An Eighteenth Century Blockbuster
Pamela, published in 1740, was apparently both the Twilight and the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day. Folks couldn’t get enough of it.
Pamela inspired numerous spin-offs, take-offs, and even paintings and prints — the eighteenth century equivalent of the movie version — depicting its most famous scenes.
The Pamela of the story is a 15 year old servant girl employed by a powerful but corrupt young English nobleman — who finds her sexually irresistible.
As in a dream, we are never told either this nobleman’s first or his last names. Pamela refers to him only as “my Master.”
Whatever his name is, he can’t keep his hands off her. In a series of letters to her worried parents, Pamela describes her desperate attempts to preserve her virginity, which she variously refers to as “my Virtue” and “my Honesty.”
Her pursuer eventually arranges to have her locked up in one of his country estates. Like a fairy tale princess locked in a castle, she awaits the prince who will save her.
Then in a curious turnabout, the nameless Master suddenly becomes the saving prince. Reading Pamela’s letters, which he has forced her to turn over to him, he experiences a religious conversion of sorts. Through her virtuous character, he becomes virtuous himself.
And in what must be one of the earliest descriptions of Stockholm Syndrome, she then falls in love with her former captor. They achieve marital and religious bliss, and are the envy of all their neighbors.
The Virgin in the Castle
The book was explicitly intended to encourage premarital chastity. Or to quote from the title page, “to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the youth of both sexes.”
But of course it wasn’t the Virtue and Religion that sold all those copies in 1740. It was the kinky sexuality.
The powerful, irresistible nobleman with no name. The virgin locked in the castle. The other punishments the heroine is forced to undergo before she eventually triumphs.
What’s it all about, this kinky stuff that captivated eighteenth century readers? And that still captivates today in romances like Fifty Shades of Grey?
Whatever it is, it goes pretty far back — all the way back to nursery tales. The virgin locked in the castle. The good princess who defeats the bad man — or maybe saves him.
The Bonds of Love
As a sex therapist, I spend a fair amount of time wondering about such things, and reading what others have to say.
There seem to be two principal lines of thought:
The first, as argued passionately by Thomas Moore in his little-read but magnificently argued volume Dark Eros, contends that sexual kinkiness is an inescapable part of human nature — the part that delights in the dangerous dance between predator and prey.
To advocates of this point of view, we thrill to the virgin locked in the castle because the urges to enslave and to submit to slavery are part of our darker nature.
The second, as argued equally passionately by Sheila Jeffries in The Lesbian Heresy and elsewhere, is that this kind of kinky stuff always points to trauma. That it’s all Stockholm Syndrome. Women falling in love with their patriarchal captors, and with their captivity.
According to this second argument, the virgin in the castle is female sexuality itself, condemned to prison millennia ago for threatening the partriarchal social order. The sexual fantasy of being locked in a castle may be just an attempt to wring some meager pleasure from the whole sorry affair.
So who’s right?
Well, there’s a general rule in the psych business — one should avoid “either/or thinking.” The mind is never either/or.
In subsequent articles in this series, we’ll try to hold on to both viewpoints at once. And to keep an open mind as we wonder more about Fifty Shades and the virgin locked in the castle.