Understanding the background of a work of art, whether a painting or a novel, is often essential for understanding the work of art itself. This is not necessarily true of all novels, or of all paintings, films, songs or other forms of art, but, for many, it is true. Novels from hundreds of years ago, especially, have to be understood within the historical, social and cultural contexts in which they were written. Works of fiction were often inspired by the authors’ observations of the milieu in which they lived. Charles Dickens was certainly influenced by his own life’s experiences, mainly, his father’s confinement in a debtors’ prison, and the poverty he endured growing up in England – experiences felt in such stories as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol. Frankenstein was heavily influenced by both the intellectual environment in which Mary Shelley and her husband Percy lived and by the moral quandaries surrounding advances in science and the possibilities those advances promised. Charlotte Bronte’s life similarly deeply influenced Jane Eyre. Henry Fielding was no different – at least in the sense of being a product of his times. What sets him apart, and makes any discussion of the literary background of Joseph Andrews particularly difficult to grasp, was Fielding’s iconoclastic and acerbic methodology. In other words, he was a political and literary satirist who’s best known work, Tom Jones, is a masterpiece of English literature despite – or, perhaps, because of – the prominent role sexuality and sexual themes play in its plot, along with the important role of class divisions. Whereas Tom Jones is a fairly straightforward tale, however, Joseph Andrews, a sequel of sorts to an earlier parody, Shamela, which satirized Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, took on a decidedly more serious tone in terms of its acceptance.
Henry Fielding was a magistrate by trade, a lawyer who adjudicated disputes, and was very politically-minded, although historians have struggled to summarize his political orientation. Suffice to say, however, that his political views leaned towards constitutional monarchism, in which the Crown ruled only with the consent of the governed. Fielding’s political views are presented in Joseph Andrews, although in typically vague fashion, as, referencing “the master, who was christened Timotheus, [but who] is commonly called plain Tim,” the author wrote:
“He is a person well received among all sorts of men, being qualified to render himself agreeable to any; as he is well versed in history and politics, hath a smattering in law and divinity, cracks a good jest, and plays wonderfully well on the French horn.”
Similarly, the Reformation, a not inconsequential development in England, as Henry VIII’s contributions to religious discourse in that region had evidenced years earlier, remained a tricky subject for politics and literature.
Joseph Andrews, of course, was heavily influenced in style by Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, as he himself attests in his comments regarding the origins of Joseph Andrews, noting that it was “writ in the manner of Cervante,” and including in Chapter XVI the passage, “OUR TRAVELLERS had walked about two miles from that inn, which they had more reason to have mistaken for a castle than Don Quixote ever had any of those in which he sojourned . . .” Fielding’s fealty towards Cervantes and his disdain for Richardson provide much of the context in which to understand Joseph Andrews. Absent an understanding of the literary background of this story, it can still be enjoyed, but its meaning won’t be fully appreciated.