"A LUCKY KNACK OF FALLING INTO FITS":
A MEDICAL EXAMINATION OF RICHARDSON'S PAMELA
Anisa Kay Machina
B.A., University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 1993
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
1995 by Anisa Kay Machina
All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Anisa Kay Machina
has been approved for the
Machina, Anisa Kay (M.A., English)
"A Lucky Knack of Falling into Fits": A Medical Examination
of Richardson's Pamela
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Shirley White
This thesis examines the problem of the heroine's
mysterious fits in Richardson's Pamela. After addressing
literary criticism written on the subject, I consider three
possible explanations for the fits: hysteria, syncope, and
seizures. Hysteria and syncope are eliminated, leaving
seizures as the only viable explanation. I then consider
the various possible causes for the seizures. Since the
seizures occur only during the period of Pamela's trials, I
argue that Pamela's seizures are caused not by an
idiopathic condition, but by anorexia-induced hypoglycemia.
Pamela, I maintain, is almost a textbook example of an
anorexic; as an adolescent undergoing puberty, she is
uncomfortable with her sexuality, extremely desirous of
everyone's approval, unwilling to act without parental
guidance, and frightened by Mr. B.'s sexual depredations.
I suggest that Pamela's association of food with sexuality
and her subsequent rejection of food at Lincolnshire result
in low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. Next, I cite
neurological studies showing that even minor levels of
hypoglycemia can precipitate seizures and that hypoglycemic
seizures disappear when blood sugar levels return to
normal. Finally, I speculate on how a twentieth-century
condition (anorexia) functions in an eighteenth-century
novel. The problem of Pamela's mysterious fits, therefore,
is resolved without compromising either Pamela's integrity
as a heroine or Richardson's craftsmanship as an author.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the
candidate's thesis. I reco
2. CRITICAL INTERPRETATION.............................3
Followers of Fielding:
The Faint as Feint...............................3
A Little Bit Pregnant:
The Possibility of Partial Duplicity ........... 8
Pamela as Cinderella:
The Fairy-Tale Faint .......................... 12
Repression and Defense Mechanisms:
The Freudian Explanation........................17
3 . A MEDICAL EXAMINATION..............................22
The Fits Themselves.............................23
Hysteria, Syncope, or Seizures? ............... 28
Possible Causes of Grand Mai Seizures ......... 36
4. FOOD AND SEX: THE ANOREXIC CONNECTION..............43
Physical Symptoms of Anorexia ................. 45
Mental and Psychological
Symptoms of Anorexia............................52
First and foremost, I would like to thank my mother.
Without the many hours of her aid and advice, I would have
abandoned this thesis as impossible. As a psychiatric
nurse, my mother has provided invaluable consultation,
suggesting appropriate texts for me to consider and
explaining long passages of multisyllabic medical
terminology. She has read my thesisno small feat in and
of itselfand helped me immeasurably with the clinical
aspects of seizures,'conversion disorders, anorexia, and
other related conditions. In addition to her extensive
medical knowledge, however, my mother has skills and
abilities which I appreciate even more. As she herself
frequently reminds me, Mom spent hours with me as a child
talking to me, reading to me, playing with me, and giving
me all the attention that my infant mind could absorb.
Since recent studies have suggested that early mother-child
bonding stimulates neuron development in the brain, I
gratefully attribute the dubious credit of my verbal skills
to my mother's early efforts. As a nurse and a parent, she
is without equal; even with the verbal skills she has
instilled in me, I cannot praise her knowledge, kindness,
and generosity as much as they deserve.
I also appreciate my father's innumerable
contributions to my development as a scholar and a person.
Dad endured many insufferable hours trying to teach me the
finer points of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and
calculus. While I will never be a mathematician, those
long hours taught me something of logic and analysis,
skills which are invaluable in any discipline. Like Mom,
Dad also spent countless hours with me in other areas,
taking me fishing, playing chess with me, trying to teach
me how to bowl (lessons which, I am afraid, I steadfastly
resisted), bringing me carnations when I had the
chickenpox, and wincing only slightly when I accidentally
crushed all of his new fly rods in the sliding door of our
old van. In his postcards and letters to me, Dad always
signs "TGD," which stands for "The Great Dad." I couldn't
agree with TGD more!
My husband Jon is beyond all thanks; in fact, I expect
him to be canonized shortly in Rome. I simply could not
have pursued my graduate studies without his constant
support and help. Jon has read virtually all of my papers
(a Herculean task) and praised most of them (probably for
the survival of our marriage). He has driven me up to
Denver each week so that we could spend time together
during the drive and waited patiently in the car while I
was in class. He has done the housework I was too busy to
do and gone out for pizza so often that the pizza places
readily recognize him. He is a loving and supportive
husband, and I return my deepest thanks and love to the man
I was lucky enough to marry!
Finally, I would like to thank Shirley Johnston, Joan
Ray, and Mary Rose Sullivan for assisting me with my
thesis. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I
can praise them no more than by endeavoring to emulate
their intellectual achievements and personal generosity.
In Richardson's Pamela, the heroine's "lucky knack of
falling into fits" is a loose thread that threatens to undo
both Pamela's integrity and the novel's (97) After all,
Pamela's fits are extremely convenient, occurring only at
the moments when she seems to be trapped at last. She is
is unconscious for two to three hours (a length of time
sufficient, at any rate, to dampen Mr. B's ardor), yet she
always awakens to find herself unravished. In addition,
her fits correspond exactlyperhaps too exactlywith her
trials. It is highly unlikely that she would have been
sent to wait on Lady B. if she had been prone to such fits
as a child, and, with the exception of one near relapse,
she is no longer troubled with them after her marriage.
The limited duration of her attacks admittedly casts
suspicion on their authenticity: if the fits were genuine,
one would expect them to be present both before and after
her period of tribulation. What, then, is one to conclude
about this "lucky knack"?
Essentially four possibilities can explain Pamela's
fits. The first explanation assumes Pamela's duplicity.
Cynical critics join Fielding in arguing that Pamela is
really Shamela, a two-faced little schemer who shams fits
in order to sweeten the price for her virginity. Even less
cynical critics, who are more favorably inclined toward
Pamela in general, concur that Pamela's fits are
inauthentic. A second possibility, more charitable to
Pamela, if riot to her creator, derives from literary
convention. At best, according to this theory, Richardson
inappropriately introduces into a realistic novel a trick
from romances; at worst, he is guilty of relying on a sort
of stupor ex machina. a cheap and easy device hardly less
artificial than Apollo descending from the heavens. A
third approach offers Freudian analysis to resolve the
dilemma. Pamela falls into fits, these critics argue, as a
defense mechanism understandably provoked by extreme
emotional duress. While adherents of these various
theories offer incisive and thought-provoking analyses of
the novel, a fourth explanationthe possibility of a
legitimate medical basis for Pamela's fitshas been
entirely overlooked. Without actually being able to
examine Pamela's person, one cannot, of course, reach a
definitive conclusion, but enough physical and
psychological symptoms are described in the text to support
a tentative diagnosis. I will attempt to show that
Pamela's fits are both authentic and medically explicable.
Followers of Fielding: The Faint as Feint
Fielding's Shamela is the most famousand in all
likelihood the most mercilessattack on Pamela, and
Pamela's convenient fits do not escape his blows. In
Fielding's view, Pamela's faints are merely feints,
designed to titillate Squire Booby with peeks at the
allegedly unconscious girl in dishabille. When Booby
sneaks into her bed, Shamela counterfeits a swoon, keeping
her "eyes wide open" and pretending to "fix them" in her
head (544) In the meantime, Mrs. Jervis-probably to
prevent Squire Booby from detecting the obvious imposture
applies lavender water and hartshorn and exclaims, "0, sir,
what have you done, what have you done, you have murthered
poor Pamela: she is gone, she is gone" (543-544). Shamela
continues her fake fit for a "full half hour" and gradually
comes to her senses when she is "unable to continue the
sport any longer" (544). Her sham fits, in other words,
are merely designed to secure the squire's sexual interest.
Unlike Pamela, Shamela resorts to more assertive
measures when she is in earnest about protecting herself
from rape. In Pamela. the attempted rape at Lincolnshire
produces Pamela's severest fits; the awed Mr. B. observes
that he "never saw a fit so strong and violent" in his life
(235). Naturally, Fielding's version differs. When Squire
Booby attempts to rape Shamela, she is anxious to prevent
consummation until she has a "settled settlement" (543).
Instead of counterfeiting another faint, she follows the
instructions her mother has given her "to avoid being
ravished" (554). After Shamela's administrations, Booby
has very likely learned the truth of Matthew 26: "The
spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
Shamela's safety, in other words, rests not in Booby's
emotional unwillingness to violate her, but in his physical
incapacity to do so. In brief, Shamela's spirited defense
when she is really threatened only underscores the
inauthenticity of her previous fits.
To emphasize his point, Fielding modifies Richardson's
plot line to include one more episode of fake fits. In
Pamela, the heroine does not suffer from fits after she is
married, and she comes close only oncewhen Jackey draws
his sword. In Shamela. however, Sham pretends to fall into
fits when Booby denies her a hundred pounds, nor does she
recover until Booby promises to "melt [himself] into gold"
for her sake (561). Having continued in the "sham fit"
long enough for her purposes, Shamela then begins "to move
[her] eyes, to loosen [her] teeth, and to open [her] hands"
(562). While her doting Booby runs to fetch the money,
Shamela contemplates the success of her performance,
contentedly musing, "I fancy I have effectually prevented
any further refusals or inquiries into my expences" (562).
In short, Shamela faints only twice, but each fit
accomplishes her purposes: the first fit secures Booby's
physical interest, and the second secures her fiscal
Like Fielding, David Daiches is skeptical of Pamela's
entire character. Considering Pamela a complete hypocrite,
he observes that she "sets herself out to attract her
master from the beginning, though she herself does not
realize it and perhaps her creator does not" (21).
However, Daiches explains, "prudence as well as morality
demands that she keep herself unravished while keeping his
interest in her at a fever pitch" (21). According to
Daiches, Pamela, like Shamela, is merely following sound
principles: withholding her goods until she receives
payment. She "providentially falls into fits" because a
perpetrated rape would destroy the bargaining value of her
one remaining asset (21).
