Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (Satirical Novel, 1742)
No, the publication date above is NOT a misprint.
This genuinely humorous antique is the second-most-famous novel by 18th Century English satirist Henry Fielding (His other acknowledged masterpiece, produced a few years later, was Tom Jones–made into a very popular movie starring Albert Finney back in 1963). Both books are considered Literary Classics (please reserve the groans) and have as such been taught in college lit classes (okay, go ahead and groan, a little). In fact the paperback copy of this I found in my favorite used bookstore/coffeehouse had been produced specifically for that purpose–complete with an exhaustive (and yes, exhausting) introduction by that printing’s editor Martin C. Battestin, dated 1961.
Considering changes in the conventions of literary style and language itself that have occurred in well over 250 years, some sort of essay is necessary for better understanding and appreciation of the work. For example, certain slang expressions that readers of Fielding’s time instantly understood would meet with a blank stare of incomprehension from the modern reader without someone like Battestin to provide context. Likewise, Fielding makes many topical references to the famous people, events and literature of his day (poking gentle fun at some, while savagely mocking others). Some of these digressions slow the work overly, but others truly add to the thing. In any event, these passages would have far less impact without some of the editor’s background information.
BUT…while Battestin avoids the worst of the deadly dull ‘highbrow literary analysis,’ at 35 pages (!) his essay does go on a bit much for my tastes. I did little more than scan (lightly) over the last half of his introduction.
Still…what of the novel itself?
Given the more-formal language of his time (which feels labored and overly ornate to readers today), this is an often-amusing satire of the romantic, economic and social attitudes of Fielding’s society. And hypocrisy–Fielding has zero tolerance for that and well knows how to expose it.
The title character is a truly innocent and well-meaning young man, blundering from one misadventure to another until he slowly gains a full understanding of the legions of lustful snobs, money-hungry sleaze-bags, phonies and outright crooks (of all classes) around him. That he learns better, while remaining a decent guy, marks him as an admirable person indeed.
His principle sidekick and frequent traveling companion is Abraham Adams, the fun-loving and humane, but even more idealistic (to the point of willful blindness to the perversity of others) village parson. To be honest, Adams strikes me as a sweet fool–somebody you can’t help but like, admiring his gentle goodness even as you want to knock some sense into him.
All sorts of horny women find Joseph desirable and try to maneuver him into their beds–beginning with Lady Booby (vain, rich and married–though conveniently soon a widow, and then even more aggressive in her pursuit of our hero) and her pretentious and stupid head servant Mrs. Slipslop (Fielding is at times less than subtle, especially when dealing who his less honorable characters). Rejecting them both gets Joseph dismissed from his job as a footman and forced to begin his travels.
A series of lowlifes (of all social and economic classes) scheme to take advantage of Joseph and Parson Adams (who joins him when sidetracked in route to London). A string of adventures, misunderstandings, cases of mistaken identities and much slapstick comedy (yeah, Adams is a bit clumsy) liven things up before the very end–when a couple of the sorts of wildly unlikely and convenient revelations that books of that era often featured bring things for to a happy conclusion for Joseph, the girl who is his one true love, and Parson Adams (among others).
It’s a book of its time, yes. Certainly not for everyone. But…yeah, I did find it worth my while.