When it was determined to extend the present edition of Fielding, not merely by the addition of Jonathan Wild to the three universally popular novels, but by two volumes of Miscellanies, there could be no doubt about at least one of the contents of these latter. The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, if it does not rank in my estimation anywhere near to Jonathan Wild as an example of our author’s genius, is an invaluable and delightful document for his character and memory. It is indeed, as has been pointed out in the General Introduction to this series, our main source of indisputable information as to Fielding dans son naturel, and its value, so far as it goes, is of the very highest. The gentle and unaffected stoicism which the author displays under a disease which he knew well was probably, if not certainly, mortal, and which, whether mortal or not, must cause him much actual pain and discomfort of a kind more intolerable than pain itself; his affectionate care for his family; even little personal touches, less admirable, but hardly less pleasant than these, showing an Englishman’s dislike to be “done” and an Englishman’s determination to be treated with proper respect, are scarcely less noticeable and important on the biographical side than the unimpaired brilliancy of his satiric and yet kindly observation of life and character is on the side of literature.
There is, as is now well known since Mr. Dobson’s separate edition of the Voyage, a little bibliographical problem about the first appearance of this Journal in 1755. The best known issue of that year is much shorter than the version inserted by Murphy and reprinted here, the passages omitted being chiefly those reflecting on the captain, etc., and so likely to seem invidious in a book published just after the author’s death, and for the benefit, as was expressly announced, of his family. But the curious thing is that there is ANOTHER edition, of date so early that some argument is necessary to determine the priority, which does give these passages and is identical with the later or standard version. For satisfaction on this point, however, I must refer readers to Mr. Dobson himself.
There might have been a little, but not much, doubt as to a companion piece for the Journal; for indeed, after we close this (with or without its “Fragment on Bolingbroke”), the remainder of Fielding’s work lies on a distinctly lower level of interest. It is still interesting, or it would not be given here. It still has — at least that part which here appears seems to its editor to have — interest intrinsic and “simple of itself.” But it is impossible for anybody who speaks critically to deny that we now get into the region where work is more interesting because of its authorship than it would be if its authorship were different or unknown. To put the same thing in a sharper antithesis, Fielding is interesting, first of all, because he is the author of Joseph Andrews, of Tom Jones, of Amelia, of Jonathan Wild, of the Journal. His plays, his essays, his miscellanies generally are interesting, first of all, because they were written by Fielding.
Yet of these works, the Journey from this World to the Next (which, by a grim trick of fortune, might have served as a title for the more interesting Voyage with which we have yoked it) stands clearly first both in scale and merit. It is indeed very unequal, and as the author was to leave it unfinished, it is a pity that he did not leave it unfinished much sooner than he actually did. The first ten chapters, if of a kind of satire which has now grown rather obsolete for the nonce, are of a good kind and good in their kind; the history of the metempsychoses of Julian is of a less good kind, and less good in that kind. The date of composition of the piece is not known, but it appeared in the Miscellanies of 1743, and may represent almost any period of its author’s development prior to that year. Its form was a very common form at the time, and continued to be so. I do not know that it is necessary to assign any very special origin to it, though Lucian, its chief practitioner, was evidently and almost avowedly a favorite study of Fielding’s. The Spanish romancers, whether borrowing it from Lucian or not, had been fond of it; their French followers, of whom the chief were Fontenelle and Le Sage, had carried it northwards; the English essayists had almost from the beginning continued the process of acclimatization. Fielding therefore found it ready to his hand, though the present condition of this example would lead us to suppose that he did not find his hand quite ready to it. Still, in the actual “journey,” there are touches enough of the master — not yet quite in his stage of mastery. It seemed particularly desirable not to close the series without some representation of the work to which Fielding gave the prime of his manhood, and from which, had he not, fortunately for English literature, been driven decidedly against his will, we had had in all probability no Joseph Andrews, and pretty certainly no Tom Jones. Fielding’s periodical and dramatic work has been comparatively seldom reprinted, and has never yet been reprinted as a whole. The dramas indeed are