There are few amusements more dangerous for an author than the indulgence in ironic descriptions of his own work. If the irony is depreciatory, posterity is but too likely to say, “Many a true word is spoken in jest;” if it is encomiastic, the same ruthless and ungrateful critic is but too likely to take it as an involuntary confession of folly and vanity. But when Fielding, in one of his serio-comic introductions to Tom Jones, described it as “this prodigious work,” he all unintentionally (for he was the least pretentious of men) anticipated the verdict which posterity almost at once, and with ever-increasing suffrage of the best judges as time went on, was about to pass not merely upon this particular book, but upon his whole genius and his whole production as a novelist. His work in other kinds is of a very different order of excellence. It is sufficiently interesting at times in itself; and always more than sufficiently interesting as his; for which reasons, as well as for the further one that it is comparatively little known, a considerable selection from it is offered to the reader in the last two volumes of this edition. Until the present occasion (which made it necessary that I should acquaint myself with it) I own that my own knowledge of these miscellaneous writings was by no means thorough. It is now pretty complete; but the idea which I previously had of them at first and second hand, though a little improved, has not very materially altered. Though in all this hack-work Fielding displayed, partially and at intervals, the same qualities which he displayed eminently and constantly in the four great books here given, he was not, as the French idiom expresses it, dans son assiette, in his own natural and impregnable disposition and situation of character and ability, when he was occupied on it. The novel was for him that assiette; and all his novels are here.
Although Henry Fielding lived in quite modern times, although by family and connections he was of a higher rank than most men of letters, and although his genius was at once recognised by his contemporaries so soon as it displayed itself in its proper sphere, his biography until very recently was by no means full; and the most recent researches, including those of Mr Austin Dobson — a critic unsurpassed for combination of literary faculty and knowledge of the eighteenth century — have not altogether sufficed to fill up the gaps. His family, said to have descended from a member of the great house of Hapsburg who came to England in the reign of Henry II., distinguished itself in the Wars of the Roses, and in the seventeenth century was advanced to the peerages of Denbigh in England and (later) of Desmond in Ireland. The novelist was the grandson of John Fielding, Canon of Salisbury, the fifth son of the first Earl of Desmond of this creation. The canon’s third son, Edmond, entered the army, served under Marlborough, and married Sarah Gold or Gould, daughter of a judge of the King’s Bench. Their eldest son was Henry, who was born on April 22, 1707, and had an uncertain number of brothers and sisters of the whole blood. After his first wife’s death, General Fielding (for he attained that rank) married again. The most remarkable offspring of the first marriage, next to Henry, was his sister Sarah, also a novelist, who wrote David Simple; of the second, John, afterwards Sir John Fielding, who, though blind, succeeded his half-brother as a Bow Street magistrate, and in that office combined an equally honourable record with a longer tenure.
Fielding was born at Sharpham Park in Somersetshire, the seat of his maternal grandfather; but most of his early youth was spent at East Stour in Dorsetshire, to which his father removed after the judge’s death. He is said to have received his first education under a parson of the neighbourhood named Oliver, in whom a very uncomplimentary tradition sees the original of Parson Trulliber. He was then certainly sent to Eton, where he did not waste his time as regards learning, and made several valuable friends. But the dates of his entering and leaving school are alike unknown; and his subsequent sojourn at Leyden for two years — though there is no reason to doubt it — depends even less upon any positive documentary evidence. This famous University still had a great repute as a training school in law, for which profession he was intended; but the reason why he did not receive the even then far more usual completion of a public school education by a sojourn at Oxford or Cambridge may be suspected to be different. It may even have had something to do with a curious escapade of his about which not very much is known — an attempt to carry off a pretty heiress of Lyme, named Sarah Andrew.
