Fielding, by Austin Dobson

Chapter VI.

Justice Life — Amelia.

In one of Horace Walpole’s letters to George Montagu, already quoted, there is a description of Fielding’s Bow Street establishment, which has attracted more attention than it deserves. The letter is dated May the 18th, 1749, and the passage (in Cunningham’s edition) runs as follows:—

“He [Rigby] and Peter Bathurst 35 t’other night carried a servant of the latter’s, who had attempted to shoot him, before Fielding; who, to all his other vocations, has, by the grace of Mr. Lyttelton, added that of Middlesex justice. He sent them word he was at supper, that they must come next morning. They did not understand that freedom, and ran up, where they found him banqueting with a blind man, a whore, and three Irishmen, on some cold mutton and a bone of ham, both in one dish, and the dirtiest cloth. He never stirred nor asked them to sit. Rigby, who had seen him so often come to beg a guinea of Sir C. Williams, and Bathurst, at whose father’s he had lived for victuals, understood that dignity as little, and pulled themselves chairs; on which he civilised.”

35 Probably a son of Peter Bathurst (d. 1748), brother of Pope’s friend, Allen, Lord Bathurst. Rigby was the Richard Rigby whose despicable character is familiar in Eighteenth-Century Memoirs. “He died (says Cunningham) involved in debt, with his accounts as Paymaster of the Forces hopelessly unsettled.”

Scott calls this “a humiliating anecdote;” and both Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Keightley have exhausted rhetoric in the effort to explain it away. As told, it is certainly uncomplimentary; but considerable deductions must be made, both for the attitude of the narrator and the occasion of the narrative. Walpole’s championship of his friends was notorious; and his absolute injustice, when his partisan spirit was uppermost, is everywhere patent to the readers of his Letters. In the present case he was not of the encroaching party; and he speaks from hearsay solely. But his friends had, in his opinion, been outraged by a man, who, according to his ideas of fitness, should have come to them cap in hand; and as a natural consequence, the story, no doubt exaggerated when it reached him, loses nothing under his transforming and malicious pen. Stripped of its decorative flippancy, however, there remains but little that can really be regarded as “humiliating.” Scott himself suggests, what is most unquestionably the case, that the blind man was the novelist’s half-brother, afterwards Sir John Fielding; and it is extremely unlikely that the lady so discourteously characterised could have been any other than his wife, who, Lady Stuart tells us, “had few personal charms.” There remain the “three Irishmen,” who may, or may not, have been perfectly presentable members of society. At all events, their mere nationality, so rapidly decided upon, cannot be regarded as a stigma. That the company and entertainment were scarcely calculated to suit the superfine standard of Mr. Bathurst and Mr. Rigby may perhaps be conceded. Fielding was by no means a rich man, and in his chequered career had possibly grown indifferent to minor decencies. Moreover, we are told by Murphy that, as a Westminster justice, he “kept his table open to those who had been his friends when young, and had impaired their own fortunes.” Thus, it must always have been a more or less ragged regiment who met about that kindly Bow Street board; but that the fact reflects upon either the host or guests cannot be admitted for a moment. If the anecdote is discreditable to anyone it is to that facile retailer of ana, and incorrigible society-gossip, Mr. Horace Walpole.

