Monday, August 25, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“AMELIA” by Henry Fielding (written 1749-51; first published late 1751, but dated 1752)
As I’ve remarked already a number of times on this blog [look up the three entries for Henry Fielding on the index at right], time was I took it into my head to read my way methodically through the works of the 18th century master Henry Fielding. Of his three full-length novels I admitted that Tom Jones was clearly the masterpiece (and I might one day get around to proving that on this blog), but that I found Joseph Andrews the most entertaining. Then there was the problem of Fielding’s Amelia.
Published late in 1751 and his last major work (Fielding was only 47 when he died in 1754), Amelia has never enjoyed the same popularity as either Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever turned it into a film, musical or television series, as has happened with the other two. Why should this be so? Reading this particular novel was in part a quest to answer that question. In the two-volume Everyman’s edition that sits on my shelf, it runs to a little over 600 pages, but severely simplifying, and cutting out some short sub-plots, I was able to make a summary of its story, which goes as follows:
Amelia Harris was slightly disfigured in the face in an accident, but the surgeon’s skill cured her and she is a great beauty. Against her mother’s wishes, she elopes with and marries the army officer Captain William Booth. When her mother dies, the will disinherits Amelia. When Booth is sent on service to Gibraltar, he is wounded and discharged on half-pay.
Booth is basically decent but feckless. He never makes enough to support his growing family. The novel is the tale of how his virtuous and loving wife Amelia constantly gets him out of the scrapes into which he falls by his own weaknesses. Booth is always in debt. He is bailed out of debtor’s prison by Miss Fanny Matthews, who has seduced him and hopes to make him her lover. But he returns – feeling guilty – to his wife.
Amelia and Booth are indebted to the apparently kindly Mrs Ellison, who finds them lodgings. But we know that Mrs Ellison actually acts as pimp for an unnamed nobleman who wants to seduce Amelia. Others are of the same mind, such as Booth’s apparent friend Colonel Bob James. Colonel James’ brother-in-law Colonel Bath has high and pugnacious views of honour, which lead him into duelling and fights. Booth is tempted into brawling and duelling too, as he is tempted into gambling. At one stage he reduces his family to penury by gambling away money he had been given to pay debts.
Attempts to corrupt Amelia’s virtue are frequent, often accompanied by the argument that by prostituting herself she would be able to liquidate her husband’s many debts.
There are, however, positive characters in the tale. The sergeant Atkinson, who rescues Booth on a numbers of occasions, is a model of propriety. He later marries the virtuous widow Mrs Bennet, who first alerts Amelia to Mrs Ellison’s treachery. Then there is a righteous clergyman Dr Harrison, who was originally Booth’s rival for Amelia’s hand, but who becomes the family’s chief guardian and protector.
It is Dr Harrison who provides the novel’s happy ending. He hears the dying confession of a shyster who had connived with the corrupt lawyer Murphy to forge old Mrs Harris’s will, disinheriting Amelia. The matter is made public, and Amelia becomes a wealthy woman, at last gaining her inheritance, restoring her family to comfort and implicitly causing her husband to reform. But not before the virtuous Amelia has had ample opportunity to show that she would have stuck by her husband even if he had remained a feckless pauper.
There are two matters which may add to our knowledge of what Fielding thought he was up to in writing Amelia, but which do not necessarily enhance our appreciation of this novel.
First, there is the novel’s autobiographical matter. It is generally believed that Ameliaherself is Fielding’s affectionate and posthumous portrait of his first wife, Charlotte, who had died five or six years before the novel was written. In memory, Fielding sees her as a paragon of virtue. Likewise, Captain William Booth is Fielding’s portrait of his younger self, learning virtue from his wife - not that the specific events of Booth’s life really echo those of the younger Fielding’s life (although Fielding, in his mid forties when he wrote Amelia, was enough of a sexual scamp to have impregnated his second wife, Mary, before he married her).
