Review: Joseph Andrews

Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

After reading Pamela in my Sex, Texts, and Countertexts class (yes, my school is awesome, etc, etc.), we were scheduled to read a parody of it by Fielding. Unsurprisingly, I thought we were reading Shamela, which posits the virtuous Pamela as a shameless gold digger. However, after finishing up class discussion of Pamela, I discovered that we were, in fact, reading Joseph Andrews. Luckily, I got the Public Domain Books version rather than the actual text, so I didn’t have too much maneuvering to do.

Joseph Andrews is the story of the titular character, brother to the more famous Pamela from Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. When the Lady Booby takes an interest in her young footman, she is surprised to find herself rebuffed by the virtuous Joseph. Encouraged by her toady Mrs. Slipslop, she dismisses Joseph, who sets off with the Parson Adams to collect his beloved Fanny Goodwill, an equally virtuous young woman, so that the two might marry. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and the whole company encounters obstacles, affectations, vanity, and just plain meanness on the way to Booby Hall.

While Pamela sent me into a fit of rage (how did I stretch that out into seven hundred words? Oh, right, I’m an English major), Joseph Andrews is a much more enjoyable text. First, there’s no hugely problematic love stories (well, Pamela and Mr. Booby do make an appearance at the end) and, secondly, it doesn’t focus on chastity as a woman’s virtue. Rather, the general virtue Fielding takes up is charity—and not just any charity too, but active and deeply self-sacrificial charity. And this is something that all people are capable of and should be capable of. Of particular (but not singular) note is Betty, a woman who works at an innkeeper who tends to a battered Joseph after the first of any scrapes. She’s warm-hearted and, as the narrative points out, warm-bodied; basically, she’s unmarried and she’s not a virgin. But she’s rendered with dignity and fondness, because being charitable and generally a decent human being is much more important than that. After surviving Pamela, I was floored and heartened to find this in a text of a similar age, especially when most characters, even the most affected of them (and Fielding explicitly states that’s who he has it out for), are treated with the same kind of tenderness and warmth. (Although it’s very much still a broad comedy.)

Also of interest is the gender-bending that occurs in Joseph Andrews. (This is, of course, gender-bending by Fielding’s standard, not by any modern standard.) Joseph initially occupies Pamela’s place by protesting his virtue against Lady Booby’s advances, and Fielding pulls a lot of humor out of the sheer disbelief of Lady Booby and Mrs. Slipslop that a man is telling a woman that he’s not interested because he’s protecting his own chastity. From there, the gender-bending dips in and out of the novel—Joseph recalls female hysteria when, after Fanny is abducted (oh, did I mention that Joseph and Fanny are supposed to be ridiculously attractive?), he threatens to run mad, and it all comes to a point in a scene of slapstick where everyone is mistaking each other’s identities. Of course, it also serves to lighten the tension when a delightfully melodramatic twist emerges at the end and Fielding never goes as far as he can, but it still shows an awareness of gender and playing with the concept. He does much the same thing with class; he pokes and plays with it, but appears to ultimately conclude that the systems can’t be dismantled.

As for the novel itself, it’s episodic—we watch Joseph, Adams, and Fanny wander from situation to situation, and quite a few characters tell the company long stories. The episodes do flow into each other and call back, so it’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s still not a tight or modern narrative in any sense of the word. It’s not a breezy read, but it’s not inaccessible, either. And it’s actually funny. I sometimes feel like my sense of humor and older senses of humor don’t mesh, but there are some honestly funny lines and chapter titles—at one point, Fielding tells the ready that they can just skip a certain chapter. My friend Anna recommended Fielding’s Tom Jones to me, and I think I might seek out, since I enjoyed him here. At the very least, it’ll be a back-up title on my phone…

Bottom line: Joseph Andrews improves upon Pamela by taking up charity instead of chastity as a virtue, leading us on an episodic journey through affectation and vanity. Not exactly a breezy read, but accessible and actually funny. Nicely done!

I downloaded this free ebook from the Kindle Store.

3 thoughts on “Review: Joseph Andrews

  1. I am glad to see Fielding’s warmth towards his characters is apparent even in his earlier work. Even when he was making fun of people in Tom Jones, I always felt that it was out of a geniality of spirit as opposed to meanness. Refreshing in a humorist.

  2. I’m working my way through Clarissa and … sighs … oh, it’s hard. Pamela sounds even tougher – and now you’re telling me I have to read this one as well??? Good thing it’s more enjoyable then than Richardson’s works!

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