Wednesday, 16 October 2019

'Joseph Andrews' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

When the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle met for the first session of its fifth year, battle lines were drawn. On one side were those favouring internal characterisation and on the other, those favouring a story told from the outside of a character. Pikes were sharpened, muskets primed, horses saddled and… I might be exaggerating a little - but our discussion of Henry Fielding’s ‘Joseph Andrews’ was one of the more polarising discussions we’ve had.

The first comment was that the book was “Laugh a minute,” which was quickly responded to with a number of comments saying, “I’m not so sure.”

The book tells the story of Joseph Andrews’ journey home after being unfairly dismissed by the Lady Booby for not becoming her toy-boy. He meets up with the love of his life, Fanny Goodwill and his childhood mentor, Parson Adams. The parson quickly becomes the main character as the three regularly fall into scrapes which reveal both his small faults and his large virtues. He’s not an aloof, spiritual man but warm blooded and emotional, his Christianity being tied deeply with human life rather than doctrine, even as he preaches something more rarified.

The problem many had with the book is the same that Samuel Johnson had when comparing Fielding with Samuel Richardson; “There was as great a difference between them as between a man who knew how a watch was made, and a man who could tell the hour by looking on the dialplate.” Whereas Richardson takes exhaustive pains to get under the skin of the characters, Fielding sketches them out and shows them in action.

There was a great deal of discussion that circled why ‘Joseph Andrews’ has this surface level, dialplate quality. One idea was linked to this being Fielding’s second novel after a successful career as a stage writer. A stage writer must write principally for surfaces and it's the job of the actors and production team to flesh out and exemplify the play. Though there have been a great many scriptwriters who have explored the inner lives of their characters to great effect.

There are many theatrical conventions in the novel with coincidences galore, physically staged fighting and bed-swapping, asides and overlapping patter. It’s also very possible that Fielding’s intrusive narration could have evolved from stage directions, or even the curtain-piece before a performance. Like a curtain-piece, Fielding places his text in context, teaches the audience how to enjoy and interpret it and makes silly jokes.

Another idea we kept returning to, was Fielding’s background in humour and satire and his influences from that tradition, particularly ‘Don Quixote’. Fielding had a long relationship with the novel, with one of his plays being ‘Don Quixote in England’. Parson Adams is definitely a Quixotic character, quick to fight, somehow both ridiculous and oddly noble. There are definite lifts from Quixote, particularly a scene where Parson Adams is entertained by a villainous Squire. The Quixote influence is probably the source of much of the violence that turned many of the readers off. Quixote is regularly beaten - painfully beaten in ways that effect him for the rest of the book - and while Parson Adams, Joseph Andrews and company regularly shrug off heavy beatings, they grow more dishevelled as they proceed through the book.

So, while some readers found the style too shallow, discursive and impossible to get lost in, others enjoyed the artificiality of the tale and found it good fun. Later authors took elements of this much further, Sterne pulled ‘Tristram Shandy’ inside out with its digressions and authorial playacting. Sterne also included many emotional scenes in the book, expanding this element into his ‘Sentimental Journey’. Dickens was also mentioned a lot. Like Fielding, Dickens also tends to see characters from the outside in, sketching them in broad strokes and catchphrases, rarely getting under the skin of many of them but like Sterne, Dickens also included emotional scenes and used his characters to explore ideas and expose injustices.

There are a few moments of social commentary in ‘Joseph Andrews’, much of the book is taken up with exposing Parson Adams in his flawed good-heartedness, an idea later taken up with more vigour in the character of Tom Jones. Adams’s interactions with various stingy, mean characters reveal the difference between charity and charitable intentions. Perhaps if these elements were heightened, there would have seemed more point to the knockabout stuff. 

Ultimately such questions are up to the reader and their own negotiations with the text. ‘Joseph Andrews’ is a particularly artificial book, but whether that artificiality is a source of fun or frustration depends on what the reader brings to it. What is certain though, is that ‘Joseph Andrews’ produced an entertaining night of discussion for the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

I've Started Volunteering at Dr Johnson's House

Last Saturday I started my first shift as a volunteer at Dr Johnson’s House. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, to give my weekend a little more structure, spend some time with different people, have the chance to welcome people to a place that’s important to me and have a glimpse at what it’s like behind the scenes.

My position is at the front desk. Visitors enter through the side door into the old parlour, which is where they pay a little to enter (£7, cheaper than most) and can buy books, postcards and various doodads. My job is to be welcoming, handle the transactions and give visitors the information they need to navigate the rest of the house. 

One of the biggest surprises, sitting at the desk, was how well I could hear people outside. The building had always seemed so solid to me but listening to people point out the house as they passed, discuss whether they wanted to visit, tell each other a little about Samuel Johnson - it felt like there was only a thin film separating me from the outside world.

