is the first best seller. It was an immediate sensation. Samuel Richardson printed five editions in the eleven months following the novel’s first appearance in November of 1740. Alan Dugald McKillop, one of the first modern critics to bring Richardson back into critical favor, typifies the novel’s reception: “It is safe to say that almost everybody read it. It became the fashion, the best seller which it was compulsory to discuss.” Its influence went beyond a mere novel—Pamela and Pamela became a phenomenon, what T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Richardson’s biographers, call a “vogue.” It was translated and adapted for the stage. Unauthorized sequels appeared. There was even Pamela merchandise—fans and teacups were painted with scenes from the book. And, of course, babies—and eventually their several times great-granddaughters—were named after the heroine.

Since its publication in 1740, Pamela has inspired fervent supporters, who came to be called Pamelists. A story, perhaps apocryphal, is told of the effect on some nineteenth-century English villagers who were hearing Pamela read aloud: “At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived which brings the hero and heroine together…the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout, and procuring the church keys, actually set the church bells ringing.” This reaction is one we might expect to the happy ending of a romance novel in which a lady’s maid (Pamela) marries her employer (Mr. B).

Anti-Pamelists have been present in force from the beginning as well. Henry Fielding immediately wrote Shamela (1741), a parody in which Richardson’s sincere heroine is transformed into a scheming trollop who seduces and entraps B, now known as “Booby,” by her sexual wiles. Fielding’s skepticism about this Cinderella, rags-to-riches, servant-to-lady-of-the-manor story has been echoed by more recent critics of the novel. Eaves and Kimpel damn the plot with faint praise: “The plot has the advantage of unity and, at least for some readers, of suspense, but it is not calculated to appeal to readers of today.” Critics, on the whole, prefer Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, the story of the imprisonment, rape, and death of a pious young woman, a sort of Pamela with an unhappy ending. Pursuing Clarissa, Terry Eagleton takes a slap at Pamela, claiming that the heroine’s absorption into marriage at the end of the novel changes her for the worse:

She is now the collusive victim of patriarchy, triumphantly elevated into enemy territory…it is difficult to imagine how Pamela could in any sense be proclaimed as “progressive.” The same question could be asked of women’s romances today: are they anything more than opiate and offensive? In both cases, surely, the answer is guardedly positive. Pamela tells the story of a woman snatched into the ruling class and tamed to its sexist disciplines; yet it contains, grotesque though it may sound, a utopian element. The novel is a kind of fairy-tale prerun of Clarissa, a fantasy wish fulfillment in which abduction and imprisonment turn out miraculously well…Like modern romantic fiction, its main effect is thus anodyne and oppressive.

What answer, beyond the ringing of church bells, can a contemporary Pamelist make to anti-Pamelists? Is Richardson merely riding on the coattails of earlier forms, unaware of the sort of novel he is writing, in which Pamela is merely a Cinderella figure, untouched by more serious issues?


Standard histories of the novel marginalize the romance novel. We can find the beginnings of this treatment in Ian Watt’s influential Rise of the Novel, published in 1957. Speaking of Samuel Richardson’s invention of the romance novel in its modern form, Watt finds it “odd that so fateful a literary revolution should have been brought about with so ancient a literary weapon.” That this oddity would persist to become the most popular form of the novel has not garnered it any more respect from contemporary critics. Writing in 1994, Toni O’Shaughnessy Bowers identifies Augustan amatory fiction (“sensational tales of sexual intrigue published by and for English women in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries”) as the direct predecessors of today’s romance novel, which she typifies as “modern supermarket romances with their…sexually demanding men and innocent, desirable, passive women, and their insistence on sexual violence.” This characterization of the modern romance novel is predictably hasty in its generalizations—not all, or even most romance novels have sexually demanding men or innocent, passive women, nor do they all insist on sexual violence. This characterization also condemns early amatory fiction for leading to its mischaracterized successors—romance novels. The grounds of marginalization have shifted: the romance novel is no longer simply an oddly chosen ancient literary weapon; its modern exemplars cast aspersions back through the centuries, poisoning the literary history of their unsuspecting predecessors. The romance novel has never been considered in its own light.

However suspect the result of literary history—the canon—might be, however incomplete, it serves as a map of literature. Students of literature refer to that map, albeit with less than the absolute trust once attributed to it. Yet the romance novel, despite its long history and immense popularity, is on the map only through distorted, incomplete, and hostile representations. Where a clear outline of the romance novel should appear, we find instead the legend: “Here there be dragons.”

The romance novel steps forward as a dominant genre in English letters at a time of changing values and practices concerning courtship and marriage.

By the time the romance novel assumes prominence in English literature, love is the primary reason that people marry. The traditional comedic courtship plot often depicts a hero who falls in love with the heroine at first sight. The romance novel emerges from, but shifts the focus of, this tradition. It often depicts a heroine who falls in love with the hero gradually. Telling the story of this slowly developing love and the courtship that structures this love becomes the major focus of the narrative.

