1750 Shades of Grey

50 Shades of Grey wasn’t the first — fiction has asked us to willingly relinquish autonomy since the 18th century.


in Archive



“I pulled off my Stays and my Stockens, and my Gown, all to an Under-petticoat; and then hearing a rustling again in the Closet, I said, God protect us! but before I say my Prayers, I must look into this Closet. And so was going to it slip shod, when, O dreadful! out rush’d my Master, in a rich silk and silver Morning Gown.”

So begin Mr. B’s assaults upon the self-titled “poor Pamela” of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 best-selling novel, which narrates the tale of a young girl committed to her virtue and the frequent attempts to test said virtue by the libidinous Mr. B. Though little known today outside of academic circles, Samuel Richardson and his heroine were both celebrities; imagine if Hilary Mantel had written 50 Shades of Grey and you’ll get a sense of the success and ardor Pamela was met with.

Richardson’s trademark style is in evidence in the above quote, the “writing to the moment” for which he was so famous: His heroine describes the events she experiences as though they are still surprising her, as though, in spite of knowing how things will turn out, she can share the suspense felt by the reader. She also has the presence of mind, in the midst of being ravaged, to admire the color of B’s morning gown. It is no accident that awe in the presence of the details of a beauteous commodity infringe on Pamela’s shock and terror; the “rich silk and silver” of the morning coat is blinding, as was a waistcoat Pamela insisted on completing, a task that kept her in B’s home and made her available for such attempts on her virtue. The fact that articles of clothing are associated with situations in which Pamela’s virtue is threatened expose a shared structure. It’s not that commodity culture is like rape, but rather that the pleasure we take in indulging commodity fetishism is akin to the pleasure readers find in reading about the threats of rape to a beautiful sixteen-year-old. Consent is exchanged for pleasure. This is the modern gambit of the novel and of commodity culture and, in some ways, even capitalism, from the perspective of the 18th century novel.

As 21st century thinkers and readers, we are accustomed to thinking that our generation has invented all of its major concerns, habits, and styles. It’s difficult to imagine that our parents, let alone 18th century novelists, could have conceivably cared about the things that preoccupy our digitized minds. But some things haven’t changed in 300 years. While post-modern novelists imagine they are the first to have challenged the genre’s limits, one of the first novelists did this with the obnoxiously experimental Tristram Shandy. Another thing we think we’ve invented is addiction to pornography. Wrong again. The debate about the dangerously absorbing quality of pornography was alive and well in the 18th century, though it was not a debate about pornography at all, but rather a debate about the novel itself, which was seen to excite and addict in a dangerously erotic fashion. And we are also not the first generation to notice, and to worry about, the fact that women seem to enjoy rape fantasies while not enjoying rape, and that women enjoy reading soft-core S&M porn while not necessarily wishing themselves to be subjected to violence (Katie Roiphe notwithstanding). This, too, was a crucial concern addressed by early novels.

The pleasure of being absorbed in a novel was viewed as primarily erotic, both by the novel’s champions as well as by its detractors. Like the pleasure of its heroines who are time and again coerced by their emotions and their lovers to enjoy sexual acts inconsistent with their virtue, the pleasure of reading fiction was portrayed and discussed as a specifically coerced one. For the reader, like the character, cannot consent to the events of the plot; she must read them by way of a set-up in which she exchanges precisely that consent for the gratification of reading. What is fascinating in the history of the novel is that rather than exposing as faulty a contract in which one party could not consent, 18th century novelists portrayed this structure as characterizing every contract, implying that contracts don’t ensure the freedom of the contractor, but rather divulge the coercion at its kernel.

Richardson investigates contracts by offering one to his heroine. The plot of Pamela runs as follows: A fifteen-year-old lady’s maid writes letters to her parents telling them that her mistress has died but not to fear — the mistress’s son, one “Mr. B,” has promised to find work for her around the house and has paid her the wages her mistress owed her. Her father writes back to say that this man is after one thing alone! — for otherwise,

“Why should he smile so kindly upon you? Why should he take such a poor Girl as you by the Hand, as your Letter says he has done twice? Why should he stoop to read your Letter to us; and commend your Writing and Spelling? And, why should he give you Leave to read his Mother’s Books! — Indeed, indeed, my dearest Child… we fear you should be too grateful — and reward him with that Jewel, your Virtue, which no Riches, nor Favour, nor any thing in this Life, can make up to you.”

