- The Two Amelias: Henry Fielding and Elizabeth Justice
In May of 1751, Elizabeth Justice published a thinly veiled autobiographical tale entitled Amelia: or, The Distress’d Wife. In December of the same year, Henry Fielding published his own Amelia, also the story of a distressed wife. Had Fielding’s novel appeared in May and Justice’s in December we would have long ago convicted Justice of plagiarism. As the opposite is true, we have been content to dismiss the earlier work. In 1927 Robert P. McCutcheon offered the judgment that “Fielding could find very little to his purpose in ‘Amelia, or the distressed wife.’” 1 Over fifty years later, in the introduction to the Wesleyan edition of Fielding’s Amelia, Martin Battestin advanced a more sinister interpretation. As readers “eagerly awaited word of the progress Fielding was making on his new novel,” Battestin notes, Justice’s Amelia was announced by title only in the General Advertiser in March of 1751. “That a pot-boiler such as this should bear the same title as Fielding’s expected romance,” he continues, “seems a deliberate ruse of the publishers to capitalize on his reputation.” 2 Battestin is sure that the continued advertisement of Justice’s book as Fielding’s novel began to receive notice in the booksellers’ lists was a concerted effort “to promote a profitable confusion of the two in the public mind.” 3 Battestin’s umbrage is clear. Elizabeth Justice is no Henry Fielding.
The assumption that drives McCutcheon’s query and Battestin’s investigation of all matters regarding Henry Fielding is, of course, that Fielding’s stature as a writer sets him apart, not only from Elizabeth Justice, but from most of his contemporaries. Postmodern thought, however, has challenged this kind of assumption. We have come to suspect the validity of totalizing strategies, that is of reference to author, oeuvre, tradition, influence, development or evolution. Such methods, as Michel Foucault has suggested, convey the impression of a false unity. 4 To avoid such distortion, we might begin with the admission that if Amelia were the only novel that Henry Fielding had ever written, it would probably be as obscure to us as is Elizabeth Justice’s Amelia. These works bear the same title, address the same subject, and were published the same year; once [End Page 313] we bring them together, we can expect to discover resonances and complexities inherent in the early modern experience that neither work divulges on its own.
The two Amelia s constitute, as it were, an irruption of discourse about uxorial distress, particularly the trials of the wife in the married state. The plot of Fielding’s Amelia is no doubt familiar to anyone reading this essay. Although William Booth is a worthy man who ultimately learns to govern his life by the precepts of religion, his early behavior — infidelity and profligacy — certainly imperil his family’s, and especially his wife’s, existence. From the beginning the Booths have a difficult time of marriage due to the greediness of Amelia’s sister who by forgery robs Amelia of her estate. And other factors outside the marriage, such as corrupt justices, menacing lawyers, and lustful acquaintances, render the pursuit of marital ease and happiness difficult. But it is Billy Booth himself, through gambling and adultery, who drives Amelia to the point of despair. When Booth pays a reluctant visit to his Newgate mistress, Miss Mathews, in order to prevent her from disclosing their affair to his wife, he is arrested for a gambling debt. Meanwhile Colonel James, lover to Miss Mathews and thwarted, would-be seducer of Amelia, sends a challenge to the Booths’ home demanding satisfaction from Booth with the excuse that Booth had betrayed him, and Amelia herself, by dining with Miss Mathews. James’s design, we are told, was one of “injuring Booth in the Affection and Esteem of Amelia, and of recommending himself somewhat to her” (F, 495). He achieves the first of his ends, for while Amelia (unbeknownst to Booth himself) already knows of his affair with Miss Mathews and has forgiven him, and while she had earlier soothed him when he confessed his gambling excesses, the prospect of...