This semester, I’m taking a “History of the English Novel” course. Contrasting with previous literature courses of mine, this doesn’t resemble a book club (I was miffed when my parents spent money on a class that felt more like a discussion group). This course examines individual, influential novels and studies the morphing of the genre throughout the last few hundred years. I’m really enjoying it so far.
Our first assigned work was Joseph Andrews, a 1700s satirical novel by an author (previously playwright) named Henry Fielding. When the English government started censoring plays, most theaters shut down; Fielding having been a satirical writer, he could no longer use plays to examine powerful people. So, shortly after, he turned to book writing. Joseph Andrews is a kind of mockery of Samuel Richardson’s work, Pamela. Fielding’s other work satirizing Pamela is called Shamela— so that gives you an idea of how fun this guy is.
Joseph Andrews is the tale of Pamela’s brother, Joseph; his curate, Parson Adams; and his impoverished sweetheart, Fanny. The three embark on a journey full of interesting characters– much like Huckleberry Finn on land– to arrive at their destination (one reason for which is to get Joseph and Fanny hitched). In class, we went over qualities that make this possibly the first true English novel (that’s under debate): it examines its variety of characters intricately, which provides for a fairly rich plot. One thing I liked increasingly is the abundance of minor characters, and subplots, that fill the work. The main action will repeatedly halt as Adams and Joseph listen to someone’s life story. Everyone serves to provide foreshadowing or a moral lesson of some sort. These vignettes of a sort are charming.
The narrator ties all these plots together and extracts themes– in class, we discussed the presence of an implied author behind these: the space between Fielding and the narrator: put another way, Fielding’s selected “eye behind the camera” for this specific novel. Learning more about form is fascinating to me. It shows you can play with the rules and still abide by them when creating literary art.
If you haven’t read Joseph Andrews, and you need a laugh, I’d definitely recommend it. The book is middle length– a little over 250 pages– but the prose is relatively easy to swim through, and the comic scenes paint vivid mental pictures. I’d give this novel a solid 4 out of 5 stars, both for its content and its prominence as one of the forerunners of English novels.
What are you reading right now? Leave me a comment below!