Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, pioneers of the new genre, the novel, have laid much emphasis in their works on the exploration of the concept ‘virtue’. Richardson in his pioneering work Pamela limits the concept ‘virtue’ to chastity, especially female chastity, while Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones reaches for its broader classical sense - arête. Virtue as arête means the attainment of one’s highest human potential both physically and mentally.
The Oxford English Dictionary defining ‘virtue’ quotes Joseph Butler, an 18th century English philosopher, who defines the term as “what is right and reasonable, as being so; in a regard to veracity, justice, charity, in themselves” (675). An examination of the definition points to the fact that chastity alone could by no means be taken as an equivalent to virtue, and in fact it is not even the most important of the many qualities that constitute this multifaceted concept. Thus, in comparison to Richardson's limiting definition of ‘virtue’, Fielding’s reading of the term is broader and more compatible with its 18th century elucidation as well as the modern one which defines virtueas “voluntary observance of the moral laws or standards of right conduct” (675).
Richardson, the middleclass capitalist, is clearly using his work Pamela to showcase the values and aspirations that are dear to him and his class. Hence, despite her family’s descent into poverty, Pamela remains the quintessential middleclass gentlewoman. Thus, by making Pamela cling to her chastity Richardson coerce Mr. B, a member of the nobility, to look beyond her body and recognize her as his spiritual superior. Finally, the novel is intended to be a celebration of the triumph of the middleclass values over the moral decadence of the nobility; however, under a closer examination the text fails to reveals anything more than the ugly underbelly of the middleclass ambitions.
Virtuousness of Pamela has a hypocritical and calculated air. The heroin records several occasions in which her virtue and beauty have been praised by her fellow workers, Mr Williams, and Mr B himself which due to her all too frequent claims to humility reeks of hypocrisy.
The title page of Pamela states that the book was “published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of Both Sexes” (1). But Richardson himself defeats the stated purpose by including scenes which are titillating to such an extent that Charles Povey denounces Pamela as duplicitous and questions how “amorous Embraces…[could] inculcate Religion in the Minds of Youth” (qtd. in Downs 64). In the first half of the novel the heroin is constantly under the threat of being ravished by Mr B. Hence her decision to postpone leaving Bedfordshire in order to embroider a waistcoat for her would-be-ravisher points to three possibilities: naïveté, masochism, or calculated-ness. The zeal with which Pamela accepts Mr B’s marriage proposal and her subsequent behaviour, however, points strongly to the second option.
At first glance, the marriage between Pamela and Mr. B looks like a progressive act. Yet a closer analysis of the novel reveals that the union is little more than a trade of sex for status. In fact Henry Fielding hits the nail on its very head when he mocks the hypocrisy in Pamela in his ribald parody Shamela in which the heroin’s letter to her equally promiscuous mother reveals that instead of “making a little fortune” by selling her body she has decided to “make a great one by … [marketing her] virtue” (53). Mr B’s letter to Lady Davers shows that his status as an aristocrat has always been immune from any possible stigma he might have incurred by marrying below his class; thus, there is no grand progressive gesture involved in his part in marrying Pamala. Conversely, the marriage changes Pamela’s status and exposes her hypocrisy. As soon as Mr B has married her, Pamela awards him divine status and declares her desire to please him in every possible way. Furthermore, as a part of her transition to her husband’s world, Pamela rejects her identity as a gentlewoman. Her zest to let go of her former identity is laid bare when she states, “of late been so much honoured by better company” she could not “stoop to” the level of her former colleagues anymore (414). Thus, Pamela’s marriage to Mr B is yet another story of rags to riches with very little large-scale moral or social implications.
Joseph Andrews, too, begins as a parody of Pamela; however, it evolves into a serious discussion of the concept of virtue within the first book itself. Most of the wealthy characters in the novel are morally depraved. In contrast, Parson Adams, Joseph, and Fanny, despite their poverty, are extremely virtuous. In fact their extreme virtuousness is often exploited by the unscrupulous characters they meet on their journey. Though Joseph’s single minded determination to save himself for his dear Fanny oozes of parody, his reason for it - the Christian concept of premarital chastity - does not appear calculated as Pamela’s. As with Joseph, Fielding evokes humour at the expense of Parson Adams, but he never allows the clergyman to be a figure of outright ridicule. In fact the writer uses the virtue of the two male leads as a touchstone in testing the genuineness of the self-proclaimed virtues of the other characters in the novel. However, in contrast to Richardson, Fielding accepts the difficulty in pigeonholing characters as virtuous or vicious: genteel Mr Wilson is a reformed rake; kindly Betty is free with her favours; and the generous postilion turns out to be a chicken thief.