Brian Downs is equally suspicious of Pamela's fits and
of Pamela in general. If Pamela were really distressed to
the point of falling into fits, Downs suggests, Mr. B.'s
attempts at rape "would turn the heroine's professedly
neutral feelings into hatred, or, at the least, would
restore that state of internal commotion from which she had
just emerged" (131). He is disgusted by the fact that "a
state of calm returns" after "the hysterical spasms" have
spent themselves (131). Such a judgment, while a bit
harsh, is consistent with his interpretation of Pamela as a
"pious opportunist" (129). Indeed, he argues that "the
best instance of feminine disingenuousness is afforded by
Pamela Andrews. She and the story . are, indeed, only
made credible after assigning to her a horrifying endowment
of inposture," including, presumably, her fits (111).
Followers of Fielding like Daiches and Downs have at
least the merit of consistency in their interpretations of
Pamela. By dismissing Pamela as Shamela and imputing the
worst possible motives for her actions, they exaggerate and
expose the legitimate weaknesses in Richardson's text. And
to be sure, Pamela is an easy punching bag for scholars
flexing their critical muscles; the subtitle of the book
itself invites skepticism and ridicule. But a cynical
interpretation of Pamela, while gratifying to the ego,
hardly does justice to either Pamela or Richardson.
First of all, as irritating as Pamela sometimes is,
her age and situation deserve at least some compassion. As
Rosemary Cowler reminds us, Pamela is "a very young,
sensitive girl, experiencing for the first time and under
extraordinarily trying circumstances some of the moral
complexities and inconsistencies that make up actual adult
life" (8). She is, after all, only fifteen, and the
decisions she makes now will affect her financial, social,
filial, and spiritual status for the rest of her life.
Perhaps some of the critical irritation stems from the fact
that she cannot possibly live up to the billing Richardson
gives her; many readers quickly become nauseated with the
endless praises sung in honor of her beauty, her piety, her
humility, and, above all, her virtue. In fact, Pamela's
prized virginity elevates her to a status similar to the
Virgin Mary, as Joseph Highmore's painting attests.
Similarly, Flynn observes that Richardson "catalogs
[Pamela's] virtues almost obsessively, as though he were
preparing an application for sainthood to bring before the
heavenly board" (19). But while the incessant litany of
Pamela's praise is cloyingand nearly blasphemousone
must remember that the fault is not Pamela's. If anything,
Richardson is to blame, for he insists that everyone,
including the reader, adore the creature of his pen.
Furthermore, if the author's intention has any
standing in this debate, Richardson clearly did not intend
for Pamela to be interpreted cynically. Instead, he tries
to anticipate and rebut such cynicism in the text itself.
As John Carroll notes, "Whether he was particularly
sensitive to the responses of his coterie or naturally
adept at predicting lines of criticism, Richardson
anticipated possible objections by placing them in the
novels" (4). Indeed, Fielding, Daiches, Downs, and all
those who "denounce Pamela as a designing minx hardly use
more vehement language or find a more cynical
interpretation for her motives than do Mr. B., Mrs. Jewkes,
and Lady Davers" (Carroll 4-5). So while a bad character
like the unreformed Mr. B. accuses Pamela of "a lucky knack
of falling into fits," a good character like Mrs. Jervis
defends Pamela's veracity, asserting that the apprehension
of rape was "almost death" to Pamela (69). Such alignments
are not very subtle: those who suspect the authenticity of
Pamela's fits ally themselves with the unreformed Mr. B.
while those who believe Pamela side with Mrs. Jervis and
all the saints of truth and virtue in worshiping their
domestic goddess. While such blatant authorial bullying
practically invites defiance, Richardson's point is clear:
virtuous people will not question Pamela's virtue.
A Little Bit Pregnant:
The Possibility of Partial Duplicity
Some critics, while rejecting the cynicism of
Fielding's interpretation, suggest that Pamelawhether
consciously or unconsciouslyis duplicitous on occasion.
Certainly Pamela's beliefs and opinions change as she
matures, and her contradictory statements can make a strong
case for dishonesty on Pamela's part. One could argue, for
instance, that Pamela's fits are a deceptivebut
justifiableploy to defend herself against rape. Jocelyn
Harris, for example, suggests such a possibility. Harris
argues that "Fielding decided that [Pamela] always feigned
because she sometimes feigned, but Pamela's greatest
struggle is to make herself heard, believed, and respected
in a world where appearances are cynically assumed to be
treacherous" (12) '.This sentence appears to defend Pamela,
but it also implies the possibility of duplicity; after
all, Harris concedes that Pamela "sometimes" feigns.
Furthermore, Harris glides over the issue of Pamela's fits,
saying only that "Pamela faints, and saves herself once
more" (22). Harris' ambiguous phrasing, in other words,
seems to suggest the possibility that Pamela's fits are
Like Harris, other critics suggest that Pamela's fits
are part of her occasional feigning. R.F. Brissenden, for
example, notes, "Whenever her exasperated master descends
to more direct methods she is always saved by 'her happy
knack at falling into fits'" (53). Similarly, Alan
McKillop sounds a bit cynical when he refers to Pamela's
"heroic serial fainting fits" (37). Raymond Hilliard
considers Pamela a "skilled actress" (204), and Tassie
Gwilliam, while not addressing the issue of fainting
directly, argues that "feminine duplicity's transforming
powers and numerous attractions pervade a novel which
represents itself as the defender of truth and virtue"
(104). To sum up, even sympathetic critics tend to skim
over the issue of Pamela's fits, implicitly conceding (but
not dwelling on) the acknowledged duplicity in Pamela's
Harris, Brissenden, McKillop, Hilliard, and Gwilliam
do have some substantiation for their insinuations, for
Pamela is not entirely conscious of her psyche, and self-
cognition comes gradually. Just as she is initially
unaware of her love for Mr. B., so she may be ignorant of
using her fits as a ploy for pity. After her attempt to
escape, for example, Pamela writes, "But health is a
blessing hardly to be coveted in my circumstances, since
that but exposes me to the calamity I am in continual
apprehensions of; whereas a weak and sickly state might
possibly move compassion for me" (208) This observation
might explain, to some degree, Pamela's fits. At some
level, Pamela is using her physical frailty as a defense,
something to the effect of "Surely he won't hurt poor
little me!" Indeed, in her panic over Lady Davers' visit,
Pamela considers various physical excuses: "Tell her, said
I, I am sick a-bed; I'm dying, and must not be disturbed;
I'm gone outor anything" (404). It is curious that
Pamela's first reaction is to plead physical incapacity;
more inportantly, even if she herself does not lie, she
does not seem to mind Mrs. Jewkes lying for her sake. In
short, she clearly hopes that her weakness will protect her
both from Mr. B.'s sexual depredations and, later, from
Lady Davers' visit.
The problem with this interpretation is that being a
little bit duplicitous is like being a little bit pregnant.
If one permits Pamela to be consciously duplicitous, even
for defensible reasons, her integrity as a whole is
destroyed. It is true that she hopes others will pity her
physical frailty, but whether her reasoning is the cause or
effect of her fits cannot be proven. In that case, one
must resort to her general character, which is hardly
guilty of chronic deception. She certainly equivocates,
and she is not always entirely aware of her own emotions
(who, for that matter, is?), but even Mr. B. concedes that
she will not tell a "downright fib for all the world"
(261). Her intended lie to Lady Davers may be dismissed as
immediate, momentary panic, as indeed the extravagance of
her excuses suggests, and it is significant that she does
not actually carry through with this impulse. Indeed, her
very awkwardness at the "whole task of telling lies when
politeness" requires them emphasizes her unfamiliarity with
the practice (Austen 105); her ridiculous claim to be
dying, after all, is not likely to deceive anyone over the
age of five. In addition, Pamela herself defends the
truthfulness of both her journals and her heart when she
says, "I know I wrote my heart; and that is not deceitful"
(257). Of course, if Pamela is a liar, her assertion of
honesty holds no weight, but Pamela and her heart are so
intricately linked that the two stand or fall together. As
Pamela herself comes to realize, her thoughts and emotions
comprise her identity, for "this heart is Pamela" (278).
The theory of partial duplicity, therefore, destroys
Pamela's integrity, and mere fairness, at any rate, demands
that she not be condemned of deliberate dishonesty before
other explanations have been explored.
Pamela as Cinderella: The Fairv-Tale Faint
Still other critics have proffered a literary
explanation. In their view, Pamela's fits should not be
taken realistically, but symbolically, given the novel's
fairy-tale orientation. Laura Fasick, for instance, argues
that "Richardson . often uses the body to reify the
soul" (193). In Richardson's virtuous characters, Fasick
maintains, "body and soul move together so that it is
impossible to segregate the spiritual from the
physiological response: both express inner goodness" (193).
Fasick specifically addresses the issue of Pamela's fits,
claiming that Pamela's "temporary unconsciousness,
therefore, is actually the sign of the highest sensibility,
in which . the body's involuntary responses (like
sweat, fits, and fainting) are in tune with deeply held
principles" (194). Pamela's "corpse-like condition," then,
proves "even her physiology to be indicative of her moral
attitudes" (194). For Fasick, the body is a perfect
indicator of a character's spiritual state.
Roy Roussel makes much the same point while discussing,
the nature of self in Richardson. Pamela's fainting
spells, he argues, are "neither instances of feminine
hypocrisy nor simply dramatic effects. Instead they
reflect the extent to which, for Richardson, the self is
initially something ephemeral" (95-96). Indeed, Roussel
claims that the "interior consciousness is ... so
sensitive and so insubstantial that it cannot willingly
stand the direct light of another's gaze" (96). The body,
in other words, is insignificant in and of itself; it
exists primarily as the manifestation of the soul. As a
result, when Pamela's soul is threatened, her body faints.
