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Saturday, February 04, 2017

Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding

Ann Margaret as a buxom redhead in the 1975 movie version of Joseph Andrews typifies the "ribaldry" endemic in the novel as it existed in the 18th century.
Joseph Andrews (1742)
by Henry Fielding

     You can argue the point that Henry Fielding was the first novelist, properly speaking.  Not a father of the novel but an actual novelist, making a living writing novels and selling copies of them to a general audience.  The timing of each 18th century entry in the 1001 Books project is important because there are only 50ish titles to cover an entire century with three literature's (English, French and German) represented and many others left out entirely.    It goes without saying that the 18th century is most dominated by English/British authors and that the invention of the novel as a modern art form happened exclusively in England in the mid 18th century, and Joseph Andrews is Exhibit "A" in the argument that the novel was fully developed in England in the mid 18th century.  1742.  The year Joseph Andrews was published.

      I don't know what to make of the repeated use of incest as a plot point in 18th century English lit. First Moll Flanders, and now Joseph Andrews- both use the prospect of brother/sister loving as a narrative device. I'm now four books into my survey of 18th century british literature and I have to say- I simply can't imagine what would possess a soul to pursue the study of literature beyond an undergraduate familiarity. Graduate school in literature? Becoming a professor of literature? I don't get it. My thought was that by starting this project I could generate interesting ideas for blog posts, but it's quite the opposite. I enjoy reading the novels, but it's a struggle to conceive of anything that would be interesting to anybody else.

        Joseph Andrews was originally published in the 1740's. It was written by Fielding as a kind of literary response to Samuel Richardson's "Pamela", which was the "sentimental" tale of a servant girl who was wooed by her lascivious master, eventually convincing him to marry her. Upon publication, Pamela took fashionable London by storm- readers were shocked by the frank discussion of sexuality and edified by the "moral" triumph. Fielding responded, first by authoring a response to Pamela called "Shamela" in which a bawdy servant girl seduces her way to the top.

         After the success of Shamela, Fielding wrote Joseph Andrews, which purports to be the tale of Pamela's brother. Pamela appears as a character in Joseph Andrews, now married to her aristo husband. In fact, Joseph Andrews has all the markings of something that could well be described as "post modern" and the fact that it was, in fact, written in 1740, is further proof- in my mind- of the proposition that to describe anything other then architecture as "post modern" is to brand yourself as a moron. Self awareness and reflexivity are not characteristic of post modernism, but rather characteristic of modernism itself. The fact is that writers in the 18th century were just as self aware as any "post modern" author, and Joseph Andrews is fair prove of that.

  Fielding repeatedly breaks into digressions and tangents that make the reader conscious of the artificiality of the form of the novel. Joseph Andrews is filled with self consciousness, inside jokes, allusions to current events and jibes at contemporary society. The picture Fielding paints of British society circa 1740 makes it clear to me why so many people chose to emigrate. Fielding is at his sharpest when he mimics the pompous legal culture of 18th century Britain. Andrews and his traveling companions are repeatedly arrested under mistaken and/or dubious circumstances, only to be freed for equally mistaken or dubious reasons.

     The story, such as it is, begins with Andrews being discharged from the service of the Lady Booby- she wants to get into his pants after her husband dies, he resists her. He starts on the road from London towards his home parish in the county. Along the way he falls in with Abraham Adams- a clergy man from his home town. Adams is the comic relief to Andrew's humorless leading man. The two travel from inn to inn before meeting up with Andrew's beloved- Fanny. The three of them continue home, begging for money, getting arrests for ridiculous "crimes" and listening to various people relate their life stories. The narrative is quite obviously meant to be a critique of english society of the time, particularly of the upper classes, who are constantly described as being venal, poorly educated buffoons. At one point, Adams is attacked by the hunting dogs of a country squire who delights in having his dogs attack men. At another, they are entertained by a different country squire who is known far and wide for making promises and disregarding them.

     Upon their final arrival at their home town, Joseph and Fanny announce they are to be married. Lady Booby comes back from London and tries to thwart the marriage, and she is assisted by her nephew and Joseph's sister- Pamela- the character from the Samuel Richardson novel. Then of course, it's time for the incest twist, and all is resolved for the better. Joseph Andrews should be required reading for every pompous undergraduate who uses the phrase "post modern" in their intro to lit class in college. Might I suggest delivery via a well aimed throw at the back of the head?

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