Even at Leyden, however, General Fielding seems to have been unable or unwilling to pay his son’s expenses, which must have been far less there than at an English University; and Henry’s return to London in 1728–29 is said to have been due to sheer impecuniosity. When he returned to England, his father was good enough to make him an allowance of L200 nominal, which appears to have been equivalent to L0 actual. And as practically nothing is known of him for the next six or seven years, except the fact of his having worked industriously enough at a large number of not very good plays of the lighter kind, with a few poems and miscellanies, it is reasonably enough supposed that he lived by his pen. The only product of this period which has kept (or indeed which ever received) competent applause is Tom Thumb, or the Tragedy of Tragedies, a following of course of the Rehearsal, but full of humour and spirit. The most successful of his other dramatic works were the Mock Doctor and the Miser, adaptations of Moliere’s famous pieces. His undoubted connection with the stage, and the fact of the contemporary existence of a certain Timothy Fielding, helped suggestions of less dignified occupations as actor, booth-keeper, and so forth; but these have long been discredited and indeed disproved.
In or about 1735, when Fielding was twenty-eight, we find him in a new, a more brilliant and agreeable, but even a more transient phase. He had married (we do not know when or where) Miss Charlotte Cradock, one of three sisters who lived at Salisbury (it is to be observed that Fielding’s entire connections, both in life and letters, are with the Western Counties and London), who were certainly of competent means, and for whose alleged illegitimacy there is no evidence but an unsupported fling of that old maid of genius, Richardson. The descriptions both of Sophia and of Amelia are said to have been taken from this lady; her good looks and her amiability are as well established as anything of the kind can be in the absence of photographs and affidavits; and it is certain that her husband was passionately attached to her, during their too short married life. His method, however, of showing his affection smacked in some ways too much of the foibles which he has attributed to Captain Booth, and of those which we must suspect Mr Thomas Jones would also have exhibited, if he had not been adopted as Mr Allworthy’s heir, and had not had Mr Western’s fortune to share and look forward to. It is true that grave breaches have been made by recent criticism in the very picturesque and circumstantial story told on the subject by Murphy, the first of Fielding’s biographers. This legend was that Fielding, having succeeded by the death of his mother to a small estate at East Stour, worth about L200 a year, and having received L1500 in ready money as his wife’s fortune, got through the whole in three years by keeping open house, with a large retinue in “costly yellow liveries,” and so forth. In details, this story has been simply riddled. His mother had died long before; he was certainly not away from London three years, or anything like it; and so forth. At the same time, the best and soberest judges agree that there is an intrinsic probability, a consensus (if a vague one) of tradition, and a chain of almost unmistakably personal references in the novels, which plead for a certain amount of truth, at the bottom of a much embellished legend. At any rate, if Fielding established himself in the country, it was not long before he returned to town; for early in 1736 we find him back again, and not merely a playwright, but lessee of the “Little Theatre” in the Haymarket. The plays which he produced here — satirico-political pieces, such as Pasquin and the Historical Register — were popular enough, but offended the Government; and in 1737 a new bill regulating theatrical performances, and instituting the Lord Chamberlain’s control, was passed. This measure put an end directly to the “Great Mogul’s Company,” as Fielding had called his troop, and indirectly to its manager’s career as a playwright. He did indeed write a few pieces in future years, but they were of the smallest importance.
After this check he turned at last to a serious profession, entered himself of the Middle Temple in November of the same year, and was called three years later; but during these years, and indeed for some time afterwards, our information about him is still of the vaguest character. Nobody doubts that he had a large share in the Champion, an essay-periodical on the usual eighteenth-century model, which began to appear in 1739, and which is still occasionally consulted for the work that is certainly or probably his. He went the Western Circuit, and attended the Wiltshire Sessions, after he was called, giving up his contributions to periodicals soon after that event. But he soon returned to literature proper, or rather made his debut in it, with the immortal book now republished. The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and his Friend Mr Abraham Adams, appeared in February 1742, and its author received from Andrew Millar, the publisher, the sum of L183, 11s. Even greater works have fetched much smaller sums; but it will be admitted that Joseph Andrews was not dear.