But while these unflattering tales were told of his private life, Fielding was fast becoming eminent in his public capacity. On the 12th of May 1749 he was unanimously chosen chairman of Quarter Sessions at Hicks’s Hall (as the Clerkenwell Sessions House was then called); and on the 29th of June following he delivered a charge to the Westminster Grand Jury which is usually printed with his works, and which is still regarded by lawyers as a model exposition. It is at first a little unexpected to read his impressive and earnest denunciations of masquerades and theatres (in which latter, by the way, one Samuel Foote had very recently been following the example of the author of Pasquin); but Fielding the magistrate and Fielding the playwright were two different persons; and a long interval of changeful experience lay between them. In another part of his charge, which deals with the offence of libelling, it is possible that his very vigorous appeal was not the less forcible by reason of the personal attacks to which he had referred in the Preface to David Simple, the Jacobite’s Journal, and elsewhere. His only other literary efforts during this year appear to have been a little pamphlet entitled A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez; and a formal congratulatory letter to Lyttelton upon his second marriage, in which, while speaking gratefully of his own obligations to his friend, he endeavours to enlist his sympathies for Moore the fabulist who was also “about to marry.” The pamphlet had reference to an occurrence which took place in July. Three sailors of the “Grafton” man-of-war had been robbed in a house of ill fame in the Strand. Failing to obtain redress, they attacked the house with their comrades, and wrecked it, causing a “dangerous riot,” to which Fielding makes incidental reference in one of his letters to the Duke of Bedford, and which was witnessed by John Byrom, the poet and stenographer, in whose Remains it is described. Bosavern Penlez or Pen Lez, who had joined the crowd, and in whose possession some of the stolen property was found, was tried and hanged in September. His sentence, which was considered extremely severe, excited much controversy, and the object of Fielding’s pamphlet was to vindicate the justice and necessity of his conviction.

Towards the close of 1749 Fielding fell seriously ill with fever aggravated by gout. It was indeed at one time reported that mortification had supervened; but under the care of Dr. Thomson, that dubious practitioner whose treatment of Winnington in 1746 had given rise to so much paper war, he recovered; and during 1750 was actively employed in his magisterial duties. At this period lawlessness and violence appear to have prevailed to an unusual extent in the metropolis, and the office of a Bow Street justice was no sinecure. Reform of some kind was felt on all sides to be urgently required; and Fielding threw his two years’ experience and his deductions therefrom into the form of a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers, etc., with some Proposals for remedying this growing Evil. It was dedicated to the then Lord High Chancellor, Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke, by whom, as well as by more recent legal authorities, it was highly appreciated. Like the Charge to the Grand Jury, it is a grave argumentative document, dealing seriously with luxury, drunkenness, gaming, and other prevalent vices. Once only, in an ironical passage respecting beaus and fine ladies, does the author remind us of the author of Tom Jones. As a rule, he is weighty, practical, and learned in the law. Against the curse of Gin-drinking, which, owing to the facilities for obtaining that liquor, had increased to an alarming extent among the poorer classes, he is especially urgent and energetic. He points out that it is not only making dreadful havoc in the present, but that it is enfeebling the race of the future, and he concludes —

“Some little Care on this Head is surely necessary: For tho’ the Encrease of Thieves, and the Destruction of Morality; though the Loss of our Labourers, our Sailors, and our Soldiers, should not be sufficient Reasons, there is one which seems to be unanswerable, and that is, the Loss of our Gin-drinkers: Since, should the drinking this Poison be continued in its present Height during the next twenty Years, there will, by that Time, be very few of the common People left to drink it.”

To the appeal thus made by Fielding in January 1751, Hogarth added his pictorial protest in the following month by his awful plate of Gin Lane, which, if not actually prompted by his friend’s words, was certainly inspired by the same crying evil. One good result of these efforts was the “Bill for restricting the Sale of Spirituous Liquors,” to which the royal assent was given in June, and Fielding’s connection with this enactment is practically acknowledged by Horace Walpole in his Memoires of the Last ten Years of the Reign of George II. The law was not wholly effectual, and was difficult to enforce; but it was not by any means without its good effects. 36

36 The Rev. R. Hurd, afterwards Bishop of Worcester, an upright and scholarly, but formal and censorious man, whom Johnson called a “word-picker,” and franker contemporaries “an old maid in breeches,” has left a reference to Fielding at this time which is not flattering. “I dined with him [Ralph Allen] yesterday, where I met Mr. Fielding — a poor emaciated, worn-out rake, whose gout and infirmities have got the better even of his buffoonery” (Letter to Balguy, dated “Inner Temple, 19th March, 1751.”) That Fielding had not long before been dangerously ill, and that he was a martyr to gout, is fact: the rest is probably no more than the echo of a foregone conclusion, based upon report, or dislike to his works. Hurd praised Richardson and proscribed Sterne. He must have been wholly out of sympathy with the author of Tom Jones.

