Little Joey Andrews has a pretty sweet gig going for him. At ten years old, he goes from a job scaring birds away from the fields to being a footman at Sir Thomas Booby's grand old house. The job comes with one downside: Lady Booby, Sir Thomas's lecherous wife, is majorly into Joseph. Even though Lady Booby might benefit from watching He's Just Not That Into You, the truth is that Joseph is too busy getting educated to notice what Lady Booby wants. Hey, the local parson, Mr. Abraham Adams, is one heck of a teacher.
The Boobys take Joseph to their London home, which turns out to give some culture shock to poor Joey. Joseph spends his days getting into mischief, but he doesn't succumb to the advances of Lady Booby. Sir Thomas unfortunately kicks the bucket while in London, so Lady Booby is even more insistent about getting some action. Also, did we mention that Joseph has another fan among the ladies? Mrs. Slipslop, Lady Booby's maid, tries to tell Joseph that he's hot stuff, too—but she totally gets rejected. She's pretty mad about it—in fact, she goes straight to Lady Booby and makes up stories about how Joseph's a little too loose with the ladies.
In a fit of jealousy, Lady Booby kicks Joseph out. Never fear: he has a plan. Joseph decides to embark on a journey to see his long-lost childhood sweetheart, Fanny Goodwill. Unfortunately, he's barely out of the gate when he runs into two highwaymen. These ruffians not only take his money, but they also strip him of his clothes and beat him up when he protests. Poor, naked Joseph lies in a ditch by the side of the road and waits for someone to take pity on him.
Not everyone's as nice as Joseph, though. A coach full of well-to-do people nearly pass him by until one of them, a lawyer, worries that they'll be held accountable for his murder. They grudgingly drop Joseph off at Mr. and Mrs. Tow-wouse's inn. A surgeon takes a gander at Joseph and proclaims him to be mortally wounded, which makes Joseph despair of ever seeing Fanny again. A clergyman named Mr. Barnabas stops by the inn and says he'll pray for Joseph, though he spends more time provoking the surgeon.
Who should happen upon this dismal scene but Parson Adams? It turns out the dude is on his way to London to publish some of his sermons. Well, he'll be on his way just as soon as he gets a loan from someone to make that happen, actually. Surprise, surprise: no one's really interested in giving Parson Adams any moolah, but his arrival at the inn coincides with Joseph getting rapidly better—he's not going to die, after all. Obviously, the two parsons in the hizzouse get along swimmingly. Barnabus introduces Parson Adams to a bookseller, but the bookseller isn't really interested in helping Adams out.
The whole inn is in an uproar because Betty, a maid who initially had eyes for Joseph, is caught in bed with Mr. Tow-wouse. Joseph and Parson Adams decide to skedaddle from the inn, but they have a somewhat unconventional traveling style: they swap places, one of them riding on Adams's horse and one walking, every few miles. There's one problem with that: while Adams is riding, it takes Joseph a much longer time to walk. While Adams is waiting for Joseph to catch up, he runs into his old pal Mrs. Slipslop. She invites Adams to travel in her coach and tells him the gossipy story of a lady named Leonora.
In the meantime, Joseph catches up to the group on horseback and joins Adams for dinner at an inn. The owner of the inn picks a fight with Adams, who promptly decks him in the face. The group starts off again, with Joseph in the coach and Adams on foot. What about the horse?
Adams, that lovable doofus, totally forgot about the horse.
While strolling through the night, Adams happens across a gentleman out shooting partridges. These two fine fellows begin a conversation on bravery when they hear a woman screaming nearby. While the partridge-hunting gentleman books it out of there, Adams runs to the young lady's assistance. He chases off a dude trying to ravish the lady and tells her she's safe.
The nameless young lady doesn't totally trust Adams, but she lets him escort her to safety. The couple soon runs right into the lady's attacker again… along with a group of young men out for a lark. The ravisher-dude actually convinces the group that he's the good guy and says that Adams and the lady were out to rob and murder him.
As Adams and the lady are escorted back to be thrown in jail, Adams figures out that this dame is none other than Fanny Goodwill—that's right, Joseph's childhood sweetheart. It turns out she was trying to go see Joseph while Joseph was trying to go find her. Tough luck, we guess.
The Justice of the Peace hears the case against Adams and Fanny, but he doesn't care one way or another and doesn't try to save them from prison. Luckily, someone recognizes Adams as a parson and tells the Justice of Peace to check himself before he wrecks himself. Adams and Fanny get out of there to try to find Joseph.
Finally, the sweethearts reunite at a nearby inn, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Slipslop. The group gets in trouble once again when they realize they're broke as a joke and need to pay for their stay at the inn. Adams is all, "I got this." He confidently heads straight to the house of Trulliber, a parson and sometimes-hog-farmer who has no interest in helping anyone out. Instead, a kind peddler takes pity on them and pays their fee so that the merry group can travel on.