The advantage, however, of presenting a survey of an author’s life uninterrupted by criticism is so clear, that what has to be said about Joseph may be conveniently postponed for the moment. Immediately after its publication the author fell back upon miscellaneous writing, and in the next year (1743) collected and issued three volumes of Miscellanies. In the two first volumes the only thing of much interest is the unfinished and unequal, but in part powerful, Journey from this World to the Next, an attempt of a kind which Fontenelle and others, following Lucian, had made very popular with the time. But the third volume of the Miscellanies deserved a less modest and gregarious appearance, for it contained, and is wholly occupied by, the wonderful and terrible satire of Jonathan Wild, the greatest piece of pure irony in English out of Swift. Soon after the publication of the book, a great calamity came on Fielding. His wife had been very ill when he wrote the preface; soon afterwards she was dead. They had taken the chance, had made the choice, that the more prudent and less wise student-hero and heroine of Mr Browning’s Youth and Art had shunned; they had no doubt “sighed deep, laughed free, Starved, feasted, despaired,” and we need not question, that they had also “been happy.”
Except this sad event and its rather incongruous sequel, Fielding’s marriage to his wife’s maid Mary Daniel — a marriage, however, which did not take place till full four years later, and which by all accounts supplied him with a faithful and excellent companion and nurse, and his children with a kind stepmother — little or nothing is again known of this elusive man of genius between the publication of the Miscellanies in 1743, and that of Tom Jones in 1749. The second marriage itself in November 1747; an interview which Joseph Warton had with him rather more than a year earlier (one of the very few direct interviews we have); the publication of two anti-Jacobite newspapers (Fielding was always a strong Whig and Hanoverian), called the True Patriot and the Jacobite’s Journal in 1745 and the following years; some indistinct traditions about residences at Twickenham and elsewhere, and some, more precise but not much more authenticated, respecting patronage by the Duke of Bedford, Mr Lyttelton, Mr Allen, and others, pretty well sum up the whole.
Tom Jones was published in February (a favourite month with Fielding or his publisher Millar) 1749; and as it brought him the, for those days, very considerable sum of L600 to which Millar added another hundred later, the novelist must have been, for a time at any rate, relieved from his chronic penury. But he had already, by Lyttelton’s interest, secured his first and last piece of preferment, being made Justice of the Peace for Westminster, an office on which he entered with characteristic vigour. He was qualified for it not merely by a solid knowledge of the law, and by great natural abilities, but by his thorough kindness of heart; and, perhaps, it may also be added, by his long years of queer experience on (as Mr Carlyle would have said) the “burning marl” of the London Bohemia. Very shortly afterwards he was chosen Chairman of Quarter Sessions, and established himself in Bow Street. The Bow Street magistrate of that time occupied a most singular position, and was more like a French Prefect of Police or even a Minister of Public Safety than a mere justice. Yet he was ill paid. Fielding says that the emoluments, which before his accession had but been L500 a year of “dirty” money, were by his own action but L300 of clean; and the work, if properly performed, was very severe.
That he performed it properly all competent evidence shows, a foolish, inconclusive, and I fear it must be said emphatically snobbish story of Walpole’s notwithstanding. In particular, he broke up a gang of cut-throat thieves, which had been the terror of London. But his tenure of the post was short enough, and scarcely extended to five years. His health had long been broken, and he was now constantly attacked by gout, so that he had frequently to retreat on Bath from Bow Street, or his suburban cottage of Fordhook, Ealing. But he did not relax his literary work. His pen was active with pamphlets concerning his office; Amelia, his last novel, appeared towards the close of 1751; and next year saw the beginning of a new paper, the Covent Garden Journal, which appeared twice a week, ran for the greater part of the year, and died in November. Its great author did not see that month twice again. In the spring of 1753 he grew worse; and after a year’s struggle with ill health, hard work, and hard weather, lesser measures being pronounced useless, was persuaded to try the “Portugal Voyage,” of which he has left so charming a record in the Journey to Lisbon. He left Fordhook on June 26, 1754, reached Lisbon in August, and, dying there on the 8th of October, was buried in the cemetery of the Estrella.