Between the publication of the Enquiry and that of Amelia there is nothing of importance to chronicle except Fielding’s connection with one of the events of 1751, the discovery of the Glastonbury waters. According to the account given in the Gentleman’s for July in that year, a certain Matthew Chancellor had been cured of “an asthma and phthisic” of thirty years’ standing by drinking from a spring near Chain Gate, Glastonbury, to which he had (so he alleged) been directed in a dream. The spring forthwith became famous; and in May an entry in the Historical Chronicle for Sunday, the 5th, records that above 10,000 persons had visited it, deserting Bristol, Bath, and other popular resorts. Numerous pamphlets were published for and against the new waters; and a letter in their favour, which appeared in the London Daily Advertiser for the 31st August, signed “Z. Z.,” is “supposed to be wrote” by “J— e F— g.” Fielding was, as may be remembered, a Somersetshire man, Sharpham Park, his birthplace, being about three miles from Glastonbury; and he testifies to the “wonderful Effects of this salubrious Spring” in words which show that he had himself experienced them. “Having seen great Numbers of my Fellow Creatures under two of the most miserable Diseases human Nature can labour under, the Asthma and Evil, return from Glastonbury blessed with the Return of Health, and having myself been relieved from a Disorder which baffled the most skilful Physicians,” justice to mankind (he says) obliges him to take notice of the subject. The letter is interesting, more as showing that, at this time, Fielding’s health was broken, than as proving the efficacy of the cure; for, whatever temporary relief the waters afforded, it is clear (as Mr. Lawrence pertinently remarks) that he derived no permanent benefit from them. They must, however, have continued to attract visitors, as a pump-room was opened in August 1753; and, although they have now fallen into disuse, they were popular for many years.

But a more important occurrence than the discovery of the Somersetshire spring is a little announcement contained in Sylvanus Urban’s list of publications for December 1751, No. 17 of which is “Amelia, in 4 books, 12mo; by Henry Fielding, Esq.” The publisher, of course, was Andrew Millar; and the actual day of issue, as appears from the General Advertiser, was December the 19th, although the title-page, by anticipation, bore the date of 1752. There were two mottoes, one of which was the appropriate —

Felices ter & amplius

Quos irrupta tenet Copula;

and the dedication, brief and simply expressed, was to Ralph Allen. As before, the “artful aid” of advertisement was invoked to whet the public appetite.

“To satisfy the earnest Demand of the Publick (says Millar), this Work has been printed at four Presses; but the Proprietor notwithstanding finds it impossible to get them (sic) bound in Time, without spoiling the Beauty of the Impression, and therefore will sell them sew’d at Half-a-Guinea.”

This was open enough; but, according to Scott, Millar adopted a second expedient to assist Amelia with the booksellers.

“He had paid a thousand pounds for the copyright; and when he began to suspect that the work would be judged inferior to its predecessor, he employed the following stratagem to push it upon the trade. At a sale made to the booksellers, previous to the publication, Millar offered his friends his other publications on the usual terms of discount; but when he came to Amelia, he laid it aside, as a work expected to be in such demand, that he could not afford to deliver it to the trade in the usual manner. The ruse succeeded — the impression was anxiously bought up, and the bookseller relieved from every apprehension of a slow sale.”

