Low Concept

The Life Span of the Novel, From Pamela to Fifty Shades of Grey

What the professors of the future will tell their students about E.L. James’ erotic opus.

Pamela and Fifty Shades of Grey
“Two novels built around the same contrivance. Will a trivial woman surrender her virtue to a wealthy master?”

Photo illustration by Slate. Painting by Joseph Highmore via National Gallery of Victoria/Wikimedia Commons, film still courtesy of Universal.

“Good morning,” he said, then sniff-laughed, smiled, and, poking eyeglasses up the grade of his nose, corrected himself: “Good afternoon.” Professor M. looked around the room. Soaking in its lack of promise, he plunged. “The History of the Novel, 1740–2011. Why are those dates significant? Why does our syllabus begin with Samuel Richardson, and end with E.L. James?” Into spiral notebooks they write down his every word, as a means of ignoring his every word. “Two novels,” he continued, “built around the same contrivance. Will a trivial woman surrender her virtue to a wealthy master?”

Sniff-laugh; stares. Twenty-three years ago, they’d laughed; now they don’t perceive it as a joke.

“The rise of the novel,” he began now in earnest, laying his coccyx gently against the lip of his desk, throttling his voice down to an authoritative purr, “is inseparable from the rise of what once was called ‘the middle class.’ The history of the novel is, in fact, itself a kind of novel, an inner history of the middle class from its inception in the 18th century, through its consolidation in the 19th, its utter dominance in the 20th, and through,” he said, looking around the room, aqueous compassion filling his eyes, “to its unfortunate fate in the early parts of this century.”

It is a wonder even three have shown up to “shop” the class. By Tuesday, it’ll be reclassified a one-person tutorial. (Gum pop.)

“OK, let’s begin.” From behind him on the desk he produced a paperback, thumbed over the decades down to a soft gray wrinkly wad. “The novel and the middle class come into existence together. They are like carbon and life: You cannot have one without the other. From a unified medieval worldview, to­—as professor Watt once said—the ‘unplanned aggregate of particular individuals having particular experiences at particular times and at particular places.’ Where does all this rich particularity come from? Between wealthy and poor, there has arisen a new class. A middling class. Shopkeepers, tradesmen, freeholders. What Dr. Johnson will call, in 20 years, ‘a nation of readers.’ For to be able to read is now critical for the wage-earning economy. An entire class of working people, for the first time in history, unlocked from the land, and given literacy,” he said, smiling, pausing. “But no classical education!”


“A book-buying public, almost immediately derided by its ‘betters’—for its sentimentality, for its pretense to literariness where there was none. Apprentices and household servants, and overwhelmingly women. And so it is with particular interest that they read Mr. Richardson’s Pamela. Because Pamela, the servant girl who can write—is in fact derided by her ‘master’ for her writing—is of the new class, as it is awakening to a new consciousness and a new power.”

He sighed, looked out the window. Then turning, and fighting the urge to sag to the floor, he continued.

“Pamela was published in 1740 and went almost immediately to a second edition. Then a third, a fourth. A newspaper serialization, abridgements, a Dublin edition. A word first about its author. Samuel Richardson was a commercial man, a self-made man; like Ben Franklin, a printer. (What is it about other people’s words flowing through your presses that makes a man so wise?) Anyhow, it made him rich. He started Pamela as a conduct book—a set of letters home by a beautiful but sexually put-upon young maidservant whose mistress has died, leaving her to the clutches of her licentious son. Pamela is without property, but, in addition to her striking good looks, she has two things. She has literacy. And she has Virtue. People thought Pamela was real. When they discovered she wasn’t, they were only more delirious for her. It is said Richardson made ‘sympathetic tears’ flow as no one ever had before. According to legend, when they first heard that Pamela and Mr. B. finally married, village church bells were rung throughout England.”

Almost without glancing, he can pick out the one who will stick with him. It’s the girl in the pencil skirt, her avidity somehow staying afloat atop the usual oceanic boredom, an eighth-generation rentier with (he idly surmised) professor forebears whose forehead, either way, might as well have been stamped “Brooklyn” at birth. She is that increasing rarity, one of “the middles.” From this point on, he knew he was addressing her alone.

“The salient point here is not that stupid people loved Fifty Shades or that smart people deplored it. It’s that the educated classes were drawn to it in spite of themselves. Drawn to it just as they were to Pamela. In Fifty Shades, they found what the literate middle classes always found in novels: the drama of who they are, who they must become next, as it works itself out in the marriage plot. How do sexual power and social power map—or fail to map—on one another? Just as in Pamela, a middle class might be born, so too in this supposedly inconsequential little virgin, something like a middle class might yet survive; might yet hold onto its self-respect. This is why otherwise intelligent people were drawn to a manifest idiocy.”

He looked around the room.

“1740 to 2011. In 1740, the virgin must convert the licentious aristocrat into a middle-class individual, capable of companionate marriage. In 2011, the moment has arrived in which the master once again has everything—not only money, but comportment and dress—while the young middle-class virgin—without skills or talents or ambitions—has nothing left to bargain away but her self-respect. And it was into this sad proxy that middle-class readers lost themselves, in one final ecstasy of total submission.”

And with that, the wretched old humanist and the girl in the pencil skirt locked eyes.