Saturday, March 6, 2010

Books: Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding

I'm developing quite a taste for the proto-postmodern, when properly done (it seems I wasn't such a fan of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, but then Joseph Andrews is less than half its length). I call the picaresque Joseph Andrews proto-postmodern not because of its structure, which is rather linear, or because of its language, which is also rather straight-forward, but because of its intertextuality. A gentle farce in the style of Don Quixote (which I also found rather disappointing when I read it a few years ago), Joseph Andrews is actually more closely intertwined with Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, an epistolary novel written only two years prior.

Pamela is the story of Pamela Andrews, a country girl who goes to work at the estate of Mr. B—, who, taken by her beauty, makes constant advances upon her. Pamela's letters home are long, breathy accounts of how she protects her chastity at all costs, though she nearly loses it again and again. Ultimately, moved by her virtue (or perhaps stymied by her intractability), Mr. B— marries the girl, and makes her a gentlewoman.

Joseph Andrews is, of course, Pamela Andrews' brother, who serves Mr. B—'s aunt as a footman. Fielding isn't so decorous as Richardson, so he unmasks the family's name: Booby. Lady Booby has just become a widow at the novel's outset, and turns her amorous eye on Andrew. But, because he is as virtuous as his sister, and in fact in love with the lovely, illiterate maid Fannie, with whom he has grown up, he politely rebuffs Lady Booby's advances (which are proffered from her bed, her collarbones bare to him). For this, while in London, the Lady ejects him from her service (after an amusing exchange with her head servant, Madam Slipslop, who happens to also have an appetite for Joseph, who is straight of back and full of lip, with curling brown ringlets and innocent, wide eyes). Joseph then takes to the road back to the country, to find Fannie and a new position.

Encountering his salty friend, the parson Mr. Adams, who had been on his way to London to sell manuscripts of his sermons, and eventually Fannie as well, the three wander through the countryside, generally penniless due to unfortunate circumstances, encountering bandits, hunters, and innkeepers both cruel and kind. The chastity of both Joseph and Fannie are constantly at risk, not at each other's hands, though they do gaze at each other quite amorously, but at the hands of a lusty countryside. Ultimately, their love prevails, though a climactic revelation of masked identities (involving gypsies exchanging infants in the cradle) for a moment fills everyone—character and reader alike—with fear that Joseph and Fannie are actually brother and sister (they are not—but instead Pamela and Fannie are sisters, and Joseph the lost-and-found son of one kind soul met earlier on the road).

Fielding has a keen sense of humor, and though he is never vitriolic, his commentary—on wealth, politics, and Christian morality, is quite cutting. All the while, his tone remains smart and jaunty, far superior to the affected moral pretense of Richardson's. This is literary riposte at its earliest and best.

No comments: