The Richardson-Fielding contrast has been around since the novelists were alive, and literary criticism has always had difficulty talking about either novelist without comparing him to the other, whether explicitly or implicitly. The opposition is a natural one, not least because of Richardson’s role in launching Fielding’s career: the latter wrote Shamela (1741), his first sustained attempt at fiction, as a satirical response to Richardson’s controversial Pamela (1740), and his longer and more serious Joseph Andrews (1742) likewise draws on Richardson’s novel for an equivocal sort of inspiration. The precise nature of that inspiration is worth examining, for while Shamela is a straightforward travesty of Pamela, Joseph Andrews is something more complex, and its relation to Pamela is something other than the relation of parody to original.
Pamela was one of the great popular phenomena of British literary history. It is the story of a teenage servant-girl, Pamela Andrews, who withstands the unwanted attentions of her Master, the lecherous squire Mr. B., and maintains her purity against long odds. Near the midpoint of the novel Mr. B. recognizes her moral worth, reforms himself, and marries her; the second half of the story concerns Pamela’s triumphant acclimation to her new exalted condition, her conquering of the snobbish upper class by the sheer force of her goodness. The entire novel comprises a series of letters and journal entries, a few of which (near the beginning) are written by other characters but the vast majority of which are the work of Pamela herself; this epistolary format is part of the Richardson’s revolutionary contribution to the development of the novel in English, for the first-person narration of events, in nearly real-time, allows the novelist to explore, quite naturalistically, the depths and nuances of Pamela’s psyche. Part of Fielding’s revulsion from Richardson’s creation may have been owing to this method of characterization, so different from his own and perhaps bringing the reader in too close for comfort. Thus, the great essayist Samuel Johnson distinguished Fielding from Richardson in this manner: “There is all the difference in the world between characters of nature and characters of manners; and there is the difference between the characters of Fielding and those of Richardson. Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer than characters of nature, where a man must dive into the recesses of the human heart.” In this respect, at least, Richardson was on the cutting edge where Fielding was not, as the distinctive province of the novel in the modern age would turn out to be the lavish delineation of individual subjectivity.
Pamela was also modern in being the first true best-seller. Richardson and his associates in the London publishing trade prepared the way for its debut with a P.R. campaign involving newspaper advertisements and celebrity endorsements. The pre-release hype tended to emphasize the moral utility of the novel and the laudable example that its virtuous heroine set for young ladies, and indeed upon its publication the novel received accolades from clergymen and other professional moralists in addition to literary types and the general public. The wholesomeness of Richardson’s moral message and the value of his aesthetic achievement were not evident to all observers, however, as a contingent of vocal detractors soon developed, some of whom vented their disgust in literary parodies. One such was Fielding, whose first contribution to Anti-Pamela literature was the bawdy Shamela.
The criticisms that inform Fielding’s parody are typical of the Anti-Pamela sentiment of the day, and many readers find that they remain compelling. One major problem, for Fielding and those who agree with him, arises from an unintended consequence of Richardson’s narrative method: Pamela’s authorship of virtually all the documents that make up the novel means that all information must come through her, with two unfortunate implications for her characterization. The fact that Richardson also needs Pamela to report other characters’ constant praises of her gives an impression of vanity -- and of hypocrisy as well, given Pamela’s many “humble” claims that she is unworthy of such praise. Pamela thus seems guilty of both of Fielding’s types of affectation. Worse, since the action of the novel revolves entirely around the possibility of sex, Pamela’s writing can make her appear to be sex-obsessed; this impression in turn makes her insistent protestations of virtue seem dubious. Indeed, in Fielding’s opinion Pamela was never sincere in her rejections of Mr. B.’s advances but was simply being strategic.
Richardson’s subtitle provides the clue: “Virtue Rewarded.” Is virtue, specifically female sexual virtue, its own reward, as the saying goes, or does it meet with some other, more tangible reward? In other words, is Pamela’s pursuit of virtue self-interested (and thereby hypocritical)? Given the plot of the novel, in which Richardson rewards his heroine with a socially elevating marriage, the pursuit of virtue for material gain might indeed seem a rational enterprise. On this theory, Pamela resists Mr. B. at first in order to maximize the rewards when she capitulates later; she is acting on the insight behind the vulgar expression, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” In stressing that female chastity precedes marriage, Richardson meant to recommend virtue for its own sake; in the opinion of Fielding and some others, however, the novel that many moralists extolled as a positive moral example to young women was in fact an instruction manual on how to use the appearance of virtue to gain social and financial advantages. In Shamela, Fielding makes this interpretation of Pamela’s character explicit: his sham-Pamela is a hussy pretending to be a prude, affecting to detest the advances of her Master while slyly encouraging them with her “involuntary” physical responses. In a famous passage, she confesses to her correspondent, “I thought once of making a little fortune by my person. I now intend to make a great one by my virtue.”
