Amelia (Henry Fielding, 1751)

A satire of the sentimentalist novels so in vogue in the first half of the 18th century, similar in style to Fielding’s earlier Joseph Andrews. It’s perhaps better written than that book (and less overtly comic), but storywise, it’s not as entertaining in my opinion.

Amelia Harris is the child of a wealthy woman who has high hopes of her making an advantageous marriage, but her daughter has fallen in love with a poor, young army man named William Booth. With the help of the local parson, Dr. Harrison, she and Will elope. Her mother dies not long afterward, leaving her entire fortune to Amelia’s sister. The Booths are left to shift for themselves in London, which is a daily struggle. Will finds himself several times in debtors’ prison, Amelia is assaulted on all sides by pimps and lechers, and the line between friend and enemy grows ever blurrier. Eventually, it’s discovered that Mother’s will was a forgery — she had actually left almost the whole of her estate to Amelia, but her sister conspired with an underhanded lawyer to steal it. Restored to fortune, Will and Amelia leave the miserable city to live happily ever after in the countryside.

Most of the book’s humor derives from how very at odds the plot treats its characters (that is, as if they were the familiar stock characters found in all sentimentalist novels) to how they are actually characterized. Will is not a good husband. He’s idle, given to drink, a gambling addict, adulterous, and violently jealous; possessing of just enough intelligence to reason away his many vices. Amelia is not the perfect partner. She’s an overly trusting pushover who’s ignorant of both formal education and common sense, whose virtue may be more correctly termed prudishness, and whose secretive nature, while protecting Booth from some dangers, exposes him to many others. Dr. Harrison is not a wise savior. He’s an opinionated pedant at best and a useful fool more frequently, as quick to condemn as to forgive, easily flattered by sycophants and more easily offended by true friends. The villains, likewise, are complicated and inconstant, many (such as the bailiff at the debtors’ prison) possessing a moral code that, while idiosyncratic, they strictly adhere to and judge themselves by.

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