Of not many writers perhaps does a clearer notion, as far as their personality goes, exist in the general mind that interests itself at all in literature than of Fielding. Yet more than once a warning has been sounded, especially by his best and most recent biographer, to the effect that this idea is founded upon very little warranty of scripture. The truth is, that as the foregoing record — which, brief as it is, is a sufficiently faithful summary — will have shown, we know very little about Fielding. We have hardly any letters of his, and so lack the best by far and the most revealing of all character-portraits; we have but one important autobiographic fragment, and though that is of the highest interest and value, it was written far in the valley of the shadow of death, it is not in the least retrospective, and it affords but dim and inferential light on his younger, healthier, and happier days and ways. He came, moreover, just short of one set of men of letters, of whom we have a great deal of personal knowledge, and just beyond another. He was neither of those about Addison, nor of those about Johnson. No intimate friend of his has left us anything elaborate about him. On the other hand, we have a far from inconsiderable body of documentary evidence, of a kind often by no means trustworthy. The best part of it is contained in the letters of his cousin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the reminiscences or family traditions of her grand-daughter, Lady Louisa Stuart. But Lady Mary, vivacious and agreeable as she is, had with all her talent a very considerable knack of writing for effect, of drawing strong contrasts and the like; and it is not quite certain that she saw very much of Fielding in the last and most interesting third of his life. Another witness, Horace Walpole, to less knowledge and equally dubious accuracy, added decided ill-will, which may have been due partly to the shrinking of a dilettante and a fop from a burly Bohemian; but I fear is also consequent upon the fact that Horace could not afford to despise Fielding’s birth, and knew him to be vastly his own superior in genius. We hear something of him again from Richardson; and Richardson hated him with the hatred of dissimilar genius, of inferior social position, and, lastly, of the cat for the dog who touzles and worries her. Johnson partly inherited or shared Richardson’s aversion, partly was blinded to Fielding’s genius by his aggressive Whiggery. I fear, too, that he was incapable of appreciating it for reasons other than political. It is certain that Johnson, sane and robust as he was, was never quite at ease before genius of the gigantic kind, either in dead or living. Whether he did not like to have to look up too much, or was actually unable to do so, it is certain that Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and Fielding, those four Atlantes of English verse and prose, all affected him with lukewarm admiration, or with positive dislike, for which it is vain to attempt to assign any uniform secondary cause, political or other. It may be permitted to hint another reason. All Johnson’s most sharp-sighted critics have noticed, though most have discreetly refrained from insisting on, his “thorn-inthe-flesh,” the combination in him of very strong physical passions with the deepest sense of the moral and religious duty of abstinence. It is perhaps impossible to imagine anything more distasteful to a man so buffeted, than the extreme indulgence with which Fielding regards, and the easy freedom, not to say gusto, with which he depicts, those who succumb to similar temptation. Only by supposing the workings of some subtle influence of this kind is it possible to explain, even in so capricious a humour as Johnson’s, the famous and absurd application of the term “barren rascal” to a writer who, dying almost young, after having for many years lived a life of pleasure, and then for four or five one of laborious official duty, has left work anything but small in actual bulk, and fertile with the most luxuriant growth of intellectual originality.
Partly on the obiter dicta of persons like these, partly on the still more tempting and still more treacherous ground of indications drawn from his works, a Fielding of fantasy has been constructed, which in Thackeray’s admirable sketch attains real life and immortality as a creature of art, but which possesses rather dubious claims as a historical character. It is astonishing how this Fielding of fantasy sinks and shrivels when we begin to apply the horrid tests of criticism to his component parts. The eidolon, with inked ruffles and a towel round his head, sits in the Temple and dashes off articles for the Covent Garden Journal; then comes Criticism, hellish maid, and reminds us that when the Covent Garden Journal appeared, Fielding’s wild oats, if ever sown at all, had been sown long ago; that he was a busy magistrate and householder in Bow Street; and that, if he had towels round his head, it was probably less because he had exceeded in liquor than because his Grace of Newcastle had given him a headache by wanting elaborate plans and schemes prepared at an hour’s notice. Lady Mary, apparently with some envy, tells us that he could “feel rapture with his cook-maid.” “Which many has,” as Mr Ridley remarks, from Xanthias Phoceus downwards; but when we remember the historic fact that he married this maid (not a “cook-maid” at all), and that though he always speaks of her with warm affection and hearty respect, such “raptures” as we have of his clearly refer to a very different woman, who was both a lady and a beautiful one, we begin a little to shake our heads. Horace Walpole at second-hand draws us a Fielding, pigging with low companions in a house kept like a hedge tavern; Fielding himself, within a year or two, shows us more than half-undesignedly in the Voyage to Lisbon that he was very careful about the appointments and decency of his table, that he stood rather upon ceremony in regard to his own treatment of his family, and the treatment of them and himself by others, and that he was altogether a person orderly, correct, and even a little finikin. Nor is there the slightest reasonable reason to regard this as a piece of hypocrisy, a vice as alien from the Fielding of fancy as from the Fielding of fact, and one the particular manifestation of which, in this particular place, would have been equally unlikely and unintelligible.
