Riotous, sexy and groundbreaking, Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews: The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams, published in 1742, was one of the first English novels. Fielding was melding and parodying the two major forces battling for control of the fiction market at the time - the mock heroic, neoclassical tradition as practiced by Pope and Swift and the popular and populist fiction of the new novelists such as Defoe and Richardson. Richardson's Pamela had just taken Britain by storm, and following on the success of Fielding's parody of the novel, Shamela, the story of Joseph Andrews follows Pamela’s brother in his journey as footman to the rather dippy Parson Adams. In style and form, it imitates Cervantes' Don Quixote, with the servant and master undertaking their major journey together, but the sexual adventures of the young Joseph Andrews and his sorely tested chastity provide the real meat of the book's plot. Described by Fielding as 'a comic-romance', Joseph Andrews is a bawdy and merry book, but it is also wrought through with Fielding's devotion to the Greek and Roman classics and with his social conscience, which shines through in its fresh approach to the stifling moral hypocrisies of the day.
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If you somehow ended up suffering through Richardson's abysmal "Pamela", first of all - have a cookie, you deserve it. Secondly - read this book, it's even better than the cookies!
Fielding wrote this novel in direct response to Richardson's morality tale of a young girl protecting her virtue from the dastardly Lord of the manor and praying for all and sundry along the way. Fielding takes the formula and turns it on its head while seemingly ticking all the boxes of the genre. His protagonist is Pamela's brother, just as good-looking and just as virtuous, who sets off on a perilous journey back home after rejecting (mostly by accident and through sheer stupidity, rather than due to his exceptionally high morals) the advances of his merry widow Lady. Hijinks ensue and along the way Fielding lets us know exactly what he thinks about noble ladies, pious clergymen, Christian compassion and the general fount of human kindness.
What elevates this novel even further is Sewell's magnificent narration; if ever there was a perfect marriage between a book and a narrator, this surely is it. Honestly, it's a crying shame that he hasn't narrated anything other bar this book and another, as he brings even the more archaic bits of the text (this was published in 1742) to life. His portrayal of Lady Booby, who tries to seduce Joseph, while still preserving outward propriety and of her servant Madam Slipslop who is equally enamoured with Joseph and can be best described as a horny old goat is worth the price of the book alone!
If you need any more convincing, here's a brief excerpt - Joseph has been robbed and beaten by some highwaymen and left for dead in a ditch:
"The poor wretch, who lay motionless a long time, just began to recover his senses as a stage-coach came by. The postillion, hearing a man's groans, stopt his horses, and told the coachman, he was certain there was a dead man lying in the ditch, for he heard him groan. "Go on, sirrah," says the coachman; "we are confounded late, and have no time to look after dead men." A lady, who heard what the postillion said, and likewise heard the groan, called eagerly to the coachman to stop and see what was the matter. Upon which he bid the postillion alight, and look into the ditch. He did so, and returned, "that there was a man sitting upright, as naked as ever he was born." — "O J — sus!" cried the lady; "a naked man! Dear coachman, drive on and leave him." Upon this the gentlemen got out of the coach; and Joseph begged them to have mercy upon him: for that he had been robbed and almost beaten to death. " Robbed ! " cries an old gentleman: "let us make all the haste imaginable, or we shall be robbed too." A young man who belonged to the law answered, "He wished they had passed by without taking any notice; but that now they might be proved to have been last in his company; if he should die they might be called to some account for his murder. He therefore thought it advisable to save the poor creature's life, for their own sakes, if possible; at least, if he died, to prevent the jury's finding that they fled for it. He was therefore of opinion to take the man into the coach, and carry him to the next inn." The lady insisted, "That he should not come into the coach. That if they lifted him in, she would herself alight: for she had rather stay in that place to all eternity than ride with a naked man."
Rufus Sewell is magnificent in this! He captures the wit of the narrator so perfectly and the pace is so strong and lively you will want to listen to the whole thing in a day. The plot has some great twists, there are many laugh-out-loud moments and some hilarious lines. Even the digressions are gems, actually, perhaps they were even my favourite parts.