open to two objections — the first, that they are not very “proper;” the second, and much more serious, that they do not redeem this want of propriety by the possession of any remarkable literary merit. Three (or two and part of a third) seemed to escape this double censure — the first two acts of the Author’s Farce (practically a piece to themselves, for the Puppet Show which follows is almost entirely independent); the famous burlesque of Tom Thumb, which stands between the Rehearsal and the Critic, but nearer to the former; and Pasquin, the maturest example of Fielding’s satiric work in drama. These accordingly have been selected; the rest I have read, and he who likes may read. I have read many worse things than even the worst of them, but not often worse things by so good a writer as Henry Fielding. The next question concerned the selection of writings more miscellaneous still, so as to give in little a complete idea of Fielding’s various powers and experiments. Two difficulties beset this part of the task — want of space and the absence of anything so markedly good as absolutely to insist on inclusion. The Essay on Conversation, however, seemed pretty peremptorily to challenge a place. It is in a style which Fielding was very slow to abandon, which indeed has left strong traces even on his great novels; and if its mannerism is not now very attractive, the separate traits in it are often sharp and well-drawn. The book would not have been complete without a specimen or two of Fielding’s journalism. The Champion, his first attempt of this kind, has not been drawn upon in consequence of the extreme difficulty of fixing with absolute certainty on Fielding’s part in it. I do not know whether political prejudice interferes, more than I have usually found it interfere, with my judgment of the two Hanoverian-partisan papers of the ‘45 time. But they certainly seem to me to fail in redeeming their dose of rancor and misrepresentation by any sufficient evidence of genius such as, to my taste, saves not only the party journalism in verse and prose of Swift and Canning and Praed on one side, but that of Wolcot and Moore and Sydney Smith on the other. Even the often-quoted journal of events in London under the Chevalier is overwrought and tedious. The best thing in the True Patriot seems to me to be Parson Adams’ letter describing his adventure with a young “bowe” of his day; and this I select, together with one or two numbers of the Covent Garden Journal. I have not found in this latter anything more characteristic than Murphy’s selection, though Mr. Dobson, with his unfailing kindness, lent me an original and unusually complete set of the Journal itself.
It is to the same kindness that I owe the opportunity of presenting the reader with something indisputably Fielding’s and very characteristic of him, which Murphy did not print, and which has not, so far as I know, ever appeared either in a collection or a selection of Fielding’s work. After the success of David Simple, Fielding gave his sister, for whom he had already written a preface to that novel, another preface for a set of Familiar Letters between the characters of David Simple and others. This preface Murphy reprinted; but he either did not notice, or did not choose to attend to, a note towards the end of the book attributing certain of the letters to the author of the preface, the attribution being accompanied by an agreeably warm and sisterly denunciation of those who ascribed to Fielding matter unworthy of him. From these the letter which I have chosen, describing a row on the Thames, seems to me not only characteristic, but, like all this miscellaneous work, interesting no less for its weakness than for its strength. In hardly any other instance known to me can we trace so clearly the influence of a suitable medium and form on the genius of the artist. There are some writers — Dryden is perhaps the greatest of them — to whom form and medium seem almost indifferent, their all-round craftsmanship being such that they can turn any kind and every style to their purpose. There are others, of whom I think our present author is the chief, who are never really at home but in one kind. In Fielding’s case that kind was narrative of a peculiar sort, half-sentimental, half-satirical, and almost wholly sympathetic — narrative which has the singular gift of portraying the liveliest character and yet of admitting the widest disgression and soliloquy.
Until comparatively late in his too short life, when he found this special path of his (and it is impossible to say whether the actual finding was in the case of Jonathan or in the case of Joseph), he did but flounder and slip. When he had found it, and was content to walk in it, he strode with as sure and steady a step as any other, even the greatest, of those who carry and hand on the torch of literature through the ages. But it is impossible to derive full satisfaction from his feats in this part of the race without some notion of his performances elsewhere; and I believe that such a notion will be supplied to the readers of his novels by the following volumes, in a very large number of cases, for the first time.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54