There were several reasons why — superficially speaking — Amelia should be “judged inferior to its predecessor.” That it succeeded Tom Jones after an interval of little more than two years and eight months would be an important element in the comparison, if it were known at all definitely what period was occupied in writing Tom Jones. All that can be affirmed is that Fielding must have been far more at leisure when he composed the earlier work than he could possibly have been when filling the office of a Bow Street magistrate. But, in reality, there is a much better explanation of the superiority of Tom Jones to Amelia than the merely empirical one of the time it took. Tom Jones, it has been admirably said by a French critic, “est la condensation et le resume de toute une existence. C’est le resultat et la conclusion de plusieurs annees de passions et de pensees, la formule derniere et complete de la philosophie personnelle que l’on s’est faite sur tout ce que l’on a vu et senti.” Such an experiment, argues Planche, is not twice repeated in a lifetime: the soil which produced so rich a crop can but yield a poorer aftermath. Behind Tom Jones there was the author’s ebullient youth and manhood; behind Amelia but a section of his graver middle-age. There are other reasons for diversity in the manner of the book itself. The absence of the initial chapters, which gave so much variety to Tom Jones, tends to heighten the sense of impatience which, it must be confessed, occasionally creeps over the reader of Amelia, especially in those parts where, like Dickens at a later period, Fielding delays the progress of his narrative for the discussion of social problems and popular grievances. However laudable the desire (expressed in the dedication) “to expose some of the most glaring Evils, as well public as private, which at present infest this Country,” the result in Amelia, from an art point of view, is as unsatisfactory as that of certain well-known pages of Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Again, there is a marked change in the attitude of the author — a change not wholly reconcilable with the brief period which separates the two novels. However it may have chanced, whether from failing health or otherwise, the Fielding of Amelia is suddenly a far older man than the Fielding of Tom Jones. The robust and irrepressible vitality, the full-veined delight of living, the energy of observation and strength of satire, which characterise the one give place in the other to a calmer retrospection, a more compassionate humanity, a gentler and more benignant criticism of life. That, as some have contended, Amelia shows an intellectual falling-off cannot for a moment be admitted, least of all upon the ground — as even so staunch an admirer as Mr. Keightley has allowed himself to believe — that certain of its incidents are obviously repeated from the Modern Husband and others of the author’s plays. At this rate Tom Jones might be judged inferior to Joseph Andrews, because the Political Apothecary in the “Man of the Hill’s” story has his prototype in the Coffee-House Politician, whose original is Addison’s Upholsterer. The plain fact is, that Fielding recognised the failure of his plays as literature; he regarded them as dead; and freely transplanted what was good of his forgotten work into the work which he hoped would live. In this, it may be, there was something of indolence or haste; but assuredly there was no proof of declining powers.

If, for the sake of comparison, Tom Jones may be described as an animated and happily-constructed comedy, with more than the usual allowance of first-rate characters, Amelia must be regarded as a one-part piece, in which the rest of the dramatis personae are wholly subordinate to the central figure. Captain Booth, the two Colonels, Atkinson and his wife, Miss Matthews, Dr. Harrison, Trent, the shadowy and maleficent “My Lord,” are all less active on their own account than energised and set in motion by Amelia. Round her they revolve; from her they obtain their impulse and their orbit. The best of the men, as studies, are Dr. Harrison and Colonel Bath. The former, who is as benevolent as Allworthy, is far more human, and it may be added, more humorous in well-doing. He is an individual rather than an abstraction. Bath, with his dignity and gun-cotton honour, is also admirable, but not entirely free from the objection made to some of Dickens’s creations, that they are rather characteristics than characters. Captain William Booth, beyond his truth to nature, manifests no qualities that can compensate for his weakness, and the best that can be said of him is, that without it, his wife would have had no opportunity for the display of her magnanimity. There is also a certain want of consistency in his presentment; and when, in the residence of Mr. Bondum the bailiff, he suddenly develops an unexpected scholarship, it is impossible not to suspect that Fielding was unwilling to lose the opportunity of preserving some neglected scenes of the Author’s Farce. Miss Matthews is a new and remarkable study of the femme entretenue, to parallel which, as in the case of Lady Bellaston, we must go to Balzac; Mrs. James, again, is an excellent example of that vapid and colourless nonentity, the “person of condition.” Mrs. Bennet, although apparently more contradictory and less intelligible, is nevertheless true to her past history and present environments; while her husband, the sergeant, with his concealed and reverential love for his beautiful foster-sister, has had a long line of descendants in the modern novel. It is upon Amelia, however, that the author has lavished all his pains, and there is no more touching portrait in the whole of fiction than this heroic and immortal one of feminine goodness and forbearance. It is needless to repeat that it is painted from Fielding’s first wife, or to insist that, as Lady Mary was fully persuaded, “several of the incidents he mentions are real matters of fact.” That famous scene where Amelia is spreading, for the recreant who is losing his money at the King’s Arms, the historic little supper of hashed mutton which she has cooked with her own hands, and denying herself a glass of white wine to save the paltry sum of sixpence, “while her Husband was paying a Debt of several Guineas incurred by the Ace of Trumps being in the Hands of his Adversary”— a scene which it is impossible to read aloud without a certain huskiness in the throat — the visits to the pawnbroker and the sponging-house, the robbery by the little servant, the encounter at Vauxhall, and some of the pretty vignettes of the children, are no doubt founded on personal recollections. Whether the pursuit to which the heroine is exposed had any foundation in reality it is impossible to say; and there is a passage in Murphy’s memoir which almost reads as if it had been penned with the express purpose of anticipating any too harshly literal identification of Booth with Fielding, since we are told of the latter that “though disposed to gallantry by his strong animal spirits, and the vivacity of his passions, he was remarkable for tenderness and constancy to his wife [the italics are ours], and the strongest affection for his children.” These, however, are questions beside the matter, which is the conception of Amelia. That remains, and must remain for ever, in the words of one of Fielding’s greatest modern successors, a figure