Accordingly, Roussel notes, "Those moments when B seems on
the point of actually forcing the barrier of Pamela's
reserve are precisely the moments when her consciousness
disappears" (95). Like Fasick, then, Roussel considers
Pamela's physiology to be representative of her
Avoiding both cynicism and suggestions of duplicity,
Fasick and Roussel offer a cogent and consistent
explanation for Pamela's physical difficulties. As a
matter of fact, Richardson has a tendency to romanticize
illness. Mr. B., for example, becomes ill almost
immediately after Pamela's departure, with a mysterious
"feverish complaint" (281). While Pamela is racing to his
side, Mr. B. is blooded, but he attributes both his
complaint and his cure to her, refusing a doctor because he
would "be well instantly" with Pamela there (282). In
fact, Mr. B. believes that he "should have had a severe fit
of it" if Pamela had not returned; however, her presence is
his cure (282). The almost immediate onset and
disappearance of Mr. B.'s "feverish complaint," strikingly
coincidental with Pamela's departure and return, certainly
support Fasick's and Roussel's arguments.
If Pamela were a romance or an allegory, Fasick and
Roussel would have much to commend their argument for the
indivisibility of body and soul in Richardson's novels.
But given the realism of Richardson's work, their
interpretation seems flawed. First of all, Mr. B.'s
illness is not as artificial as it initially appears, and,
despite his claims of infatuation, he has already begun to
improve before Pamela even steps inside the house. In
fact, he is in such a "fine sleep" when Pamela arrives that
he does not hear the coach come in, and his fever has
"abated considerably" before he knows of Pamela's return
(281). Nor. does Pamela's visit immediately produce his
recovery; after chatting with her a bit, he feels "very
heavy of a sudden" and spends the rest of the day in bed
(283). He gradually improves, and despite the suspicious
timing of his illness, it is within the bounds of the
Pamela's fits are depicted with equal realism. Robert
Utter and Gwendolyn Needham note that Pamela's faints are
most emphatically not the dainty swoons of a romance
heroine; Pamela "falls flat on her face on the floor
instead of sinking gracefully back on a sofa" (13).i A
romance heroine might "totter to a sofa and sink in a
becoming attitude," but Pamela falls "down on her face"
(Utter and Needham 13?) And while acknowledging that
"literary fainting" is "as old as literature," Utter and
Needham defend the authenticity of Pamela's faints by
observing that "hard-boiled soldiers will drop like
sentimental heroines when jabbed with a hypodermic needle,
or even while standing in formation" (141-142). In other
1 In Austen's "Love and Friendship," Laura and Sophia, who alternately sigh and
faint "on the sofa," are caricatures of the typical romance heroine (109).
words, twentieth-century scholars need not assume that
Pamela's faints are purely literary, particularly when
Richardson describes them so realistically.
Such realism is critical in Richardson's novels,
despite the contrived nature of his plots. To be sure,
Daiches refers to Pamela as a "psychologically realistic
fairy tale" (24), and Flynn observes that "readers believed
in Richardson's fairy tale" (146). But while the term
"fairy tale" may accurately describe the plot of the novel,
it can hardly describe the novel's style and approach;
there are no fairy godmothers or magic pumpkins in Pamela.
Instead, Richardson is relentlessly realistic, and Miss
Sally Godfrey is a constant reminder of Pamela's potential
fate. The nitty-gritty .of the real world constantly
intrudes. As Gillian Beer observes, Richardson "resists
the romance tradition in which the scions of noble houses
are inevitably the heroes and heroines, and servants have
at best comic roles" (30). Terry Eagleton, likewise,
considers Pamela "an engagingly realistic woman, shrewd,
practical, and humorous" (34). Margaret Doody concurs;
Pamela is not, she posits, "a romance heroine" (Savina 75).
Pamela's fits, therefore, cannot be considered part of the
romance tradition unless one concedes that Richardson was
mixing genres or that he was simply a flawed novelist. To
assert that Pamela's body reifies her soul, as Fasick does,
is just too improbable for a purportedly realistic novel,
and faints rarely occur so conveniently in real life.
While Fasick's and Roussel's theories are appealing, then,
Pamela's fits may be better by other considerations.
Repression and Defense Mechanisms:
The Freudian Explanation
Other critics, in light of Freud, consider
psychological causes for Pamela's fits. Castle, for
instance, claims that Pamela's faints are the product of
repression, but she leaves the question of authenticity
unresolved. She argues, "The fall into oblivion is
typical; Pamela's 'fits' correspond to moments in the text
of imminent or actual sexual disclosure. By assuming the
repressive attitude, Pamela tries, desperately enough, to
prolong refusal of sexual appearances" (482) Castle's
language in. this passage is remarkably ambivalent, a
reflection, perhaps, of her suspicion that, the fits are
self-induced; the words "tries" and "assuming" imply
conscious actions. Even so, the suggestion of repression
would be well taken had she not commented earlier that
"Mrs. Jervis' diversions . give Pamela herself time to
fall into a conveniently deep stupor" (479). The phrase
"conveniently deep stupor" is so similar to "lucky knack of
falling into fits" that one imagines Castle shares Mr. B.'s
suspicions. In brief, Castle seems to suggest that
Pamela's fits, at least sometimes, are neither involuntary
In contrast, Doody distinctly defends Pamela's
reaction as an unconscious one. She argues that modem
readers are suspicious of the fits because "Pamela's
fainting at Mr. B.'s rough advances is a non-twentieth-
century kind of reaction" (Passion 53). Interestingly
enough, though, Doody then goes on to explain Pamela's
fainting in twentieth-century terms; it is "an easily
recognizable unconscious defense mechanism, but if it is
her only defense, she is entitled to use it" (Passion 53).
This suggestion, however, is rather ambiguous, as Doody
does not elaborate on which particular defense mechanism
she means. Beck, Rawlins, and Williams, in their
psychiatric nursing text, list nineteen possible defense
mechanisms: suppression, substitution, rationalization,
fantasy, identification, internalization or introjection,
restitution, compensation, reaction formation, sublimation,
displacement, projection, symbolization, conversion,
repression, undoing, denial, dissociation, and regression
(214-215). Several defense mechanisms, such as
suppression, reaction formation, projection, conversion,
repression, and regression, could describe various aspects
of Pamela's behavior. Doody's suggestion, while
potentially constructive, is too general to be very
The defense mechanism which would most likely explain
Pamela's fitsand the one to which Doody is probably
referringis conversion. Beck, Rawlins, and Williams
define conversion as a "symbolic expression of intrapsychic
conflict through physical symptoms" (214). Taylor expands
the definition somewhat to "a purposeful, although
unconscious, psychological mode of reaction by which the
individual uses a physical symptom as a disguise in an
attempt to solve some acute problem or fulfill some desire"
(305). In other words, the individual converts mental
anxiety into a physical problem. In particular, Taylor
lists "paralysis, blindness, and epilepsy" as the
afflictions "commonly presented by the person using
conversion. The symptoms are physical, but no physical or
pathological condition can be demonstrated" (306).
Finally, a "characteristic feature of conversion" is "the
air of contentment about the individual with conversion
order. He seems to be more relieved than distressed,"
indicating that "he is more comfortable with the physical
problem than with the mental torment" (Taylor 306).
Individuals using conversion, then, find their physical
symptoms easier to deal with than their mental distress,
from which their symptoms distract them.
Obviously, Doody's suggestion appears to have a great
deal of psychological validity. Pamela does, in fact,
appear comfortable with her weakness, piously blessing it
as the vehicle for God's deliverance: "[I] have reason to
bless God, who, by disabling me in my facilities, empowered
me to preserve my innocence; and, when all my strength
would have signified nothing, magnified himself in my
weakness" (234). Furthermore, a conversion disorder would
explain the convenient timing of her fits, for they occur
only, as Castle points out, when sexual disclosure is
imminent (482).2 Finally, conversion would explain the
realistic nature of the fits; individuals using conversion
are not malingerers. The symptoms are genuine, but they
have no apparent physiological cause. A conversion
disorder appears to explain every difficulty, without
unfairly impugning either Pamela or Richardson.
Key, of course, to this theory is the fact that the
physical problem has no apparent physical cause. A blind
person with a severed optic nerve would not be accused of
conversion; a blind person with perfectly healthy eyes
would. In light of that, a conversion disorder must be a
last-resort diagnosis. Indeed, according to Pat Moore, a
psychiatric nurse with many years of experience, conversion
disorder is "extremely difficult to diagnose" because all
2 Castle is also correct in suggesting the repressive nature of Pamela's reaction;
Beck, Rawlins, and Williams classify conversion as a repressive attempt at coping
other potential causes must be eliminated prior to this
diagnosis. As a result, Moore observes, conversion
disorder is quite controversial; despite the numerous
advances in medical technology, doctors and nurses may be
assigning a psychiatric label to a condition for which
medicine has simply not discovered the physiological basis.
Such concerns should not eliminate conversion disorder as a
possibility; Pamela may very well be using conversion
disorder to escape the mental conflict brought about by her
emerging sexuality and Mr. B.'s advances. But until
potential physical causes have been examined, such a
diagnosis is premature.