In Joseph Andrews, however, Fielding is no longer concerned with the genuineness or falsity of Pamela’s sexual morality, and what is more, the parodic motive has receded drastically in his conception of the work; what may be called the “Richardson material” occupies the first ten chapters but is marginal at best thereafter. The plot begins with a direct link to Richardson’s novel: Pamela has married Mr. B. (now “Mr. Booby”), and Fielding has endowed her with a brother, Joseph Andrews, who is in the service of Mr. Booby’s uncle, Sir Thomas Booby. Sir Thomas’s wife occupies a role analogous to that of Mr. B. in Pamela, as she soon sets about trying to seduce the physically charming Andrews in her employ. Parody, however, is never the only, or even the primary, point of the encounters between Joseph and Lady Booby: though Joseph’s “priggishly self-conscious virtue” (in the words of one critic) raises laughs by transferring Pamela’s signature attributes to a strapping young man, nevertheless Joseph never becomes merely a figure of parody; he is too clearly justified in his opposition to those detestable hypocrites, Lady Booby and Mrs. Slipslop, and his pursuit of virtue has no ulterior motive. As Homer Goldberg puts it, “the prime target of the ridicule is not the footman but his mistress, a figure with no derisive implication for Richardson’s novel.”
If Fielding no longer cares to impugn Pamela’s sexual virtue and accuse her of hypocrisy, then what is the point of his use of Richardson’s characters? As Brian McCrea has argued in an influential essay, Fielding’s new target is Pamela’s (and, by extension, Richardson’s) class attitudes. In an important moment, Fielding has his Pamela attempt to derail Joseph’s marriage to Fanny on classist grounds that, had they applied to her own case, would have kept her a servant-girl forever. When reminded that Fanny’s origins are similar to her own, Pamela responds with damning smugness: “She was my Equal . . . but I am no longer Pamela Andrews, I am now this Gentleman’s Lady, and as such am above her.” This is an appalling sentiment, but in Fielding’s opinion it scarcely exaggerates the position implicit in Richardson’s novel. When Richardson’s Mr. B. stoops to marry his servant, his disregard of class boundaries may seem revolutionary; in the full half of the novel following the couple’s marriage, however, Richardson does much to mitigate what at first seemed a radical social message. Upon her marriage and elevation, says McCrea, “Pamela changes her identity”: having once looked to her beloved parents as her moral and spiritual guides, she suddenly adopts Mr. B. as her paragon and creator, describing him as “God-like” and confessing herself “entirely the work of [his] bounty.” As she seeks to comply in all things with the will of Mr. B., she finds that she is not the same person she once was; as she remarks to a servant, “times . . . are much altered with me. I have of late been so much honored by better company, that I can’t stoop to yours.” Or, as Fielding’s Pamela would put it: “I am no longer Pamela Andrews, I am now this Gentleman’s Lady.” In becoming Mr. B.’s creature when she becomes his wife, Pamela demonstrates, against Richardson’s ostensible social and moral message, that a servant-girl cannot really become a lady, because in order to become a lady she must cease entirely to be the person she once was.
Fielding perceived this contradiction in Richardson’s handling of the class theme, and Pamela’s appearance in Joseph Andrews makes explicit the covert snobbery that her original creator unwittingly bequeathed to her. Not that Fielding himself cared much about the social aspirations of servant-girls or footmen: his conclusion, in which he reveals Joseph to be a gentleman and Fanny to be higher-born than everyone had thought, implicitly aligns individual worth with genteel birth and thereby is decidedly un-egalitarian. If Fielding’s novel is not more democratic than Richardson’s, however, it is definitely more honest; in Fielding’s moral outlook, which condemns hypocrisy above everything, honesty makes all the difference.