The almost absolute dependence of the wife on the husband for the roof over her head, food to eat, clothes to wear, medical attention, and support for their children made courtship a momentous time in a woman’s life. For centuries, choosing a husband was the crucial decision for most women. The woman’s search for liberty and love in marriage, a lifelong commitment that resulted in her loss of property rights, made courtship a time of conflicting goals. Of course, older assumptions about marriage had not died, and the goal of individual self-fulfillment had to be measured against the need for financial support and the desire for love. With one chance to make the right choice (divorce was rare and difficult, particularly for a woman), courtship became a battleground for the working out of these sometimes conflicting values. The literary form that took courtship as its subject—the romance novel—provided an obvious vehicle for the depiction of the clash of these values.

For centuries courtship as depicted in comedy focused on one or more heroes; with the advent of the romance novel, authors regularly began to place the focus on the heroine. One such hero-centered courtship narrative is Incognita: Or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d (1692), which was published in the early days of the English novel. William Congreve (1670–1729), best known as a dramatist and the author of the comedy of manners The Way of the World, wrote this comedy of errors set in Shakespearean time and space. It is a confection: its tone is light; the action improbably telescoped; its purpose, delight.

Incognita’s two heroes, Aurelian and Hippolito, journey to Florence, where the novel is set, where they learn that a public celebration of a noble marriage is about to begin. They disguise themselves by exchanging names and contriving costumes so that they may share in “the publick Merriment” without Aurelian’s father, a Florentine nobleman, realizing that his son has returned. Aurelian, in physical disguise and calling himself “Hippolito,” meets a masked woman calling herself “Incognita” (the unknown lady) and immediately falls in love with her. The real Hippolito meets Leonora and immediately falls in love with her. In both cases this is love at first sight, despite the disguises that both men and both women wear. Aurelian’s father has betrothed him to one Juliana. In the confusing atmosphere of “Balls and Masques, and other Divertisements,” where disguise, near abductions, partially destroyed letters, and sword fights in the dark are commonplace, the woman calling herself “Incognita” turns out to have been Juliana all along, and Aurelian, throwing off his disguise and disclosing his real name, the man who has been courting her. The fathers’ wishes (both Aurelian’s and Juliana’s) are answered. Both pairs of lovers marry. Duty—following one’s parent’s orders—and love—marrying a person with whom one is in love—are thus reconciled.

Congreve’s focus in Incognita is on the heroes. Their arrival in Florence sets the slight plot in motion, and their confused identities, near deaths, and determined searches for the disguised heroines constitute the greater part of the narrative. Yet in his treatment of Juliana/Incognita as she contemplates her father’s decree that she marry someone not of her choosing, Congreve anticipates the romance novel’s focus on the heroine’s deliberation and choice of the hero. She represents her choices as running away to a monastery where she has an aunt who opposes the arranged match (thus saving herself for the man she has chosen) or remaining in Florence and, in her words, “being taken by some of my Relations, and forced to a thing so quite contrary to my Inclinations”—that is, being forced to marry the man to whom her father has betrothed her. Congreve faces his heroine with the burden of assuming her liberty. In placing her own happiness over the demands of filial duty, Juliana/Incognita acts from the values of affective individualism.

In its treatment of love, Congreve’s Incognita adheres to older conventions. In it, love is a largely male affair. Aurelian is smitten with Juliana the first time he sees her. Love at first sight, although not unknown among heroines in the literature of love, is largely a male phenomenon. In fact, Juliana, wearing a mask and calling herself Incognita at a masquerade, gives Aurelian a choice “whether he would know whom she was, or see her Face.” He chooses sight over knowledge. In the romance novel, with its focus on the heroine, love will rarely be at first sight, and knowledge will be an important part of the courtship that is the very reason for the book’s being. In Incognita, disguises physically block sight; these disguises are the reason that Congreve even has a story to tell. The romance novel will turn the physical disguise so prevalent in older comedy into a lack of knowledge about the hero’s or heroine’s inner self. Aurelian has obscured his name and his appearance, and so has Juliana. In the romance novel, knowledge of the beloved’s personality, values, beliefs—identity in the psychological sense of the word—replaces knowledge of their physical identity obscured by disguise and assumed names. The importance of sight becomes the importance of insight.

The romance novel focuses on the vulnerability that all women in English society had imposed upon them by the legal doctrine of the feme covert. For centuries, English law simply erased one partner when the betrothal became a marriage. The woman became a wife based on her individual choice and her feelings toward her new spouse, but at the same time she lost her ownership—and control—over all that she once had owned. Personal property is an important vehicle for individual choice. Paradoxically, in exercising her individual choice of a spouse, a woman was forced to surrender that range of individual choice provided by ownership of property. Society granted her autonomy as long as she was an unmarried woman, then removed it the minute she married. No wonder a woman’s choice of a spouse was so fraught with drama.


Excerpted from A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis. Copyright © 2003 by University of Pennsylvania Press. Reprinted by permission.