It may be asked whether I propose to substitute for the traditional Fielding a quite different person, of regular habits and methodical economy. Certainly not. The traditional estimate of great men is rarely wrong altogether, but it constantly has a habit of exaggerating and dramatising their characteristics. For some things in Fielding’s career we have positive evidence of document, and evidence hardly less certain of probability. Although I believe the best judges are now of opinion that his impecuniosity has been overcharged, he certainly had experiences which did not often fall to the lot of even a cadet of good family in the eighteenth century. There can be no reasonable doubt that he was a man who had a leaning towards pretty girls and bottles of good wine; and I should suppose that if the girl were kind and fairly winsome, he would not have insisted that she should possess Helen’s beauty, that if the bottle of good wine were not forthcoming, he would have been very tolerant of a mug of good ale. He may very possibly have drunk more than he should, and lost more than he could conveniently pay. It may be put down as morally ascertained that towards all these weaknesses of humanity, and others like unto them, he held an attitude which was less that of the unassailable philosopher than that of the sympathiser, indulgent and excusing. In regard more especially to what are commonly called moral delinquencies, this attitude was so decided as to shock some people even in those days, and many in these. Just when the first sheets of this edition were passing through the press, a violent attack was made in a newspaper correspondence on the morality of Tom Jones by certain notorious advocates of Purity, as some say, of Pruriency and Prudery combined, according to less complimentary estimates. Even midway between the two periods we find the admirable Miss Ferrier, a sister of Fielding’s own craft, who sometimes had touches of nature and satire not far inferior to his own, expressing by the mouth of one of her characters with whom she seems partly to agree, the sentiment that his works are “vanishing like noxious exhalations.” Towards any misdoing by persons of the one sex towards persons of the other, when it involved brutality or treachery, Fielding was pitiless; but when treachery and brutality were not concerned, he was, to say the least, facile. So, too, he probably knew by experience — he certainly knew by native shrewdness and acquired observation — that to look too much on the wine when it is red, or on the cards when they are parti-coloured, is ruinous to health and fortune; but he thought not over badly of any man who did these things. Still it is possible to admit this in him, and to stop short of that idea of a careless and reckless viveur which has so often been put forward. In particular, Lady Mary’s view of his childlike enjoyment of the moment has been, I think, much exaggerated by posterity, and was probably not a little mistaken by the lady herself. There are two moods in which the motto is Carpe diem, one a mood of simply childish hurry, the other one where behind the enjoyment of the moment lurks, and in which the enjoyment of the moment is not a little heightened by, that vast ironic consciousness of the before and after, which I at least see everywhere in the background of Fielding’s work.
The man, however, of whom we know so little, concerns us much less than the author of the works, of which it only rests with ourselves to know everything. I have above classed Fielding as one of the four Atlantes of English verse and prose, and I doubt not that both the phrase and the application of it to him will meet with question and demur. I have only to interject, as the critic so often has to interject, a request to the court to take what I say in the sense in which I say it. I do not mean that Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and Fielding are in all or even in most respects on a level. I do not mean that the three last are in all respects of the greatest names in English literature. I only mean that, in a certain quality, which for want of a better word I have chosen to call Atlantean, they stand alone. Each of them, for the metaphor is applicable either way, carries a whole world on his shoulders, or looks down on a whole world from his natural altitude. The worlds are different, but they are worlds; and though the attitude of the giants is different also, it agrees in all of them on the points of competence and strength. Take whomsoever else we may among our men of letters, and we shall find this characteristic to be in comparison wanting. These four carry their world, and are not carried by it; and if it, in the language so dear to Fielding himself, were to crash and shatter, the inquiry, “Que vous reste-t-il?” could be answered by each, “Moi!”
