Pamela was published in 1740 in two volumes and appealed to every type of reader. It had six impressions in the first year and was translated into French. Demand for fiction had been growing as more middle-class women had more leisure for reading, with people wanting to be instructed and amused. Despite an increasingly secular age, religious and conduct books still make up the largest category of books read. The practicality of the books was as important as their piety. They looked at the most pressing social problems of the day: the status of women, the rearing of children, and the conflict between private conviction and social responsibilities.
In real life, Richardson could not blind himself to suffering and injustice. He enjoyed the rights of a man, husband, father, and a bourgeois snob, but in his novels, he questioned the validity of those rights. His sympathy for women made him a passionate advocate for their rights, but his terrified male ego meant his heroines were punished for their rebelliousness, and others were kept firmly in their place.
When Richardson wrote Pamela, he probably wanted to show how servant girls should resist the amorous intentions of their masters and how Providence would look after them. Written as letters, minute details of selective thoughts and actions are included, making it a current record rather than a retrospective summary. This gives the reader the experience of living the narrative through the character, and we see the fluctuation of emotion and moral struggle. Richardson avoided a fragmented, episodic plot by making the narrative revolve around the continued courtship of Pamela and Mr. B.
Richardson was the first important writer to deal with moral problems in a fictional social context. He was concerned with the exercise of prudence, gentility, and morality to obtain a good reputation and virtue. This was viewed as a measure of success. His moral patterns were built against a background of social relationships where rank mattered. For him, the aristocracy was still something to be admired, and the successful middle classes wished to join. The middle class saw themselves as morally superior compared to the aristocracy, and the portrayal of the conflict between them was typical of novels at this time.
Pamela was low in subject matter as it related to a servant girl. Yet she considers her chastity of great value. This allows Richardson to combine the two traditions of high and low motives and the conflict between them. The triumph of middle-class sexual ethics not only brings an offer of marriage but also a re-education in the proper attitude toward sex and marriage. Courtly love was separated into the carnal male and the godlike purity of the female, and the contradiction between the two was absolute. For a lady to yield would break the convention. The feminine role was hard, as it was immoral as well as impolite for a girl to feel love for a suitor before he had asked her to marry him.
The relationship between the individual and the various social groups was a preoccupation for Richardson. What did common humanity and social responsibility look like, and how should this apply to those of a different class, ethnicity, or nationality? What happens when these different values and ideas conflict? The heroine endeavors to treat Mr. B with the respect she owes a master and a man, no matter how badly he treats her. After his attempts on her virtue in the summerhouse, she says she won't stay as he has forgotten his duty as a master. Pamela states that robbing a person of her virtue is worse than cutting her throat; this attitude is unusual for a servant girl. Mrs. Jewkes expresses the more common view that the two sexes are made for one another, and it is natural that a gentleman should love a pretty woman.
After his first attempts on her person and before she has been deceitfully carried off to the country by Mrs. Jewkes, she returns to her parents and leaves temptation, but she keeps finding excuses to delay her departure. Although she states she prefers honest poverty to vicious luxury, she makes it clear she has grown used to a much better way of life. She gives up her fine clothes for a simpler outfit so as not to sail under false colors. When Pamela leaves to return to her parents, she is forced to wonder if she is not sorry to be leaving. Mr. B's feelings are revealed in his parting letter, which shows he may become honest. Pamela returns voluntarily, as she loves and admires him despite disapproving of his behavior. Successful resistance turns lust into love. Richardson claimed a genuine reform of character based on a good moral grounding in childhood and Pamela's virtue.
Pamela's confrontation with Lady Davers occurs because she does not know that Pamela is her brother's wife and is not prepared to believe it. Pamela knows she is married, and therefore Lady Davers is her equal. Each can speak their own mind without condescension or humility. Pamela conducts a dignified and spirited defense compared to Lady Davers' passionate and spiteful rage. After the marriage, it is important for Richardson to show the consistency and integrity of Pamela's behavior, along with her values, outside of the struggle with Mr. B. Her humility, obedience, piety, capacity for love, forgiveness, and gratitude, her charities, and the regulation of married life all challenge the old-fashioned morality of a frivolous and lax society.
Richardson's heroines are all Democrats, and they desire their suitors to respect them by giving them their rights as human beings, before treating them as women. Pamela states that whatever Mr. B's intentions are, let her respond as a free person, not as a slave, frightened into compliance. In a society dominated by men, the ridicule directed at Richardson is due to the insubordination of his heroine, who refuses to be courted like a princess and then treated like a slave. Fielding wrote Shamela to try and force a more acceptable view of Pamela as a fortune hunter, but Pamela is far too complicated to be forced into any pattern. It is because she refuses to behave like Moll Flanders or Roxana that she becomes the first real heroine.