Lay Piety and the Church of England in Pamela

Throughout the print productions of the early eighteenth century there seems to be an underlying discussion of how best to “reform” the manners of society.  From Addison and Steele to Pope to Richardson, there is a tension implicit in their works between religion and an emerging (though far from fully formed) bourgeois consciousness.  Addison and Steele, reacting against the moral crusading of groups like the Society for the Reformation of Manners, attempt to locate moral reform within the cultivation of taste, refinement, commerce, and work.  Likewise Richardson, in Pamela, seeks to counter the perception of novels as “immoral literature,” by presenting a portrait of a virtuous woman who protects her innocence at all costs.  And yet, even here this innocence is framed in specifically religious terms.  For though Pamela is certainly a long way from the SRM, it nevertheless illustrates that lay piety was still alive and well in England and provided a legitimate means for the “reformation of manners,” that the novel attempts to enact.

In both obvious and subtle ways, Pamela is saturated with religious piety.  Pamela not only constantly asks for the prayers of her parents in her letters, but her entire life seems to be organized around the rhythms of Church life.  For example, in Letter XXIII she asks her parents to “Forgive me, that I repeat in my Letter Part of my hourly Prayer.  I owe every thing, next to God’s Goodness, to your Piety and good Examples, my dear Parents.”  This seems to indicate that Pamela is not simply nominally religious, but is a regular user of the Book of Common Prayer.  Indeed, similar to many religious accounts of the period, this particular letter is peppered with religious language appropriated from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  So much so that it is difficult to identify which specific passage Pamela is referring to here.  Nevertheless, the most specific reference seems to be to the preceding paragraph in which Pamela writes, “How happy am I, to be turn’d out of Door, with that sweet Companion my Innocence! – O may that be always my Companion!  And while I presume not upon my own Strength, and am willing to avoid the Tempter, I hope the Divine Grace will assist me.”  At least part of this seems to be a reference to Psalm 21, which is proscribed for morning prayer in the BCP on the fourth day of the year.  It begins, “The King shall rejoyce in strength, O Lord: exceeding glad shall he be of thy salvation,” and ends, “Be exalted, Lord, in thine own strength: so will we sing, and praise thy power.”

Thus the regular practice of piety becomes one of Pamela’s chief means of resistance.  Not only does she turn to it for inner strength when she is alone, but also when she is directly confronted by Mr. B’s advances.  When she is called before her master to, ostensibly, be dismissed from his service, she falls to her knees and says a prayer for him.  Ironically, this is alter cited as one of the reasons he decides to allow her to stay.  Later, when Mr. B attempts to win Pamela by offering to essentially pay off her father, she begins to quote the Lord’s prayer: “But I said aloud, with my Eyes lifted up to Heaven, Lead me not into Temptation. But deliver me from Evil, O my good God!”  She thus makes her request for heavenly strength to resist evil explicit in front of her tempter, who responds by saying, “None of your Beads to me, Pamela… thou art a perfect Nun, I think.”  In so doing he not only attempts to paint Pamela as overly religious but also (by referencing rosary beads and nuns) a Catholic – a calculated attempt to get her to drop what he portrays as a façade of piety.

Furthermore, all this is very interesting for what it tells us about the role of the Church of England in, not only the reformation of manners, but also the daily lives of common people.  For despite the well documented problems in the Church of England structure, such as absentee clergy and a failure to adjust parish organization to demographic shifts, lay piety during this period was really quite high.  In fact, W.M. Jacob argues in Lay People and Religion in the Early Eighteenth Century, that it was lay people who managed much of the parish business and that the Church formed a central part of people’s daily lives.  Thus, it was not so much that groups like the Methodists emerged out of a weak Church – filling a spiritual void – but that they took advantage of an already existent spiritual literacy and devotion and adjusted to the changing social realities in ways that the main body of the Church did not.  For example, one of the reasons Methodism experienced its greatest growth in industrial centers like Bristol and Manchester was that there simply was not enough of a parish structure to meet the needs of these rapidly exploding populations.  Conversely, Methodism always had more difficulty establishing itself in rural parishes because these were the very parishes most likely to be best served by the Anglican clergy.

