Monday, March 11, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“JOSEPH ANDREWS” by Henry Fielding (full title: “The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend Mr.Abraham Adams - Written in imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote”) (first published 1742)

As I noted quite some time ago on this blog [look up “The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon” on the index at right] I decided a few years ago that I had neglected one of the great eighteenth century masters, Henry Fielding (1707-1754). So I set about reading my way methodically through all those of his works that are still regularly in print – the three novels Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones and Amelia; the satire Jonathan Wild the Great; the mock-heroic play Tom Thumb or The Tragedy of Tragedies; and the travel book Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon.

There is no doubt that Tom Jones is rightly regarded as his great masterpiece and it is indeed both an edifying and a rollicking read. But when I got to the end of his works, I was surprised to realize that the Fielding novel I had most thoroughly enjoyed was the first one, and I spent some time pondering on why this was so. I won’t repeat in detail the genesis of the story, which I’ve already discussed here [look up Samuel Richardson or “Pamela” on the index at right]. Suffice it to say that Fielding began by parodying Richardson’s tale of the maid-servant Pamela Andrews, who protects her virtue until her would-be seducer mends his ways and instead proposes marriage – which she accepts readily. But if Joseph Andrews began as a parody, it quickly grew into something much greater, just as the book Fielding most esteemed, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, began as a simple parody of tales of chivalry and ended up as the template for all picaresque novels.

A brief and inadequate synopsis to clarify things:

Pamela Andrews’ brother, the handsome 21-year-old serving man Joseph Andrews, is dismissed by Lady Booby for resisting her sexual advances (as well as resisting the sexual advances of the horrible Mrs.Slipslop). In calling her “Lady Booby”, Fielding is ridiculing Richardson’s would-be seducer of Pamela “Mr.B.” – as well as drawing attention to the lady’s boobs. Stripped of his livery, Joseph sets off to walk to the country seat of Lady Booby, where lives his beloved (but illiterate) 18-year-old sweetheart Fanny Goodwill. Yes, even in the eighteenth century, readers understood he was rejecting boobs for a fanny. Yes, there is cheerful sexual innuendo throughout the novel, as when Joseph beholds his beloved after she has been rescued from attempted rape:

“… the ravisher had torn her handkerchief from Fanny’s neck, by which he had discovered such a sight, that Joseph hath declared that all the statues he ever beheld, were so much inferior to it in beauty, that it was more capable of converting a man into a statue, than of being imitated by the greatest master of that art.” (Book Four, Chapter Seven)

Converting a man into a statue” ho ho.

After being beaten and robbed by a highwayman, Joseph is united with his friend, the naïve but charitable clergyman the Rev.Abraham Adams. Thus runs the first book of Joseph Andrews, which also contains many farcical scenes of worthy members of society proving to be hypocrites, and humbler citizens being the salt of the Earth.

The next two books are essentially the picaresque adventures of Joseph and Abraham, before they reach their respective happy goals.

The manservant and the parson are pursued by the disgusting Mrs. Slipslop who still has eyes on Joseph, and by the servants of Lady Booby, who still wishes to punish him. Fanny, who they did not know was on the road travelling to meet them, is rescued by the redoubtable Adams from rape. Adams is hauled before a magistrate simply because he looks so ragged in his hand-me-down clothes. He has given away so much in charity. There are “mistakes of the night” scenes –Abraham, Joseph and Fanny flee from what they think are ruffians planning murder. They turn out to be rough-spoken farmers trying to catch sheep-stealers. Not all parsons are as forbearing and Christian as Abraham Adams is. The gross pig-breeding Parson Trulliber, a parody of all crass and uneducated churchmen, assaults them when they seek his help. Fielding comments:

 “Parson Adams came to the house of Parson Trulliber, whom he found stript to his waistcoat, with an apron on, and a pail in his hand, just come from serving his hogs; for Trulliber was a parson on Sundays, but all the other six might more properly be called a farmer.” (Book Two, Chapter Fourteen)

Much of the action takes the form of Joseph Andrews and Abraham Adams protecting Fanny Goodwill from seduction by unscrupulous males. There are also surprising displays of manly courage by Adams, as when he fights off a pack of hunting dogs that have been set upon them by yet another rascally squire with his eyes on Fanny. Adams also clouts a bunch of facetious gentlemen who sought to make fun of him with elaborate games and practical jokes.