The appearance which Fielding makes is no doubt the most modest of the four. He has not Shakespeare’s absolute universality, and in fact not merely the poet’s tongue, but the poet’s thought seems to have been denied him. His sphere is not the ideal like Milton’s. His irony, splendid as it is, falls a little short of that diabolical magnificence which exalts Swift to the point whence, in his own way, he surveys all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory or vainglory of them. All Fielding’s critics have noted the manner, in a certain sense modest, in another ostentatious, in which he seems to confine himself to the presentation of things English. They might have added to the presentation of things English — as they appear in London, and on the Western Circuit, and on the Bath Road.
But this apparent parochialism has never deceived good judges. It did not deceive Lady Mary, who had seen the men and manners of very many climes; it did not deceive Gibbon, who was not especially prone to overvalue things English, and who could look down from twenty centuries on things ephemeral. It deceives, indeed, I am told, some excellent persons at the present day, who think Fielding’s microcosm a “toylike world,” and imagine that Russian Nihilists and French Naturalists have gone beyond it. It will deceive no one who has lived for some competent space of time a life during which he has tried to regard his fellow-creatures and himself, as nearly as a mortal may, sub specie aeternitatis.
As this is in the main an introduction to a complete reprint of Fielding’s four great novels, the justification in detail of the estimate just made or hinted of the novelist’s genius will be best and most fitly made by a brief successive discussion of the four as they are here presented, with some subsequent remarks on the Miscellanies here selected. And, indeed, it is not fanciful to perceive in each book a somewhat different presentment of the author’s genius; though in no one of the four is any one of his masterly qualities absent. There is tenderness even in Jonathan Wild; there are touches in Joseph Andrews of that irony of the Preacher, the last echo of which is heard amid the kindly resignation of the Journey to Lisbon, in the sentence, “Whereas envy of all things most exposes us to danger from others, so contempt of all things best secures us from them.” But on the whole it is safe to say that Joseph Andrews best presents Fielding’s mischievous and playful wit; Jonathan Wild his half-Lucianic half-Swiftian irony; Tom Jones his unerring knowledge of human nature, and his constructive faculty; Amelia his tenderness, his mitis sapientia, his observation of the details of life. And first of the first.
The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his friend Mr Abraham Adams was, as has been said above, published in February 1742. A facsimile of the agreement between author and publisher will be given in the second volume of this series; and it is not uninteresting to observe that the witness, William Young, is none other than the asserted original of the immortal Mr Adams himself. He might, on Balzac’s plea in a tolerably well-known anecdote, have demanded half of the L183, 11s. Of the other origins of the book we have a pretty full account, partly documentary. That it is “writ in the manner of Cervantes,” and is intended as a kind of comic epic, is the author’s own statement — no doubt as near the actual truth as is consistent with comic-epic theory. That there are resemblances to Scarron, to Le Sage, and to other practitioners of the Picaresque novel is certain; and it was inevitable that there should be. Of directer and more immediate models or starting-points one is undoubted; the other, though less generally admitted, not much less indubitable to my mind. The parody of Richardson’s Pamela, which was little more than a year earlier (Nov. 1740), is avowed, open, flagrant; nor do I think that the author was so soon carried away by the greater and larger tide of his own invention as some critics seem to hold. He is always more or less returning to the ironic charge; and the multiplicity of the assailants of Joseph’s virtue only disguises the resemblance to the long-drawn dangers of Pamela from a single ravisher. But Fielding was also well acquainted with Marivaux’s Paysan Parvenu, and the resemblances between that book and Joseph Andrews are much stronger than Fielding’s admirers have always been willing to admit. This recalcitrance has, I think, been mainly due to the erroneous conception of Marivaux as, if not a mere fribble, yet a Dresden–Shepherdess kind of writer, good at “preciousness” and patch-and-powder manners, but nothing more.
