The protagonists of Henry Fielding's novels would appear to be marked by their extreme social mobility: Shamela will manage to marry her master, Booby, and the "foundling" Tom Jones is revealed as the bastard child of a serving-maid and Squire Allworthy himself, just as surely as Joseph Andrews is revealed to be the kidnapped son of Wilson, who himself was "born a gentleman" (Fielding 157). In fact Wilson's digression in Book III Chapter 3 of Joseph Andrews has frequently been taken for a self-portrait: "I am descended from a good family," Williams tells Joseph and Parson Adams, "my Education was liberal, and at a public School" (Fielding 157). Goldberg helpfully notes of this passage that such education was defined in Johnson's Dictionary as an education "becoming a gentleman," although fails to note that Fielding himself was educated at the most lordly of all the English public schools, Eton. Like Wilson, Fielding himself would turn playright and "hackney-writer to the Lawyers" to pay his debts (Fielding 169). Yet when Wilson describes the contempt shown to him as a writer by "men of Business" he manages to indict as meaningless the claims to "good breeding" on the part of his own social class:
There is a malignity in the Nature of Man, which when not weeded out, or at least covered by a good Education and Politeness, delights in making another uneasy or dissatisfied with himself. This abundantly appears in all Assemblies, except those which are filled by People of Fashion, and especially among the younger people of both Sexes, whose Birth and Fortunes place them just without the polite circles; I mean the lower Class of the Gentry, and the higher of the mercantile World, who are in reality the worst bred part of Mankind. (Fielding 170).
If the reader is informed enough to identify in Wilson's story echoes of Fielding's autobiography, what then are we to make of this astonishing indictment of the "worst bred part of Mankind" as the class from which Wilson and Fielding both emerged? I think it is worth noting that Wilson's comments occur within the context of a story about the social status of a working writer in an era of transition from the aristocratic patronage of "subscriptions" to the emergent capitalist marketplace and the corresponding development of mass culture. In his social history of England in the middle eighteenth century, Paul Langford offers a view about the shifting class dynamics in this period, to which Fielding was reacting:
A feudal society and an agrarian economy were associated with an elaborate code of honor designed to govern relations among the privileged few.... But a society in which the most vigorous and growing element was a commercial middle class, involved in both production and consumption, required a more sophisticated means of regulating manners. Politeness conveyed upper-class gentility, enlightenment, and sociability to a much wider elite whose only qualification was money, but who were glad to spend it on acquiring the status of a gentleman. (Langford 4)
I hope to show that Fielding himself intended Joseph Andrews give a revised or updated definition of gentility to reflect this shift from an aristocratic to a capitalist paradigm. The most significant way that Joseph Andrews marks this shift, though, is in its attitude toward the capitalist marketplace of fiction: indeed, the origins of Joseph Andrews and Shamela as parodies of Samuel Richardson's immensely popular Pamela seem to encapsulate the way in which matters of literary taste (considered according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu) invariably encapsulate issues of social class as well.
Although Wilson's digression in Book III has been taken as autobiographical on Fielding's part, it turns out that Fielding's actual autobiography was a bit more complex. The historian Edward Gibbon, a slightly younger contemporary of the novelist Henry Fielding, would record in his Memoirs the rather astonishing genealogical claim on Fielding's part, that he was closely related to the ruling family of the Holy Roman Empire. Even more astonishing is the fact that Gibbon is willing to vouch for the veracity of Fielding's claim:
Our immortal Fielding was of the younger branch of the Earls of Denbigh, who draw their origin from the Counts of Hapsburg, the lineal descendents of Eltrico, in the seventh century Duke of Alsace. Far different have been the fortunes of the English and German divisions of the family of Habsburg: the former, the knights and sheriffs of Leicestershire, have slowly risen to the dignity of a peerage; the latter, the emperors of Germany and kings of Spain, have threatened the liberty of the Old and invaded the treasures of the New World. The successors of Charles the Fifth may disdain their brethren of England, but the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of human manners, will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the imperial eagle of the house of Austria. (Gibbon 46)
The peerage belonged to Fielding's grandfather, Sir Henry Gould. Although Fielding himself hardly counted as a titled aristocrat within the English class system, he was nonetheless comfortably a member of England's ruling class, educated at Eton alongside Pitt the Elder. It is worth noting, however, that the tremendous social upheaval and class mobility of the latter half of the eighteenth century (including the French, American, and Industrial Revolutions) was already beginning in the earlier decades, and would not spare Henry Fielding's distant cousins: the last male heir of Gibbon's "Escurial" had died in 1700, seven years before Fielding was born (prompting the War of the Spanish Succession); the last of the "house of Austria" would die two years before Fielding published Joseph Andrews in 1742 (prompting the War of the Austrian Succession). Sir William Empson sees Fielding's aristocratic connection as the source of his "repeated claim, admitted to be rather comic but a major source of his nerve, that he was capable of making a broad survey because he was an aristocrat and had known high life from within." (Empson 817). Yet Claude Rawson notes that in deriving his satiric style in Joseph Andrews and Shamela from the likes of Pope (who had enjoyed aristocratic patronage but was hardly an aristocrat himself), "the patrician Fielding picked up his lordly accents, to some extent at least, from authors who were themselves non-patrician" (Rawson 1990). This disjunction -- between Fielding's own social status, and the social status of those writers whose tone he sought to emulate -- further suggests that some kind of shift in the meaning of gentility was taking place as Fielding wrote those novels.
But that shift is just as surely betokened by the fact that Fielding (in Rawson's account) had to learn and imitate his "lordly accents" from previous literature. This gets at the larger issue of satiric animus in Shamela and Joseph Andrews. Can reading a novel help someone to climb the class ladder? This issue seems to be at the heart of Henry Fielding's novels, which (though different in many respects) are alike in their status as parodies of Samuel Richardson's immensely popular Pamela. McCrea thinks that the class element is paramount in Richardon's imagination, and "the phenomenal popularity of Pamela may reflect its social schism. The story that, in its first part, provided wish fulfillment for every humble servant, in its second flattered aristocrats" (McCrea 487). It is important here to understand that Fiedling's parody should be understood not as a form of frivolous joke (although it can be that) but also as a sophisticated critique of popular taste. In his study of parody, Simon Dentith thinks that Fielding's centrality in the history of literary parody derives directly from Cervantes (as Fielding indicates in his preface). But where Cervantes was mocking the chivalric romances of questing knights, Dentith sees Fielding as mocking a new and particularly modern (and declasse) form of "bourgeois romance":
Shamela is a specific parody, which is expanded into the more general parody of Joseph Andrews… The novel is more distantly parodic of Pamela than Shamela, yet is nevertheless close enough for us to recognise that there is a strong polemical impetus, which means that Joseph Andrews can be understood as taking its starting-point from the need to differentiate itself from Richardson's novel. Fielding's activity as a novelist, then, is founded upon his parodic distance from the work of Richardson, which, as far as Pamela is concerned, we can describe as providing a kind of bourgeois romance, an eighteenth-century Cinderella story in which the heroine gets to marry her class superior thanks to her aggressive defence of her virtue. Fielding's parodic assault on this tendentious narrative defines his point of departure as a novelist; it can itself be subjected to diverse evaluations. On the one hand, it can be seen as a healthy rejoinder to the narrowness and prurience of Richardson's puritanical ideas of sexual virtue. On the other hand, it is not difficult to see some conservative and normative judgements operating in Fielding's parodies, which mock Pamela's class presumption, and derive their humour from the…