“wrought with love. . . .

Nought modish in it, pure and noble lines

Of generous womanhood that fits all time.”

There are many women who forgive; but Amelia does more — she not only forgives, but she forgets. The passage in which she exhibits to her contrite husband the letter received long before from Miss Matthews is one of the noblest in literature; and if it had been recorded that Fielding — like Thackeray on a memorable occasion — had here slapped his fist upon the table, and said “That is a stroke of genius!” it would scarcely have been a thing to be marvelled at. One final point in connection with her may be noted, which has not always been borne in mind by those who depict good women — much after Hogarth’s fashion — without a head. She is not by any means a simpleton, and it is misleading to describe her as a tender, fluttering little creature, who, because she can cook her husband’s supper, and caresses him with the obsolete name of Billy, must necessarily be contemptible. On the contrary, she has plenty of ability and good sense, with a fund of humour which enables her to enjoy slily and even gently satirise the fine lady airs of Mrs. James. Nor is it necessary to contend that her faculties are subordinated to her affections; but rather that conjugal fidelity and Christian charity are inseparable alike from her character and her creed.

As illustrating the tradition that Fielding depicted his first wife in Sophia Western and in Amelia, it has been remarked that there is no formal description of her personal appearance in his last novel, her portrait having already been drawn at length in Tom Jones. But the following depreciatory sketch by Mrs. James is worth quoting, not only because it indirectly conveys the impression of a very handsome woman, but because it is also an admirable specimen of Fielding’s lighter manner:—

“‘In the first place,’ cries Mrs. James, ‘her eyes are too large; and she hath a look with them that I don’t know how to describe; but I know I don’t like it. Then her eyebrows are too large; therefore, indeed, she doth all in her power to remedy this with her pincers; for if it was not for those, her eyebrows would be preposterous. — Then her nose, as well proportioned as it is, has a visible scar on one side. 37— Her neck likewise is too protuberant for the genteel size, especially as she laces herself; for no woman, in my opinion, can be genteel who is not entirely flat before. And lastly, she is both too short, and too tall. — Well, you may laugh, Mr. James, I know what I mean, though I cannot well express it. I mean, that she is too tall for a pretty woman, and too short for a fine woman. — There is such a thing as a kind of insipid medium — a kind of something that is neither one thing or another. I know not how to express it more clearly; but when I say such a one is a pretty woman, a pretty thing, a pretty creature, you know very well I mean a little woman; and when I say such a one is a very fine woman, a very fine person of a woman, to be sure I must mean a tall woman. Now a woman that is between both, is certainly neither the one nor the other.”

