In her diary, Pamela Summerfield speculates about another world which may be "a reflection of our own, shimmering unseen beside us." Ray Russell, in his novel, "Princess Pamela," attempts, in part, to show us as England where historical events do not coincide with those of recorded history.
I say in part because the novel's anti-history does not begin until near its end, and the sudden revision of not just a few minor details, but major political events, raises the question of whether a work of friction can establish its own terms absolutely. Russell appears to be aware of the problem, for in an afterword, he provides us with several possible ways of viewing the "found" text.
The novel is presented to us as "the Personal Journal of Miss Pamela Summerfield of Berkeley Square, Mayfiar, London" and Pamela emerges as a lively young woman who is called "Princess" by her father, a brewer, and who likes to imagine that she resembles Princess Victoria, who was born on the same date. As she begins writing, in January 1837, Pamela knows very little about the opposite sex, although as a child at the seashore she used to "spy on the shivering gentlemen and giggle at their white bottoms and shrivelled other parts." It's not long before a lover is climbing in trellis, however, and Pamela records her initiation into what she calls "le plaisir" in fine, comic detail.
The plot is an overlapping series of adventures involving Pamela and her family. Her sister -- mysteriously pregnant thought her husband has never, as Pamela says, quoting Shakespeare, "plumbed her baldrick, her bird's nest, her charged chamber" -- disappears. Her brother is sent down from Oxford "quilty of unnatural vice." The butler is accused of murder and rape. oAnd Pamela must choose between two men who hate each other -- the redhaired reformer Rhys O'Connor and the lusty Captain Ormond with his beautiful alabaster backside.
On one hand, "Princess Pamela" is a burlesque of historical, pornographic and sentimental fiction. Richardson's "Pamela" naturally comes to mind. But the novel with its details about cravats and gas chandeliers, also tries to create a picture of 19th-century England. Here it only partly succeeds. The famous names that Pamela drops -- Fanny Trollope, Anthony Trollope, baby Swinburne, Browning, Beethoven, Chopin, George Sand, Branwell Bronte and others -- seem to reflect 20th-century interest. We are thrown forward in time with oblique references to the movies and junk mail. Pamela speculates about the reform of the postal system -- wouldn't the introduction of small, adhesive labels, or "postage stamps," lead to "floods of rubbish that might pour into our houses!"
Despite this bias, the novel does produce for us the illusion of life in a real past, especially when Pamela becomes involved with Sally Bootes, a young mother from the slums. Yet it is precisely because we accept as fact the historical details -- such as child labor and the misery of chimney sweeps -- and because these mundane horrors gradually come to dominate the comedy, that it is do difficult to accept the bizarre finale -- with a mad tyrant king in a no longer "Victorian" England.
The afterword provides us with directions for reading the novel; Ray Russell, as the editor of Pamela's journal, professes to be as puzzled by the distortion of historical events as the reader. Was her journal "merely the product of a vivid, somewhat operatic, imagination; a girlish prank? Or was it something darker: a morbid, neurotic fantasy? He asked us to carefully study the journal entries for "other anomalies." And he offers another possibility: Perhaps Pamela had insight into some "parallel universe" where the events she describes happened simultaneously with the events of our recorded history.
The afterword is part of the novel, too, and therefore part of the joke. But in order to laugh we have to rennounce some of the old habits which "Princess Pamela" has previously encouraged -- sympathy for the characters, for example, and expectations for a meaningful resolution. Is this a historical novel, an allegory of the 20th century, or a fantasy? And is the heroine the classic unreliable narrator, or is this really fiction which breaks the conventional illusion, or perhaps a parody of such fiction? this novel seems unsure about which of its own possible universes is the real one.