Pamela as precedent

Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, British Library, 1740-1
Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, British Library, 1740-1

Shelved in my study, in a single bookcase, is the history of the American romance novel.

I love the history of literature—watching the growth and branching of genres across the centuries. Lately I’ve been researching the history of the American romance novel, which, I quickly realized, involved pretty much starting from scratch. There was no list of American romance novels that I could peruse for suggestions for study texts, no “romance novel” subject heading in databases.

I knew that an important component of a genre’s identity, like a person’s identity, is comprised by its history. The history of a genre is a record of the possibilities, concerns, and triumphs of individual texts, and like a personal history, it provides points of reference that anchor the always-evolving genre in the life of the culture. History matters.

The American romance novel deserves to have its history written.

So I began with my definition: “A romance novel tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of two or more protagonists,” and I began to read the existing histories of the American novel with an eye for courtship and betrothal. This was tricky. If they mention the HEA at all, literary historians do so in passing, usually dismissively. I had to read between the lines to discern the betrothals at the end of many of the novels critics were discussing. Then there was the long tradition of inquiry into the American novels with decidedly unhappy endings—seduction tales. You know: a virginal heroine seduced and abandoned, who dies after giving birth to a child.

But there was an obvious starting-point for my inquiry: The first novel printed in America was Benjamin Franklin’s 1742-44 edition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. As nearly as I can tell, the many-times-great-grandmother after whom I was named would have been born during the Pamela vogue, the eighteenth-century appetite for all things Pamela: merchandise, unauthorized sequels, foreign pirated editions, and naming girl babies after Richardson’s heroine, a lady’s maid who preserves her virtue against the onslaught of her rakish employer to tame him, marry him, and become the lady of the manor. I am destined, it seems, to study this text, one of the first romance novels.

Everyone agrees that Richardson’s influence was very important to the early American novel. However, everyone, at least so far, has concentrated on his second novel, Clarissa, in which a virginal heroine is seduced and abandoned and—well, you know the rest. But what about Pamela? Pamela wins her hero, her HEA. What about the texts that follow in that tradition? I knew they were there—I just had to find them, because that’s where the history of the American romance novel must begin.

Months pass while research happens. . .

Now there is a list of American romance novels. I compiled it as I discovered titles that fit my definition of romance. It is some 200 novels long, representing the work of 90 authors. I bought these titles and shelved them chronologically.

In the beginning, it turns out, was Emily Hamilton, A Novel Founded on Incidents in Real Life by a Young Lady of Worcester County. Written by Sukey Vickery, published in 1803, it tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of three heroines and three heroes. Like Richardson’s novels, and like Jane Austen’s first draft of Pride and Prejudice, the story is told in letters. Barriers are overcome, including one hero’s unhappy marriage. Rakes are unmasked and sidestepped by the resilient, lively heroines. Balls are attended, visits are made, and death is cheated any number of times.

Belmont, Emily’s hero, writes to her of their first meeting, “For the first time in my life, I was in love.” Vickery’s courting young people have found their HEA, and I have found my beginning.

Pamela Regis

Pamela Regis is a professor of English at McDaniel College and the author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Find out more about Pamela Regis.

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