37 See note on this subject in chapter iv., and Appendix No. III.

The ingenious expedients of Andrew Millar, to which reference has been made, appear to have so far succeeded that a new edition of Amelia was called for on the day of publication. Johnson, to whom we owe this story, was thoroughly captivated with the book. Notwithstanding that on another occasion he paradoxically asserted that the author was “a blockhead”—“a barren rascal,” he read it through without stopping, and pronounced Mrs. Booth to be “the most pleasing heroine of all the romances.” Richardson, on the other hand, found “the characters and situations so wretchedly low and dirty” that he could not get farther than the first volume. With the professional reviewers, a certain Criticulus in the Gentleman’s excepted, it seems to have fared but ill; and although these adverse verdicts, if they exist, are now more or less inaccessible, Fielding has apparently summarised most of them in a mock-trial of Amelia before the “Court of Censorial Enquiry,” the proceedings of which are recorded in Nos. 7 and 8 of the Covent-Garden Journal. The book is indicted upon the Statute of Dulness, and the heroine is charged with being a “low Character,” a “Milksop,” and a “Fool;” with lack of spirit and fainting too frequently; with dressing her children, cooking and other “servile Offices;” with being too forgiving to her husband; and lastly, as may be expected, with the inconsistency, already amply referred to, of being “a Beauty without a nose.” Dr. Harrison and Colonel Bath are arraigned much in the same fashion. After some evidence against her has been tendered, and “a Great Number of Beaus, Rakes, fine Ladies, and several formal Persons with bushy Wigs, and Canes at their Noses,” are preparing to supplement it, a grave man steps forward, and, begging to be heard, delivers what must be regarded as Fielding’s final apology for his last novel:—

“If you, Mr. Censor, are yourself a Parent, you will view me with Compassion when I declare I am the Father of this poor Girl the Prisoner at the Bar; nay, when I go further and avow, that of all my Offspring she is my favourite Child. I can truly say that I bestowed a more than ordinary Pains in her Education; in which I will venture to affirm, I followed the Rules of all those who are acknowledged to have writ best on the Subject; and if her Conduct be fairly examined, she will be found to deviate very little from the strictest Observation of all those Rules; neither Homer nor Virgil pursued them with greater Care than myself, and the candid and learned Reader will see that the latter was the noble model, which I made use of on this Occasion.

“I do not think my Child is entirely free from Faults. I know nothing human that is so; but surely she doth not deserve the Rancour with which she hath been treated by the Public. However, it is not my Intention, at present, to make any Defence; but shall submit to a Compromise, which hath been always allowed in this Court in all Prosecutions for Dulness. I do, therefore, solemnly declare to you, Mr. Censor, that I will trouble the World no more with any Children of mine by the same Muse.”

Whether sincere or not, this last statement appears to have afforded the greatest gratification to Richardson. “Will I leave you to Captain Booth?” he writes triumphantly to Mrs. Donnellan, in answer to a question she had put to him. “Captain Booth, Madam, has done his own business. Mr. Fielding has overwritten himself, or rather under-written; and in his own journal seems ashamed of his last piece; and has promised that the same Muse shall write no more for him. The piece, in short, is as dead as if it had been published forty years ago, as to sale.” There is much to the same effect in the worthy little printer’s correspondence; but enough has been quoted to show how intolerable to the super-sentimental creator of the high-souled and heroic Clarissa was his rival’s plainer and more practical picture of matronly virtue and modesty. In cases of this kind, parva seges satis est, and Amelia has long since outlived both rival malice and contemporary coldness. It is a proof of her author’s genius, that she is even more intelligible to our age than she was to her own.

