Joseph Andrews

“The more our judgments err, the less we are willing to own it.”

Henry Fielding

OK. On with the revision.

Joseph Andrews is a member of that delightful species, the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Not only that, it’s a sort-of parody of my literary nemesis, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. So Joseph Andrews was not exactly set to be my ideal revision read.

Joseph Andrews, brother of Pamela, gets kicked out of the house where he’s a servant for, essentially, refusing to sleep with the lady of the house (the idea being that Joseph is a male version of Pamela, and thus Super Hot where Pamela was ridiculously beautiful). And so begins his journey home through England with his friend Parson Adams and One True Love Fanny.

The novel examines the idea of virtue in an episodic plot which has Our Heroes encounter a whole range of characters, from squires who lie for sport to travelling pedlars endowed with mysterious knowledge, moving from a city in which “virtue” is negotiable, a technicality or an affectation, into a countryside where the idea of virtue ties itself to specific attributes – often superficial – rather than the range of attributes that the word is assumed to cover. Digressions and anecdotes embedded within the novel offer further texture, further material, to the discussion, as well as keeping narrative momentum up in potentially dull stretches: a coach ride, a night spent chatting beside a fire. Certainly the novel opens out and problematises the narrow view of virtue offered by Pamela (although Fielding’s satirising approach tends to flatten the ambivalences of that novel), and the conversation going on between the novels is an interesting one which deserves more thought.

Fielding’s view of his world, though, is very pessimistic, despite the inevitable (and contrived) happy ending: everyone in Joseph Andrews (save perhaps the retired gentleman Mr Wilson) is out to get something for themselves, money or rank or reputation or a mistress. It’s only relieved from total bleakness by its satire, which is often very funny and very stylised: we’re constantly being reminded (by authorial intervention) that this is only a representation of the world, not the world as it literally truthfully is. The bad parts have been exaggerated, which isn’t to say that they don’t exist. But we can, perhaps, do something about them now we’re aware of them.

Personally, I actually found it fairly tedious to read, which isn’t helped by the fact that the Oxford World’s Classics edition retains the original punctuation, meaning that Lots of Words are Capitalised, and whole sentences are italicised for no reason. Like, I know this is authentic to how it was originally read, but it does nothing for the reading experience. And though it’s much less rage-inducing than Pamela, it’s still kind of facetious and irritating, with an intrusive narrative voice which blathers on about nothing in particular and annoyingly stereotyped characters. These aren’t really fair criticisms, because these things are deliberate strategies of Fielding’s; part of what the novel’s trying to do, not mistakes. But that doesn’t alter the fact that, interesting as its conversation with Pamela is, reading the thing is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Joseph Andrews goes in the Troilus and Criseyde camp.

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