A MEDICAL EXAMINATION
A legitimate medical explanation for Pamela's fits
would salvage Pamela's mental and spiritual integrity and
Richardson's craftsmanship. But before any reasonable
diagnosis can be attempted, the symptoms she exhibits must
be addressed. The most noticeable one is her "lucky knack
of falling into fits." The nature of those fits, however,
is obscured by the fact that Richardson uses the words
"fit" and "faint" synonymously. Samuel Johnson defines the
verb "faint" in the following manner: "To lose the animal
functions; to sink motionless and senseless," a condition
which is more properly known today as syncope. A fit,
however, has several possible definitions; according to the
OED, a fit is a "paroxysm, or one of the recurrent attacks,
of a periodic or constitutional ailment." The OED notes
that the word "fit" may also describe "a sudden seizure of
any malady attended with loss of consciousness and power of
motion, or with convulsions, as fainting, hysteria,
apoplexy, paralysis, or epilepsy." To compound the
difficulty, the OED records that the word "fit" was often
used without defining words in the eighteenth century; the
word "fit" alone could be used to mean either "fainting
fit" or "fit of the mother" (i.e., hysteria). The OED
notes that a fainting fit is simply another phrase for a
swoon, but a "fit of the mother" is described as "a
functional disturbance of the nervous system," accompanied
by such disorders as "anaesthesia, hyperaesthesia,
convulsions, etc., and usually attended with emotional
disturbances and enfeeblement or perversion of the moral
and intellectual faculties." Johnson's definition is
similarly ambiguous; he notes that the word "fit" is used,
"without an epithet or discrimination, for the hysterical
disorders of women, and the convulsions of children; and by
the vulgar for the epilepsy." Since words "fit" and
"faint" could describe hysteria, syncope, or seizures, the
fits themselves must determine which of the three is most
The Fits Themselves
Although she is often weak and light-headed during her
imprisonment, Pamela actually loses consciousness exactly
four times. The first such "fit" occurs when Mr. B.
threatens rape. He has already lectured her rather
severely, holding her hand by force and creating such
emotional distress in Pamela that she cries as if her
"heart would break, having no power to stir" (64). After
her spell of crying, he takes her "on his knee, with some
force" and "by force" kisses her neck and lips (65). He
then alludes to Lucretia and puts his hand in Pamela's
bosom (65). At this point, Pamela receives "double
strength" from her indignation, runs into the next room,
locks the door, and falls into a fit, "stretched out at
length, on [her] face" (65). It is "two hours" before
Pamela comes to herself, and she faints again "with . .
terror" when Mr. B. tries to return (65). Apparently
Pamela is in such physical distress that Mrs. Jervis
assumes she has already been raped (65), and with Mrs.
Jervis' assistance Pamela slowly regains her strength.
The second bout 'of unconsciousness occurs when Mr. B.
actually attempts rape the first time. He is holding the
half-naked Pamela in the bed, and she loses consciousness
when she realizes that his hand is in her bosom. With his
arms around her neck, she faints away, in a "cold dewy
sweat" (96). Pamela's appearance is so ghastly that she
looks dead; in fact, Mrs. Jervis cries, "My poor Pamela is
dead for certain!" (96). Pamela then experiences a
succession of fits, with "one fit following another" for
roughly three hours (96) When Pamela finally recovers,
she is apparently somewhat disoriented, and as soon as she
awakes, she questions her circumstances: "Mrs. Jervis, Mrs.
Rachel, can I be sure it is you? Tell me! can I?Where
have I been?" (96) In addition to being one hour longer,
this fit is apparently more severe than the previous one,
for Mrs. Jervis observes, "I never saw anybody so frightful
in my life!" (96).
The third bout of unconsciousness is the result not of
a fit, but of head trauma. In her attempt to escape the
Lincolnshire estate, Pamela tries to climb the brick wall,
and some of the bricks give way. One of them hits her head
with enough force to stun her, and she lies on the ground
for "five or six minutes" (200). Nor is she quick to
recover from the blow. When she tries to get up, she sinks
down again "two or three times" (200). Even after she
regains consciousness, her head bleeds and aches
"grievously" from the blow (201). In the morning, she is
so weak that she cannot stir or stand (206), and Robin
immediately draws attention to the fact that she is "all
bloody in her head" (206). After being carried inside, she
faints away again, "with dejection, pain, and fatigue,"
apparently long enough for Nan and Mrs. Jewkes to undress
her and put her to bed (206). The gash on "the back part"
of her head is "pretty long," but not deep, and Pamela
suffers fever, ague, and delirium on Thursday afternoon
(207) She finally returns to her normal health on
Saturday, three days after her injury.
The fourthand most severefit occurs with Mr. B.'s
second rape attempt. Pamela is in bed, "all undressed"
(231), with both hands secured by Mrs. Jewkes and Mr. B.
(232) , threatened with imminent rape. Mr. B. then tries to
coerce her agreement to his proposals, but when he puts his
hand in Pamela's bosom, she faints away again. She does
not come to herself "soon," and both Mr. B. and Mrs. Jervis
are afraid she is "dying" from the cold sweats she is in
(233) . They finally bring her to herself "with great
difficulty" (233). When she finally awakes, she places her
hand on Mr. B.'s mouth and asks, "Oh tell me, yet tell me
not, what have I suffered in this distress?" (233).
Cynical critics have remarked that this is an extremely odd
gesture for a victim to make toward her alleged rapist
(especially since Pamela still does not know whether her
virginity is intact), but Pamela is, as before,
disoriented; she talks "quite wild" and knows "not what,"
being "on the point of distraction" (233). Her immediate
comments, therefore, should hold no more weight than if she
were coming out of anesthesia (although one might argue
that her disoriented state permits her to express the
attraction which her conscious self has hitherto
suppressed). She faints again when Mr. B., at Mrs. Jewkes'
goading, clasps his arms around her once more, but Pamela
recovers again after a little bit (233). She is so weak
the next day that she cannot get out of bed and still looks
"a little wildly" (234). On Tuesday evening she is finally
well enough to write. Indeed, the forty-eight-hour hiatus
in the meticulously current journals in and of itself
indicates the severity of Pamela's fit.
The length of this last fit is never given, leaving
the duration open to debate. On one hand, Castle argues
that the fit is short, claiming that "Pamela (unlike
before) wakes up again immediately, only to find B. still
there, sedate enough now, on the edge of the bed, 'in his
gown and slippers'" (484). But several factors suggest
that the fit was at least a few hours. First, even the
skeptical Mr. B. is frightened by its severity; he tells
Pamela, "I thought I never saw a fit so strong and violent
in my life: and feared we should not bring you to life
again; for what I saw you in once before was nothing to it"
(235). As the first two fits occasioned by Mr. B.'s
advances were two and three hours, respectively, one would
imagine then that this fit lasts minimally three hours.
Second, a lengthy fit would make sense
psychologically. Despite later relapses, Mr. B.'s
transformation occurs during this time; when Pamela's
physical self is in danger, he finally learns to see beyond
her physical self. The concern with which Mr. B. greets
Pamela when she wakes is most likely the product of several
hours' worth of reflection and fear. For the first time,
Mr. B. is both unmanned and unnerved, and Pamela's actual
death could hardly have been much worse than his
apprehensions of it. As Utter and Needham observe, "The
full text of the passage assures us of Richardson's intent,
that the reader shall believe that Mr. B. is genuinely
frightened, truly concerned at last for Pamela" (140).
Indeed, they argue that this episode is "the very essence
of the plot, for it is the measure of his feeling for her"
(140). Such major psychological changes in Mr. B. are most
likely not the product of five or ten minutes.
Hysteria. Syncope, or Seizures?
Thus, the detailed accounts of Pamela's fits may
determine whether they are hysterics, faints, or seizures.
Hysteria, or "fits of the mother," may quickly be ruled
out. Pamela exhibits none of the symptoms described by the
OED: she is neither insensitive nor oversensitive to pain,
and her moral and intellectual faculties are certainly not
enfeebled or perverted. While her moods do fluctuate as
she attempts greater self-awareness, they are not so severe
as.to be considered "emotional disturbances." It is
possible that she has convulsions, but as that is the only
symptom which possibly concurs with the OED's definition,
syncope and seizures are both more plausible diagnoses.
Syncope is, at first glance, a likely possibility,
especially as Pamela frequently uses the word "faint."
Syncope, according to Signs and Symptoms, refers to a
"transient loss of consciousness associated with impaired
cerebral oxygenation," generally caused by a lack of blood
to the brain (696). Syncope also "simulates death: the
patient is strikingly pale with a slow, weak pulse,
hypotension, and almost imperceptible breathing" (Signs
696). The appearance of death which syncope produces would
explain why Mrs. Jervis and Mr. B. fear for Pamela's life:
after Pamela's first fit, Mrs. Jervis says that the Mr.
B.'s attempts were "almost death" to Pamela (69), and
during her last fit, Mr. B. fears that he and Mrs. Jewkes
will not be able to "bring [Pamela] to life again" (235).
Finally, syncope may follow "emotional stress, injury,
shock, or pain (vasovagal syncope, or the common faint)"
(Signs 696).3 In short, syncope appears to explain most of
the symptoms accompanying Pamela's fits.
However, a few crucial symptoms suggest that Pamela is
experiencing something other than "the common faint."
Perhaps the most important is the duration of the fits. In
Pamela's first fit, she is unconscious for "two hours"
(65), and in her second fit, she knows "nothing" for "about
three hours" (96). The length of her third fit is unknown,
but, for the reasons discussed above, it is probably
comparable in length to (or even longer than) her previous
3 Other possible causes of syncope include the following: aortic arch syndrome,
aortic stenosis, cardiac dysrhythmias, carotid sinus hypersensitivity, hypoxemia,
orthostatic hypotension, transient ischemic attack, and vagal glossopharyngeal
neuralgia (Signs 697).
two fits. The "common faint," however, "usually occurs
abruptly and lasts for seconds to minutes" (Signs 696).
Nor would it be likely for such faints to follow each other
successively for such a duration of time. After Mr. B.'s
first atterrpt at rape, for example, Pamela records that her
fits are successive, "one fit following another" (96).
Furthermore, the "common sequelae of a convulsive seizure--
confusion, headache, and drowsinessdon't follow syncope"
(696). As noted before, Pamela is confused and disoriented
after her fits. The duration, successive nature, and
aftermath of her fits, then, seem to rule out syncope.
With hysteria and syncope eliminated as plausible
causes, Pamela's fits appear to be seizures of some sort.
According to Joyce Black and Esther Matassarin-Jacobs,
editors of Luckmann and Sorensen's Medical-Suraical
Nursing: A Psvchophvsioloaic Approach, there are two major
categories of seizures: "(1) generalized seizures, which
begin bilaterally without local onset and show diffuse EEG
abnormalities; and (2) partial seizures (focal epilepsy),
which begin in one localized area of the brain's cortex and
produce abnormalities in one area of the EEG" (757). Due
to the immediate onset of complete unconsciousness,
Pamela's fits would most likely be generalized tonic-clonic
seizures (otherwise known as grand mal). According to
Black and Matassarin-Jacobs, the typical grand mal seizure
proceeds in the following manner:
Sudden loss of consciousness.
