For those of you who have ever attempted to read Clarissa or even Pamela, there will perhaps be significant agreement that there is certainly something about the works of Richardson that would make you want to hang yourself, though I fear I must disagree with Dr Johnson and acquit the plot.
In Pamela there are several rich and fascinating veins to the narrative, the distance in social status between herself and her pursuer, is not just about class but social and sexual power with its exploitative and corrupting capacity in a society where status is all. Such a notion is beautifully played out through Mr B.’s apparent ability to hold her hostage to indulge his – frankly rather hilarious – sexual advances without fear of persecution or interference. Furthermore, that Pamela’s own attraction and desire, subtly and lightly handled so as not to undermine her image of purity, acknowledge a greater conflict within the character. This reveals a gap between the innocence she ought and is expected to have and what she is feeling before attempting to reconcile both of these in the socially approved state of marriage through a necessary shift from prude to wife. Clarissa is no less elaborate, with the psychological clinging to purity and reputation driving the title character through the hands of an egotistical masochist to her untimely demise, tracing the human drives and actions that can make so extreme a conclusion possible. Indeed, I consider the story of both novels to be exceptional brilliant things, employing a nuanced and personal exploration of human nature, sexuality, faith, and morality, as well as a provoking and alternative perspective on the excesses and loopholes of the society in which the characters exist.
‘That sounds fascinating; I must read these works forthwith!’ I hear you cry, but alas, hold fast your eager fingers, for it would seem the story of men taking women captive, the power play, the simmering battle between sexual desire and self-preservation, the autonomy achieved through control and piety is not the point for Richardson but rather the other side of the dual role of faith as giver of strength – both to endure and deny. To this end unless you are a foolhardy fan of eighteenth century punctuation, overly pious teenagers, or the experience of reading other people’s mail, then these works are sadly still likely to result in you wanting to terminate your own existence.
Which brings me onto the idea of remakes: there is so much of interest and power, so much potential in these works that is lost and bound up in tedium that one can’t help but feel that this plot and its characters could be so much more in the creative hands of someone else.
How many times have you read a novel and come away thinking ‘that could have been SO GOOD’? And I’m not talking a Taming of the Shrew turned 10 Things I Hate About You-type reworking where the adaptation achieves much by being but a passing nod to its influencing text. I mean, in this case, placing our confused little blossom Pamela, her somewhat rapey but fortunately dapper dressing employer, the overwhelmed, tragic figure of Clarissa, and the complex, manipulative and actually rapey Lovelace into the hands of an author who could do their complexities justice: teasing out what makes their being, their actions, and their world extraordinary. Austen could give Pamela a spine to go with her happy ending; Theroux could explore the all-consuming sexuality, the perversity of the male antagonists; Atwood, the alienating, corrupt and distorted elements of the society that makes the action of these novels plausible. Such a list and its potential goes on indefinitely, but what is important is that even with the same events, the same characters, the same conclusion, these novels could be utterly different, utterly extraordinary, and – dare I say – even readable in the hands of an author who actually cared to draw out more of what is both extraordinary as well as human and relatable in the plot.
Perhaps, I’m being unfair to Richardson (I’m not). It is certainly arguable that any of the above named authors would simply employ a different angle on the work, in the same way that Richardson chose the angle of faith and chastity in the face of challenge and to this end has as valid an approach as any other writer could hope to have, their work as niche and limited as the original. Indeed, to his contemporary audience it is likely that such faith was of far greater interest, the potentiality of being held to sexual ransom far less notable, and the need for charismatic writing all but moot. Yet even if we grant him this half-hearted justification of being ‘of his time’, surely this just affirms him as prime candidate for a remake?