1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Fielding

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:161-64.



Coleridge has said, that to take up Fielding after Richardson is like emerging from a sick-room heated by stoves into an open lawn on a breezy day in May. We have felt the agreeableness of the transition: from excited sensibilities and overpowering pathos, to light humour, lively description, and keen yet sportive satire, must always be a pleasant change. The feeling, however, does not derogate from the power of Richardson as a novelist. The same sensation may be experienced by turning from Lear to Falstaff, from tragedy to comedy. The feelings cannot remain in a state of constant tension, but seek relief in variety. Perhaps Richardson stretches them too violently and too continuously; his portraits are in classes, full charged with the peculiarities of their master. Fielding has a broader canvass, more light than shade, a clear and genial atmosphere, and groups of characters finely and naturally diversified. Johnson considered him barren compared with Richardson, because Johnson loved strong moral painting, and had little sympathy for wit that was not strictly allied to virtue. Richardson, too, was a pious respectable man, for whom the critic entertained great regard, and to whom he was under obligations. Fielding was a thoughtless man of fashion — a rake who had dissipated his fortune, and passed from high to low life without dignity or respect; and who had commenced author without any higher motive than to make money, and confer amusement. Ample success crowned him in the latter department! The inimitable character of Parson Adams, the humour of road-side adventurer and alehouse dialogues, Towwouse and his termagant wife, Parson Trulliber, Squire Western. the faithful Partridge, and a host of ludicrous and witty scenes, and characters, and situations, all rise up at the very mention of the name of Fielding! If Richardson "made the passions move at the command of virtue," Fielding bends them at will to mirth and enjoyment. He is the prince of novelists — holding the novel to include wit, love, satire, humour, observation, genuine pictures of human nature without romance, and the most perfect art in the arrangement of his plot and incidents.

HENRY FIELDING was of high birth: his father (a grandson of the Earl of Denbigh) was a general in the army, and his mother the daughter of a judge. He was born at Sharpham Park, Somersetshire, April 22, 1707. The general had a large family, and was a bad economist, and Henry was early familiar with embarrassments. He was educated at Eton, and afterwards studied the law for two years at Leyden. In his twentieth year his studies were stopped, "money-bound," as a kindred genius, Sheridan, used to say, and the youth returned to England. His father promised him £200 per annum, but this, the son remarked, "any one might pay who would!" The same sum came to him in a few years by the death of his mother, from whom he inherited a small estate of that amount per annum. He also obtained £1500 by his marriage with Miss Cradock, a lady of great beauty and worth, who resided in Salisbury. Having previously subsisted by writing for the stage, in which he had little success, Fielding gladly retired with his wife to the country. Here however, he lived extravagantly; kept a pack of hounds, and a retinue of servants, and feasted all the squires in his neighbourhood. In three years he was again penniless. He then renewed his legal studies, and qualified himself for the bar. His practice however, was insufficient for the support of his family, and he continued to write pieces for the stage, and pamphlets to suit the topics of the day. In politics, he was an anti-Jacobite, and a steady supporter of the Hanoverian succession. In 1742 appeared his novel of "Joseph Andrews," which at once stamped him as a master, uniting to genuine English humour the spirit of Cervantes and the mock heroic of Scarron. There was a wicked wit in the choice of his subject. To ridicule Richardson's "Pamela," Fielding made his hero a brother of that renowned and popular lady; he quizzed Gammar Andrews and his wife, the rustic parents of Pamela, and in contrast to the style of Richardson's work, he made his hero and his friend Parson Adams, models of virtue and excellence, and his leading female characters (Lady Booby and Mrs. Slipslop) of frail morals. Even Pamela is brought down from her high standing of moral perfection, and is represented as Mrs. Booby, with the airs of an upstart, whom the parson is compelled to reprove for laughing in church. Richardson's vanity was deeply wounded by this insult, and he never forgave the desecration of his favourite production. The ridicule was certainly unjustifiable; but, as Sir Walter Scott has remarked, "how can we wish that undone without which Parson Adams would not have existed?" The burlesque portion of the work would not have caused its extensive and abiding popularity. It heightened its humour, and may have contributed at first to the number of its readers, but "Joseph Andrews" possessed strong and original claims to public favour, and has found countless admirers among persons who knew nothing of "Pamela." Setting aside some ephemeral essays and light pieces, Fielding's next works were "A Journey from this World to the Next," and "The History of Jonathan Wild." A vein of keen satire runs through the latter, but the hero and his companions are such callous rogues, and unsentimental ruffians, that we cannot take pleasure in their dexterity and success. The ordinary of Newgate, who administers consolation to Wild before his execution, is the best character in the novel. The ordinary preferred a bowl of punch to any other liquor, as it is nowhere spoken against in Scripture; and his ghostly admonitions to the malefactor are in harmony with this predilection. In 1749 Fielding was appointed one of the justices of Westminster and Middlesex, for which he was indebted to the services of Lyttelton. He was a zealous and active magistrate; but the office of a trading justice, paid by fees, was as unworthy the genius of Fielding as Burns's provision as an exciseman. It appears, from a statement made by himself, that this appointment did not bring him in, "of the dirtiest money upon earth," £300 a-year. In the midst of his official drudgery and too frequent dissipations, our author produced "Tom Jones," unquestionably the first of English novels. He received £600 for the copyright, and such was its success, that Millar the publisher presented £100 more to the author. In 1751 appeared "Amelia," for which he received £1000. Johnson was a great admirer of this novel, and read it through without stopping. Its domestic scenes moved him more deeply than heroic or ambitious adventures; but the conjugal tenderness and affection of Amelia are but ill requited by the conduct of Booth, her husband, who has the vices without the palliation of youth possessed by Tom Jones, independently of his ties as a husband and father. The character of Amelia was drawn for Fielding's wife, even down to the accident which disfigured her beauty; and the frailties of Booth are said to have shadowed forth some of the author's own backslidings and experiences. The lady whose amiable qualities he delighted to recount, and whom he passionately loved, died while they struggled on in their worldly difficulties. He was almost broken-hearted for her loss, and found no relief, it is said, but in weeping, in concert with her servant maid, "for the angel they mutually regretted." This made the maid his habitual confidential associate, and in process of time he began to think he could not give his children a tenderer mother, or secure for himself a more faithful housekeeper and nurse. The maid accordingly became mistress of his household, and her conduct as his wife fully justified his good opinion. If there is little of romance, there is sound sense, affection, and gratitude in this step of Fielding, but it is probable the noble families to whom lie was allied might regard it as a stain on his escutcheon. "Amelia" was the last work of fiction that Fielding gave to the world. His last public act was an undertaking to extirpate several gangs of thieves and highwaymen that then infested London. The government employed him in thus somewhat perilous enterprise, placing a sum of £600 at his disposal, and he was completely successful. The vigour and sagacity of his mind still remained, but Fielding was paying, by a premature old age and decrepitude, for the follies and excesses of his youth. A complication of disorders weighed down his latter days, the most formidable of which was dropsy. As a last resource be was advised to try the effect of a milder climate, and departed for Lisbon in the spring of 1754. Nothing can be more touching than the description he has given in his posthumous work, "A Voyage to Lisbon," of this parting scene:—

