Henry Fielding - Joseph Andrews

Let’s go back to the 18th century when the novel was just getting going as a literary form. Henry Fielding was a magistrate and playwright, and when fellow writer, Samuel Richardson, wrote a bestselling novel about a servant maid, Pamela, who marries her employer, Fielding felt the book was immoral. His response was to give Richardson’s character a brother, who nobly resists when his employer wants to take him into her bed. The result is the fabulous comic novel, Joseph Andrews.

A response to immorality

In 1740 an epistolary novel called Pamela by Samuel Richardson was published. This story of a servant girl whose employer, Mr B, has wicked designs on her virtue, became a sensational best-seller.

However, there was one man who disliked the book and felt its morality was warped, its heroine a sham, and that there was no real virtue in the book at all. So, he wrote a short parody called Shamela. But even that work did not satisfy him, and he then turned from the plays he had been writing for some years and penned his first novel, Joseph Andrews which was published in 1742. Joseph is the brother of Pamela and he too is an object of sexual interest to his employer, Lady Booby. Fielding shows his readers what true virtue looks like, and in doing so wrote a book that has been hugely influential on the development of the English novel.

“It is a trite but true observation, that examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts.”
― Henry Fielding

A fascinating man

I am also fascinated by Henry Fielding the man. Did you know that he and his brother John established the first police force in England, the Bow Street runners? Henry was a lawyer as well as a writer and was far more enlightened than most lawyers in the 18th century. He understood that crime was usually caused by poverty, and he was remarkably humane in his treatment of criminals and wrote pamphlets pleading for better understanding of what drove men to steal or kill. His interest in crime comes through in Joseph Andrews and the novel contains some very satirical portraits of justices and lawyers.

Memorable characters

I love the humour of Joseph Andrews, the fabulous characters of Parson Abraham Adams, Mrs Slipslop with her malapropisms, gross Parson Trulliber, the wonderfully named Beau Didapper, and a host of others. Parson Adams is one of the few truly good characters in fiction who is not dull, though he can sometimes be ridiculous. Joseph himself doesn’t thrill me – he’s a mouthpiece for the points Fielding is trying to make – but there are so many other memorable characters in this novel.

I love Joseph Andrews’ depiction of 18th century English society. It’s quite a bawdy novel, with some comic scenes of characters ending up in the wrong beds, and lots of lustful glances from women and men. One hundred years after it was published, the Victorians disapproved of the sexy aspects of the book, and yet those Victorian novelists who read it in their youth (Dickens was one of them) were hugely influenced by Fielding and his style. Today its language is dated for a modern reader, but it’s a novel that has much to teach us and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

Discuss it with me

I love the humour in this book, the fabulous characters and its depiction of 18th century English society. Today its language is dated for a modern reader, but it’s a novel that has much to teach us. Do think it’s still relevant today? Did you enjoy its humour? Tell me what you think in a comment.

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Featured image credit- Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews. Ann-Margret and Peter Firth in Joseph Andrews (1977), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076234/

Comments (3)

  1. Melvyn Dickson

    Many decades ago I enjoyed reading “Tom Jones”, Fielding’s other memorable (and long) book and had no trouble finishing it. But “Joseph Andrews” has defeated me. I am only half way through it at the end of August and I am already a book behind! I can’t face another 2663 pages of disappointments and misfortune befalling the characters before the distant prospect of a happy ending. I can find a similar plot in Candide, which is far more lively and much shorter! So though study of such an iconic novel is worthy, I am not up to finishing the task. I now have only a few days to read “A Town Like Alice”. :-(.

  2. Kate DeMayo

    In many ways, this struck me as a book that, despite its verbosity at times and some dated language, raises numerous themes that are as relevant today as to Fielding. The discussions between Parson Adams and several of the other characters are timeless, with Pastor Adams closely questioning several other characters, including his fellow parsons, about the true nature of Christianity; if one is not charitable, how can he call himself a Christian? Of course, we also have the sexual double standards being pointed out, the genders reversed with the lustful Lady Booby and Mrs Slipslop; the sexual harassment and assault of women, particularly those with less power and influence (how much of an exageration was it when Fielding has Fanny essentially kidnapped by influential men?), not to mention the law, which clearly does not treat all as equals and where who you know (or don’t know) is as important as what crime you may have committed. With a light touch, Fielding throws religious hypocrisy, sexual assault by the powerful, discrimination under the law and the inequities of social class at the reader, all the while entertaining us. I did find it somewhat unlikely that Adams and Andrews survive the extreme violence to which they are subjected repeatedly, but that is probably no less believable than some of the bizarre coincidences and amazing timing in the latter part of the novel!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments on ‘Joseph Andrews’, Kate. Yes, there is much that is relevant to today’s world and I think Fielding was so brave to try gender reversal and show the women being sexual predators to expose the double standards of the era. I agree that some of the plot rather strains reader credulity, but it is fascinating to see the beginnings of the English novel and to think about how it developed from there.

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