The Fifty Shades Phenomenon is Nothing New

Over two and a half centuries before British TV executive and mother of two, E.L. James, shocked the literary world with the massive success her Fifty Shades trilogy, a fifty-one year old English widower named Samuel Richardson wrote an epistolary novel called Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. Not only did Richardson’s novel become the biggest literary phenomenon of its day, it is also often credited with being the very first English novel. Pamela, published in 1740, was an immensely controversial book – not only because it changed the literary landscape forever in terms of who read books and why, but also because it was accused by many of being lewd and immoral. Nonetheless, Richardson’s novel became an unprecedented sensation with a wide margin of readers, from aristocrats to clergymen to the local blacksmith, inspiring a public debate about its underlying message.

Pamela is the story of a fifteen year-old virgin and maidservant who spends the early parts of the novel fighting off the sexual advances of her cruel but wealthy master, the squire Mr. B, who locks her up in his estate and continually tries to rape her. Over the course of the novel, however, Pamela discovers that she is, in fact, in love with her master, while Mr. B learns to respect his maidservant’s virtue, admiring her for her innocence, intelligence, and resourcefulness in her attempts to escape. Finally he proposes marriage and she is acclimated into upper-class society.

Needless to say, the similarities between Pamela and the Fifty Shades phenomenon are quite striking, not only in terms of plot – older wealthy man with strong sexual appetite falls for virginal younger woman of lower social standing – but also in terms of public reception. Both books owe the majority of their success to people who may only have time in their busy lives to read just a few books a year. Not surprisingly, both Pamela and Fifty Shades were denounced or outright dismissed by their respective critics. Richardson’s novel was lampooned by other serious writers of the eighteenth century, such as Henry Fielding (An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews), and Eliza Haywood (The Anti-Pamela; Or, Feigned Innocence Detected). Some critics go so far as to regard the Marquis de Sade’s novel Justine as a critical response to Pamela, taken to a salacious and depraved extreme.

Richardson responded to his criticism by continually revising the novel for each new published edition, and attempted to tell the same story with different characters in his 1748 follow-up novel, Clarissa; Or, The History of a Young Lady, which is still recognized as the longest novel ever written in the English language.

E.L. James, on the other hand, has taken the harsh criticism of her books in stride, admitting to being a “bad writer” in multiple interviews – though this humble acknowledgement has, predictably, had no effect whatsoever on her sales. Richardson’s prose style, too, was denounced by his critics as pedantic and overly facile. All the same, both James and Richardson managed, by accident or design, to tap into some ravenous public hunger for the stories they had to tell.

When it comes to sensations, the public is most often the judge and jury, no matter how hard the critics try to be executioners.