All this to say that it is interesting that these values of lay piety and in fact the “reformation of manners,” based on lay piety and (of course) innocence are to be found in a novel.  For the novel was, for many religious people (Anglican, Methodist, and Dissenter), the very source of the decline in morals they were attempting to prevent.  In fact, Methodist Hester Ann Rogers, writing at the end of the century, identifies novel reading as one of the sins that led her astray as a teenagers – a sentiment that is echoed in many religious accounts by women.  John Wesley himself disapproved of novel reading as morally hazardous and (perhaps more importantly to him) a waste of time.  Finally, Mr. B himself attributes Pamela’s “sawciness” to reading novels, writing to her father that, “I never knew so much romantick Invention as she is Mistress of.  In short, the Girl’s Head’s turn’d by Romances, and such idle Stuff, which she had given herself up to, ever since her kind Lady’s Death,” never mind the fact that we are much more likely to hear Pamela quote the Book of Common Prayer than a novel.  Thus Mr. B attempts to negate Pamela’s piety through her supposed interest in the novels – the fact that this happens within the confines of a novel that claims to be attempting to rescue the genre from immorality, is one of the key tensions of the story.

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3 responses to “Lay Piety and the Church of England in Pamela

  1. I think it is prime time for a re-examination of religion in Pamela. It’s been ignored for a long time, perhaps seeming too obvious (which is always a sign that its not) or just not sexy enough. But the re-invigoration of Religious Studies in English in the last ten years makes an analysis of this timely.

    I think the role of the novel in this context is especially pertinent. It’s clear that Richardson, Burney and others are trying to stake out territory for a moral novel, if not exactly a religious one. This distinction itself is interesting to me–why NOT the latter? I don’t think the difference is specious, though I should note that Richardson conflates them in his preface where he describes his goal “to inculcate Religion and Morality in so easy and agreeable manner, as shall render them equally delightful and profitable to the younger Class of Readers” (3).

    But a comment on the term “romance.” In the first decade or so of the century it is used interchangeably with “novel” for any long fiction. By the publication of Pamela, though, terminology had mostly shaken out so that “romance” referred either to historical (mostly) French romances, most famously by Madeleine de Scudéry, dealing with heroic adventures, exotic locales, and improbable feats of bravery OR (more apt in this case) the scandalous roman by the likes of Haywood, Manley et al. Haywood’s Love in Excess (perhaps my favorite 18c title) is a great example of what Richardson abhorred; appropriately, it is Haywood who writes Anti-Pamela.

    In this context, we can see Mr. B’s comment about what Pamela might have been reading as referring to the “bad fiction.” Pamela herself notes a couple times that her life would made a good novel–as indeed it does–the “good fiction.” Of course, we must keep in mind that on his title page, Richardson carefully refrains from calling it either. Though he couldn’t have thought anyone would really think the letters were not fictional, his guise as editor lets him sidestep the issue of terminology. At the same time, one of the laudatory preface letters does call it a novel, so I think it’s clear that that’s where Richardson’s allegiance lies.

  2. I just noticed another reference to romances and novels. Here Mr. B conflates them in a reference to the supposed fictionality of P’s letters: “And as I have furnish’d you with the Subject, I have a Title to see the Fruits of your Pen. —Besides, said he, there is such a pretty Air of Romance, as you relate them, in your Plots, and my Plots, that I shall be better directed in what manner to wind up the Catastrophe of the pretty Novel.” I think I might argue here that Mr. B is a bad reader, and part of Pamela’s mission is to “school” him on the proper generic conventions and forms.

  3. I decided to run with your findings and see if I could use the BCP to determine the timeline in Pamela. I started with the calendar for the year Pamela was published, 1740 (which you can easily find on Wikipedia). Unfortunately, the calendar and letter don’t add up: January 4, 1740 is a Monday, while Pamela specifically says that it is a Thursday in Letter XXIII, “This is Thursday Morning, and next Thursday I hope to set out; for I have finish’d my Task, and my Master is horrid cross” (Richardson 53). If Letter XXIII was January 4, the year would have to be 1731.

    I’m not fluent with the BCP. I’ve MelCatted The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, but I was wondering if you had any other suggestions for reference. I’m also curious about the other potential Psalms that you said the passage from Letter XXIII could refer to. I’m hoping, with a little insight into the BCP and the eighteenth postal system, I can figure out the timeline of Pamela’s letters and journal.

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