To Mrs. Goodhart, in the Upper Mississippi Valley.
Dear Madam — Many thanks for the New York newspaper you have kindly sent me, with the statistics of book-buying in the Upper Mississippi Valley. Those are interesting particulars which tell one so much about the taste of a community.
So the Rev. E. P. Roe is your favourite novelist there; a thousand of his books are sold for every two copies of the works of Henry Fielding? This appears to me to speak but oddly for taste in the Upper Mississippi Valley. On Mr. Roe’s works I have no criticism to pass, for I have not read them carefully.
But I do think your neighbours lose a great deal by neglecting Henry Fielding. You will tell me he is coarse (which I cannot deny); you will remind me of what Dr. Johnson said, rebuking Mrs. Hannah More. “I never saw Johnson really angry with me but once,” writes that sainted maiden lady. “I alluded to some witty passage in ‘Tom Jones.’” He replied: “I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it; a confession which no modest lady should ever make.”
You remind me of this, and that Johnson was no prude, and that his age was tolerant. You add that the literary taste of the Upper Mississippi Valley is much more pure than the waters of her majestic river, and that you only wish you knew who the two culprits were that bought books of Fielding’s.
Ah, madam, how shall I answer you? Remember that if you have Johnson on your side, on mine I have Mrs. More herself, a character purer than “the consecrated snow that lies on Dian’s lap.” Again, we cannot believe Johnson was fair to Fielding, who had made his friend, the author of “Pamela,” very uncomfortable by his jests. Johnson owned that he read all “Amelia” at one sitting. Could so worthy a man have been so absorbed by an unworthy book?
Once more, I am not recommending Fielding to boys and girls. “Tom Jones” was one of the works that Lydia Languish hid under the sofa; even Miss Languish did not care to be caught with that humorous foundling. “Fielding was the last of our writers who drew a man,” Mr. Thackeray said, “and he certainly did not study from a draped model.”
For these reasons, and because his language is often unpolished, and because his morality (that he is always preaching) is not for “those that eddy round and round,” I do not desire to see Fielding popular among Miss Alcott’s readers. But no man who cares for books can neglect him, and many women are quite manly enough, have good sense and good taste enough, to benefit by “Amelia,” by much of “Tom Jones.” I don’t say by “Joseph Andrews.” No man ever respected your sex more than Henry Fielding. What says his reformed rake, Mr. Wilson, in “Joseph Andrews”?
“To say the Truth, I do not perceive that Inferiority of Understanding which the Levity of Rakes, the Dulness of Men of Business, and the Austerity of the Learned would persuade us of in Women. As for my Wife, I declare I have found none of my own Sex capable of making juster Observations on Life, or of delivering them more agreeably, nor do I believe any one possessed of a faithfuller or braver Friend.”
He has no other voice wherein to speak of a happy marriage. Can you find among our genteel writers of this age, a figure more beautiful, tender, devoted, and in all good ways womanly than Sophia Western’s? “Yes,” you will say; “but the man must have been a brute who could give her to Tom Jones, to ‘that fellow who sold himself,’ as Colonel Newcome said.” “There you have me at an avail,” in the language of the old romancers. There we touch the centre of Fielding’s morality, a subject ill to discuss, a morality not for everyday preaching.
Fielding distinctly takes himself for a moralist. He preaches as continually as Thackeray. And his moral is this: “Let a man be kind, generous, charitable, tolerant, brave, honest — and we may pardon him vices of young blood, and the stains of adventurous living.” Fielding has no mercy on a seducer. Lovelace would have fared worse with him than with Richardson, who, I verily believe, admired that infernal (excuse me) coward and villain. The case of young Nightingale, in “Tom Jones,” will show you what Fielding thought of such gallants. Why, Tom himself preaches to Nightingale. “Miss Nancy’s Interest alone, and not yours, ought to be your sole Consideration,” cried Thomas, . . . “and the very best and truest Honour, which is Goodness, requires it of you,” that is, requires that Nightingale shall marry Miss Nancy.
How Tom Jones combined these sentiments, which were perfectly honest, with his own astonishing lack of retenue, and with Lady Bellaston, is just the puzzle. We cannot very well argue about it. I only ask you to let Jones in his right mind partly excuse Jones in a number of very delicate situations. If you ask me whether Sophia had not, after her marriage, to be as forgiving as Amelia, I fear I must admit that probably it was so. But Dr. Johnson himself thought little of that.
I am afraid our only way of dealing with Fielding’s morality is to take the best of it and leave the remainder alone. Here I find that I have unconsciously agreed with that well-known philosopher, Mr. James Boswell, the younger, of Auchinleck:
“The moral tendency of Fielding’s writings . . . is ever favourable to honour and honesty, and cherishes the benevolent and generous affections. He who is as good as Fielding would make him is an amiable member of society, and may be led on by more regulated instructions to a higher state of ethical perfection.”
