My erratic education included one year at a technical college, before it was agreed I leave on the grounds that I was incorrigibly idle. It was 1964, I was 16 and after three suffocating years at a previous school I was not going to waste my time and new freedom by studying A levels when I could do more exciting things, such as being thrown out of pubs for drinking weak beer under age. But although student and college were glad to see the back of each other, I had one regret - no more English lectures with genial Mr Butler, the single teacher for whom my rigid code of sloth made an exception.
The study books that year were Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, both illustrating, as Mr Butler patiently explained, the use of irony. I enjoyed Austen’s gentle ridicule of the Gothic novel, but Joseph Andrews, tracing the travails of a virtuous and impecunious servant making his way from London to Shropshire with a bumbling, eccentric parson at his side, was an even more unexpected treat. At the time, I was under the spell of Jack Kerouac’s beat epic On the Road and dreamed of crossing the US in a battered Chevy amid a fog of marijuana. Now here was another anarchic road book, but written 200 years earlier and a great deal funnier. I took a copy with me for the next halt on my own road – three months at a college in France, where I did even less work and had a marvellous time – and it has been a friend ever since.
The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr Abraham Adams is a good-hearted eighteenth-century frolic full of billowing breasts and bellowing squires, yet it masks a serious message. It was published in 1742, seven years before Fielding’s Tom Jones, and its origins lie in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740–1). Pamela was the then hugely popular epistolary story of a chaste servant
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