Enduring classic?: Sweetmeats in ‘Pamela’

Although it’s December 21st, this isn’t exactly a Christmas post; but I do think that today’s recipe is a good one for the festive season! This post actually marks a first at the Literary Kitchen: I am writing about a novel I didn’t enjoy reading. In fact, I found that wading through Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson is not a good way to spend the long-awaited holidays.

I seem to have a real problem with novels written in the long eighteenth century. My first experience was of the repetitive meanderings of Robinson Crusoe (1719) (I much prefer the postmodernist, postcolonial recreation of Friday by Coetzee in Foe). Then I delved into Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth. But my distaste for this century seems to be limited only to its novels – for example, I love The Rape of the Lock (1712) by Pope and The Way of the World (1712) by Congreve (both featured in our Literary History of Chocolate). Perhaps one of you can recommend a really good novel written in this period which will transform my opinion.

If you haven’t read Pamela, the novel is written as a series of letters from the servant girl Pamela to her parents, telling them of the attempts her master makes to change their relationship into something rather more seedy. The huge claims made for the novel on its cover, in its introduction, and in a lecture I once went to made me think that I must be missing something.

So I persevered in reading it, all the time trying to work out why the slightly whining voice of this overly virtuous teenage girl could still capture the attention of readers today. I understand that – at the time of publication – the epistolary form, the educated female narrator, the scandalous content, the tale of social transgression – was hard-hitting and shocking. But what is there in the novel for the modern reader to enjoy? The description of the arrival of the master’s sister and the emotional turmoil which that event occasions is, in my opinion, the most engaging section of the novel. As a twenty-first century reader, I found the satire rather flat. However, the novel’s saving grace, for me, is that there is plenty of food to analyse.

The clear social divisions between servant and master – which both Pamela and Mr B. transgress – are marked primarily in the novel by what the characters wear and what they eat. Those living in poverty are relegated to rye-bread and water; servants have access to bread and cheese, and the possibility of meat; and the rich consume wine, meat, hot chocolate, and many other delicacies. For most of the novel, Pamela exists in limbo within this culinary class system. Being sent off by Mr B. in a coach, she is given a parcel of ‘plum-cake, and diet bread, made for me over-night, and some sweet-meats, and six bottles of Canary wine’. These foods reveal her elevation above the level of a servant, even whilst her position in a moving coach, rather than in the appropriate seat at a stationary dining table, points to the precariousness and danger of her situation.

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In particular, the sweetmeats Pamela is given are a very curious food for her to have eaten. The term sweetmeat covers a wide range of sugary foods, including candied or glacéd fruit. According to The Food History Almanac, although wealthy ladies did not get their hands dirty too often in the kitchen, making sweetmeats was often their responsibility (The Food History Almanac, p.178). Does the presentation of sweetmeats to the servant Pamela, therefore, suggest something about her relationship with the master of the house? According to another history of sweetmeats, the industrial revolution of the 19th century and the fall in the price of sugar, the consumption of sweetmeats was limited to the aristocratic classes. This narrative is very similar to that which Nico and I found when we explored the history of chocolate, which Pamela also drinks several times in the novel.

Perhaps, then, many of the details of Pamela which I dismissed as being rather mundane have value as they were actually carefully selected hints to the audience about the title-character’s transgressive social situation. I would love to hear from any of you who have read this novel and can help me to reassess my initial reaction to a book which has been hailed as a timeless classic!

The recipe below is adapted from a book which is indeed an enduring classic – Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. I am aware that this book was written a century too late for Pamela, but it is the best record of doable pre-1900s recipes I have found.

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Janet Clarkson, Food History Almanac: Over 1,300 Years of World Culinary History, Culture, and Social Influence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013)

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, available on Project Gutenberg.



Recipe: Ginger Sweetmeats

150g treacle
75g butter
150g muscovado  sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1 handful candied orange peel
1 handful candied lemon peel
Flour – I used about 14 heaped tablespoons
1 egg
1.       Put the treacle into a large mixing bowl and pour over the melted butter. Add the sugar remaining ingredients (except the flour) and mix.
2.       Add the flour a spoonful at a time and bring the dough together with your hands to make a rich, thick paste that you can work with.
3.       Mould the dough into individual sweets.
4.       Bake on a metal tray at 150 degrees C for 15 minutes.


2 thoughts on “Enduring classic?: Sweetmeats in ‘Pamela’

  1. I know what you mean about Pamela being a bit of a tough read, and some of the comments about female virtue seem rather nauseating in the 21st century,. But I like the fact that Richardson is giving a female servant a voice and considering she has every right to do what she likes with her body. I love the fact that when Mr B reprimands Pamela for speaking bluntly and acting out of place, she says “Well may I forget that I am your servant, when you forget what belongs to a master.” I also wrote about Pamela and food in my literary/ food blog though my focus was on the plum cake she is given for her journey – http://frompagetoplate.com/2015/01/25/food-and-social-status/
    In terms of other 18th century novels I do like Tom Jones, plus at uni I read and enjoyed (though it’s a long time since I read them now) The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox and Evelina by Fanny Burney; think it’s time I reread them!


    1. Hi, thanks for your comments. We will definitely check out your post on plum cake – particularly as it is a seasonal recipe! I haven’t come across Charlotte Lennox before and so I will have a look at that – hopefully it will change my opinion on this time period!

      Liked by 1 person

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