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Friday, April 20, 2012



by Henry Fielding
published 1751
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   Amelia is the last of the major PICARESQUE English Novels from the 18th century.  It's not the last major novel of the 18th century I have left to read, that would belong to Samuel Richardson's Clarissa- all 1000 pages of it.  However, it is an opportunity to make some observations about the Art form of the Picaresque Novel, and the important role it played in the development of modern literature.

  The PICARO, as he was originally known, was a Spanish gentleman of uncertain birth who cheated and swindled his way through society in a classic "anti-hero" style.   This character demanded a literary vehicle that was long on plot and low on character development. PICARO's by definition, do not learn from their mistakes, they simply escape the consequences for their actions by the manipulation of plot.

    The two major examples of 18th century adaptations of the Picaresque format are Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding.   Tobias Smollett was the Author of three major, thoroughly amoral picaresque novels: Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and Humphrey Clinker.  All three Novels featured heroes who behave abominably during the course of the Novel.  Henry Fielding, around the same time as Smollett, also wrote three major Novels that made use of the Picaresque format:  Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones and Amelia.

    Comparing the two novelists is nothing new. In fact, you can find the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume X: The Age of Johnson, Chapter II, section 27, "Final Comparison between the literary achievements and influence of Fielding and Smollett." (1)

   Amelia, I think, is generally though to be the least of these six classic Novels.  Perhaps because it was published late in Fielding's career.  Perhaps that's because he tinkered with the format of the classic Picaresque.  In Amelia, the young Picaro marries the virtuous Amelia and then spends the rest of the novel fighting off would-be corrupter of her virtue.   As any student of the picaresque knows, the Picaro does not spend his nights and days fretting about his dear sweet wife.  Would Don Juan do that? No.

  At the same time it's hard not to feel that Fielding was moving in the realist direction that was to characterize Novels of the 19th century.  Although I'm no specialist, the references to current events in the 1750s were recognizable as were the place location.   Amelia is a work anchored to a specific time and place, which is less true of the other picaresque hits of the mid 18th century, which tend to move between "city" and "country."

  By all accounts, the pacing and structure of all picaresque Novels are less then harmonious to the modern reader.  They are a reminder of just how much development the form of the Novel has experienced in the last three hundred years.  Surely the fact that it is possible for me to write this review 261 years after is sufficient testimony that Amelia continues to maintain it's status as a literary classic, and a hit, and therefore worth reviewing. 


(1)  That conclusion is:  

The direct influence of Fielding is harder to estimate than that of Smollett... But the very completeness and individuality of Fielding’s work prevented his founding a school. The singleness of intellectual standpoint which governs all his novels makes him difficult of imitation; and he is no less different from those who have taken him as model than he is from Cervantes, whom he professed to follow. But this it is safe to say: that Fielding, a master of the philosophical study of character, founded the novel of character and raised it to a degree of merit which is not likely to be surpassed...The novel of character must always go to Fielding as its great exemplar.  36
  Smollett’s novels have about them more of the quarry and less of the statue. He is richer in types than Fielding; and it needs only a mention of his naval scenes and characters to raise memories of a whole literature. The picaresque novel in general, which burst into activity soon after the publication of Roderick Random, was under heavy obligations to Smollett, and nowhere more so than in its first modern example, Pickwick. Dickens, indeed, who was a great reader of Smollett, was his most eminent disciple. In both, we find the observation of superficial oddities of speech and manner carried to the finest point; in both, we find these oddities and the episodes which display them more interesting than the main plot; in both, we find that, beneath those oddities, there is often a lack of real character.  Although, at the present moment, the picaresque novel has fallen a little out of fashion, Smollett will continue to be read by those who are not too squeamish or too stay-at-home to find in him complete recreation.


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