Tonic phase, in which the person's entire body
stiffens in a state of rigid tonic contraction.
If standing or sitting, the client falls stiffly
to the floor. Respirations are interrupted
temporarily, and the client may become cyanotic.
Jaws are fixed and the hands clenched. Eyes may
be opened widely; the pupils are dilated and
fixed. This tonic phase lasts 30 to 60 seconds.
Clonic phase begins next with rhythmic, jerky
contraction and relaxation of all body muscles,
especially the extremities. The client is
usually incontinent of urine or feces and may
bite the lips, tongue, and inside of the'mouth.
Excessive saliva is blown from the mouth, which
creates a froth at the lips. (757)
This is, of course, a description of a typical seizure; not
all grand mal seizures follow this pattern exactly or
include every one of the symptoms listed.
Given the vague accounts in the novel, however, one
may question whether Pamela actually experiences the
various symptoms described above. The reader knows that
she is covered with a "cold sweat" (234). Sweating often
signals the beginning of a seizure; John Walton, for
example, observes, "At the onset of an epileptic fit the
patient may be either pale or flushed . There is often
profuse sweating" (614). Other than the sweat, however, no
particulars of Pamela's fits are given. The reader knows
only that the fits are considered "strong and violent"
(235), that she is taken with them in a "terrible manner"
(233), and that observers fear for her life when she is in
them (233) Given the vagueness of these descriptions, it
is inpossible know for sure the nature of Pamela's malady,
but the fits' "violence" and "terrible manner" strongly
suggest convulsions and muscle contractions.
This lack of specificity might be surprising in
accounts of grand mal seizures (and especially in a novel
so descriptive of minutia), but it is, to some extent,
understandable. Pamela's accounts of her own
unconsciousness must naturally be second-hand; when
describing her fits to her parents, for instance, Pamela
concedes her ignorance: "Though what can I think, who was
in a fit, and knew nothing of the matter?" (96). Both
Pamela and the reader must make do with the descriptions
given by Mr. B. and Mrs. Jewkes. Furthermore, details in
some areas might not be given for reasons of decency;
except for the elaborate descriptions of her dress and the
fact that she is "as clean as a penny" (286), Pamela never
records her various hygienic habits, and one would hardly
expect an account of urinary or fecal incontinence in an
eighteenth-century novel. In short, the vague descriptions
can neither confirm nor eliminate the possibility of grand
mal seizures. Factors like the length, successive nature,
and precipitation of Pamela's fits must be considered
Length, which was a crucial factor in eliminating
syncope, may be accounted for by a grand mal seizure. The
seizure itself is quite short, lasting only "from 2 to 5
minutes"; after the seizure, however, the person "relaxes
and remains totally unresponsive for a time" (Black and
Matassarin-Jacobs 757). The individual may "rouse briefly
and then go into a postictal [post-seizure] phase of sleep
lasting 30 minutes to several hours" (Black and Matassarin-
Jacobs 757). This postictal sleep is generally quite
heavy, due to the extreme fatigue occasioned by the
seizure, and the individual frequently has "complete
amnesia for the seizure episode" (Black and Matassarin-
Jacobs 758) If Pamela's fits are actually grand mal
seizures, the combination of postictal unconsciousness and
sleep may explain the fact that her "deplorable state of
death" lasts for two to three hours (233).
Furthermore, it is possiblethough unusual--for grand
mal seizures to occur successively. Signs and Symptoms
points out, for example, that successive seizures occur in
roughly "5% to 8% of patients" (665) In her second bout
of unconsciousness, and only then, Pamela records that she
has "one fit following another" (96) According to Black
and Matassarin-Jacobs, this state is known as status
epilepticus, a condition in which "a client has continuous
seizures or seizures in rapid succession lasting at least
30 minutes" (758). Although status epilepticus is often
caused by "the sudden withdrawal of anticonvulsants,"
neurologists cite other metabolic factors that may be
involved (Black and Matassarin-Jacobs 758). In particular,
Collu, Brown, and Van Loon, editors of a modem text on
neuroendocrinology, note that "major convulsive status
epilepticus" is also associated with "hypotension, hypoxia,
hypoglycemia, lactic acidosis, and increase in body
temperature" (530). Likewise, Walton notes that status
epilepticus "occurs more often in symptomatic than
idiopathic epilepsy" (617). The successive nature of
Pamela's fits, then, may possibly be status epilepticus.
Grand mal seizures could also explain the fact that
Pamela's fits (with the exception of the unconsciousness
produced by her head injury) are all precipitated by Mr.
B.'s physical advances. Critics have cynically remarked on
the convenience of such fits; in particular, McKillop
sardonically observes that "Mr. B.'s fanatic urge to get
his hand into Miss Andrews' cloistered bosom" is the
"trigger" that "sets off her heroic serial fainting fits"
(37). Whether he is correct or not in his label of "heroic
serial fainting fits," McKillop accurately notes the
trigger mechanism involved. Each series of fits begins
when Mr. B. puts his hand in Pamela's bosom. In the first,
Pamela flees the room and falls into a fit when Mr. B. puts
"his hand in [her] bosom" (65). In the second, she again
falls into a fit when she discovers his hand in her bosom
(95-96). In the third and most severe of the fits
triggered by Mr. B.'s advances, she loses consciousness
when Mr. B. puts his handagain!in her bosom (233). The
striking similarity of the incidents understandably
provokes skepticism like McKillop's over the authenticity
of Pamela's fits.
Seizures may, however, be provoked by both emotional
duress and tactile stimulation. Emotional duress is
perhaps more controversial than tactile stimulation as a
potential cause of seizures. As Walton points out,
"Epilepsy is not primarily a psychological disorder. In
some cases, however, mental stress and emotional
difficulties appear to precipitate attacks" (625).
Pamela's emotional distress could certainly trigger her
seizures, but the fact that each is precipitated by Mr.
B.'s groping in her bosom tends to support the second
possibility as well: tactile stimulation.
In a fascinating study of reflex epilepsy, Francis
Forster examines seizures precipitated by somatosensory
stimulation, summarized as follows: "the effective stimuli
were tactile stimulation or electric skin shocks, which
evoked seizures and/or dysrhythmia only when applied to a
particular area of the body surface" (143). In other
words, some seizures may be caused when the individual is
touched in a particular place. The element of surprise,
however, is crucial; if the patient "was aware of the
impending administration of stimulus," Forster records,
"the seizure dysrhythmia did not occur" (143).
Furthermore, Forster continues, "Deliberate self-
stimulation did not evoke a dysrhythmia or seizure" (143).
Forster cites, for instance, the case of "a seven-year-old
boy who had a seizure whenever his head was touched,
provided there was an element of surprise" (135). In the
cases Forster studies, the trigger areas are on the thigh,
not the bosom, but the mechanism of reflexive epilepsy is
an intriguing possibility. Moreover, Forster himself
cautions that "no possibility, however remote, of a reflex
cause should be overlooked" (7). Pamela's seizures,
therefore, may very well be precipitated by the emotional
duress of her circumstances and by unexpected tactile
stimulation in an isolated area--namely, her bosom.
Possible Causes of Grand Mai Seizures
Since the length, successive nature, and precipitation
of Pamela's fits may be accounted for by grand mal
seizures, the next step is to consider potential causes of
the seizures. Seizures may be either symptomatic or
idiopathic (Black and Matassarin-Jacobs 756). Symptomatic
epilepsy, as the name implies, is a symptom of some
underlying problem and will consequently abate when that
problem has been addressed. It may surface at any age,
although Black and Matassarin-Jacobs note that seizures
produced by a perinatal condition may not begin until
adolescence (756). Idiopathic epilepsy, on the other hand,
has no apparent cause, but it most often begins before age
20 years and rarely after age 30 years" (Black and
Matassarin-Jacobs 756). Since both symptomatic and
idiopathic seizures may occur in adolescence, Pamela's age
is not very helpful in determining the nature of her
seizures. However, since Pamela's seizures occur only when
Mr. B. is harassing her, it seems likely that her seizures
are symptomatic of some other physical condition which is
resolved when she regains her autonomy.
Although idiopathic epilepsy has no known cause,
symptomatic epilepsy has many. Signs and Symptoms lists
some of the possible causes, most of them cranial or
biochemical in nature: alcoholic withdrawal syndrome,
arsenic poisoning, barbiturate withdrawal, brain abscess,
brain tumor, cerebral aneurysm, cerebrovascular accident,
chronic renal failure, eclampsia, encephalitis, head
trauma, hepatic encephalopathy, hypertensive
encephalopathy, hypoglycemia, hyponatremia,
hypoparathyroidism, hypoxic encephalopathy, intermittent
acute porphyria, multiple sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, and
sarcoidosis (666-669). Most of these can quickly be
eliminated; the Puritan Pamela is decidedly not in the
throes of alcohol or barbiturate withdrawal, for example,
nor is she a victim of arsenic poisoning. She does have
head trauma from her escape attempt, but the seizures begin
prior to this event. Pamela is definitely not pregnant, so
eclampsia (an attack of convulsions during pregnancy or
childbirth) is not an option. Since she regains perfect
health when Mr. B. stops trying to rape her, the
possibilities of brain abscess, brain tumor, cerebral
aneurysm, cerebrovascular accident, chronic renal failure,
encephalitis, hepatic encephalopathy, hypertensive
encephalopathy, hypoparathyroidism, hypoxic encephalopathy,
intermittent acute porphyria, multiple sclerosis,
neurofibromatosis, and sarcoidosis are not viable
considerations. The cause of her seizures, in other words,
would have to be a condition that could be remedied without
medical or surgical intervention. The remaining options,
then, are hyponatremia and hypoglycemia.