Let us be as good and simple as Adams, without his vanity and his oddity, as brave and generous as Jones, without Jones’s faults, and what a world of men and women it will become! Fielding did not paint that unborn world, he sketched the world he knew very well. He found that respectable people were often perfectly blind to the duties of charity in every sense of the word. He found that the only man in a whole company who pitied Joseph Andrews, when stripped and beaten by robbers was a postilion with defects in his moral character. In short, he knew that respectability often practised none but the strictly self-regarding virtues, and that poverty and recklessness did not always extinguish a native goodness of heart. Perhaps this discovery made him leniently disposed to “characters and situations so wretchedly low and dirty, that I,” say the author of “Pamela,” “could not be interested for any one of them.”
How amusing Richardson always was about Fielding! How jealousy, spite, and the confusion of mind that befogs a prig when he is not taken seriously, do darken the eyes of the author of “those deplorably tedious lamentations, ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Sir Charles Grandison,’” as Horace Walpole calls them!
Fielding asks his Muse to give him “humour and good humour.” What novelist was ever so rich in both? Who ever laughed at mankind with so much affection for mankind in his heart? This love shines in every book of his. The poor have all his good-will, and in him an untired advocate and friend. What a life the poor led in the England of 1742! There never before was such tyranny without a servile insurrection. I remember a dreadful passage in “Joseph Andrews,” where Lady Booby is trying to have Fanny, Joseph’s sweetheart, locked up in prison:—
“It would do a Man good,” says her accomplice, Scout, “to see his Worship, our Justice, commit a Fellow to Bridewell; he takes so much pleasure in it. And when once we ha’ ‘um there, we seldom hear any more o’ ‘um. He’s either starved or eat up by Vermin in a Month’s Time.”
This England, with its dominant Squires, who behaved much like robber barons on the Rhine, was the merry England Fielding tried to turn from some of its ways. I seriously do believe that, with all its faults, it was a better place, with a better breed of men, than our England of today. But Fielding satirized intolerable injustice.
He would be a Reformer, a didactic writer. If we are to have nothing but “Art for Art’s sake,” that burly body of Harry Fielding’s must even go to the wall. The first Beau Didapper of a critic that passes can shove him aside. He preaches like Thackeray; he writes “with a purpose” like Dickens — obsolete old authors. His cause is judged, and into Bridewell he goes, if l’Art pour l’Art is all the literary law and the prophets.
But Fielding cannot be kept in prison long. His noble English, his sonorous voice must be heard. There is somewhat inexpressibly heartening, to me, in the style of Fielding. One seems to be carried along, like a swimmer in a strong, clear stream, trusting one’s self to every whirl and eddy, with a feeling of safety, of comfort, of delightful ease in the motion of the elastic water. He is a scholar, nay more, as Adams had his innocent vanity, Fielding has his innocent pedantry. He likes to quote Greek (fancy quoting Greek in a novel of today!) and to make the rogues of printers set it up correctly. He likes to air his ideas on Homer, to bring in a piece of Aristotle — not hackneyed — to show you that if he is writing about “characters and situations so wretchedly low and dirty,” he is yet a student and a critic.
Mr. Samuel Richardson, a man of little reading, according to Johnson, was, I doubt, sadly put to it to understand Booth’s conversations with the author who remarked that “Perhaps Mr. Pope followed the French Translations. I observe, indeed, he talks much in the Notes of Madame Dacier and Monsieur Eustathius.” What knew Samuel of Eustathius? I not only can forgive Fielding his pedantry; I like it! I like a man of letters to be a scholar, and his little pardonable display and ostentation of his Greek only brings him nearer to us, who have none of his genius, and do not approach him but in his faults. They make him more human; one loves him for them as he loves Squire Western, with all his failings. Delightful, immortal Squire!
It was not he, it was another Tory Squire that called out “Hurray for old England! Twenty thousand honest Frenchmen are landed in Sussex.” But it was Western that talked of “One Acton, that the Story Book says was turned into a Hare, and his own Dogs kill’d ’un, and eat ’un.” And have you forgotten the popular discussion (during the Forty-five) of the affairs of the Nation, which, as Squire Western said, “all of us understand”? Said the Puppet–Man, “I don’t care what Religion comes, provided the Presbyterians are not uppermost, for they are enemies to Puppet–Shows.” But the Puppet–Man had no vote in 1745. Now, to our comfort, he can and does exercise the glorious privilege of the franchise.
There is no room in this epistle for Fielding’s glorious gallery of characters — for Lady Bellaston, who remains a lady in her debaucheries, and is therefore so unlike our modern representative of her class, Lady Betty, in Miss Broughton’s “Doctor Cupid;” for Square, and Thwackum, and Trulliber, and the jealous spite of Lady Booby, and Honour, that undying lady’s maid, and Partridge, and Captain Blifil and Amelia, the fair and kind and good!
It is like the whole world of that old England — the maids of the Inn, the parish clerk, the two sportsmen, the hosts of the taverns, the beaux, the starveling authors — all alive; all (save the authors) full of beef and beer; a cudgel in every fist, every man ready for a brotherly bout at fisticuffs. What has become of it, the lusty old militant world? What will become of us, and why do we prefer to Fielding — a number of meritorious moderns? Who knows? But do not let us prefer anything to our English follower of Cervantes, our wise, merry, learned Sancho, trudging on English roads, like Don Quixote on the paths of Spain.
But I cannot convert you. You will turn to some story about store-clerks and summer visitors. Such is his fate who argues with the fair.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57