Wednesday 7 October 2020

Review: Shamela by Henry Fielding

Shamela was Henry Fielding’s first foray into prose fiction and was published a year after Pamela. Richardson’s book caused a great deal of media attention and readers quickly found themselves in opposing camps, the Pamelaists and the Anti-Pamelaists, similar to how big films sometimes split audiences in two.

Henry Fielding was definitely an Anti-Pamelaist and wrote Shamela as a direct parody. Before he gets to slamming Pamela, he has a few other targets first. The first being one of his favourite targets, Colley Cibber. The full title of the book being An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews, a little jab at Colley Cibber’s almost identical title for his theatrical memoirs (which hardly mentions sometime collaborator, Henry Fielding). 

Next is the dedication, which is a parody of one Conyers Middleton wrote to Lord Hervey in a biography of Cicero. My copy of Shamela includes the parodied text and it is spot on, striking the same note of insipid flattery. It also includes a number of references to wanking, I liked his description of editing as ‘tickling the text with my own pencil’.

With these targets out of the way, we move onto the proper target, Pamela itself. He starts with parodying the media-blitz of the book, writing a letter of recommendation for the book by himself and signed;
     “Sincerely your well-wisher, myself.”

This is followed by piss-take of Aaron Hill’s puff with absurdist, overelaborate praise which declares that Pamela is such a moral book that it can easily replace every other form of religion and moral teaching. These are mixed with genuine quotes from the Aaron Hill letters, making his own praises for Pamela seem as over-the-top as the fake parts. The recipient sends the ‘true’ story of Shamela to correct the lies in Pamela.

Fielding leaps right into the central instability of Pamela, that someone constructing a text as carefully as she does, is not constructing her own identity with as much carefulness. As such, Shamela is always acting a part.

The plot itself follows the first half of Pamela almost exactly. Shamela is a maid in Mr B’s house and quickly realises that he lusts after her and decides to play the ‘vartuous’ woman in order to bag a better deal. The conflict in the book doesn’t come from Mr B trying to force himself on Shamela, but in Shamela trying to manipulate him into marriage and not give away her real self. In the mirror of the principal rape scene in Pamela, Shamela tries desperately not to laugh at his clumsy attempts.

My favourite element was his take on Mr B, he picked up on the problem I had with him, that Mr B is a terrible seducer. He’s portrayed as being so charmless that he can’t connect with a woman by groping them. Shamela find him such a competent lover that she has trouble convincingly pretending to fall in love with him.
    “Sure no man ever took such a method to gain a woman’s heart.”

Mr Edwards, who is Pamela’s confidant, becomes Shamela’s secret lover. He’s a  conniving Methodist and sees good religion as nothing more than reading good books and singing psalms. Being a Methodist, he doesn’t see the goodness of his actions having anything to do with Jesus’s salvation. He can commit as many crimes as he wishes, as long as he truly believes.

Fielding also has a number of jabs at how long and padded Pamela is. At one point she says that her and Mrs Jewkes “talked of my vartue till dinnertime”, a perfect sum up of what much of what reading Pamela is like. The seemingly eternal scenes of Pamela giving gifts to servants is reduced to the phrase ‘&c.’ 

Fielding also skips most of the second half of Pamela is not represented by Shamela as the letter was lost, which I found a shame because I wanted to read his interpretation of the Lady Davers scene and his take on the married Mr B’s pretentious moralising.

I had great fun with Shamela finding it a perfect tonic to Pamela but it is a pretty ephemeral work, a fun little cash-grab that would unexpectedly develop into one of my favourite novelistic careers.

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