Hyponatremia and hypoglycemia are low levels of blood
sodium and blood sugar, respectively. Both of these are
potential explanations,because they account for the limited
duration of Pamela's seizures; the seizures occur when
Pamela's sodium or blood sugar is too low and stop when her
blood levels return to a proper equilibrium. Hyponatremia
is, as Black and Matassarin-Jacobs observe, a hypo-osmolal
imbalance, or one in which the ratio of water to sodium is
too high (273). This imbalance may be caused, therefore,
either by an excess of water or a deficit of sodium. If
Pamela's seizures are caused by hyponatremia, the culprit
would probably be an extremely low sodium diet, as water
excess is generally caused by the inability to excrete
sufficiently diluted urine, a frequent symptom of kidney
disease (Black and Matassarin-Jacobs 273). In particular,
seizures occur when serum sodium levels drop below 125
mEq/liter, and some accompanying symptoms include postural
hypotension, headache, muscle twitching and weakness,
fatigue, cold and clammy skin, irritability, confusion,
tachycardia, vomiting, and abdominal cramps (Signs 669).
Although Pamela does not exhibit all of these symptoms
(such as vomiting and abdominal cramps), there are enough
similarities to suspect hyponatremia.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, though, is perhaps
an even more likely cause of Pamela's seizures. Medical
personnel debate the degree of hypoglycemia necessary to
precipitate seizures. Signs and Symptoms, for example,
observes that "generalized seizures usually occur in late
stages of severe hypoglycemia" (669) while Gilroy and Meyer
note that even "minor degrees of hypoglycemia may be
responsible for repeated attacks of sweating, pallor,
confusion, syncope, and seizures in adults as well as
children" (250). Virtually no one, however, disputes the
fact that hypoglycemia may produce seizures. Since
"glucose and oxygen are almost the exclusive metabolic
substrates of the brain," a deficiency in either can
provoke major neurological problems (Gilroy and Meyer 249).
In fact, Adams, Corsellis, and Duchen list hypoglycemia as
one of the "systemic disorders which may precipitate
convulsions" (923). Hypoglycemia, then, is certainly a
viable explanation for Pamela's seizures, especially when
we remember that the seizures would naturally cease when
her blood sugar returned to normal levels.
Hypoglycemia explains many of Pamela's other symptoms
as well. Signs and Symptoms, for instance, notes that
hypoglycemic-induced seizures are often accompanied by
blurred or double vision, motor weakness, hemiplegia
(partial paralysis), trembling, excessive diaphoresis,
tachycardia, myoclonic twitching (muscle contractions), and
decreased level of consciousness (669). Pamela certainly
seems to have some vision problems; she breaks off her
letter to her parents, for instance, because "her eyes and
. . head are sadly bad" (96) Furthermore, while most
critics interpret Pamela's confusion of cows and bulls as
evidence of her sexual fears, problems with blurred or
double vision could certainly contribute to her
psychologically revealing mistake: at first she sees two
bulls coming towards her, but then she looks back to
discover that they are "only two poor cows, a grazing in
distant places" (182-183). Her physical vision, then, may
very possibly be distorted.
Except for hemiplegia and myoclonic twitchings, Pamela
exhibits most of the other hypoglycemic traits listed in
Signs and Symptoms. Pamela often succumbs to motor
weakness: at times she is "quite void of strength" (57),
"having no power to stir" (64), "forced to lean upon" a
chair (106), and "hardly able to stand" (376). Moreover,
she trembles quite a bit: her knees "beat one against the
other" (67). Her limbs tremble so much that she is forced
to walk "holding by the wainscot" (107); indeed, her hand
later shakes so much that she spills Mr. B.'s wine (212-
213). She also has problems with excessive diaphoresis
(sweating); she is covered with "cold sweats" in at least
two of her fits (96, 233) Though it is too common to be a
reliable symptom by itself, tachycardia (a rapid pulse) is
also present; Pamela's heart flutters like "a new-caught
bird in a cage" (67). Furthermore, Pamela's consciousness
is sometimes oddly affected. When Mrs. Jewkes gives Pamela
one of Mr. B.'s letters, Pamela is so surprised that she
"cannot stand, nor hear, nor read" (175). Nor is this
statement mere hyperbole to dismiss Mrs. Jewkes, for Pamela
writes to her parents that she "could hardly read" the
letters, "notwithstanding [her] impatience," until she has
recovered a little (176). A decreased level of
consciousness also explains the length of both her seizures
and recovery time afterwards. Finally, hypoglycemia could
cause her one episode of status epilepticus; as noted
above, Collu, Brown, and Van Loon explain that "major
convulsive status epilepticus" is associated with
hypoglycemia (530). In short, hypoglycemia accounts for
most of Pamela's major symptoms: vision problems, motor
weakness, trembling, cold sweats, rapid pulse, altered
consciousness, status epilepticus, and, of course, the fits
FOOD AND SEX: THE ANOREXIC CONNECTION
It is entirely possible that Pamela is bom with
idiopathic hypoglycemia and that the condition does not
manifest itself with seizures and other symptoms until she
reaches adolescence. In fact, Black and Matassarin-Jacobs
observe that although the "underlying cause may be
perinatal," seizures "may not begin for many years, often
during puberty" (756). In other words, Pamela's inherent
hypoglycemia does not manifest itself until she is fifteen
and under duress. But this hypothesis really does not
explain the cessation of the seizures after Mr. B. ends his
attacks. Nor is idiopathic hypoglycemia all that common.
Instead, Gilroy and Meyer list a deficient supply of
carbohydrates as the first cause of hypoglycemia, a
deficiency typically produced by starvation, esophageal
obstruction, or anorexia nervosa (250). Pamela is
obviously not being starved, nor does she have some
esophageal obstruction preventing her from eating, but
self-starvation is a striking possibility. Indeed, it
seems quite likely that both Pamela's seizures and her
hypoglycemia are themselves symptomatic of an underlying
condition: anorexia nervosa.
Some critics might immediately dismiss such a
suggestion as anachronistic. How could a phenomenon that
has been recognized and discussed only in the last twenty
years or so explain hypoglycemic-induced seizures in an
eighteenth-century heroine? To some extent, the suggestion
is anachronistic; since the disease was not named and
identified until the 1870s, Joan Brumberg, for example,
maintains that "the modern clinical term 'anorexia nervosa'
should be used to designate only a disease of modernity"
(3). Furthermore, Brumberg cautions, "When anorexia, lack
of appetite, or refusal of food presents itself as a
symptom, it need not always imply anorexia nervosa" (43).
Certainly lack of appetite is symptomatic of many physical
and psychological disorders, and it is impossible for
twentieth-century scholars to verify anorexia nervosa in
While the technical recognition of anorexia nervosa as
an eating disorder is new, however, the symptoms themselves
are not. Although she is careful to define anorexia
nervosa as a strictly modern disorder,. Brumberg also traces
the history of anorexic behavior in Western history in
Fasting Girls, arguing that "today's anorectic is one of a
long line of women and girls throughout history who have
used control of appetite, food, and the body as a focus of
their symbolic language" (2). Brumberg cites medieval
examples such as Catherine of Siena as eating "only a
handful of herbs each day" and Saint Veronica as fasting
"for three days at a time," but permitting herself on
Fridays to "chew on five orange seeds, in memory of the
five wounds of Jesus" (41) In the early modem period,
Brumberg continues, stories of "miraculous fasting maids"
abounded; these women "claimed to avoid normal earthly
fare, and if they ate, they ate only delicate things" (47).
Brumberg also discusses the case of Martha Taylor, who in
1668-1669 became famous because she "allegedly took no
food," except for a few drops of liquid occasionally (50).
Such historical examples support the possibility that
Richardson was familiar with fasting behavior in women.
While one should be appropriately cautious in imposing
modern psychiatric theory on a fictional character in an
eighteenth-century novel, the similarities between Pamela
and modern anorexics are too striking to be ignored.
Physical Symptoms of Anorexia
Pamela's extraordinary thinness is perhaps the most
obvious suggestion of anorexia. The DSM-III-R (Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) considers
weight loss of at least 15% of the original weight an
essential feature of anorexia nervosa (Taylor 673). One
cannot, of course, confirm percentages of weight loss in a
fictional account, but there are several clues that Pamela
is unusually thin. Her waist, for example, is so small
that Mr. B. is able to span it with his hands (397), a
detail provoking protest from an "anonymous gentleman," who
complains that "the passage where the gentleman is said to
span the waist of Pamela with his hand, is enough to ruin a
nation of women by tight-lacing" (33). Indeed, Pamela
claims that Mrs. Jewkes has "an arm as thick as [her]
waist" (145). Even if one considers Pamela a bit
hyperbolic in her description of Mrs. Jewkes, the
comparison between the fat Mrs. Jewkes and the slender
Pamela is plausible, and Mrs. Jewkes later threatens to
take "such a thin body" as Pamela under her arm (157).
Other characters in the novel also consider Pamela
extremely petite and thin.
Pamela's attempted escape through the window bars,
however, has prompted some critics to suggest that she has
a healthy and voluptuous figure. Doody, for instance,
maintains that Pamela "is a fully developed and robust
female, who has evidently eaten her meals to good purpose;
when she makes her escape through the bars of the window,
she admits with charming candour to 'sticking a little at
my Shoulders and Hips'" (Passion 53). Peter Sabor concurs,
arguing that the escape attempt through the window suggests
"the fullness of [Pamela's] figure" (49), and John Bullitt
slyly alludes to Pamela's "(ample, no doubt) bosom" (11).
These critics interpret the passage as evidence
demonstrating the sexual maturity of Pamela's physique.
Such an interpretation, however, ignores a few textual
and anatomical facts. To begin with, the aperture between
the window bars is so small that Mrs. Jewkes and the
servants immediately discount the possibility of Pamela's
slipping through it; Mrs. Jewkes, "little thinking" Pamela
"could have got out of the closet window, between the iron
bars," imagines that Pamela must have been carried away by
an angel, as St. Peter was in prison (205). Indeed, Pamela
herself has to check twice to make sure she "can get [her]
head through the iron bars" (199). Assuming that Pamela's
head is approximately six to seven inches wide at the
forehead and that the fit is so close that she has to check
twice, the opening through which she escapes cannot be more
than eight or nine inches wide. If Pamela's figure really
were as robust and full as Doody, Sabor, and Bullitt
suggest, she would probably stick at her bosom, if she were
able to get through at all. Instead, Pamela sticks at her
shoulders and hipsa perfectly natural detail, for
skeletally those are the broadest points on any human
Pamela also demonstrates an aversion to food and
eating, particularly when she is emotionally distressed.
