{The Novel Form} “Joseph Andrews” by Henry Fielding (1742)

It is difficult to divorce an author’s plan from the work itself, especially when said work provides a preface, and a frontispiece, that details how it should be read, in what context, with what understanding, and to what purpose. It could be reasonably argued that an author does not make the best critic for his or her own work, nevertheless an author’s prefatory material should be considered as a part of the work that forms the whole. The author we are attempting to introduce here is Henry Fielding and the work that we are drawing reference to is Joseph Andrews.

The preface to Joseph Andrews functions as a kind of initiatory act for the reader. The frontispiece of the book declares that it is a “history” and that it is written in the “Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote”. The author’s claim appears to be contradictory. In practice, history and literature are generally not incompatible types of writing; however, in theory, the two writing forms are distinguished from each other like reality is distinguished from the representation of it. That is not to say that historical writing is reality, only that historical writing, with its conventions, is normally considered a more accurate representation of reality. After all, historical writing is only an attempted representation of past events and deeds, and therefore it can also be termed as a duplication or a copy.

Historical writing is distinguished from what we generally refer to as literature by the degree of objectivity in its operation. Literature is commonly considered to be a more subjective method of writing and is generally labeled as fiction for being fictional in its account. It could also be said that the real meaning of literature is its presentation of unreality and that it is not dependent on an external world in order to function. If we admit this line of reasoning, if becomes clear that an objective method of writing, with a clear and established relationship to an external world, is widely considered to be more accurate in its representation of an event or a reality, than a subjective approach centered on the creativity of the author. The fault line between the two methods often lies in the role of the author.

The main critique against literature, or creative writing, in terms of its classification as a representation of reality, is the presence of the author and the degree to which he or she is involved with a work. An author who is too involved with the shape of the work, who is too subjective with a work’s content, whose role moves beyond the proper station of the regular observer and whose capabilities measure beyond those required of an objective observer, is considered to be biased in his or her opinions. The judgment here is that an author who becomes in any shape or form the content of his or her own work distorts the true nature of his or her observations, which should take absolute precedence in a work of literature. All of these factors determine whether a work is to be considered fiction or not fiction, that is, creative or historical.

The difficulties in our attempts to categorize the approach and the method of each writing style are obvious. The boundaries of historical writing and literature tend to blur when one attempts to press them into a distinct and ordered form. The differences that lay between the two writing styles are minute when they are operational, and often they tend to bleed into the foundations of each other’s techniques. The premise that led us into our present discussion is whether Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews is a romance or a novel, and to examine the tension that resides in that timid relationship. Our conjecture is that the book falls into neither category conclusively. The author of the book self-consciously states that he is attempting a “kind of writing” that has never been “attempted in our Language”. Fielding describes it as a “comic Epic-Poem in Prose” or, in other words, as a “comic Romance”.

Fielding does an excellent job of defining his own terms in the preface and of detailing his scheme for the book; however, it is not obvious whether the reader should interpret the preface as a parody. His preface goes into minute detail to distinguish what type of book he is writing and what kind of book he is not writing, but again, even after reading the book, it is not obvious whether we, as a readership, should interpret Fielding’s preface in earnest. It is also difficult to say for certain whether the rest of the book qualifies as the “comic-Epic in Prose” he intended to write or whether it was a new “kind of writing” at all. What we can attempt to do is determine what Fielding meant with the terms he consciously employed in the frontispiece and the preface.

Since the term ‘novel’ has not gained a definition that is comprehensive enough to allow us to quickly ascertain whether Joseph Andrews qualifies to be such a book, and since the author never used the term himself, we will have to discover for ourselves, through the prefatory material, what type of book Fielding was trying to write and, maybe even more importantly, what kind of book he was not trying to write. What we can say with confidence is that the book is not a romance, “It differs from the serious Romance in its Fable and Action…it differs in its Characters….”. Despite the claim made on the frontispiece, Fielding’s book is also not a history.