The fourth and final book takes place at Lady Booby’s country seat. Fielding gives broad ironic social comment when this grand lady from London deigns to visit the country:

She entered the parish amidst the ringing of bells, and the acclamations of the poor, who were rejoiced to see their patroness returned after so long an absence, during which time all her rents had been drafted to London, without a shilling being spent among them, which tended not a little to their utter impoverishing; for if the court would be severely missed in such a city as London, how much more must the absence of a person of great fortune be felt in a little country village, for whose inhabitant such a family finds a constant employment and supply; and with the offals of whose table the infirm, aged and infant poor, are abundantly fed, with a generosity which hath scarce a visible effect on their benefactors’ pockets?” (Book Four, Chapter One)

When Rev.Abraham Adams reads the banns for the wedding of Joseph and Fanny, Lady Booby tries every possible stratagem to prevent the wedding from taking place. At one point, it is thought that Joseph and Fanny have been proven to be brother and sister. While Joseph is in despair, Adams rejoices that the sin of incest was averted before the marriage occurred. But rumours that the young couple are related turn out to be untrue.

Joseph and Fanny are wed. Abraham Adams returns to the bosom of his large and loving family. And Lady Booby storms back to London and her unfulfilled life.

A happy ending in all respects.

In sincere imitation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote , Fielding three times interpolates self-contained stories into his picaresque narrative. One concerns misfortune in love – a foolish woman lives an unhappy life because she chose a cad rather than the honest man who really loved her. Another defines real love – a wastrel and bounder finds true happiness only when he leaves the dissipation of the city for an honest marriage in the country. The third warns against well-meaning interventions in people’s lives that only make matters worse. Fielding also, in the fourth and final book, has the type of farcical mix-ups at an inn that both Cervantes and Lesage enjoyed – characters innocently (and not so innocently) leaping into the wrong beds.

We can quickly dispose of the fact that Fielding shares some of the prejudices of his age. In one encounter at an inn, Adams, out of Christian charity, gives money to a rather suspicious fellow, described negatively by Fielding. The man turns out to be a Catholic priest going about his covert rounds. In those days, the recently-created Church of England had its monopoly protected by penal laws, so Catholics had to worship in secret. Fielding apparently approves of this arrangement and regards the priest as some sort of traitor, showing that even great writers can sometimes support the unjust laws of their own age.

Let me, however, ignore this blemish of a few pages and come back to my earlier observation.

Why did I enjoy this novel far more than the one that is usually regarded as Fielding’s masterpiece?

Partly, I think, because the comic plot isn’t drawn out to too great length, which happens in Tom Jones. Joseph Andrews is substantial, but not spun out. And as the tone is more obviously farce and the mock-heroic than is the case with Tom Jones, the implausibility of the plot is more acceptable. For example, the threat of incest in Tom Jones (Tom discovering that Mrs.Waters – with whom he has slept – is in reality Jenny Jones, his presumed mother) is long dwelt upon. In Joseph Andrews, the comic entanglement of incest averted (Fanny may be Joseph’s sister) is handled in a matter of a few pages and resolved with the speed of frank farce. The author doesn’t think we’ll believe it; and we know he is just winding us up for the happy finish.