Many people, it is true, are unable to eat in difficult
situations without being anorexic, but Pamela's abstinence
is severe enough to attract notice. After the incident in
the siammer house/ for instance, she is too upset to go down
to dinner with Mrs. Jervis, though she "could eat nothing"
even if she had (70). At Lincolnshire, an astounded Mrs.
Jewkes half-mockingly chides Pamela over her eating habits:
"You don't eat enough to keep life and soul together. You
are beauty to the bone ... or you could not look so well
as you do, with so little stomach, so little rest, and so
much pining and whining for nothing at all" (158). Later
on, Mrs. Jewkes maliciously tells Mr. B. that Pamela
"remains very sullen still, and eats nothing" (213). Even
when she does eat, Pamela eats fairly lightly, requesting a
salad and cucumber for dinner from the gardener, for
example (158), or protesting to Mr. B. that she has already
eaten "a whole breast of chicken" (240). In short, Pamela
is hardly a voracious eater, living on very little
Denial of food is the principal characteristic of
anorexia, but not the only one, and Pamela shares other
physical traits, such as insomnia, common to anorexics. As
M. Sean O'Halloran notes, "Individuals who are underweight
may have problems sleeping; they often sleep for only a few
hours, have dreams about food, and wake up hungry" (132).
Furthermore, anorexics may experience pain either sitting
or lying down "because there is little cushion under the
skin and over the bones" (O'Halloran 130). After all, a
"full stomach is more conducive to sleep than is an empty
one," and given their lack of body fat, anorexics naturally
have difficulty getting comfortable enough to fall asleep
(MacLeod 81-82). Pamela has problems sleeping, as one
would expect, not only from her thinness but from her fears
of nocturnal rape. She sleeps "but little" in Lincolnshire
(142), and Mrs. Jewkes reports to Mr. B. that Pamela does
not "eat, drink [or] rest well" in her confinement (163).
In fact, one night she goes to bed in her clothes and
finally gets "a little sleep that night, having had none
for two or three nights before" (225). Even with the
assistance of wine to get her "into a sleep . little
hoped for" after her frantic return to Lincolnshire, Pamela
still rises much earlier than the somnolent and undoubtedly
well-fed Mrs. Jewkes (281). While Pamela's insomnia is
definitely linked to her mental and sexual distress, her
thinness and refusal to eat may also contribute to her
Another interesting characteristic is the ease with
which Pamela bruises, a trait natural to extremely thin
individuals. Sheila MacLeod,. in her account of her own
anorexia, remembers "the school doctor drawing the matron's
attention to the extensive bruising on the softer parts" of
her body (82) Since a bruise is simply the product of
ruptured capillaries (with the blood producing the
characteristic discoloration), such bruising is
physiologically natural in anorexics; they lack a healthy,
protective cushion of subcutaneous fat. Pamela apparently
bruises rather easily, too. Mr. B. takes hold of Pamela's
arm to bring her back into the parlor and makes it "black
and blue"; in relating the incident, Pamela remarks that
the "marks are upon it still" (90). Clearly, the marks
indicate that Mr. B. has used some force with Pamela. The
bruises, however, demonstrate her physical delicacy as
well. As Robert Folkenflik points out, the novel "as much
emphasizes, her soft skin as his rough treatment" (264).
Her susceptibility to bruises, then, is another indication
of her extraordinary thinness.
As a result of retarded bone growth, anorexics may
appear deceptively young. O'Halloran notes that "some
anorectics may look much younger than they actually are.
This is due, in part, to slowed bone growth" (128). In
fact, O'Halloran cites radiological analyses showing that
it is possible "for a 15-year-old anorectic to have bones
that are developmentally those of an 11- or 12-year-old"
(128). Such physical retardation might partially account
for Pamela's minuscule waist and petite size. Indeed,
Pamela's bone structure is obviously tiny, for the shoes of
the late Lady B. "just fit" Pamela, and Lady B. "had a very
little foot" (52). In addition, Lady Davers' insults are
revealing, for they are generally based on appearance: poor
Mrs. Jewkes is "fat-face" (409), while Pamela is constantly
"babyface" and "child" (404). Pamela's tiny frame and
youthful appearance, then, may be the product of her
Although one cannot know for sure, Pamela probably has
a physical symptom common to nearly all anorexics:
amenorrhea, the cessation of menstruation for three or more
months in the absence of normal causes, such as pregnancy
or menopause (Signs 36). In anorexics, amenorrhea is
generally caused by anovulation (the failure to ovulate), a
condition which itself is produced by varying factors:
hormonal imbalance, debilitating disease, stress or
emotional disturbances, demanding and continuous exercise,
malnutrition, obesity, and anatomic abnormalities (Signs
36). Amenorrhea is a cardinal sign of anorexia, as it
indicates that the body is beginning to shut down non-vital
functions (O'Halloran 128). At fifteen, Pamela is old
enough to begin menstruating, but given her extreme
thinness, it seems quite unlikely that she would continue
to do so.
Mental and Psychological Symptoms of Anorexia
In anorexics, amenorrhea signals not only a low body
fat, but also an underlying retreat from sexuality and
adulthood. MacLeod describes an attitude shared by many
anorexics: "I didn't want my periods to start again . .
Instead of growing up, I had, as it were, grown down, and
thus reversed a natural biological process. I was no
longer a woman. I was what I wanted to be: a girl" (67).
Amenorrhea ends, for a time, the frightening maturation
into adult sexuality. It becomes a "flight from
sexuality," a retreat' from all that menstruation symbolizes
(MacLeod 68). Selvini Palazzoli describes why anorexia
nervosa is primarily an adolescent girl's disease: she is
"exposed to lewd looks, subjected to menstruation, about to
be penetrated in sexual embraces, to be invaded by the
foetus, to be suckled by a child, etc." (MacLeod 68). For
many anorexics, sexuality is threatening and uncontrollably
invasive, and they welcome the chance to escape it in the
form of amenorrhea.
Such traits are immediately evident in Pamela. Unable
to accept adult sexuality, she naturally regresses toward
childhood. Significantly, she longs for her "little bed in
the loft," emblematic of the childhood innocence which she
has left (60). As Hilliard points out, Pamela exhibits
many other "childish traits": deferring "to her parents or
to parental surrogates for counsel and approval," yearning
"to feel 'beloved' by all around her, as by a protective
family," and trying "to ignore ambivalence in herself and
others" (204). Furthermore, Pamela "clings to a child's
understanding of adults in relation to their social roles,
presuming that silver-haired servants are as solicitous as
they appear or ought to be" (Hilliard 204). Pamela, in
other words, is simply not ready to enter the world of
adulthood; for all her intellect, she is emotionally
unprepared to deal with the threats and ambiguity
accompanying sexual maturity.
Adulthood is made even more frightening by the
powerlessness which many anorexics feel. As Beck, Rawlins,
and Williams observe, anorexics "are experiencing
difficulties in coping with life, their feelings, or the
transition into adolescence. They feel anxious and out of
control" (670). MacLeod concurs, arguing that the anorexic
starts "from a position of helplessness and hopelessness"
(66). Unable to control anything else in her life, an
anorexic frequently resorts to her body as a locus of
power; as MacLeod points out, the anorexic's sub-text
reads, "I am doing this because I feel so helpless that not
even my own body belongs to me" (66). Her body, therefore,
becomes the one thing that the anorexic can control, as
issues of power take precedence even over survival.
Pamela certainly shares this experience of
helplessness. She is so deprived of autonomy that Mr. B.
treats her like oh of his possessions, to the point that
Pamela protests, "How came I to be his property? What
right has he in me, but such as thief may plead to stolen
goods?" (156). In all of Mr. B.'s sexual overtures,
Pamela's freedom and identity are at stake. If Pamela is
coerced into accepting Mr. B.'s proposals, she will become
merely, "a kept mistress, or kept slave rather," with no
will of her own (167). Like a slave, Pamela is physically
incarcerated at Lincolnshire, with even her shoes taken
away from her (157), and Mr. B. treats her as if she were
on the market. Holding a glass of wine in one hand, he
turns her around with the other, exclaiming, "What a shape!
what a neck! what a hand! and what a bloom on that lovely
face!" (214). He acts not like a lover, but like an
experienced connoisseur who knows how to appreciate the
Moreover, Pamela has little or no legal redress
against the encroaching Mr. B. Reinforcing his power, he
claims that she has robbed him, a rather conventional
Petrarchan conceit, yet Pamela recognizes the veiled menace
in his words (91). Robbery, as a capital offense, is no
light accusation, and the frightened Pamela responds, "Have
I robbed you? Why then you are a justice of the peace, and
may send me to gaol, if you please, and bring me to a trial
for my life! If you can prove that I have robbed you, I am
sure I ought to die" (91). The point here is that a
justice's word against a servant girl's would probably be
sufficient enough proof. In a court of law, Mr. B. and
Pamela would not be equals, for his authority would far
outweigh hers. Moreover, Mr. B. has already demonstrated
his willingness to pervert justice for his own ends; if
Pamela runs away, he has prepared a warrant to have her
apprehended on "suspicion of wronging him" (207). In
addition, even if Mr. B. does not have Pamela apprehended,
Pamela's economic livelihood depends on him, for she cannot
get another position without a good character from him.
As Doody points out, "the servant-girl is almost powerless
within society," (Passion 44). As a result of her station,
Pamela is legally and economically helpless against Mr. B.
Pamela's family life compounds the situation. A
central factor in anorexia is "overly rigid parental
expectations" (Beck, Rawlins, and Williams 670). The
families of anorexics "are educated and happy but . .
implicitly or explicitly burden their children with living
up to their ideal"; in turn, their children "seem to remain
convinced of the perfection of their parents and feel an
obligation to obey them" (Beck, Rawlins, and Williams 670).
