Critical Responses to Joseph Andrews
The novel Joseph Andrews was written in the 18th century during the Augustan Age by Henry Fielding. The followers of the Augustan Age valued and supported reason and strongly believed in empiricism and human nature. The ability to understand the world through the human senses and to apply reason through the observation of nature was highly commended; the advancement of knowledge could only be acheived through these methods. Augustan writers often found that the application of satire in literature was the most proficient tool available to educate society and rememdy cultural problems. Henry Fielding was an Augustan writer who exercised a repertoire of literary tools in his novel. The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews is a comic epic that follows the personal account of the affable young man Joseph and his faithful companion the Parson Adams. Through a series of misadventures, Fielding constructs an entertaining story that embodies all of the principles of the Augustan Age.
Early and Contemporary Critical Responses
The reading of Joseph Andrews elicited various responses from contemporary society. Many critics found that his novel was a microcosm of Augustan beliefs and principles; it manufactured a representation of these convictions in a manner that was easily accessible and understandable by the general public. However, there were some who thought Joseph Andrews was poorly assembled. Many of the critics who impugned his work were offended by the manner in which he portrayed some of his characters and the parodies of other texts that he incorporated into his work. Cumulatively, the responses to Joseph Andrews were of a more positive nature and gradually over the course of time the novel has become an exemplary representation of Augustan behavior.
Positive vs. Negative Evaluations
On human nature:
To the Augustan society, human nature was a constant that observation and reason could be applied to for the advancement of knowledge. It was often said that Henry Fielding’s greatest acheivements in his novel Joseph Andrews were his depictions of human nature as it existed in all levels of society; he showed the nature of not only his own social class but of all social classes. In his representations, Fielding demonstrated his ability to capture a “type” of person. In a letter to Lady Henrietta Luxborough (concerning Fielding’s latest novel Tom Jones), William Shenstonewrote, “I see no Character yet y is near so striking as Mr. Abraham Adams. That was an original, I think; unattempted before & yet so natural y most people seem’d to know y Man” (396). He describes how Fielding presented everyday people in his novel Joseph Andrews that the average reader could recognize in their own interactions with society. Fielding’s ability to create a parallel between novel and reality greatly contributed to the commendations he received from contemporary critics. However, it is ironic that Shenstone was the one to recognize this talent in Fielding because 7 years prior to this missive his opinion of Joseph Andrews was drastically different. He had written in a letter to a friend, “I read it half a year ago; the week after I came to town: but made Mr. Shuckburgh take it again, imagining it altogether a very mean performance. . .the greater part is unnatural and unhumourous” (395-396). Throughout the letter he continued to question how any reader could appreciate the novel. While admitting that it had some redeeming qualities, he held firm to the belief that it was not worthy of high society. Nevertheless, there were many readers who did not share Shenstone’s initial reaction, including Shenstone himself.
In addition to accurately depicting the nature of people, readers found that Fielding also enabled them to acquire knowledge on the costums and culture of English society through clear descriptions of its inhabitants and circumstances. William Hazlitt wrote, “I should be at a loss where to find in any authentic documents of the same period so satisfactory an account of the general state of society, and of moral, political, and religious feeling in the reign of George II as we meet with in the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his friend Mr. Abraham Adams” (401). This representation was useful for readers in other countries as well; the Frenchman Pierre Francois Guyot Desfontaines wrote that “it instructs the reader in the costums of the English which are not at all known in France, and it apprises us of a hundred curious particulars worthy of the attention of the most serious persons” (397). Desfontaines was the editor of the Parisian periodical review Observations sur les ecrits modernese who translated Joseph Andrews into French in 1744. Critics of contemporary society such as Hazlitt and Desfontaines greatly appreciated its resemblance to the authenticity of nature expressed in persons of various social standings throughout the novel; Fielding did not showcase basic virtues exclusively in his characters, but he showed the vices of mankind as well.
