I had been putting off reading Fielding’s Joseph Andrews until I had read Richardson’s Pamela, the object of its satire; but eventually, I decided I didn’t have the patience. True, I have read the 1700 or so often excruciatingly slow pages of Richardson’s later novel Clarissa, but that was a masterpiece, and, despite its very slow tempo, utterly engrossing: but Pamela, quite frankly, promised to be a stinker. Maidservant Pamela Andrews resists for some 500 pages the sexual advances of her employer Mr B, and, as a “reward” for her virtue, gets to marry the very man who had harassed her, abducted her, imprisoned her, and had even attempted to rape her: both morally and psychologically, this seems dubious stuff. Maybe if I were to read the entire novel, I would find various moral and psychological nuances that a mere summary of the plot could not hope to convey; but frankly, even armed with the conviction that something written by the author of a masterpiece such as Clarissa could not be entirely without merit, I found the idea of sinking my teeth into Pamela (pardon the image) entirely resistible. The main reason I felt I should read it was that I would then be able to appreciate all the better Fielding’s satire of Pamela in Joseph Andrews: while I had little desire to read Pamela, I desperately wanted to read the jolly comic romp promised by Joseph Andrews. Eventually, I decided to by-pass the Richardson novel and move straight to the parody. After all, I reasoned, one need not have read the various chivalric romances to enjoy Don Quixote. Did I really have to wade through Pamela before I could come on to this, the first novel of the writer who later went on to produce such marvels as Jonathan Wild, Amelia, and, of course, Tom Jones?
Fielding decides to give us the full name of Pamela’s employer, Mr B: it is, he insists, Mr Booby. That name takes on a somewhat different comic complexion when applied to his aunt – Lady Booby. This good lady, newly widowed, sets out to seduce her young servant, Joseph Andrews, just as Squire Booby had set out to “seduce” Joseph’s sister, Pamela; but Joseph is as chaste as his sister, and, indeed, as his Biblical namesake, and, despite Lady Booby displaying to him her well-endowed charms, resists heroically. For this, he is turned out, penniless. And now, Fielding has a problem: while he was taking the no doubt well-deserved piss out of Richardson’s Pamela, he was on safe comic ground; but he could not keep this going for an entire full-length novel. Once Joseph is turned out, Fielding is forced to move away from parody and pastiche, and invent comic material that is more, as it were, free-standing. And in this, it must be admitted, he succeeded only partially: the comic genius that is consistently in view in the later Tom Jones is apparent here only intermittently.
Fielding soon realises that the virtuous, strait-laced Joseph Andrews could not carry off the central role in a comic romp; and so he introduces Parson Adams, one of his finest comic creations. Parson Adams is an impoverished, other-worldy curate, unimpeachable in his moral integrity, but not quite equipped to negotiate the various vicissitudes of the material world. In some ways, he even recalls Nazarin of Benito Pérez Galdós; but while Nazarin rejects violence under any circumstances, and ends a tragic figure, Parson Adams is quite prepared to take up cudgels, quite literally, when there are villains to be disposed of and innocents protected. (And this being a Fielding novel, there is no shortage of mock-heroic fights and severe beatings.) Fielding resists any temptation to provide Parson Adams even with overtones of the tragic: while he clearly admires his incorruptible moral probity, he allows Parson Adams to remain throughout a gloriously comic figure. And, also, one of those rare believable portraits of a completely good man. Fielding laugh at him even as he admires him, and so do we. The laughter is never superior, and there is in it not the slightest hint of malice or of condescension.
Fielding introduces also a love interest for Joseph – the delightfully named Fanny Goodwill. (Tony Richardson’s 1977 film version came with the tagline: “The story of a young, English footman who served the Lady Booby but loved the little Fanny.”) There isn’t really much in the way of characterisation either of Joseph or of Fanny: they’re merely stock figures in a generally rumbustious romp.
However, for all the rumbustiousness, Fielding’s moral compass is very firmly established. His principal argument with Richardson is not, after all, that Richardson was too serious in his morals, but that he wasn’t serious enough – that allowing Pamela to be “rewarded” for her virtue with marriage with her former tormentor made virtue itself but a commodity. As in his other novels, Fielding is, throughout, an intrusive narrator: he addresses the reader directly, comments, delivers lectures, tells jokes, and does all those things that modern literary theory tells us authors should not do (unless they are being postmodern or something). And, as in his other novels, it works: it works because Fielding’s authorial presence is so very engrossing. His is a very distinctive voice, and holds our attention. It is a voice of great charm – the voice of a man who values virtue and admires selflessness and generosity, but who is also sympathetic and humane, and tolerant of human failings. We often read books for the companionship of the author, and there can be few authors as companionable as Henry Fielding.
But despite many fine things, Joseph Andrews does, it must be admitted, have its longueurs. In the later Tom Jones, the better qualities of Joseph Andrews are consistently in view, and the flaws entirely absent. For one thing, Fielding, when he came to writing Tom Jones, realised that the kind of novel he was attempting required an interesting plot: otherwise, the final chapters would merely provide resolution for a plot that the reader has long lost interest in, and become merely tedious; and the rest of the novel would become merely a sequence of more or less unrelated set pieces. Joseph Andrews suffers on both these points. But its high points are high enough, and while I don’t think I’ll re-read the entire novel again, I will be more than happy to dip into it from time to time to renew my acquaintance both with Parson Adams, and, indeed, with Henry Fielding himself.
(As a footnote, when Clarissa was published, Fielding had acknowledged it a masterpiece, and sent Richardson a warmly worded letter of congratulation. It is good to know that the generosity of spirit apparent in the authorial figure in Fielding’s novels was present also in Fielding the man.)