An anorexic is "generally very dependent" on her family,
and "any independent activity is difficult" for her (Beck,
Rawlins, and Williams 671). Most importantly, parental
concern is often demonstrated by "overprotection and
hypervigilance, and the anorexic becomes "enmeshed in a
family system with inordinately close family relationships"
(Beck, Rawlins, and Williams 670). Pamela's relationship
with her parents reflects many of these attributes.
Pamela's parents are decidedly overprotective and
hypervigilant; as Bernard Kreissman notes, the Andrews'
lengthy reply to Pamela's first few letters is "a five-
alarm siren, bell, whistle, and red flag alerting her to
guard her 'jewel'" (27). Indeed, the fact that "her
parents should dispatch this frantically worded warning on
the meager evidence they had before them is an indication
of the type of household in which Pamela's character was
molded" (Kreissman 27). And for all their evident
affection, the Andrews' love for their daughter is
definitely conditional. They know all of the tribulations
which she has experienced, but they will "not own her" if
she is not honest (318). In an odd display of parental
concern, Mr. Andrews assumes that Pamela is dying when Mr.
B. tells him that she is "in the way to be happy" (317).
The clear implication is that she deserves neither life nor
their approval if she loses her chastity, no matter how
difficult her situation and distresses.
Pamela's eating habits reflect her fears of maturity
and her lack of autonomy, though not all critics have
understood the connection. In her otherwise well-argued
discussion of Pamela as a pastoral comedy, Doody perhaps
becomes overzealous to prove her case, misinterpreting
Pamela's attitude toward eating in the process. Doody
argues that "Pamela is the sort of person to whom food and
drink are always of importance . She and Mr. B. share a
heartiness of disposition; they are both healthy young
animals. One of the pleasures of their marriage will be
enjoying good food together" (Passion 51). Citing the
catalog of provisions with which Pamela leaves
Bedfordshire, Doody notes that Pamela eats some of the
provisions "upon the road" and some at the farmhouse later,
even in distress (Passion 51). Doody even asserts that
"there is a connection between food and sexuality in Pamela
in so far as the enjoyment of eating in both hero and
heroine suggests a capacity for physical love" (Passion
52). Doody, in other words, interprets Pamela's interest
in food as proof that she will eventually show an interest
in sex, and Pamela herself, in Doody's analysis, becomes
emblematic of "the healthy world of fresh air, growing
things, and good food" (Passion 67).
Doody correctly emphasizes the connection between food
and sexuality as related appetites, but the connection
operates in a different manner than she suggests. To begin
with, Pamela's provisions leaving Bedfordshire demonstrate
the household's general love for her, and she does not, in
fact, eat any of it on the road. On the contrary, she
gives Robert "some cake, and two glasses of Canary wine,"
but she herself apparently does not eat any (133).4 When
she realizes that she has no immediate danger at the
farmhouse, she finally "ma[kes] shift" to eat "a little bit
of boiled chicken" and drink "a glass of . sack,"
phrasing which hardly suggests an appetite of Falstaffian
proportions; she is struggling to get something down at
all, and she can do so only when she is convinced of her
present safety (136).
Pamela's eating habits, therefore, demonstrate not a
potential appetite for sex, as Doody argues, but a denial
of it. "Closing the mouth to food," as Carole Counihan
argues, "stands for closing the vagina to sex" (367) .
According to Counihan, food refusal "is a meaningful
statement in all cultures and signifies denial of
relationship" (359). Pamela's refusal to eat, then,
reflects her aversion to sexuality in general and Mr. B. in
particular. She is understandably frightened of a force
that appears to her violent and uncontrollable; her
descriptions of the bull that "hurt the poor cook-maid"
4 Robert's snack perhaps leads Doody to assume that Pamela joins
(178) and Colbrand's sword with the "nasty red knot"
demonstrate her tremendous fear of sexuality. Thus,
Pamela's aversion to food signifies her refusal of the
sexuality that is being forced upon her.
This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that
Pamela does begin to eat when her fears about sexuality are
removed. "Pamela's eating scenes," Doody accurately notes,
"reinforce the lovers' physical and instinctive
relationship" (Passion 51). Such scenes occur only after
Mr. B.'s second rape attempt and subsequent reformation
(minus a few lapses), and they symbolically suggest to
Pamela that sexuality can be gentle and loving. The first
eating scene, in fact, occurs immediately before their
discussion of marriage in the garden. Mr. B. kindly tells
Pamela that she must "eat . for his sake" and that "he
would teach [her] to eat heartily" (240). Softened by his
gentle address, Pamela does so and is "much confused" at
his "so kind and unusual freedom and condescension" (240).
This language, significantly, is repeated the day after
Pamela's wedding: Pamela is delighted with his "sweet
condescension" to her "little foibles" (377). The
repetition of the language indicates that Pamela is perhaps
learning to enjoy another appetite "heartily." Indeed,
Doody notes that "Pamela records almost every bit and sup
she takes on her wedding day," timing which obviously
connects food and sexuality (Passion 51). Freedom, as
Doody argues, "is very much at the centre of Richardson's
novels" as "the soil from which all authentic actions grow"
(Passion 11). Pamela cannot learn to appreciate food or,
by association, sexuality, until she is granted the freedom
to choose for herself.
While no definitive diagnosis can be reached, Pamela
certainly demonstrates many of the traits common to
anorexics. Her seizures, extraordinary thinness, aversion
to food, insomnia, bruising, youthful appearance, and
suspected amenorrhea all suggest a condition which has
regrettably become more common in recent years.
Furthermore, Pamela's fears of sexual maturity; her
subsequent regression toward childhood; her physical,
legal, and economic powerlessness; and her family life
create conditions ripe for the psychological development of
the disease. The term "anorexia nervosa" may, as Brumberg
cautions, be limited to modern times, but Pamela
demonstrates many of its key physical and psychological
While various critical explanations for Pamela's fits
aboundcynics arguing that Pamela is either completely or
at least partially duplicitous, more sympathetic critics
suggesting explanations in terms of literary convention,
and Freudians pointing to conversion disordernone of
these explanations quite accounts for all of the textual
factors. The novel's realism, Pamela's integrity as a
character, and Richardson's craftsmanship as a novelist,
however, may be reconciled by a fairly simple chain of
cause and effect. Her fits are not faints at all, but
seizures, precipitated by the hypoglycemia natural to her
anorexic state. Each link in the chain leads logically to
the next. Pamela's fear of sexual maturity, her lack of
autonomy, and her adolescencecombined with Mr. B.'s
threats and depredationsform conditions perfect for the
development of anorexia, and her eating habits and
extremely diminutive appearance confirm this hypothesis.
Her aversion to eatingsymbolic of her aversion to sex
naturally produces hypoglycemia; without sufficient
carbohydrates to provide glucose, her blood sugar drops to
a point low enough to bring on seizures. The apparent
convenience of the seizures is accounted for by the fact
that they are themselves symptomatic of other problems;
when the underlying causes are addressed, the seizures
Yet how does anorexia nervosa, a twentieth-century
medical phenomenon, affect our understanding of an
eighteenth-century novel and its author? Since anorexia
nervosa was not diagnosed until the nineteenth century,
Richardson could not have known of the disease with the
medical precision of modern psychiatrists. As a keen
observer of feminine behavior, however, Richardson was
probably aware of the'eating disorders connected with
adolescent women of his time. Indeed, Brumberg points out,
the "ability to live without eating normal food" was linked
to "the process of adolescent female development" in the
early eighteenth century (54). As proof, Brumberg quotes
John Reynolds, a Protestant physician, on the case of
Martha Taylor's fasting: "It will strengthen our hypothesis
to observe that most of these damsels fall to this
abstinence between the ages of fourteen and twenty years"
(54). Brumberg cites other eighteenth-century authorities
as well; Erasmus Darwin "concurred that food abstinence was
associated with 'young ladies," and Albrecht Von Haller
wrote, "All medical history from the earliest time is
filled with men, but especially women, who for whole entire
months, in fact even years, lived without food" (54).
Since the "female proclivity for fasting was part of the
established medical canon," Richardson could have been
relying on contemporary medical accounts for his
information (Brumberg 54) .
Richardson's interest in female behavior and the
medical canon of the time reasonably account for his
remarkably accurate depictions of anorexia nervosa, but how
does the disease function in the novel? Why does
Richardson bother to bring it in at all? Two factors, I
suggest, are involved. First of all, Pamela's fasting
behavior is critical in establishing the authenticity of
her protests. By refusing to eat, she demonstrates her
genuine refusal of Mr. B.'s sexual advances; unlike
Fielding's Shamela, she is not protesting merely to get a
better price for her virginity. If Pamela were perfectly
healthy and flourishing during her imprisonment at
Lincolnshire, her physical state would appear to belie her
sexual fears. As it is, however, the threat of rape
disturbs her so much that she refuses to eat; her
psychological fears are severe enough to jeopardize her
Second, food becomes an effective metaphor for
sexuality. Pamela's denial of food, like her visual
distortions of Mrs. Jewkes, Colbrand, and the cows,
demonstrates her extreme fear of sexuality; food becomes
the code in which sexual fears and likes are communicated.
Although he initially dismisses Pamela's seizures and ill
health as feminine wiles, Mr. B. also comes to understand
this code. In the episodes where Mr. B. gently feeds
Pamela, he demonstrates his concern for her pleasure and
health. He courts Pamela over the table as he will
presumably court her in the bedroom; he does not coerce,
but coax. Pamela, as a result, begins to perceive both him
and sexuality as potentially positive, and her gradually
increasing appetite indicates her cautious acceptance of
both food and sexuality. Richardson's use of food as
metaphor, therefore, provides a means through which the
characters and the readers can follow sexual concerns.
While Richardson could not have known all the clinical
details of anorexia nervosa, he couldand didcreate a
reasonable depiction of it based on the medical canon of
his time and his own observations of feminine behavior.
Anorexia nervosa plays a significant role in the novel; it
demonstrates the authenticity of Pamela's protests, and
Pamela's denial of food serves as a metaphor for her denial
of sex. Even more importantly, anorexia provides a medical
rationale for Pamela's fits, a crucial and previously
misunderstood element of the novel, and it is no small
tribute to Richardson's craft that Pamela can bear such a
detailed medical examination over 200 years later.
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