At the end of the second volume of the first edition of her history was a notice announcing the immediate appearance of the above-mentioned Covent-Garden Journal, a bi-weekly paper, in which Fielding, under the style and title of Sir Alexander Drawcansir, assumed the office of Censor of Great Britain. The first number of this new venture was issued on January the 4th, 1752, and the price was threepence. In plan, and general appearance, it resembled the Jacobite’s Journal, consisting mainly of an introductory Essay, paragraphs of current news, often accompanied by pointed editorial comment, miscellaneous articles, and advertisements. One of the features of the earlier numbers was a burlesque, but not very successful, Journal of the present Paper War, which speedily involved the author in actual hostilities with the notorious quack and adventurer Dr. John Hill, who for some time had been publishing certain impudent lucubrations in the London Daily Advertiser under the heading of The Inspector; and also with Smollett, whom he (Fielding) had ridiculed in his second number, perhaps on account of that little paragraph in the first edition of Peregrine Pickle, to which reference was made in an earlier chapter. Smollett, always irritable and combative, retorted by a needlessly coarse and venomous pamphlet, in which, under the name of “Habbakkuk Hilding, Justice, Dealer and Chapman,” Fielding was attacked with indescribable brutality. Another, and seemingly unprovoked, adversary whom the Journal of the War brought upon him was Bonnel Thornton, afterwards joint-author with George Colman of the Connoisseur, who, in a production styled Have at you All; or, The Drury Lane Journal, lampooned Sir Alexander with remarkable rancour and assiduity. Mr. Lawrence has treated these “quarrels of authors” at some length; and they also have some record in the curious collections of the elder Disraeli. As a general rule, Fielding was far less personal and much more scrupulous in his choice of weapons than those who assailed him; but the conflict was an undignified one, and, as Scott has justly said, “neither party would obtain honour by an inquiry into the cause or conduct of its hostilities.”

In the enumeration of Fielding’s works it is somewhat difficult (if due proportion be observed) to assign any real importance to efforts like the Covent-Garden Journal. Compared with his novels, they are insignificant enough. But even the worst work of such a man is notable in its way; and Fielding’s contributions to the Journal are by no means to be despised. They are shrewd lay sermons, often exhibiting much out-of-the-way erudition, and nearly always distinguished by some of his personal qualities. In No. 33, on “Profanity,” there is a character-sketch which, for vigour and vitality, is worthy of his best days; and there is also a very thoughtful paper on “Reading,” containing a kindly reference to “the ingenious Author of Clarissa,” which should have mollified that implacable moralist. In this essay it is curious to notice that, while Fielding speaks with due admiration of Shakespeare and Moliere, Lucian, Cervantes, and Swift, he condemns Rabelais and Aristophanes, although in the invocation already quoted from Tom Jones, he had included both these authors among the models he admired. Another paper in the Covent-Garden Journal is especially interesting because it affords a clue to a project of Fielding’s which unfortunately remained a project. This was a Translation of the works of Lucian, to be undertaken in conjunction with his old colleague, the Rev. William Young. Proposals were advertised, and the enterprise was duly heralded by a “puff preliminary,” in which Fielding, while abstaining from anything directly concerning his own abilities, observes, “I will only venture to say, that no Man seems so likely to translate an Author well, as he who hath formed his Stile upon that very Author”— a sentence which, taken in connection with the references to Lucian in Tom Thumb, the Champion and elsewhere, must be accepted as distinctly autobiographic. The last number of the Covent-Garden Journal (No. 72) was issued in November 1752. By this time Sir Alexander seems to have thoroughly wearied of his task. With more gravity than usual he takes leave of letters, begging the Public that they will not henceforth father on him the dulness and scurrility of his worthy contemporaries; “since I solemnly declare that unless in revising my former Works, I have at present no Intention to hold any further Correspondence with the gayer Muses.”

The labour of conducting the Covent-Garden Journal must have been the more severe in that, during the whole period of its existence, the editor was vigorously carrying out his duties as a magistrate. The prison and political scenes in Amelia, which contemporary critics regarded as redundant, and which even to us are more curious than essential, testify at once to his growing interest in reform, and his keen appreciation of the defects which existed both in the law itself and in the administration of the law; while the numerous cases heard before him, and periodically reported in his paper by his clerk, afford ample evidence of his judicial activity. How completely he regarded himself (Bathurst and Rigby notwithstanding) as the servant of the public, may be gathered from the following regularly repeated notice:—

“To the PUBLIC.

“All Persons who shall for the Future, suffer by Robbers, Burglars, &c., are desired immediately to bring, or send, the best Description they can of such Robbers, &c., with the Time and Place, and Circumstances of the Fact, to Henry Fielding, Esq.; at his House in Bow Street.”

