Henry Fielding published his first full novel in 1742, at a time when he was nearly penniless and expecting the deaths of his young daughter and beloved wife. Joseph Andrews was, then, a response to personal and financial exigencies, but it was equally a response to that great literary event of 1740, the publication of Samuel Richardson’s much-debated and oft-lampooned Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Detesting it for both its moral content and its literary method, Fielding himself had already parodied Richardson’s novel in the anonymously published Shamela, his classically savage novella of 1741. Joseph Andrews in some ways continues the satirical work that Shamela began, but with its broad range of contemporary reference and its self-conscious positioning vis-à-vis long-standing literary and moral traditions, Joseph Andrews clearly considers itself far more than just another sendup of the century’s most widely travestied novel.
Much of the distinctiveness of Fielding’s first novel derives from the author’s background as a gentleman, a playwright, and a peculiarly eighteenth-century type of Christian. His youth at Eton College, where he had received a gentleman’s classical education, informed Fielding’s ambition to elevate the middle-class and vernacular genre of the novel by giving it a classical pedigree; the Preface to Joseph Andrews, in which Fielding explains in detail his inauguration of a hybrid genre, the “comic Epic-Poem in Prose,” makes explicit his desire to blend high and low and is a measure of how seriously he hoped that his work would be taken. By comparison, Fielding’s earlier literary output had been relatively slapdash; from 1728 to 1737 he had been a writer of comedies for the London stage, in which capacity he had sought, in the words of the earlier dramatist John Vanbrugh, “to show People what they should do, by representing them on the Stage doing what they should not.” A contemporary remarked that these plays had been written “on tobacco-paper,” and indeed they show signs of haste and of having been written for money; while Fielding would conceive more loftily of his novels in terms of their form and pedigree, however, he would remain consistent in his view of literature’s moral utility as a vehicle of constructive ridicule.
Joseph Andrews is a product not only of its author’s career and education but also of its age in general, which is often called the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment Age. It was a time of major political and doctrinal compromises, and its religious temper was optimistic and non-dogmatic. The Christian outlook of Fielding shares in both these attributes: his novels advocate an easygoing Protestantism in which charitable works are the infallible hallmarks of goodness, sociability is the wellspring of charitable works, and providence is the reliable guardian of the virtuous. Fielding’s morality, like that of his up-to-date contemporaries, is at least as much man-centered as God-centered; the same may be said of his philosophy, for in the early eighteenth century, faith in God was equally faith in man, as religion was held to be perfectly compatible with human reason. Thus, Fielding shares with his Parson Adams a confidence, which borders on the rationalistic, in the ethical value of reason, including and especially that of the pre-Christian Greek philosophers. In the literary culture of the age at large, the consequences of such faith in reason were substantial: as one critic has put it, “[a]nything that could not be explained was undervalued,” and literature accordingly took on an empirical cast. The poets turned from lyric poetry to versified philosophy, of which Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man is perhaps the supreme instance, and the increasing interest of writers in what is real and tangible contributed to the development of a new genre, namely the novel, the special province of which is the depiction of everyday life. In company with his predecessor Defoe, his contemporary Richardson, and his successors Sterne and Smollett, Fielding would help to determine the particular form of the novel in English.
The subject of Joseph Andrews, as of all of Fielding’s novels, is human nature, which he considered fallible but perfectible. The mode is comical or satirical, and the moral intention is to puncture the facades whereby people protect themselves from moral opprobrium or from self-knowledge, as the case may be. The field of reference comprises Homer and Richardson, Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the Bible, the mediocrity of contemporary writers, the corruption of contemporary gentry and officials, and many moral and ethical verities of eternal relevance. As much as Pamela was the first best-selling novel, Joseph Andrews is the first novel of the “modern” type, comprehending traces of the theater and of picaresque, of high culture and of low culture, in a structure both architectural and deceptively casual.