Pamela’s father both commodifies Pamela’s virginity — it is a jewel beyond all riches — and puts it at risk with his melodramatic interpretation of B’s “true” motives. By introducing the erotic he raises the stakes, thereby inserting a desire into the text that Pamela’s letters are bound to satisfy.

The book proceeds much as one would expect — now that Pamela is convinced that B is after her virtue, Mr. B. seems to be attempting it at every turn. He is infuriated with her, first for her “saucy” insolence, then for her melodramatic attempts to escape him, and finally, yes, for refusing to have sex with him. He kidnaps her, but she continues to elude his grasp (much to the chagrin of one 18th century reader, who claimed B didn’t try hard enough). Finally he offers her a contract in which she would be his mistress, and he would owe her and her progeny a “fair” keep, but Pamela is so disgusted by this offer, and her disgust is so valued by the narrative, that Mr. B. makes history and marries his mother’s lady’s maid. The novel goes on to narrate the formerly spirited and resistant Pamela’s devolution into a subservient gentry wife, exposing to readers the true nature of the marriage contract: Like the mistress contract, it is just another form of coercion.

When Samuel Richardson published Pamela, it was met with much the same reception as Fifty Shades of Grey. Reviled by some, beloved by others, it was first and foremost read. Furthermore, critics of the novel seemed disgusted by exactly what its admirers most admired: the hypnotic spell it casts over its reader. In his eulogy on Richardson’s death, French philosopher Denis Diderot summed up the effects of Richardson’s words:

“O Richardson! whether we wish it or not, we play a part in your works, we intervene in the conversation, we give it approval and blame, we feel admiration, irritation and indignation. How many times have I caught myself, as happens with children being taken to the theatre for the first time, shouting out: Don’t believe him, he’s deceiving you… If you go there it’ll be the end of you. My heart was in a state of permanent agitation. How good I was! How just I was! Wasn’t I pleased with myself! When I had been reading you, I was like a man who had spent the day doing good.”

While Diderot rhapsodized, famous 18th century misogynist Henry Fielding (who himself married his deceased wife’s maid eight years after the publication of Pamela), rewrote Pamela to expose its facetiousness. Shamela is not the tale of a “poor girl’s little innocent story” but of a “poor girl’s little &c.” The anti-Pamelists, as Fielding and his group were known, were incensed by two things. Firstly, they disapproved of the disingenuous disavowal of the pornographic, i.e. arousing, nature of the story: This is not a book, they argued, that inculcates virtue by associating it with sentimental feelings, as Diderot and other Pamelists claimed, but rather, a piece of erotica meant to stimulate other sorts of feelings. “I feel another Emotion!” reported one of Shamela’s mock prefacers, and was forced to put down his pen and deal with it.

But the Pamela-Shamela debate hinged on another factor as well: whether it is possible for a girl to be sincere in her protests, knowing that they may well lead to a huge salary bump. Can you say no and mean it if saying no makes him want you more, and you like that? What is the status of a partial no when you in fact have a partial yes squirreled away?

The principle that saying no a few times will get you more of what you want is another 18th century inheritance that is alive and well in our culture. Even today, if a quick survey of movie plots is to be believed, a primary and pro forma “no” must be issued before the modern reader will accept the female protagonist’s right to say yes: the heroine must never want sex for its own sake. What Fielding couldn’t understand was that Pamela insists on saying no despite wanting to say yes, because it would be social suicide to say yes, because her father would never forgive her and yes, because there is a better offer lurking in the wings. She must say no because she lives in the 18th century, when women must say no, even if they sort of like the guy. It is the status of that no — the one you say even when you really, really wanna — that lays the groundwork for the novel.

