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.