Second, there is the fact that Fielding, seeing himself as writing an “epic” of virtue, consciously modelled the structure of Amelia on the structure of Vergil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid has twelve books, and so does Amelia. Events in the novel are supposed to be recognised by the alert, classically-educated reader, as echoing events in Vergil’s epic. Booth is the wanderer in danger of being drawn from the path of virtue, just as Aeneas is. In Book Four of the Aeneid, Aeneas is tempted from his heroic destiny by the seductions of Dido, Queen of Carthage; just as in Book Four of Amelia, Captain William Booth is seduced from virtue by Fanny Matthews. There are many other such parallels. Would, however, one reader in a hundred recognize these parallels now if there were not annotated editions to tell them? My own view is that the classical allusions add little to the story and its unfolding. It is interesting to note that when the novel was first published, many of Fielding’s contemporaries regarded his ‘epic’ ambition with contempt and there were pamphlets written attacking the novel and pamphlets by Fielding defending it.
So how did I react to this least favourite of Fielding’s longer novels?
Its twelve books make awkward reading. There is not a great deal of forward momentum to the plot. It is early established that Booth is feckless and in debt, and that Amelia is virtuous and self-sacrificing. The various attempts on her sexual virtue are repetitive and often seem contrived merely to spin matters out. I wonder if some of this has to do with the difficulty of dramatizing married love? The loving couple, in finding each other, have already acted out the great drama of their lives, and whatever else happens to them doesn’t shift this bedrock. Hence we have events, but no real movement in character. Right up to Book 12, Amelia is virtuous and Booth’s spirit is willing while his flesh is weak. They do not change until the deus ex machina of Amelia’s coming into wealth, with the promise that henceforth Booth will mend his ways. Regrettably, I am left feeling that in terms of character, there has been little real development. I am also left feeling that Booth has not really changed in any way, except that he is now the husband of a wealthy woman.
There is, too, that problem of “virtue rewarded”. This as what Fielding objected to in Richardson’s Pamela – the idea that apparent “virtue” can be prudential, and practised for the sake of bringing material reward. Of course Fielding is at pains to show that Amelia remains faithful to her husband, and resists material corruption, even when they are reduced to poverty. She is sorely tried, as when she hears of his gambling losses after she has pawned their belongings to pay off debts, or when Colonel James sends a letter hinting that Booth is having an affair with Miss Matthews. However, Fielding contrives a happy-ever-after ending, very similar to Tom Jones’ discovery that he has an inheritance and has been cheated by Blifil. Doesn’t this mean that Fielding rewards Amelia’s virtue just as Richardson rewarded Pamela’s? The real challenge would have been to show Amelia staying, life-long, virtuous and faithful in continuing poverty. One’s hackles do rise a bit, too, at just how foolish and spineless Booth is.
For a modern reader, perhaps with a more gender equitable view of marriage, there is another problem about character. Not only is Amelia’s virtue repeatedly assailed by devious libertines, but Amelia is determined to keep news of such attempts from her husband. Only occasionally is Booth aware that other men wish to seduce his wife. Why, I kept wondering, couldn’t Amelia honestly tell her husband what the problem was? Doesn’t this show a curious lack of true partnership in their marriage? Perhaps it goes along with Amelia’s habit of affectionately addressing her husband as “child”. Isn’t this virtuous wife in fact indulging her rather foolish husband, and letting him ignore the nastier side of life? Weighting much of this novel, I have the sense that Fielding is in part answering the criticism that Tom Jones was a charter for fornicators and loose young men. It is almost as if this is the novel written about an older Sophie Western, whose preservation of her virtue is not matched by her husband’s preservation of his virtue. Booth is the man led by his senses seen critically, whereas Tom Jones is the man led by his senses seen uncritically.
Among the more tedious elements of the novel are the frequent allusions to specific eighteenth century social evils which are of little relevance to us - sponging houses (where bailiffs imprisoned debtors and then extorted money out of them); fashionable society which recognises only wealth and rank (though that one isn’t necessarily a time-specific observation); and the foolish sort of “honour” and duelling – personified in Colonel Bath – which takes offence at trifles and seems most connected with military men. There is an interpolated chapter in Book Five about the poor state of the medical profession that attends to Amelia’s sick children. In Book Eight there is a tedious satirical passage where Booth converses with a hack writer who produces hack works by subscription to cover his debts. This appears to be Fielding’s critique of the state of letters in his day. It is, however, at least moderately interesting to see Fielding indulging some of his peeves. If, in Book One, Booth is accosted in jail by a hypocritical freethinker and a Methodist pickpocket, it is clearly because Fielding had little time for either freethinkers or Methodists. And there are moments of sordid frankness of the sort that would not have appeared, a century later, in Victorian novels. In prison is “a man committed for certain odious, unmanlike practices, not fit to be named”. (Book One, Chapter Four) – meaning, presumably, homosexual activity. In Book Seven, the virtuous Mrs Bennet relates how she contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
Another problem with this novel is its over-use of anterior narrative. At least a quarter of the novel consists of characters telling us about their past – Booth and Miss Matthews in the first three books, and Mrs Bennet in Book Seven. Yes, this too is an echo of the Aeneid (Aeneas tells Dido about the fall of Troy etc.), but it is no more palatable because of that. Fielding too often resorts to telling us that “words could not do justice” to a certain emotional scene that he can’t be bothered dramatising. This goes along with his habit of allowing Amelia to faint rather too often in moments of tension.
Then there is the cumbersome figure of Dr Harrison. He is meant to be the novel’s moral mouthpiece, and is one of Fielding’s good, virtuous Anglican clergymen. Booth describes him thus:
“Nothing, however, can be imagined more agreeable than the life that the doctor leads in his homely house, which he calls his earthly paradise. All his parishioners, whom he treats as his children, regard him as their common father. Once in a week he constantly visits every house in the parish, examines commends, and rebukes, as he finds occasion. This is practised likewise by his curate in his absence; and so good an effect is produced by their care, that no quarrels ever proceed either to blows or law-suits; no beggar is to be found in the whole parish; nor did I ever hear a very profane oath all the time I lived in it.” (Book Three, Chapter Twelve)
Alas, Dr Harrison is also a pious bore. As a Don Quixote figure, the virtuous Rev Abraham Adams is dotty, amusing and a great comic character in Joseph Andrews; but Dr Harrison’s laboured, over-long sermons are irritating rather than enlightening and his Hellenic and Latinate joking over the classics is an affectation when he matches wits with Mrs Bennet and others. (Although such joking does allow Fielding to include more references to the Aeneid.)
I have made a rather thorough job here of thrashing a novel. It is rather cruel of me, for there are moments of interest. The best has to be Booth’s experience of guilt when he first gets out of prison and realizes what deception he has practised on Amelia in his adultery with Miss Matthews. At that point in the novel, I had the fleeting hope that this would be a novel of close psychological observation and developing character. It turned out to be largely a delusive hope, alas.
Yet I would be dishonest if I did not admit that moments in the novel made me admire Fielding in better form than most of the novel displayed.