            Certainly Joseph Andrews has more knockabout than Fielding’s other books. Abraham Adams has a bowl of pigs’ blood emptied over him, is almost savaged by the hounds, is given a dunking by the facetious squire and his henchmen, accidentally appears naked before Lady Booby when intervening in Slipslop’s room and later accidentally and unknowingly lies beside Fanny in her bed. This last gives rise to a piece of mock-heroic prose and extended similes worthy of Don Quixote. The novel’s full title is an accurate description:

 “As a cat or lapdog for some lovely nymph for whom ten thousand lovers languish, lies quietly by the side of the charming maid, and, ignorant of the scene of delight on which they repose, meditates the future capture of a mouse, or surprizal of a plate of bread and butter; so Adams lay by the side of Fanny, ignorant of the paradise to which he was so near; nor could the emanation of sweets which flowed from her breath, overpower the fumes of tobacco which played in the parson’s nostrils.”  (Book Four, Chapter Fourteen)

            The real triumph of this novel is this comic character of its true hero, Abraham Adams.  When he is introduced into the novel, he is described thus:

He was beside a man of good sense, good parts, and good nature; but was at the same time as entirely ignorant of the ways of this world, as an infant just entered into it could possibly be” (Book One, Chapter Three)

            Joseph may be like the Old Testament Joseph who resists Potiphar’s wife; but Abraham Adams is at once the patriarch Abraham – father to his parish and to his large family - and Old Adam, the natural man, who for all his true piety and otherworldliness, can’t help his real feelings and instincts breaking through. There is an affecting scene where Adams, having just given Joseph a lecture on the pointlessness of loving created things rather than God, hears news that his young son has been drowned and bursts into loud lamentations. When the news proves to be false, he bursts into equally extreme joy. He is too human to follow his own precept. He also has an admirable sense of his dignity as a poor man. Given the opportunity to ride in a coach, Adams is insulted for his poverty by a fellow traveller. He throws himelf out the coach door, preferring to walk with Fanny and Joseph than to travel comfortably in such company. He easily bests Lady Booby, Mrs Slipslop and their factor Beau Didapper when they visit him merely to sneer at him for attempting to raise six children on 20 pounds a year.

            He is also a practical Christian in the sense that he cannot approve of the new Methodism, because he fears it borders on fanaticism and ignores practical charity. In discussing published sermons with another parson and a bookseller, Abraham Adams says he approved of George Whitefield (the Methodist preacher) when he attacked the wealthy ostentation of some churchpeople. But, says Adams,

“when he began to call nonsense and enthusiasm to his aid, and set up the detestable doctrine of faith against good works, I was his friend no longer; for surely, that doctrine was coined in Hell, and one would think none but the Devil himself could have the confidence to preach it. For can anything be more derogatory to the honour of God, than for men to imagine that the all-wise Being will hereafter say to the good and virtuous ‘Notwithstanding the purity of thy life, notwithstanding that constant rule of virtue and goodness in which you walked upon earth, still as thou didst not believe every thing in the true orthodox manner, thy want of faith shall condemn thee?’…. my own opinion, which hath always been, that a virtuous and good Turk, or heathen, are more acceptable in the sight of their Creator, than a vicious and wicked Christian, tho’ his faith was as perfectly orthodox as St.Paul’s himself”. (Book One, Chapter Seventeen)

Abraham Adams is the novel’s Don Quixote, as unrealistic as the knight in his expectations of the world, and yet just as altruistic in everything he attempts to do. He loves goodness, preaching to Joseph of the evils of English public schools:

The first care I always take is of a boy’s morals; I had rather he should be a blockhead than an Atheist or a Presbyterian. What is all the learning of the world compared to his immortal soul?”  (Book Three, Chapter Five)

He is addicted to great Greek poetry, quoting Homer at length and then declaring:
‘This is sublime! This is poetry!’ Adams then rapt out a hundred Greek verses, and with such a voice, emphasis and action, that he almost frighten’d the women; and as for the gentleman, he was so far from entertaining any further suspicion of Adams, that he now doubted whether he had not a bishop in his house.” (Book Three, Chapter Two)

 It’s a wonderful image we have of him with his tattered cassock striding manfully through the countryside, as addicted to his noble Aeschylus as Don Quixote is to romances of chivalry. Yet he is no timid creature, as he lays about him lustily when finally convinced of various characters’ treachery.

            The themes of true and false virtue are here, as in Fielding’s other novels, but the music is different, defter, brisker, more pointed. My rational and calculating mind tells me that Tom Jones is a greater novel. On balance it has a more interesting plot and more fully-developed characters. But I had more fun reading Joseph Andrews.

No comments:

Post a Comment