Joseph Andrews- Henry Fielding (1742) – A Book To Read “Before You Die”

Time for one of my occasional bursts of classic fiction taken from Peter Boxall’s book “1001 Books To Read Before You Die” (I’m using the 2006 edition with “The Clockwork Orange cover).  So far I’ve read “The Golden Ass”, “Don Quixote” and “Moll Flanders” which has taken me up to 1722.  I’m dividing the chronological recommendations into groups of five and choosing one.  The next five were:

Roxana -Daniel Defoe

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

A Modest Proposal – Jonathan Swift

Joseph Andrews – Henry Fielding

Memoirs Of Martinus Scriblerus

I have already read a Defoe this year and as I mentioned in my review of “Moll Flanders” my experience with Swift was not good, so I’d rather not and I wasn’t even sure what the last title was so that left Fielding’s second most notable work which dates from 1747 – so I added 25 years onto the time machine for a mid-eighteenth century reading experience.

Fielding (sort of) describes this as a comic epic and it once again had me looking up the definition of “picaresque” (I can never retain what that means) which came to mind when reading it.  It’s an “episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero”.  Well, the first part applies but not the second as Fielding’s titular here is virtuous and honest and just a little bland- for a significant chunk of the book he doesn’t feel present at all but Fielding has catered for this with his full title “The History of The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of his friend Mr Abraham Adam” and it is this co-star, the goodly natured but often bumbling parson who gets into most scrapes.  Much of the novel takes place on the road and is thus very reminiscent of “Don Quixote” but here the humour is less broad and the shenanigans more quickly resolved.

It seems Fielding is doing something which still feels highly unusual in borrowing a character, Pamela, from Samuel Richardson’s 1740 best-seller as Joseph is her brother.  The edition I read also had “Shamela” Fielding’s parody of that book which I didn’t read because I thought I would have had to read “Pamela” to get much from it and whereas I had fully expected that book, often credited as the first English novel, to be one of Boxalls’ recommendations it wasn’t so I took the hint implicit in that and decided I may get round to it in the future.  Fielding also seems to have an obsession with one Colley Cibber, a contemporary of his who was a leading light in the theatre and Poet Laureate.  His 1740 memoir is poked fun at in the proceedings.  If you are planning to read this book I would suggest splashing out on a good version with notes etc. to support your reading.  I read an e-book by SMK (it did only cost 75p on Amazon) and it was without notes and had an uncredited and not especially helpful introduction.

As expected with literature from this era there are many digressions and stories within the story which the readership at the time would have expected but which tends to trip us up today.  I kept up with it more than the admittedly much longer “Don Quixote”, but didn’t quite get the same level of overall satisfaction and didn’t enjoy is as much as “Moll Flanders” but where it is stronger is in a fuller cast of well-drawn characters and it does feel like it is getting somewhere faster than the Cervantes tome.  As I was wavering between a three and four star rating we had a bed-hopping farcical scene which actually had me chuckling 280 years on and everything was resolved highly satisfactorily which pushes it into four star territory as I would certainly consider reading this again in the future.

Joseph Andrews was first published in 1742.  I read an e-book edition which also includes “Shamela” (a few of them do) published by SMK.