I can agree with at least some of his moralising, as in his defence of free will:
“To retrieve the ill consequences of a foolish conduct, and by struggling manfully with distress to subdue it, is one of the noblest efforts of wisdom and virtue. Whoever, therefore, calls such a man fortunate is guilty of no less impropriety in speech than he would be who should call the statuary or the poet fortunate who carved a Venus or who writ an Iliad” (Book One, Chapter One)
Booth’s passionate declarations of his love for Amelia are such that one suspects Fielding of practising a complicated irony, showing that such self-dramatising can be superficial, as evidenced by Booth’s infidelities. Here is Booth recreating his reaction to Amelia early in their courtship, complete with Amelia’s trademark fainting:
“Her manner, look, voice, everything was inimitable; such sweetness, softness, innocence, modesty! – Upon my soul, if ever man could boast of his resolution, I think I might now, that I abstained from falling prostrate at her feet and adoring her. However, I triumphed; pride, I believe, triumphed, or perhaps love got the better of love…. I then fell on my knees before her; and, forcing her hand, cried out, O, my Amelia! I can bear no longer. You are the only mistress of my affections; you are the deity I adore. In this style I ran on for above two or three minutes, what it is impossible to repeat, till a torrent of contending passions, together with the surprise, overpowered her gentle spirits and she fainted away in my arms”. (Book Two, Chapter Two)
Certainly Fielding is being ironical when he “defends” Booth’s adultery with Miss Matthews:
“ We desire, therefore, the good-natured and candid reader to be pleased to weigh attentively the several unlucky circumstances that concurred so critically, that Fortune seemed to have used her utmost endeavours to snare poor Booth’s constancy. Let the reader set before his eyes a fine young woman, in a manner, a first love, conferring obligations and using every art to soften, to allure, to win, and to inflame; let him consider the time and place; let him remember that Booth was a young fellow in the highest vigour of life; and lastly, let him add one single circumstance, that the parties were alone together, and then, if he will not acquit the defendant, he must be convicted, for I have nothing more to say in his defence.” (Book Four, Chapter One)
Yet I do not think he is being ironical at all when he discourses on the power of sexual attraction and how it can overwhelm the best of moral resolutions:
“And yet… my young readers… flatter not yourselves that fire will not scorch as well as warm, and the longer we stay within its reach the more we shall burn. The admiration of a beautiful woman, though the wife of our dearest friend, may at first perhaps be innocent, but let us not flatter ourselves it will always remain so; desire is sure to succeed; and wishes, hopes, desires, with a long train of mischiefs, tread close at our heels. In affairs of this kind we may most properly apply the well-known remark of nemo repente fuit turpissimus. It fares, indeed, with us on this occasion as with the unwary traveller in some parts of Arabia the desert, whom the treacherous sands imperceptibly betray until he is overwhelmed and lost. In both cases the only safety is by withdrawing our feet the very first moment we see them sliding.” (Book Six, Chapter One)
I would also endorse the following as a truthful observation:
“Few men, I believe, think better of others than of themselves; nor do they easily allow the existence of any virtue of which they perceive no traces in their own minds; for which reason I have observed, that it is extremely difficult to persuade a rogue that you are an honest man; nor would you ever succeed in the attempt by the strongest evidence, was it not for the comfortable conclusion which the rogue draws, that he who proves himself to be honest proves himself to be a fool at the same time.” (Book Eight, Chapter Eight)
And what of all those encomia on Amelia’s moral greatness? Fielding was a man who sought domestic comfort and stability from a wife, while making apologies for male adventuring. He could now easily be attacked for the “double standard” in marriage. The following is in effect the icon of what Fielding sees as attractive in Amelia, coming across like a Victorian print of the good little wife. Amelia is preparing Booth’s favourite supper just before the shocking scene in which she gets the note saying he may be dallying with Miss Matthews:
“As soon as the clock struck seven the good creature went down into the kitchen, and began to exercise her talents in cookery, of which she was a great mistress, as she was of every economical office from the highest to the lowest; and as no woman could outshine her in a drawing-room, so none could make the drawing-room itself shine brighter than Amelia. And, if I may speak a bold truth, I question whether it be possible to view this fine creature in a more amiable light than when she was dressing her husband’s supper, with her little children playing about her.” (Book Eleven, Chapter Eight)
Just before she learns that she will come into an inheritance, Amelia is asked by her husband whether she would be happy in a life in which they have to toil for their living. She replies:
“I am sure I could be happy in it…. And why not I as well as a thousand others, who have not the happiness of such a husband to make life delicious? Why should I complain of my hard fate while so many who are much poorer than I enjoy theirs? Am I of a superior rank of being to the wife of the honest labourer? Am I not partaker of one common nature with her?” (Book Twelve, Chapter Eight)
These are noble sentiments, but they do raise the possibility that there is something so saint-like in Amelia that she is almost impossible for any woman (or man) to identify with. Along with the novel’s other defects, this may be one reason why Amelia has never been as popular as Fielding’s other two long novels.