Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Henry Fielding – ‘Amelia’

Classics (and sub-classics) can lead a strange afterlife. I thought that Amelia had been neglected, because my Penguin Classics edition, from 1987, lacks the usual list of reprintings. A quick look on Amazon, though, reveals that it did get reprinted, once, in 2001, but also that editions from other publishers came out in 2003 (Wildside Press), 2006 (Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library), and 2007 (three times – from BiblioBazaar, Dodo Press and in a large print edition from Another is due, from Broadview Editions, in 2010. No other editions from the ’80s or ’90s came up. It could be coincidence, but it could also be that this novel about doggedly protecting what is precious in a time of avarice and moral chaos is more relevant now than it has been for a while. When was the last time we had a government suggest that spending is a duty, for example? In his introduction to the Penguin edition, David Blewitt says:
readers from the moment Amelia was first published have sensed a loss of the narrative unity that the continual authorial presence of Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones gave to those works. But the change of voice is deliberate; Fielding is adjusting the tone to fit his more pessimistic vision of life in mid-eighteenth-century England. His point is that public and private evils are connected […], and he bends all his narrative resources, including satire (the characteristic expression of moral indignation in the eighteenth century), to showing the impact of public evil upon private virtue. (p. xi)
This combination of the public and the private makes for an energetic, unsettling novel that is, indeed, much darker than Tom Jones. It tackles – and links – infidelity, poverty and corruption, and it proposes Christian morality as the solution to these ills. I was reminded at various points of an article by Rana Dasgupta in the latest edition of Granta which describes a society in which culture and refinement are on the wane. His version of modern Delhi is not very far removed from Fielding’s 1730s London: laws are there to be bent to advantage, money is all that matters, there is no respect for education. Worse still, in Delhi’s case, the whole thing can be justified by its own religion:
Hinduism is very pliable. It rationalizes inequality: if that guy is poor it’s because he deserves it from his previous lives, and it’s not for me to sort out his accounts. Hinduism allows these guys to think that what they get is due to them, and they have absolutely no guilt about it. (Tarun Tejpal, quoted in Dasgupta’s article)
In Amelia, Justice Thrasher’s attitude to the defendants brought before him is remarkably similar to Tejpal’s complaint against Hinduism: if they are rich enough to bribe him, he lets them off; if they are poor, he convicts them. He doesn’t believe that virtue would dress itself in rags, because virtue and wealth have come to mean the same thing.

Amelia is both a satire on selfishness and a polemic which attempts to show how things could be, if people were more considerate towards each other, and if society / government was more considerate towards them too. The selfishness and acquisitiveness on show are sexual as well as monetary: there are several rich, powerful and lascivious characters (Colonel James and the sinister ‘my lord’, who is never named) who prey on Amelia, attempting to engineer situations in which she can be seduced, or worse. Morality is deliberately compromised and muddied at every turn: Colonel James and ‘my lord’ both use pimps, and both enjoy an evening at a masquerade, which here is invariably used as a cover for anonymous (or not so anonymous) seduction. It is a society constituted of snares, though which Amelia and Billy Booth must navigate. He is such a bad judge of character that he requires a lot of help with this, and doesn’t always succeed. Several times the clergyman Dr Harrison has to get him out of a debtor’s prison. He is at the moral heart of the book, arguing for family values, Christianity and ‘learning’ (by which he mostly means reading Homer in Greek) as the correct way to combat avarice and lust. The sections in which he does this are a little dull, and do not represent the feel of the book as a whole, which is vibrant, if troubled. Amelia herself is slightly too perfect, though capricious enough not to become dull herself. The morality is pretty black and white, but the novel’s strength comes from the strong sense that Amelia and Billy’s family unit is in danger, and that this happens with society’s unthinking blessing.

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