As discussed earlier, a book written with creative motivations cannot be considered a proper historical account. It might well have been a convention of the age to entitle creative works as histories to gain commercial repute, but for our argument, the term has more significance in light of the preface and when coupled with our investigation of the book in terms of the novel form. Fielding’s statement on the frontispiece that the book is a “History Of The Adventures of Joseph Andrews” does not have to be read literally.

In the preface, Fielding states that his writing is “copied from the Book of Nature, and scarce a Character or Action produced which I have not taken from my own Observations and Experience….”. This passage seems to confirm that Fielding is indeed writing a kind of history, but elsewhere in the preface, he is explicit about the method he employs in bringing about this history. He says that he constructs a kind of “Affectation” onto his characters, which as a technical term is obviously a creative and subjective technique, rather than an impersonal one that historical writing demands.

Fielding is saying that he slightly manipulates his material in order to bring out a certain comic effect. It is clear that Fielding is referring to the liberty he took on the frontispiece with his reference to the “Manner of Cervantes”. Through the preface and the frontispiece, the author is trying to articulate his method of composition. He is introducing the element of history, and of historical writing, as an artistic device and he is engaging with it as a kind of technique.

We are not at leisure here to discuss the form of Don Quixote, but a citation from Northrop Frye found in Anatomy of Criticism can illuminate our position on Joseph Andrews. He says that an important theme of the novel is “the parody of the romance and its ideals. The tradition established by Don Quixote continues in a type of novel which looks at a romantic situation from its own point of view, so that the conventions of the two forms make up an ironic compound instead of a sentimental mixture.”We will not go as far as saying that Joseph Andrews is an “ironic compound” or that it attempts a “parody of the romance”, only, that the book, because it is written in the “Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote”, may have imported a similar reaction against the romance in order to breed a new “Species of writing”.

Fielding’s “comic Romance”, like Don Quixote, appears to be a compound as well; however, it is beyond the scope of our argument to suggest whether it is an “ironic” or “sentimental mixture”; although, we may pursue the idea that Fielding was not writing a parody at all, and that his imitation of Cervantes only went as far as importing a certain attitude towards the romance, but not for the purposes of critique or parody, only to establish new principles for the foundation of his prose.

Fielding’s objective for writing Joseph Andrews, as emphasized in the preface, is to establish a new kind of writing. Fielding draws reference in his preface to a missing book written by Homer, which would have laid the “great Pattern” of comedy, it becomes quite comfortable to assert that the entire enterprise of the preface, and the book, is to parody or to mock the epic framework. An alternate interpretive route could suggest that irony, or the ironic, is inherent in the form Fielding was working towards and not a position he was consciously striving to attain.

Understandably, this critical avenue we are appraising is similar to the practice canonizing a saint’s work long after he has passed away; inevitably, this is what all literary criticism does, consciously or unconsciously, it attempts to develop an integrated pattern out of literature, and one that necessarily evolves the work out of the temporal context and into a conceptual universe of its own. We are digressing here, and also summarizing the main theory of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, but reasonably so. To apply an indefinite term like ‘novel’ to Fielding’s book is unsubstantial and overtly simplistic, especially because the definition of the term ‘novel’ is still largely a work in progress.

A more proper term for the book is one Fielding used himself, the “comic-Epic”; and despite all the inherent contradictions that lay in the form Fielding was trying to fashion, we can still find in his book a proper introduction to a form of writing that bore an equal respect for the creative furnishings of history, as well as for the established idioms of literature. By the ‘creative furnishings of history’, we mean the accuracy of the historians technique but also the tribute they paid to nature by observing her as directly as possible. Fielding committed himself to a similar pursuit in Joseph Andrews.

In the preface to his book, Fielding states that a “Comic Writer should of all others be the least excused for deviating from Nature…[because] Life every where furnishes an accurate Observer with the Ridiculous”. If we collate this passage with another by Frye from his Anatomy of Criticism, it becomes clear that “Fielding’s conception of the novel as a comic epic in prose seems fundamental to the tradition he did so much to establish.” By self-consciously asserting that he was developing a new writing form, and by laying the foundation of that form in comedy, Fielding revealed an awareness that a new writing form was coming into existence—one that introduced a new type of character and a new type of situation, laying important groundwork for the foundation of what we now call the ‘novel’.