In the preface to Joseph Andrews and Shamela Fielding distinguishes between vanity and hypocrisy: “For as Vanity puts us on affecting false characters, in order to purchase Applause; so Hypocrisy sets us on Endeavours to avoid Censure by concealing our vice under the Appearance of their opposite Virtue” (6). He states that vanity “hath not the violent Repugnancy of Nature to struggle with, which that of the Hypocrite hath” (7). Thus Parson Adam’s pride in his learning is nothing more than harmless self-indulgence while Mr B and Pamela’s reasons against Joseph’s marriage to Fanny, Lady Booby and Slipslop’s behaviour towards Joseph and Fanny, and Parson Trulliber’s behaviour towards his flock are viciously deceitful. Fielding certainly does not approve of vanity but at the same time he absolutely detests hypocrisy. Thus, though the writer is clearly not above raising a chuckle over the naive vanity of characters like Parson Adams and Joseph, his bitter satire is reserved for the hypocrites like Mr B, Pamela, Slipslop, and Lady Booby.
However, Fielding’s disapproval of the conduct of some members of his own class does not necessarily make him an advocate for an egalitarian society. The writer equates class with virtue by making his heroes gentlemen by birth. At the same time, Fielding is careful to note that nobility in birth does not assure nobility in deed. Thus, true nobility is a blend of ‘nature’ as well as ‘nurture’.
The writer ridicules Pamela’s ambitiousness, but this does not mean that he is completely against social mobility for he himself engineers upward social mobility for his morally excellent yet poverty-stricken heroes so that they would find themselves occupying places that are rightfully theirs from which they have been pushed out sometime in the past by chance or adverse forces. In that sense, Fielding is an advocate of the Great Chain of Being put forwards by the Greek philosopher and educator Plato in his Republic. Then, what Fielding seems to dislike is the hypocrisy of preening in borrowed feathers.
On the issue of chastity, unlike Richardson who pretends to consider all forms of pre-marital physical relations as abhorrent yet titillates the reader with the ever-present possibility of Pamela being ravished by Mr. B., Fielding allows the attraction between Joseph and Fanny to be translated into physical expressions. The very mutuality of their attraction and the fact that it is in essence foreplay leading to the blessed state of holy matrimony immunize their petting sessions and Joseph’s frequent admiration of Fanny’s physique against lewdness. In contrast, the author rejects the rapacious sexuality of Lady Booby, Beau Dapper, and Mrs. Slipslop.
Fielding has cast the hero of Tom Jones after the likes of Achilles of the classical world; physically he is extremely attractive and most of his qualities are of a well-bred gentleman. Tom’s flaws are his sensuousness and impetuousness. The novel traces the reversal of Tom’s fate (peripeteia); his acknowledgement of his weaknesses (anagnorisis); and the subsequent efforts made in order to overcome them.
In a letter to Astraea and Minerva Hill Richardson states that Fielding has made Tom illegitimate as a sign of his disapproval of what he stood for. This statement highlights the narrowness of Richardson’s petty middleclass concept of the qualities that determined the worth of a man and in no way a reflection of how Fielding looked at Tom, the protagonist of his novel Tom Jones. On another occasion Richardson states that “the virtues of Fielding’s heroes were the vices of a truly good man” (qtd. in Cross 159). However, in Tom Jones, whenever Tom goes astray as in his trysts with Molly and Lady Bellaston, Fielding makes sure that the hero is exposed to humiliation and vulnerable to his enemies. In fact, it is the painful outcomes of his many transgressions that compel Tom to make an effort to outgrow his flaws. Thus, it is quite obvious that Fielding does not aid and abide by villainy. Hence, Richardson’s statements go only as far as to demonstrate his own limited understanding of Fielding’s interpretation of the term virtue.
