Further Thoughts on Piety in Pamela

As I noted in my last post, the regular practice of lay piety in Pamela operates not simply as a device to highlight Pamela’s virtue, but also as a mode of resistance.  Through the regular use of the Book of Common Prayer and devotional rituals, Pamela is not only able to fortify herself against Mr. B’s advances, but also articulate an external discourse of piety that (real or feigned) frustrates Mr. B at every turn.  This trend becomes even clearer in the second half of the novel as explicit links are forged between religious observance, rituals, and devotion and Pamela’s resistance.  For, even after her engagement to Mr. B, Pamela uses these means to arrange her marriage on her terms and for her purposes.

For example, soon after her engagement, Pamela makes it clear that she wants to be married in a consecrated chapel, prompting Mr. B to clean out and fix up his Lincolnshire chapel which had hitherto been used to hold lumber.  Thus Pamela imposes her piety on a clearly impious Master by forcing him to reclaim the religious space within his own home.  Furthermore, Mr. B goes to great pains to ensure that the first service in this chapel is conducted correctly.  He invites Mr. Williams to officiate, while Pamela’s own father volunteers to read the Psalms.  This service thus juxtaposes the competing interests and tensions within the novel within an explicitly religious space.  Mr. B has fixed up the chapel at Pamela’s request and restored Williams only after being convinced that he has no designs on Pamela’s hand.  The introduction of Pamela’s father who reads out a particularly apt Psalm (Psalm 23 – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me) thus serves to emphasize that even after Pamela has ostensibly been “conquered,” religion and religious discourse continue to implicitly critique the power relationship Pamela has now entered into.

This is made even clearer in the succeeding scene, when Mr. B reads Pamela’s version of Psalm 137, juxtaposing it to the original, which Mr. Williams read from the Book of Common Prayer.  This Psalm, in the original, is a prayer for deliverance from exile that begins:

When we did sit in Babylon

The Rivers round about:

Then in Remembrance of Sion,

The Tears for Grief burst out.


We hang’d our Harps and Instruments

The Willow-trees upon:

For in that Place Men, for that Use,

Hand planted many a one.

Pamela, of course, cleverly modifies this Psalm to mirror her own captivity:

When sad I sat in B——n-hall,

All watched round about;

And thought of every absent Friend,

The Tears for Grief burst out.


My Joys, and Hopes, all overthrown,

My Heart-strings almost broke:

Unfit my Mind for Melody,

Much more to bear a Joke.

And the Psalm continues in this vein for several stanzas – Williams reading out the original and Mr. B reading out Pamela’s version.  However, what is interesting here is the location of this Psalm within the larger text.  Mr. B reads this Psalm after Pamela’s captivity has ended and she has agreed to marry him.  Indeed, Pamela allows it to be read (after some token protest) at the exact time when she is equivocating over setting a date for the wedding.  The location of this Psalm at this moment in the story thus indicates that Pamela continues to use piety and religious expression for her own purposes.  Even though she has agreed to marry Mr. B, it is in her religious poetry that we still sense some resistance to Mr.B’s will.

Most interesting of all is the way that this type of piety as expressed in religious poetry and language, indicates a type of interiority and expression that Mr. B cannot touch.  Both through her religious devotion and her writing Pamela creates an interior world over which she has ultimate control and to which Mr. B must ultimately submit.  Just like the many female religious diarists of her day, Pamela uses her journal to record an internal subjectivity distinct from her outward action.  This is surely a subtext that Richardson did not intend.  No doubt he intended these religious references to be taken at face value as further evidence of Pamela’s virtue.  Nevertheless, these instances of resistance through piety are a further indication of how the text constantly subverts itself – the very elements that are intended to make Pamela the most conventional are often the ones that are most easily turned on their head.  Thus just like Pamela’s innocence and virtue should not be taken for granted as Richardson intends, neither should religion and piety be overlooked as possible tools of subversion and resistance.

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