The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
II. Fielding and Smollett
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 7. Joseph Andrews and Pamela; The character of Parson Adams
Perhaps, in spite of himself, writing must have been still necessary to him as a means of subsistence. In any case, accident had something to do with his finding his true field. In November, 1740, Samuel Richardson had published Pamela. Fielding had had some experience in parody: and he set to work to parody Pamela. But, just as Pamela had grown under its author’s hands into something much larger than the original conception, so the parody grew beyond Fielding’s first intention till it became his first published novel, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. As Pamela was tempted by her master, squire Booby (the full name given by Fielding is concealed by Richardson under the initial B.), so her brother, Joseph Andrews, is tempted by his mistress Lady Booby, another member of the family. Clearly, the fun of the inverted situation would soon be exhausted; and Fielding would speedily tire of a milksop. Thus, before he had composed his title-page and his preface, his whole design had changed. Of Lady Booby, we hear practically nothing after the tenth chapter. Andrews himself, though transformed into a hearty and vigorous youngster, has slipped into the second place, and the chief character in the story is the poor clergyman, parson Adams. Twice in the book, Fielding defends himself against the charge of drawing his characters from living originals; but, among others, Richardson (who was much hurt at the “lewd and ungenerous” treatment of his Pamela, and, henceforth, never lost an opportunity of carping at Fielding) declared that parson Adams was drawn direct from Willing Young, a clergyman of Gillingham, in Dorset, who (curiously enough) witnessed Fielding’s signature to the assignment of the copyright in Joseph Andrews for £183. IIs. od., and who, also, later, intended to join him in a translation of Aristophanes, which was never completed. If so, William Young must have been a fascinating character; but it is more important to notice that, with all the contradictions in his nature, parson Adams does not show any of those lapses from verisimilitude which are usually the result of a slavish imitation of life. He is, in truth, one of the immortal characters in fiction. Something of him appears in the vicar of Wakefield, something in my uncle Toby; and, wherever in fiction simplicity, self-forgetfulness, charity and hard riding of a hobby are combined in one person, there will be found traces of parson Adams. He is often ridiculous; the absurdest accidents happen to him, for Fielding, though he was nearly thirty-five when the book was published, had not yet lost his love of farce. But, just as Cervantes preserved the dignity of Don Quixote, so this novel (“written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes,” as the title-page tells us), by preserving the spirit of comedy through all the episodes of farce, preserves the dignity of one of the most loveable of men. In the preface, Fielding explains that the only source of the ridiculous is affectation, springing either from vanity or from hypocrisy. Vanity and hypocrisy were the objects of Fielding’s life-long enmity; but it is unsafe to trust too much to his own explanation of his motives. For parson Adams is, certainly, free from affectation; and it is this very freedom which gives rise to all his misfortunes. In this novel, we find, for the first time, the distinguishing characteristic of Fielding’s attitude towards life—his large-hearted sympathy. Hypocrisy he hated, together with all cruelty and unkindness; but, when he comes to exhibit a hypocrite, a scold, or a rogue of any kind, he betrays a keen interest, sometimes almost an affection, rather than hatred or scorn. Mrs. Slipslop, that wonderful picture of a sensual, bullying, cringing lady’s-maid; Peter Pounce, the swindling skinflint; Mrs. Towwouse, the scolding virago, parson Trulliber, the boor and brute—all are satirised genially, not savagely. Perhaps the one character invented by him for whom he shows hatred pure and simple, the one character at whom we are never allowed to laugh, is Blifil in Tom Jones.