As illustrated by Tom and Blifil, Fielding sees virtue as a combination of qualities inherent in the character of a person. The half-brothers have been brought up by the same family; yet, while Tom is intrinsically good, Blifil lives up to his baleful heredity. Tom’s native virtuousness prevents him from hiding his misdeeds; consequently, the hero becomes a victim of his own goodness. Blifil, however, makes an art of concealing his diseased personality behind a veneer of virtuousness. The writer is more critical of the covert breaches of good conduct than the overt ones committed with no malicious intents.
Tom believes the best of everyone until proven otherwise, and even then is quick to forgive. Hence, despite his many peccadilloes, the youth never loses readers’ sympathy. Similar to Shamela and Joseph Andrews, in Tom Jones, too, the acidic satire is reserved for the malicious hypocrites like Blifil and Lady Bellaston. The sheer number of the ‘bad’ characters in the novel implies that they are the norm and people like Tom, Alworthy, and Sophia are the exceptions. Once again, in Tom Jones too there are morally ambiguous characters like Partridge, Nightingale, and Fellamar who defy outright categorization.
Fielding and Richardson show a marked difference in their interpretation of female virtue as well. Richardson’s women are of two types - virtuous or vicious – and no grey in between. Pamela is the epitome of virtue who said to have been taught from the cradle to prefer death before dishonour; Mrs Jewkes who criticises Mr B for his vacillation on ravishing Pamela, on the other hand, is the very picture of wickedness. Fielding’s concept of ideal female virtue is a blend of moral excellence and chastity. Thus, Lady Bellaston and Lady Booby who lack both qualities are completely immoral. The writer’s ideal woman is the modest, sensible, and beautiful Sophia. Yet, Fielding does not equate female virtue to complete passivity. Sophia runs away from home and Allworthy, the kindly magistrate, supports her by stating female virtue need not extend as far as to submit to a forced marriage.
In conclusion, the differences between these two contemporary writers’ interpretation of the term virtue are rooted in the differences in their personalities as well as their socio-political backgrounds. Fielding who had received a traditional classical education, though impoverished, was a member of the aristocracy. His counterpart, in contrast, belonged to the newly emerging middleclass that was trying to sink its roots into the established social strata of the 18th century English society. As a writer, Richardson, like Defoe, had been entrusted by the watchdogs of his class with the task of legitimizing the existence of the middleclass in the eyes of the rest of the British society. According to Andrew Wright in Henry Fielding: Mask and the Feast, the clash between the two writers is actually a clash between a “world consisting of middleclass ambitions” against an “ampler world in which getting and spending are subordinate to civilization” (17).
Fielding’s interpretation of virtue is by no means ideal. In both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones men can be rakes and still reform to be virtuous. But society, he implies, is quite unforgiving to ‘fallen women’. If that is so, then Fielding is actually challenging the norms of his society by raising Nancy Miller and Molly, both ‘soiled’ women, to respectability. It must be noted that in the cases involving Jenny and Partridge as well as Molly and Tom, Alworthy punishes not only the women but the men as well. However, Fielding insists on his heroines – Sophia in To Jones and Fanny in Joseph Andrews – being chaste. This could either be taken as a concession made to maintain the element of romance in the novel or a sign of double standards. None of his characters are completely free of flaws – Parson Adams is vain; Joseph is naïve; Alworthy is gullible; and Tom is both sensuous and impetuous. Yet, they uphold as Butler demands “what is right and reasonable, as being so; in a regard to veracity, justice, charity, in themselves” (OED 675). Therefore, out of the two interpretations, Henry Fielding’s reading of virtue stands as broader and more honest.
Cross, Wilber. The History of Henry Fielding. London: Yale UP, 1918.
Downs, Brian. Richardson. New York: George Routledge, 1928.
Fielding, Henry. An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. Berkeley: California UP, 1953.
Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews and Shamela. London: Random House, 1998.
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones, A Foundling. London: Random House, 1991.
Jenkins, Elizabeth. Henry Fielding. London: Home & Van Thal, 1947.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
“Virtue.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Vol. XIX. 1989.
Wright, Andrew. Henry Fielding: Mask and Feast. London: Chatto & Windus, 1965.