There was, in fact, a very strong satiric and ironic touch in the author of Marianne, and I do not think that I was too rash when some years ago I ventured to speak of him as “playing Fielding to his own Richardson” in the Paysan Parvenu.
Origins, however, and indebtedness and the like, are, when great work is concerned, questions for the study and the lecture-room, for the literary historian and the professional critic, rather than for the reader, however intelligent and alert, who wishes to enjoy a masterpiece, and is content simply to enjoy it. It does not really matter how close to anything else something which possesses independent goodness is; the very utmost technical originality, the most spotless purity from the faintest taint of suggestion, will not suffice to confer merit on what does not otherwise possess it. Whether, as I rather think, Fielding pursued the plan he had formed ab incepto, or whether he cavalierly neglected it, or whether the current of his own genius carried him off his legs and landed him, half against his will, on the shore of originality, are questions for the Schools, and, as I venture to think, not for the higher forms in them. We have Joseph Andrews as it is; and we may be abundantly thankful for it. The contents of it, as of all Fielding’s work in this kind, include certain things for which the moderns are scantly grateful. Of late years, and not of late years only, there has grown up a singular and perhaps an ignorant impatience of digressions, of episodes, of tales within a tale. The example of this which has been most maltreated is the “Man of the Hill” episode in Tom Jones; but the stories of the “Unfortunate Jilt” and of Mr Wilson in our present subject, do not appear to me to be much less obnoxious to the censure; and Amelia contains more than one or two things of the same kind. Me they do not greatly disturb; and I see many defences for them besides the obvious, and at a pinch sufficient one, that divagations of this kind existed in all Fielding’s Spanish and French models, that the public of the day expected them, and so forth. This defence is enough, but it is easy to amplify and reintrench it. It is not by any means the fact that the Picaresque novel of adventure is the only or the chief form of fiction which prescribes or admits these episodic excursions. All the classical epics have them; many eastern and other stories present them; they are common, if not invariable, in the abundant mediaeval literature of prose and verse romance; they are not unknown by any means in the modern novel; and you will very rarely hear a story told orally at the dinner-table or in the smoking-room without something of the kind. There must, therefore, be something in them corresponding to an inseparable accident of that most unchanging of all things, human nature. And I do not think the special form with which we are here concerned by any means the worst that they have taken. It has the grand and prominent virtue of being at once and easily skippable. There is about Cervantes and Le Sage, about Fielding and Smollett, none of the treachery of the modern novelist, who induces the conscientious reader to drag through pages, chapters, and sometimes volumes which have nothing to do with the action, for fear he should miss something that has to do with it. These great men have a fearless frankness, and almost tell you in so many words when and what you may skip. Therefore, if the “Curious Impertinent,” and the “Baneful Marriage,” and the “Man of the Hill,” and the “Lady of Quality,” get in the way, when you desire to “read for the story,” you have nothing to do but turn the page till finis comes. The defence has already been made by an illustrious hand for Fielding’s inter-chapters and exordiums. It appears to me to be almost more applicable to his insertions.
And so we need not trouble ourselves any more either about the insertions or about the exordiums. They both please me; the second class has pleased persons much better worth pleasing than I can pretend to be; but the making or marring of the book lies elsewhere. I do not think that it lies in the construction, though Fielding’s following of the ancients, both sincere and satiric, has imposed a false air of regularity upon that. The Odyssey of Joseph, of Fanny, and of their ghostly mentor and bodily guard is, in truth, a little haphazard, and might have been longer or shorter without any discreet man approving it the more or the less therefor. The real merits lie partly in the abounding humour and satire of the artist’s criticism, but even more in the marvellous vivacity and fertility of his creation. For the very first time in English prose fiction every character is alive, every incident is capable of having happened. There are lively touches in the Elizabethan romances; but they are buried in verbiage, swathed in stage costume, choked and fettered by their authors’ want of art. The quality of Bunyan’s knowledge of men was not much inferior to Shakespeare’s, or at least to Fielding’s; but the range and the results of it were cramped by his single theological purpose, and his unvaried allegoric or typical form. Why Defoe did not discover the New World of Fiction, I at least have never been able to put into any brief critical formula that satisfies me, and I have never seen it put by any one else. He had not only seen it afar off, he had made landings and descents on it; he had carried off and exhibited in triumph natives such as Robinson Crusoe, as Man Friday, as Moll Flanders, as William the Quaker; but he had conquered, subdued, and settled no province therein. I like Pamela; I like it better than some persons who admire Richardson on the whole more than I do, seem to like it. But, as in all its author’s work, the handling seems to me academic — the working out on paper of an ingeniously conceived problem rather than the observation or evolution of actual or possible life. I should not greatly fear to push the comparison even into foreign countries; but it is well to observe limits. Let us be content with holding that in England at least, without prejudice to anything further, Fielding was the first to display the qualities of the perfect novelist as distinguished from the romancer.