The other delight was the different reasons people entered. Some wanted directions to other places, some wanted to suggest future events, some came just to catch up and browse the bookshop. Even with the people who actually came in, there was huge variety. There was a couple most interested in Hodge the Cat, whose statue lies just over the square. Another man was making a return visit, having been in the house forty-nine years before. There were some Johnson-a-philes and quite a few newbies. It was funny, as deep and long as I’ve steeped myself in Johnson to found myself completely stumped by a question about when he moved out (1759).

When there weren’t visitors to welcome, I had a good chance to read. One of the leaflets for sale is a copy of Tetty’s funeral service, written by Johnson but not read. For all Boswell’s implications that she was a drunk, irritant and no suitable for Johnson, his own description of her personality was very touching, he praised; “the extent of her knowledge, the acuteness of her wit, the accuracy of her judgment, the force of her sentiments and the elegance of her expression.” It’s a far warmer portrait of her than he even gave in most of his anecdotes. (Though I love the one where she reads one of his works and is proud of him).

I also drank a lot of tea. Books, conversation and tea - Johnson would be proud.

As for behind-the-scenes, my favourite little titbit was a look at the document created for firefighters which lists which items are priorities to save in each room. I was also surprised by the fact that official instructions are to hurl the books out of the library window as it is easier to fix bindings than to restore burnt or flooded books. I also read a bunch of policy documents, which reminded me a lot of similar ones at school and it was encouraging to see the importance of sharing Johnson’s story to as many people as possible, overcoming as many barriers to it as possible. The chief aim of the museum is to hold and share that story with as many as possible.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Review: Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson

It’s not encouraging when the historical introduction to the book describes it as ‘almost illiterate”, yet ‘Charlotte Temple’ was the bestselling work in America until the publication of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. 

It was written by Susanna Rowson, a woman who had been born in Portsmouth, moved with her father to the American Colonies, fled after the revolution and returned as an actress and playwright. 

‘Charlotte Temple’ was her third novel which she had written whilst in England. It had not sold particularly well nor drawn any notices until it was republished in the new United States. Then it started to sell. Rowson channeled the success into other novels, some plays and a number of textbooks which she wrote for the Girl’s school she ran. She may have had an interrupted education herself but she believed in it, making that the prime passion of her later years.

The novel is one of seduction. Charlotte is in her last year of school. She is kind, innocent and utterly beloved of her own family (who still choose to board her even though they live in the same town.) Her tutor is the rascally French coquette Mademoiselle La Rue who encourages her to flirt with the soldier Montraville because she fancies his friend Belcour. Montraville is himself a bit of an innocent but is pressured by Belcour to court Charlotte, largely because he is evil and likes encouraging people to do nasty things.

On the day of her birthday, Charlotte agrees to run away with Montraville and the four of them run off together to Portsmouth and then off to America. On the ship over, Mademoiselle La Rue ensnares a rich officer and marries him, while Montraville impregnates Charlotte and sets her up in a small house. Montraville then falls in love with another woman and marries her, leaving some cash to help Charlotte with Belcour who (obviously) doesn’t pass it on.

Heavily pregnant and kicked out of her house, she walks through the snow to find the married Mademoiselle La Rue who kicks her out, where she is taken in by some nice people, gives birth and promptly dies. The moral of the story is pretty clear.

I have no idea why this book was a better seller then ‘The Coquette’, a similar tale of teenage pregnancy and destitution but with a far more interesting dilemma in the heroine's marriage choices and a far more interesting heroine herself. Charlotte only makes one choice in the whole book, to run off with Montraville and she seems to put no thought into deciding it, being goaded into it by Mademoiselle La Rue and regretting it instantly. She is so very passive, even her flight to get help at the end of the book is prompted by getting kicked out of her house. She has little personality nor thought at all.

Montraville is slightly more interesting, he is at least well-intentioned if utterly feckless. Mademoiselle La Rue and Belcour are the most interesting, but largely because they are evil for no particular reason, it makes them stand out at least.

The dialogue is particularly awful. While melodrama is not known for its natural conversation, the characters declaim their parts with stiff, awkward sentences. I praised ‘The Coquette’ for having  a letter that read like an actual letter but this book doesn’t even have characters that talk like normal people - not even slightly. 

Yet there is something peculiarly charming about the book. The strange, puppet-like characters and the high emotion have something of a gauche sincerity to them. There’s a feeling that this is a story the author wants to tell and despite the flaws in telling it, it makes the reader want to read them. 

Rowson also has a very direct and engaging authorial presence. It reminds me of Tristram Shandy in a way, similarly to how Sterne addresses members of his audience, referring to them as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Rowson addresses the reader as if we are a maiden aunt, a bluff man or even a ‘young, innocent, girl’. She informs us what she thinks about the story so far, warns us of our choices and informs us that although it may seem that the bad characters are in the ascendancy, they’ll be found out eventually.

This refreshingly plain way of addressing the audience is the book’s saving grace for me and I suspect a large element of its great success. There really is a feeling that we are sitting down with a well-meaning friend who is telling us the story as well as she can and it makes me like her, and her book, a little more then I may otherwise had.