A kindly squire offers to lend Adams, Fanny, and Joseph his coach, but the guy turns out to be a fraud. He just offers things to people without ever following through, says the innkeeper at the next place the group stays. The three buddies end up spending the next night at the home of the Wilson family, a truly good sort of people. While listening to Mr. Wilson's life story, Adams and Joseph learn that their new pal's eldest son was kidnapped by a band of roving gypsies when he was only a wee lad.
The group departs from the Wilson household, trudges along for a good long while, then takes a little siesta. That little nap gets interrupted by a pack of hunting dogs out for blood—the blood of a poor defenseless hare, that is. In the chaos, Adams and Joseph fight back against the wild pack. Whaddya know—the dogs' owner is a real jerk: not only is this evil squire totally unsympathetic about his animals attacking the group, but he also acts super lecherously toward Fanny. Under the guise of inviting the group to dinner, he tries to get on her good side.
At dinner, Parson Adams gets cruelly taunted by the squire's servants. He's so fed up that he takes off with Joseph and Fanny, leaving the squire resolved to get Fanny back. Unbeknownst to the group, the squire sends some of his crew off to kidnap her and bring her back. What's with this girl's bad luck?
The squire's servants manage to nab Fanny the next time the group stops for rest at an inn. Adams and Joseph aren't able to prevent the crime, since they've been tied up and are totally useless. Luckily, a bunch of Lady Booby's entourage recognize Fanny and stop the crime from happening. Fanny's rescuers are Peter Pounce and his posse (gotta love the alliteration), who also happen to be journeying to Lady Booby's country house. Obviously, everyone makes the last leg of the journey together.
After finally arriving in Lady Booby's country parish, Joseph and Fanny are awfully antsy to get married. The recently arrived Lady Booby tries to put a stop to that nonsense by appealing to Adams. When that doesn't work, she tries more underhanded tactics: she employs a lawyer who makes up some legal mumbo-jumbo about why the couple can't wed. Oh, yeah—and remember the Justice of Peace? He's back in the picture, and he totally approves of Lady Booby's scheming.
Just when things couldn't get more dismal, Joseph's beloved sister, Pamela, arrives with her new husband. That'd be Lady Booby's nephew, Mr. B—just in case you need to brush up on your Pamela history. Pamela and her hubby figure out how to stop Lady Booby's plan. Fanny, in the meantime, attracts the attention of the pompous Beau Didapper, a local country gentleman. When Beau figures out he can't have Fanny, he goes over to the dark side: in other words, his wish is Lady Booby's command. Beau also charges his servant to attack Fanny, because he's just that vile.
But no one's picking on Fanny when Joseph Andrews is around. Joseph comes to Fanny's rescue and accompanies her on over to Adams's house. Things are looking pretty bad at the Adams household, since the good parson and his wife have just received news that their youngest son has drowned. Just when Adams is about to tear his (fake) hair out, the peddler pops back into the story. And guess who the peddler's got with him? It's none other than little Jacky, the kid who supposedly drowned. There's a celebration.
(And yes, we also noticed that things have started to get pretty random in Joseph Andrews town.)
The peddler doesn't stop at saving lives, either. He's an amateur Encyclopedia Brown, looking into the (previously unmentioned) mystery of Fanny's birth. See, the peddler had a mistress a long time ago who stole a child while she was traveling with gypsies. Wait, what? Bear with us, because it gets even more complicated. Turns out, the mistress sold that child to Sir Thomas Booby. The parents of child are—wait for it—Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Joseph's parents.
Since Joseph's not into the idea of marrying his sister, this poses some problems. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews arrive in the meantime and confirm that Fanny is their daughter. Here's where the plot gets even more complicated: Fanny was stolen from Mr. and Mrs. Andrews when she was a baby, and the gypsies left Joseph in her place.
Yes, we now have three separate incidences of gypsies stealing children in this book.
Remember, though, that the peddler is a detective. He asks Joseph whether he has a strawberry-shaped birthmark on his breast. Joseph does. It turns out that strawberry-shaped birthmark proves that he's actually Mr. Wilson's son. To jog your memory, that's the guy who housed Joseph, Adams, and Fanny for a night and told them the sob story about his missing son.
Well, at this point, Wilson shows up and embraces his long-lost son; Fanny and Joseph get married (you know, since they're not siblings, after all); and Pamela's husband doles out land and money to everyone like they won the state lottery. And what about Lady Booby, you might ask? She finds another young buck to fill Joseph's strawberry-shaped hole in her heart.