For it is precisely by teasing apart the ability to consent from the capacity to enjoy that reveals the operation of the novel, and of capitalism more generally: Pamela must say no, even if she would enjoy saying yes, just as saying yes to a contract reveals not consent but coercion. Consent is not a representation of the freedom to say yes, but rather that which is sacrificed to the pleasure of saying yes. When reading novels we relish the suspension of our autonomy, otherwise known as suspense, or perhaps even “plot”. We say yes to not consenting in order to enjoy, just as Pamela says no despite wanting to enjoy, and then says yes to a marriage contract that eliminates her autonomy entirely.

Pamela’s exploration of consent culminates one night, when B dresses up as a maid and jumps into bed with Pamela where she lies naked: “The guilty Wretch took my Left-arm, and laid it under his Neck, as the vile Procuress held my Right; and then he clasp’d me around my Waist!” Pamela implores B to leave her and virtue in peace, but B will have his say:

I must say one Word to you, Pamela; it is this: You see, now you are in my Power! — You cannot get from me, nor help yourself: Yet have I not offer’d any thing amiss to you. But if you resolve not to comply with my Proposals, I will not lose this Opportunity: If you do, I will yet leave you. O Sir, said I, leave me, leave me but, and I will do any thing I ought to do. — Swear then to me, said he, that you will accept my Proposals! — And then, he put his Hand in my Bosom. With Struggling, Fright, Terror, I fainted away quite.

Richardson mocks B’s portrayal of the contract as an escape from rape while using the threat of rape to convince Pamela to consent. What B exposes here is the very nature of contracts, the “consent or I will rape you!” at the core of this cornerstone of modern capitalism. The contract is agreed to only under conditions duress, rather than an escape from it.

But what Pamela’s readers have revealed to us is that this same contract — in which one signs away one’s ability to consent, or to freely enter into the contract — is precisely the novel’s contract with its reader. The reader is given pleasure, the pleasure of absorption in plots that one might not condone ethically, in exchange for the capacity to consent to what happens. The same disregard of the heroine’s ability to say no and mean it is perpetrated against the reader of fiction. We, like Pamela, can only say “no” and be half-believed. This makes for terrible policy, but it makes for really good fiction. In novels we enter freely into the coercive conditions in which we are commanded to relinquish the capacity for consent — and we like it.

So does Pamela, it turns out, for even as B attempts her virtue time and again, she falls in love with him, and begins to crave the very infractions she so resists. Not a model for policy — the model of “she says no and she loves it” is an ethical structure in which the reader infracts not against Pamela but against himself. There is a pleasure to coercion that fiction makes its business, which in turn supplies the reason that fantasies so often involve coercive scenarios, not because women say no when they mean yes, but because there is a fundamental aspect of modernity and sexuality in which pleasure is exchanged for consent. Think of capitalism. Think of representational politics. Think business contracts — one party is always more free than the other. Think of all guilty and not-so-guilty pleasures. Without the lubricant of pleasure, the coercive system would never have worked, and indeed, cannot be redressed. Coercive pleasures abound in modern life; they are the cornerstone of capitalism. Indeed, at the turn of the 18th century it was commonplace to think that no one would ever consent to anything unless one was coerced; this was William of Orange’s platform, so to speak. This does not mean that a woman can’t say no to sex, or that women mean yes when they say no, but rather that in many aspects of modern life we encounter a metaphysical exchange of consent for pleasure.

By the time you close the book, the damage has been done, the image is there: Pamela spread-eagle on the bed, naked, beneath Mr. B’s heavily breathing body. It is not an image one would choose to see, or choose to have occurred, nor can one choose to un-see it, and yet Richardson’s gambit was that it was one that we would nevertheless enjoy having seen it. His sales indicate that he was right. • 28 January 2013


Batya Ungar-Sargon is a Brooklyn based freelancer and a PhD candidate. Her work has appeared in City Limits, The Forward, Tablet, and Eighteenth Century Novel. She teaches at CUNY and tweets at @bungarsargon.