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30 august 2020

I loaded Henry Fielding's novel Amelia onto my Kindle awhile back because I read somewhere that it was one of Vladimir Nabokov's favorite novels. Now I can't find where I read that. I may have dreamt it.

Given that I may have dreamt the Nabokov/Amelia connection, there doesn't seem too much point in speculating why the author of Lolita might have admired the final, seldom-read novel by the author of Tom Jones. There are enough reasons to read Amelia in its own right. It is a droll, pessimistic book that sets its central characters on a slide into disaster (or out of the genteel classes, which is just as bad in their estimation), only to rescue them via a deus ex machina at the last moment, so that the book doesn't entirely go the way of William Hogarth's Rake's Progress.

Yes, I realize that's a spoiler, but the novel is 270 years old, and it's hard to say anything about Amelia without specifying how it ends. Fielding is cynical about human potential in Amelia, and the fact that everyone (who deserves to) lives happily ever after the close of the novel makes the book even more cynical.

Amelia is full of excurses and disquisitions on human nature, and though these multiply in the second half of the novel and are somewhat skippable, they show Fielding's project in the novel: to explore a relationship between two pleasant people, a relationship doomed by their own weakness and the rapacity of (nearly) everyone who surrounds them.

Fielding's intriguing, asymmetrical narrative meets its characters mid-story but then has them immediately backtrack to explain to one another how they got there. "There" is jail, where Captain Booth, our hero, languishes because he is a gullible spendthrift. Booth, as I noted, is a genuinely nice guy, but has no conception of money, and is only too happy to oblige when acquaintances suggest that he drink and gamble away said money.

In prison, Booth meets Miss Matthews, an ex-girlfriend who is provided with ready cash, but has a few violent and impulsive misdeeds on her own ledger. She listens with entirely too much enthusiasm to Booth's long narration of his marriage to his beloved Amelia. Before long, Matthews is listening to Booth tell the story in bed next to her, a peccadillo that Amelia only learns – and immediately forgives – a couple of hundred pages later.

But then both Matthews and Booth leave jail, and we are flung into forward motion instead of flashback. Amelia becomes an extended meditation on the double standard. Booth is embarrassed by his fling with Matthews, but after all he's a guy and mistakes will be made. But the idea that Amelia would dishonor Booth by taking a lover is unthinkable. Booth's anxieties on this score fuel the ensuing plot, because Amelia is soon under siege from every man with the resources to offer the Booths some financial help at the cost of her chastity.

Though Amelia has a conventional sense of honor, she is also obliging and unsuspecting, and might be easy prey for the bucks of London. She remains faithful to Booth, though, because she is really into him. While Booth watches exasperatedly as a nobleman and his own colonel assail Amelia's virtue, he has nothing to fear except his own exceedingly misplaced jealousy.

The Booths have several true friends, including a divine named Dr. Harrison who thinks of Amelia as his daughter and consistently saves Booth from his own folly. It would be in the pattern that Fielding establishes for Harrison himself to turn seducer instead of succorer; at times "the doctor" gives hints that he has been grooming Amelia from her childhood for just such an eventuality. But remember the ending. Fielding eventually swoops in to save his couple from the worst that he has set us up to expect will befall them. We see so many things go wrong for them that we are braced for everything to collapse on top of them. Being braced for disaster so long, it's as if, by the end of the novel, we've already undergone it.

The best character in Amelia may be Colonel Bath: not the seducer colonel (whose name is James), but James' brother-in-law, a profane and combative soldier who lives to fight duels. The worst that happens to Colonel Bath, though, in the body of the novel at least, is that Booth runs him through with his sword in a duel caused by a total misunderstanding. Having been skewered by Booth, Bath becomes another of his genuine friends, and his energies save Booth from other embarrassments.

Amelia is uneven, imbalanced, flawed, implausible, tasteless, snarky, and for all those reasons, a great novel. If Nabokov didn't like it, he should have.

Fielding, Henry. Amelia. 1751. Kindle Edition.