Another instance of his energy in his vocation is to be found in the little collection of cases entitled Examples of the Interposition of Providence, in the Detection and Punishment of Murder, published, with Preface and Introduction, in April 1752, and prompted, as advertisement announces, “by the many horrid Murders committed within this last Year.” It appeared, as a matter of fact, only a few days after the execution at Oxford, for parricide, of the notorious Miss Mary Blandy, and might be assumed to have a more or less timely intention; but the purity of Fielding’s purpose is placed beyond a doubt by the fact that he freely distributed it in court to those whom it seemed calculated to profit.

The only other works of Fielding which precede the posthumously published Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon are the Proposal for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor, etc., a pamphlet dedicated to the Right Honble. Henry Pelham, published in January 1753; and the Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning, published in March. The former, which the hitherto unfriendly Gentleman’s patronisingly styles an “excellent piece,” conceived in a manner which gives “a high idea of his [the author’s] present temper, manners and ability,” is an elaborate project for the erection, inter alia, of a vast building, of which a plan, “drawn by an Eminent Hand,” was given, to be called the County-house, capable of containing 5000 inmates, and including work-rooms, prisons, an infirmary, and other features, the details of which are too minute to be repeated in these pages, even if they had received any attention from the Legislature, which they did not. The latter was Fielding’s contribution to the extraordinary judicial puzzle, which agitated London in 1753-4. It is needless to do more than recall its outline. On the 29th of January 1753, one Elizabeth Canning, a domestic servant aged eighteen or thereabouts, and who had hitherto borne an excellent character, returned to her mother, having been missing from the house of her master, a carpenter in Aldermanbury, since the 1st of the same month. She was half starved and half clad, and alleged that she had been abducted, and confined during her absence in a house on the Hertford Road, from which she had just escaped. This house she afterwards identified as that of one Mother Wells, a person of very indifferent reputation. An ill-favoured old gipsy woman named Mary Squires was also declared by her to have been the main agent in ill-using and detaining her. The gipsy, it is true, averred that at the time of the occurrence she was a hundred and twenty miles away; but Canning persisted in her statement. Among other people before whom she came was Fielding, who examined her, as well as a young woman called Virtue Hall, who appeared subsequently as one of Canning’s witnesses. Fielding seems to have been strongly impressed by her appearance and her story, and his pamphlet (which was contradicted in every particular by his adversary, John Hill) gives a curious and not very edifying picture of the magisterial procedure of the time. In February, Wells and Squires were tried; Squires was sentenced to death, and Wells to imprisonment and burning in the hand. Then, by the exertions of the Lord Mayor, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, who doubted the justice of the verdict, Squires was respited and pardoned. Forthwith London was split up into Egyptian and Canningite factions; a hailstorm of pamphlets set in; portraits and caricatures of the principal personages were in all the print shops; and, to use Churchill’s words,

“— Betty Canning was at least,

With Gascoyne’s help, a six months feast.”

In April 1754, however, Fate so far prevailed against her that she herself, in turn, was tried for perjury. Thirty-eight witnesses swore that Squires had been in Dorsetshire; twenty-seven that she had been seen in Middlesex. After some hesitation, quite of a piece with the rest of the proceedings, the jury found Canning guilty; and she was transported for seven years. At the end of her sentence she returned to England to receive a legacy of L500, which had been left her by an enthusiastic old lady of Newington-green. 38 Her “case” is full of the most inexplicable contradictions; and it occupies in the State Trials some four hundred and twenty closely-printed pages of the most curious and picturesque eighteenth-century details. But how, from the 1st of January 1753 to the 29th of the same month, Elizabeth Canning really did manage to spend her time is a secret that, to this day, remains undivulged.

38 So says the Annual Register for 1761, p. 179. But according to later accounts (Gent. Mag. xliii. 413), she never returned, dying in 1773 at Weathersfield in Connecticut.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/fielding/henry/f45zd/chapter6.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37