On the character of Mr. Abraham Adams:
At the time the novel was published, the most profound contention that arose between critics was the character of Parson Adams; his personality was carefully constructed by Fielding and is markedly the most developed character in the novel. Adams, who is the absent-minded friend and mentor to Joseph Andrews, exhibits virtuous traits such as honesty, wisdom, piety and unselfishness as well as the fiendish traits of vanity and hypocrisy. These contradictory attributes in his personage are the basis for arguements surrounding his character. An excerpt from The Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany stated, “I have heard the character of Mr. Adams the clergyman. . highly condemn’d, because, it seems, he knew not the world. . .his ignorance of the world and its ways, demonstrates him not to have been a child of it, and if so, what they, his brothers of the cloth, who are so thoroughly knowing in this point, are, who is not able to guess?” (398). In response to the antagonistic opinions of readers concerning Mr. Adams, Sarah Fielding wrote, “Nor less understood is the character of parson Adams in Joseph Andrews, by those persons, who, fixing their thoughts on the hounds trailing the bacon in his pocket (with some oddness in his behavior, and peculiarities in his dress) think proper to overlook the noble simplicity of his mind, with the other innumberable beauties of his character” (399). She further clarifies her point of view by stating that the best, most virtuous men often inspire banter among their companions with their peculiarities, but that the true objects of ridicule are designed to be those that ridicule those undeserving, honest men such as the Parson Adams.
On his parodic and satirical format:
Another aspect of Fielding’s work that inspired dislike among some of his readers was his complete parody of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in his Shamela; his parody of Richardson’s work affected the reception of Joseph Andrews and other literary works among some of society. For example, George Cheyne who was a physician and friend of Richardson wrote that Fielding’s novel was a “wretched Performance” and that it would “entertain none but Porters or Watermen” (395). This was a harsh insult that suggested Fielding’s work was not fit for proper society and that his use of humour and satire would be considered contemptible by any educated reader. Fielding connects Richardson’s character Pamela to Joseph through a familial relation; he is described as (and is by all appearances) her brother. Fielding mimics the theme of chastity through Joseph’s actions and disposition, and he formally introduces Pamela’s character in Book 4 of his novel. In response to Fielding’s actions, Richardson wrote, “Nothing but a shorter life than I wish him, can hinder him from writing himself out of date. The Pamela, which he abused in his Shamela, taught him how to write to please, tho’ his manners are so different” (397). However, not all readers of Joseph Andrews interpreted Fielding’s actions to be malicious in their intent. Elizabeth Carter wrote, “It must surely be a marvellous wrongheadedness and perplexity of understanding that can make any one consider this complete satire as a very immoral thing” (396). Carter, who was a member of the “Blue Stocking Ladies,” believed that the whole novel carried a “spirit of benevolence” that governed it amiable to any reader; she also expressed her confusion on how so many had interpreted it negatively. The range of reactions among readers is evident in these contradictory interpretations.
The general reception of Joseph Andrews among Fielding’s social peers leaned more towards the positive spectrum. While there were few who held a great dislike for the novel, they were greatly outnumbered by those who held a very high opinion of the novel. One such person was James Beattie; he wrote that “the Comick Romance has been brought to perfection in England by Henry Fielding; who seems to have possessed more wit and humour, and more knowledge of mankind, than any other person of modern times”(400). Fielding’s ability to create an entertaining and intellectually stimulating story that closely resembles reality would have earned him accolades among many Augustan readers. Pierre Desfontaines claimed that “the English place [this novel] above all novels that have ever existed, or at least that they rank equal to the Adventures of D. Quixote and Scarron’s Roman comique” (397). He also wrote,”I have no fear of affirming that England has never before produced anything so perfect of this kind” (397). Desfontaines opinion shows that Fielding’s writing was exalted by not only the English but by other European nations as well (such as France). Opinions such as these show that Fielding has been compared to literary legends as a writer and his work has been considered equal to the ingenious creations of his time. William Hazlitt wrote, “As a painter of real life, he was equal to Hogarth; as a mere observer of human nature, he was little inferior to Shakespeare” (402). As a writer, Henry Fielding embodied all of the principles of the Augustan Age; he showed his talent in his depictions of human nature through endearingly familiar characters and his ability to wield a number of literary tools through his use of satire and his parodic creations; he has been found to be one of the greatest writers of his time.
Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews. 1st. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987
Image: Joseph Andrews cover illustration: borrowed from Amazon.com