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  • Strange Bedfellows:Textual Transference among Samuel Richardson, Edith Wharton, and T. S. Eliot in the Modernist Sexology Movement
  • Janet Aikins Yount

In 1937, Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham published Pamela's Daughters, a book that Samuel Richardson scholars have largely ignored despite its ostensible focus on the author's first novel. One reason for this neglect may be the book's quirky approach, refusing to document its sources but offering, instead, a section at the end called "If Anyone Should Ask" that lists some but not all of the sources used for each chapter. Not only is Pamela's Daughters intentionally unscholarly, but many of its claims seem wildly overblown: "Pamela is as much alive as ever she was, and she is ours to analyze as we will in the search for the origin of the diverse species of heroines of English fiction," the authors write, on their very first page.1

Critics today still return to other studies of Richardson from the 1930s, most notably the biographical and bibliographical works by Alan Dugald McKillop and William Merritt Sale that redefined the author's achievement as that of a printer who only later in life became a novelist.2 Unlike these books, Pamela's Daughters has achieved what some might argue is a deserved invisibility in current scholarship. Yet as this essay will suggest, the [End Page 29] enduring value of this eccentric study consists less in any light it sheds on Richardson than in its exposure of the strangely significant role that Richardson's fiction played in the sexology movement during, and immediately following, the First World War. Moreover, recovering Richardson's place within this popular sociological and psychological debate exposes an important affinity between Pamela's Daughters and two otherwise unrelated works of literature: Edith Wharton's novel The Custom of the Country (1913) and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922). Like Utter and Needham's book, these works responded, each in its own way, to the cultural transformations that took place during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

In 1903, when Wharton was just embarking on her career as a novelist, she asserted that the "value of books is proportionate to what may be called their plasticity—their quality of being all things to all men, of being diversely moulded by the impact of fresh forms of thought. Where, from one cause or another, this reciprocal adaptability is lacking, there can be no real intercourse between book and reader."3 As this essay will argue, both Wharton's novel and Eliot's poem document Richardson's enduring value within what has come to be defined as the modernist aesthetic through their separate and yet parallel engagement with the "plasticity" of Richardson's Clarissa. Furthermore, returning to the early critical canon exemplified in Pamela's Daughters reveals overlooked features of Richardson's reception history—including its erasures—from the modernist period to the present.

In their opening chapter, Utter and Needham characterize the two-volume first edition of Pamela (1740) as "the study of an adolescent girl kept for months on the verge of sexual experience"; as they explain, "incessantly, day and night, it is on her mind; she is allowed to think of nothing else. Every finest gradation of her thought and feeling is registered with minute fidelity" (7). While scholars today might question this extreme characterization of Pamela's sexual obsession, Utter and Needham boldly offer it as their explanation for the first edition's notorious reputation for sexual titillation, despite the obvious fact that the heroine retains her premarital virginity. They then point out that by 1742 the printer-author had extended his novel into four illustrated volumes, two and a half of which explore the heroine's control of her domestic arrangements and her much "wished-for pregnancy" (15). Utter and Needham characterize this very different Pamela as "the story of an adolescent girl ripened to womanhood by experiences which stir the depths of her heart and soul" (17). Based on these observations, [End Page 30] they conclude that "for nearly two hundred years [Pamela] has been all things to all men: an innocent child, a case...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3192
Print ISSN
0098-2601
Pages
pp. 29-59
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-08
Open Access
No
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