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Shamela Henry Fielding

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The following entry presents criticism of Fielding's epistolary novel An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741). See also, Henry Fielding Criticism.

Hailed by Sheridan Barker as the “best parody in English literature,” Henry Fielding's Shamela is the best known of a number of novels written in the 1740s that satirized Samuel Richardson's hugely popular 1740 novel, Pamela. Fielding's sixty-page book condenses and imitates Richardson's two-volume epistolary novel, poking fun at the original work's narrative method and pretense at moralizing. The heroine of Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a servant girl who resists the sexual advances of her master, and Richardson's purpose with the novel was to “cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes.” Fielding's heroine Shamela, on the other hand, is an artful minx who uses her “Vartue” to rise in the world. By poking fun at every aspect of Richardson's method and message, Fielding exposes the hypocrisy of contemporary mores. The work is more than a simple parody of Richardson, however, as Fielding lampoons political figures, the clergy, and contemporary writers. Shamela also marked a turning point in the modern novel, as it prepared the way for Fielding's more complex and ambitious work, Joseph Andrews (1742), which launched the tradition of comic fiction in English literature.

Biographical Information

Although Fielding had published a number of plays, poems, and essays by 1741, he was struggling financially. His theatrical career had come to an end in 1737 because of the controversy stirred up by his dramatic satires, and that year he began preparing to qualify as a barrister in order to support his family. He also took on translation work and in 1739 launched a newspaper, the Champion, for which he wrote a number of essays that satirized politics, law, literature, religion, and government. As he inveighed against all manner of societal excesses and corruption in the Champion, Fielding was in fact preparing himself for the pointed satire that was to come in Shamela. In 1740, three books appeared that particularly irked Fielding. In addition to Richardson's Pamela, there was An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, a book full of grammatical mistakes and misused words, and Conyers Middleton's Life of Cicero, which was obsequiously dedicated to Prime Minister Robert Walpole's Privy Seal, Lord Hervey. Shamela satirizes all three of these works by imitating their content and style. In early 1741 when Fielding found himself in a “sponging house” because of his debts, he dashed off the manuscript of Shamela, which he published anonymously. Richardson suspected that Fielding was the author of the parody, and never forgave him. A year later Fielding would publish Joseph Andrews, which inaugurated his career as a novelist.

Plot and Major Characters

Fielding takes special care to parody even the smallest details of Richardson's work, and the form of Shamela closely follows that of Pamela. The novel is introduced by the “author,” one Conny Keyber (a combination of the names of the writers Conyers Middleton and Colley Cibber), who claims he presents the “authentick Papers” of the heroine of Richardson's novel. Keyber dedicates his work to “Miss Fanny,” a parody of Middleton's dedication to the supposedly effeminate Lord Hervey. He also includes letters to the editor (including one from the editor himself) congratulating him on his fine work, just as Richardson had appended letters in praise of his novel to his second edition of Pamela. The novel begins with a letter from the gullible Parson Thomas Tickletext, who, overcome by the loveliness of Pamela, writes to his friend, Parson J. Oliver, enthusiastically recommending the novel. Oliver, however, has in his possession certain letters that reveal the true nature and history of Richardson's heroine. Oliver explains that Pamela's name is actually Shamela and transmits her authentic correspondence. There follows a series of letters written between the various characters in the novel: Shamela; her unwed mother, Henrietta Maria Honora Andrews; Squire Booby, the master of Booby Hall; Booby's housekeeper and Shamela's confidante, Mrs. Lucretia Jervis; Booby's more loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Jewkes; and the Reverend Arthur Williams. The letters reveal that Shamela, formerly a servant in Booby's household, becomes his wife by supposedly resisting his attempts to seduce her and flaunting her “Vartue.” She has done this with the help of Mrs. Jervis, who pretends to help Booby to win Shamela but who actually aids Shamela in her designs on his worldly goods. In the meantime Shamela has an affair with Reverend Williams, which according to Parson Oliver, is eventually found out. Events and characters in the novel parallel Pamela, but things are seen in a very different light, with Parson Williams appearing as a scheming rogue, Mr. Booby as a fool, and Pamela as a calculating hussy.

Major Themes

As a parody of Pamela, Shamela aims to overturn what Fielding considered to be the sententious moralizing of Richardson's novel. Richardson claims that Pamela is a model of virtue, whose chastity is rewarded, but Fielding in his novel equates morality with expediency, as Shamela behaves as she does in order to secure material comforts for herself. Throughout the novel Shamela uses words such as “feign,” “act,” and “pretend.” She tempts Booby but pretends to do so unwittingly, thus retaining her virtuous image, resisting him in order to appear virtuous and lure him into marriage and elevate herself socially. Shamela is not the virtuous woman Richardson supposes but rather a calculating, conniving creature. While Fielding parodies Richardson's views on morality and virtue, at the same time he presents his own moral message about hypocrisy and feigned goodness. His criticism of hypocrisy extends also to the clergy (represented by Parson Williams), the gentry (in Squire Booby), and the political establishment. The theme of faith versus good works is also explored in the character of the parson. Fielding with his novel attacks corruption on many levels, from the perversion of language to the exploitation of the nature of decency and uprightness for political purposes.

Critical Reception

Fielding published Shamela anonymously, but upon its publication he was widely suspected as being the author of the parody. Because of the enormous success of Pamela, Fielding's burlesque enjoyed considerable notoriety, and indeed it spawned several other, lesser satires of Richardson's novel. Shamela was hardly a critical success upon initial publication, however, and it was not only until the early twentieth century that scholars began taking it seriously as a work of literature. Early discussions of the novel centered on its authorship, and it was not until the 1950s that Fielding's authorship of Shamela was established. Subsequent analyses have explored issues such as the nature of Fielding's parody; the work's complex, multi-layered satire of contemporary values and politics; the similarities and differences between Shamela and Pamela; the anticipation in the novel of themes elaborated upon in Joseph Andrews; the satire's concern with sexuality, gender, literacy, and class; the idea of authenticity; and Fielding's political attitudes.

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Principal Works