Was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela Written as a Self-Help Book?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about novels and novelists and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the novel urban legends featured so far.

NOVEL URBAN LEGEND: Pamela began originally as basically a self-help book.

What we now know as “self-help” books really have their root in the middle ages in what was called a “conduct book.”

Conduct books were books that were written in various forms (sermons, manuals, devotional writings). One of the more popular form were epistolary letters, that is, an instruction manual written in the form of familiar letters. Something along the lines of, “Dear Reader, you should always floss before you go to bed” – only with some more flowery speech and without any reference to modern oral hygiene.

So when Samuel Richardson sat down to come up with a work where he could instill in young ladies the virtues of remaining chaste, he began to do the work as a conduct book in the form of letters. However, after beginning the work, the idea came upon him – in doing a series of letters, he effectively was creating a character, was he not? Then why not use this character to tell a STORY, while still getting across the whole “Keep your pants on and you will go far in this world” message? The idea of novels were still fairly new when Richardson began his work in 1740 (well, 1740 was when it was published – he may have begun working on it a year earlier), so the idea behind turning the work into a novel was, well, novel.

Here’s a portrait of Richardson…


In 1740, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, was released to widespread acclaim and success.

The novel tells the story (via her letters) of Pamela, a young girl who goes to work as a live-in maid for a fellow who keeps making advances on her. She continues to ward off his advances, and eventually, he is so impressed with her virtue that he proposes marriage. They wed, and the rest of the novel is Pamela adjusting to suddenly becoming part of high society.

The legendary author, Henry Fielding, put out a brilliant parody of the novel the next year, titled An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, where he reveals that “Pamela” is really a con artist trying to snare her boss in marriage.


In any event, yes, Pamela originally began as a self-help book, basically. Imagine if it came out today? It could be called An Idiot’s Guide to Virtue!

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply