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Captivity in Romance Fiction

The Kidnapping Trope in Romantic Fiction in the 1740s

By Grant Mitchell (2022)


The purpose of this study is to evaluate the kidnapping trope in romantic fiction set and published in the 1740s in England. The kidnapping trope was popular and seen in many novels published at that time. However, this study draws upon two novels that the contemporary industry deemed very popular in the 1740s: Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, and The Memoirs of Fanny Hill by John Cleland. In both popular romantic fiction novels, the authors created a captivity narrative featuring a heroine. In this study, based on my analysis, I will argue that the kidnapping trope in popular novels of the 1740s depended on a formulaic condition that featured heroines with four defining characteristics: youth, physical beauty, poor background, and a disproportionate emphasis on the heroine’s sexuality. To support this claim, the study will draw upon a variety of primary sources from the 1740s. They include newspaper articles, memoirs, and paintings. These primary sources are all either from the novels themselves or directly inspired by them. A close look at this trope will give insight into the values of society in 1740s England and how authors manifested those values into their heroines.

The Heroine’s Youth & Physical Beauty

Popular novels of the 1740s provided a unique plot line and common set characteristics of heroines in romantic novels that feature a kidnapping. One of those characteristics is the defining physical beauty and youth of the heroine. For example, The Memoirs of Fanny Hill was written by John Cleland in 1749. Cleland’s novel details the sexual adventures of a teenage girl named Fanny who moved to London after her parents’ death. The representation of Fanny, the heroine of this story, emphasizes her youth and her physical beauty. For example, Fanny was a young girl, an adolescent that was “entering on [her] fifteenth year” (Cleland, 5). Furthermore, Fanny’s hair “was a glossy auburn, and as soft as silk, flowing down [her] neck, in natural buckles… [her] teeth, which [she] ever carefully perserv’d, were small, even and white; [her] bosom was finely rais’d, and one might then discern rather the promise, than the actual growth, of the round, firm breasts, that in a little time made that promise good: in short, all the points of beauty that are most universally in request, [she] had, or at least [her] vanity forbade [her] to appeal from the decision of our sovereign judges the men” (Cleland, 26). As described, Fanny has a natural beauty about her. She has physical traits that the men in this novel admire. For this cause, the men have a sexual attraction toward her. To continue, in the examining Indian captivity narratives, Robin Harders commented on the same characteristics saying, “captivity narrative[s] had become one of the most popular forms of American literature… [heroines were] a ‘handsome’ woman to whom ‘[d]istress, which had taken somewhat from the original redundancy of her bloom and…her appearance the more engaging’. In other words, [the heroine] is softer and more maternal” (Harders, 137).  This applies to earlier romantic fiction, specifically in 1740s England, too, as Harders discusses captivity narratives and the identity of the heroine. Without explicitly mentioning Fanny, Harders emphasizes the elegance of women. Like Fanny, Harders depicts a heroine as a character that is more engaging because of her appearance.

On the other hand, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded was written by Samuel Richardson and published in 1740. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is about a fifteen-year-old maidservant named Pamela Andrews, whose employer, Mr. B, a wealthy landowner, makes unwanted and inappropriate advances toward her after the death of his mother. Like Fanny, Pamela’s age and attractive physical appearance are emphasized. For example, “Well, said she, I’ll consult my lord about it. She asked how old I was; and Mrs. Jervis said, I was fifteen last February” (Richardson, 39). Pamela is represented in a painting by Joseph Highmore that was included in the response to the novel itself. As one can see in Highmore’s painting:

Figure 1: (Highmore, Illustrations for “Pamela”).

Pamela looks young, has beautiful dark hair, is skinny at the waist, is beautiful on the face, and has plump breasts. These physical characteristics are the ones that cause Mr. B’s sexual attraction toward her. In both of these novels, the youth and physical attractiveness of the kidnapped heroines is prominently emphasized.

In 1740s England, the whiteness of a person’s skin was taken for granted as defining physical beauty. The emphasis on white skin was used to highlight pulchritudinous and the authors of these novels took advantage of that. For example, in The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, Franny’s hair, “was a glossy auburn, and as soft as silk, flowing down [her] neck, in natural buckles, and did not a little set off the whiteness of a smooth skin” (Cleland, 26). Noticeably, Fanny’s skin tone was pure and white. Her auburn hair did not take away from the whiteness of her skin. Cleland suggests the importance of her skin by the verbiage used in his writing. Robin Harders comments on this characteristic saying, “The tone of these narratives were sermon like… [with a] white female captive” (Harders, 135). This applies to the popular romantic fiction novels of the 1740s. Fanny was a white female captive, and the color of her skin was emphasized to highlight her beauty.

Furthermore, in Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, to indicate a visual image of Pamela, in the same image, Joseph Highmore depicted a scene from Pamela in his painting:

Figure 2: (Highmore, Illustrations for “Pamela”).

For context, this is the scene where Pamela shows the letter from Mr. B to Lady Davers in the hope that it will prove that she is obliged to attend to Mr. B’s commands. However, rather than encouraging her to treat Pamela with more decorum, Lady Davers seizes on it as another opportunity to mock and ridicule Pamela. Highmore paints this image to depict the scene described above. However, an important feature in his painting is the glowing white skin of Pamela (she is in the middle of the painting standing up). Here, it is visually evident that Pamela has a beautiful glowing white skin tone. Furthermore, Karen Lipsedge, a contemporary writer, commented on this exact painting saying, “The focus of Joseph Highmore’s painting is not food, or polite conversation and sociability, however. Rather, this painting recreates visually the core themes at the heart of Richardson’s representation [of Pamela]” (Lipsedge, 52). Lipsedge argues that this painting represents the core themes in Highmore’s depiction of Pamela. One of the core themes presented is the whiteness of Pamela’s skin, reinforcing that in both novels, white skin was used as a means to show the physical attractiveness of the kidnapped heroines.

The Heroine’s Background & Emphasis on the Heroine’s Sexuality

The popular novels featuring a heroine in the 1740s conventionally portrayed the heroine as being raised and coming from a poor background. For example, in The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, Fanny’s “maiden name was Francis Hill. [She] was born at a small village near Liverpool in Lancashire, of parents extremely poor, and [she] piously believe, extremely honest” (Cleland, 4). As shown, Fanny came from a very poor background and after the passing of her parents, she moved to London and began working at a brothel to support herself. The presentation and depiction of Fanny highlights the characterizing portrayal of women in literature in 1740s England.

Another condition in the representation of heroines in 1740s literature is the disproportionate emphasis on the heroine’s sexuality. However, despite the difference in how the heroine’s virginity is portrayed, the novels were both deemed very popular. In Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, Pamela was the story’s heroine and her virtue was directly correlated with her sexuality, which was described as virginal. This trope was reinforced by the responses from contemporary readers. For example, Henry Baker responded to Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded in the newspaper The Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal in 1742. Baker wrote, “Pamela, you know nothing of the World: besides yourself…And Pamela shall find, for Vice abborr’d, That Female Virtue brings its own Reward” (Baker, 89). In Baker’s response, he highlights that Pamela’s female virtue brings its own reward. Additionally, Belinda responded to Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded in the newspaper The Gentleman’s Magazine: And Historical Chronicle in 1745. Belinda wrote, “To thee, kind author, …Who fir’d, by thy Pamela’s merit, scorn the servile deeds to which our rank is born; With virtuous dignity our minds improve, and teach e’en lawless connubial love” (Belinda, 104). These two newspaper articles show two reactions to Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Both of which highlight Pamela’s defining characteristic of being virtuous. To continue, in analyzing modern romance fiction, Jeana Jorgensen says, “Additionally, the heroine’s sexuality, specifically her lack of sexual experience…can be seen as an instance of women’s sexuality serving as a token of exchange in a cultural context where men have power and agency and women do not” (Jorgensen, 30). This applies to much early romantic fiction too; Pamela exemplifies Jorgensen’s statement. Her depiction as virginal represents both the emphasis on female sexuality in these novels and the sensibilities of contemporary readers.

On the other hand, in The Memoirs of Fanny Hill Fanny is not a virtuous virginal heroine. Fanny is quite the opposite in that she explores her sexuality throughout the novel. However, her sexuality is still disproportionately focused on as a core feature of the heroine as a person. For example, Fanny reflects back on her sexual experience with Phoebe, “After a sufficient length of dialogue, [her] bed-fellow left [her] to [her] rest, and [she] fell asleep, through pure weariness, from the violent emotions [she] had been led into, when nature (which had been too warmly stir’d and fermented to subside without allaying by some means or other) relieved [her] by one of those luscious dreams, the transports of which are scarce inferior to those of waking, real action” (Cleland, 23-24). Fanny explores her lesbian sexuality with Phoebe in this example. Robert Markley examined The Memoirs of Fanny Hill and wrote, “Fanny Hill is less concerned with maintaining the illusion of mimetic representation than with creating polemical discourse hat can legitimate the ‘PRACTICE OF PLEASURE’ as a suitable subject for narrative expression” (Markley, 344). Markley examines Fanny Hill and discusses the practice of female sexual pleasure in literature. Fanny is the story’s heroine and her defining characteristic is her willingness to pursue her own sexual pleasure.

In summary, both Pamela and Fanny were heroines of popular romantic fiction novels: The Memoirs of Fanny Hill and Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Despite the difference in their sexual representation, in both cases, the women’s sexuality was emphasized as core to their personhood.


In conclusion, the kidnapping trope in popular novels of the 1740s featured heroines with four defining characteristics: youth, physical beauty, poor background, and a disproportionate emphasis on the heroine’s sexuality. Both Pamela and Fanny were the prime heroines examined in this study. Through the use of primary sources, this study evaluates the representation of both Pamela and Fanny and the importance of how this representation was viewed at that time. While Pamela and Fanny were polar opposites in their sexual representation, there was an enormous emphasis on the heroine’s sexuality. This emphasis was presented as a core to the heroines’ personal identity. Each novel spoke to the importance of sexuality, in the representation of women in 1740s England. By using the formulaic condition, one could be able to potentially draw up their defining character traits and trace them among other popular novels of the 1740s. However, all in all, the evidence and analysis provided sheds light on the culture and values of people in 1740s England. Through the representation of the story’s heroines’, one can presuppose society’s statue of women. The characteristics of the heroines not only emphasized women in literature, but the characteristics also made a point of the societal perspective on women in 1740s England. The authors of this time represented heroines with these formula-based characteristics to manifest and allude to the perception of women during that time.


Baker, Henry. “The Continuation of Pamela the Second.” The Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal, no. 709 (May 08, 1742). Accessed April 22, 2022. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/loginurl=https://www.proquest.com/historicalperiodicals/continuation-pamela-second/docview/6303093/se-2?accountid=10598.

Belinda. “To the Author of Pamela.” The Gentleman’s Magazine: And Historical Chronicle, no. 15, (1745). Accessed April 22, 2022. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-periodicals/author-pamela/docview/8487985/se-2?accountid=10598.

Cleland, John. The Memoirs of Fanny Hill. Paris: Isidore Liseux, 1749. https://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/The%20Memoirs%20of%20Fanny%20Hill.

Harders, Robin. “Borderlands of Desire: Captivity, Romance, and the Revolutionary Power of Love.” In New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, edited by Sarah Frantz and Eric Selinger, 133-152. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012. https://sakai.duke.edu/access/content/group/77ae6615-88ae-4156-8aed-8a77add218ab/Required%20reading/Harders%2C%20Borderlands%20of%20Desire.pdf.

Highmore, Joseph. Illustrations for “Pamela” (Scene 10: Pamela and Lady Davers). 1744. Painting. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. https://library.artstor.org/asset/FRICKIG_1039772686.

Jorgensen, Jeana. “Innocent Initiations: Female Agency in Eroticized Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales 22, no. 1 (2008): 27–37. Accessed April 22, 2022. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41388856.

Lipsedge, Karen. “Reading Pamela through the Domestic Parlor: Rooms, Social Class, and Gender.” In At Home in the Eighteenth Century: Interrogating Domestic Space, edited by Stephen Hague and Karen Lipsedge, 41-57. New York: Routledge, 2021. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780429297267-2/reading-pamela-domestic-parlor-karen-lipsedge.

Markley, Robert. “Language, Power, and Sexuality in Cleland’s Fanny Hill.” Philological Quarterly 63, no. 3 (1984): 343-356. Accessed April 22, 2022. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/language-power-sexuality-clelands-fanny-hill/docview/1290882788/se-2?accountid=10598.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. London, 1740. https://go.gale.com/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=Monographs&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=SingleTab&hitCount=4&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&currentPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CCW0116537596&docType=Monograph&sort=Pub+Date+Forward+Chron&contentSegment=ZCEX&prodId=ECCO&pageNum=1&contentSet=GALE%7CCW0116537596&searchId=R10&userGroupName=duke_perkins&inPS=true.

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