What are those qualities, as shown in Joseph Andrews? The faculty of arranging a probable and interesting course of action is one, of course, and Fielding showed it here. But I do not think that it is at any time the greatest one; and nobody denies that he made great advances in this direction later. The faculty of lively dialogue is another; and that he has not often been refused; but much the same may be said of it. The interspersing of appropriate description is another; but here also we shall not find him exactly a paragon. It is in character — the chief differentia of the novel as distinguished not merely from its elder sister the romance, and its cousin the drama, but still more from every other kind of literature — that Fielding stands even here preeminent. No one that I can think of, except his greatest successor in the present century, has the same unfailing gift of breathing life into every character he creates or borrows; and even Thackeray draws, if I may use the phrase, his characters more in the flat and less in the round than Fielding. Whether in Blifil he once failed, we must discuss hereafter; he has failed nowhere in Joseph Andrews. Some of his sketches may require the caution that they are eighteenth-century men and women; some the warning that they are obviously caricatured, or set in designed profile, or merely sketched. But they are all alive. The finical estimate of Gray (it is a horrid joy to think how perfectly capable Fielding was of having joined in that practical joke of the young gentlemen of Cambridge, which made Gray change his college), while dismissing these light things with patronage, had to admit that “parson Adams is perfectly well, so is Mrs Slipslop.” “They were, Mr Gray,” said some one once, “they were more perfectly well, and in a higher kind, than anything you ever did; though you were a pretty workman too.”
Yes, parson Adams is perfectly well, and so is Mrs Slipslop. But so are they all. Even the hero and heroine, tied and bound as they are by the necessity under which their maker lay of preserving Joseph’s Joseph-hood, and of making Fanny the example of a franker and less interested virtue than her sister-inlaw that might have been, are surprisingly human where most writers would have made them sticks. And the rest require no allowance. Lady Booby, few as are the strokes given to her, is not much less alive than Lady Bellaston. Mr Trulliber, monster and not at all delicate monster as he is, is also a man, and when he lays it down that no one even in his own house shall drink when he “caaled vurst,” one can but pay his maker the tribute of that silent shudder of admiration which hails the addition of one more everlasting entity to the world of thought and fancy. And Mr Tow-wouse is real, and Mrs Tow-wouse is more real still, and Betty is real; and the coachman, and Miss Grave-airs, and all the wonderful crew from first to last. The dresses they wear, the manners they exhibit, the laws they live under, the very foods and drinks they live upon, are “past like the shadows on glasses” — to the comfort and rejoicing of some, to the greater or less sorrow of others. But they are there — alive, full of blood, full of breath as we are, and, in truth, I fear a little more so. For some purposes a century is a gap harder to cross and more estranging than a couple of millenniums. But in their case the gap is nothing; and it is not too much to say that as they have stood the harder test, they will stand the easier. There are very striking differences between Nausicaa and Mrs Slipslop; there are differences not less striking between Mrs Slipslop and Beatrice. But their likeness is a stranger and more wonderful thing than any of their unlikenesses. It is that they are all women, that they are all live citizenesses of the Land of Matters Unforgot, the fashion whereof passeth not away, and the franchise whereof, once acquired, assures immortality.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54