August 6, 2012

I tried to write a description of the plot of Bettina von Hutton’s Pam, but I found that I couldn’t remember anyone’s name. That’s okay, though. Aside from Pam Yeoland and her totally delightful grandfather, the characters aren’t really the point, and neither is the plot. Actually, although I liked the book a lot, at first I wasn’t sure what the point was. I’m still not, really, but I think it might be turning tropes upside down, and I am in favor of that.

So, there are Pam’s parents, who are living happily in sin and are the only loving and contented couple in the book. Then there’s Pam’s grandfather, who is estranged from his daughter more because society expects him to be, and because he misses her and wishes she would leave her opera singer boyfriend and come home, than because he’s really upset about her having run off with a married man. He’s also set up to be the bad-tempered elderly relative who is won over by a cute child, a la Little Lord Fauntleroy, but he’s no crankier than can be excused by his gout and the fact that everyone around him is super boring. And Pam is not cute so much as disturbingly precocious. Then there’s Pam’s father’s wife, who isn’t what anyone expects, the notorious actress who is more morally upstanding than most of the other characters and a Colonial millionaire who sort of defies description.

Pam’s upbringing is pretty lax, and at age ten she’s already decided that she doesn’t believe in marriage, so obviously von Hutton’s job as the author is to organize things so as to mix her up a little. It’s entertaining to see Pam agonizing over the prospect of respectability in the way that heroines of other novels reject the opposite. And, to make things more difficult, von Hutton has arranged one of those test cases like you find in so many adventure novels, where the protagonist has to destroy his own reputation or give up everything he loves or flee the country or something to save his honor, or someone else’s. Only here the woman is responsible for keeping everything super honorable, and the men never quite meet the standard of honor in fictional heroes.

There’s also a fair amount of subtext about being disillusioned even though you thought you didn’t have any illusions left. It’s not a happy book, and it doesn’t end happily — I look forward to finding out what’s going to happen in the sequel –but it mostly feels right. Pam isn’t the kind of book that I get super enthusiastic about, but I do kind of love it. Not a lot, but a little.


  1. This sounds interesting. There is a New York Times review from 1905 at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F60714FC3F5E12738DDDA80894DC405B858CF1D3. Q Apparently there is a sequel, too, called Pam Decides.

    • Yeah, I actually have the sequel, but I haven’t read it yet. That’s a great review, and I mostly agree with it — thanks for the link.

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