"Wednesday, June 26, 1754. — On this day the most melancholy sun I had ever beheld arose, and found me awake at my house at Fordhook. By the light of this sun I was, in my own opinion, last to behold and take leave of some of those creatures on whom I doted with a mother-like fondness, guided by nature and passion, and uncured and unhardened by all the doctrine of that philosophical school where I had learned to bear pains and to despise deaths.

"In this situation, as I could not conquer nature, I submitted entirely to her, and she made as great a fool of me as she had ever done of any woman whatsoever: under pretence of giving me leave to enjoy, she drew me in to suffer, the company of my little ones during eight hours; and I doubt whether in that time I did not undergo more than in all my distemper.

"At twelve precisely my coach was at the door, which was no sooner told me, than I kissed my children round; and went into it with some little resolution. My wife, who behaved more like a heroine and philosopher, though at the same time the tenderest mother in the world, and my eldest daughter, followed me; some friends went with us, and others here took their leave; and I heard my behaviour applauded, with many murmurs and praises to which I well knew I had no title; as all other such philosophers may, if they have any modesty, confess on the like occasions."

The great novelist reached Lisbon, and resided in that genial climate for about two months. His health, however, gradually declined, and he died on the 8th of October 1754. It is pleasing to record that his family, about which he evinced so much tender solicitude in his last days, were sheltered from want by his brother and a private friend, Ralph Allen, Esq., whose character for worth and benevolence be had drawn in Allworthy, in "Tom Jones."

Let humble Allen, with an awkward shame,
Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.
Pope.

The English factory at Lisbon erected a monument over his remains.

The irregularities of Fielding's life (however dearly he may have paid for fame) contributed to his riches as an author. He had surveyed human nature in various aspects, and experienced its storms and sunshine. His kinswoman, Lady Mary Worthey Montagu, assigns to him an enviable vivacity of temperament, though it is at the expense of his morality. "His happy constitution," she says, "even when he had, with great pains, half demolished it, made him forget every evil when he was before a venison-pasty, or over a flask of champagne; and I am persuaded he has known more happy moments than any prince upon earth. His natural spirits gave him rapture with his cook-maid, and cheerfulness when he was starving in a garret." Fielding's experience as a Middlesex justice was unfavourable to his personal respectability; but it must also have brought him into contact with scenes and characters well fitted for his graphic delineations. On the other hand, his birth and education as a gentleman, and his brief trial of the life of a rural squire, immersed in sports and pleasure, furnished materials for a Squire Western, an Allworthy, and other country characters, down to black George the gamekeeper; while, as a man of wit and fashion on the town, and a gay dramatist, he must have known various prototypes of Lord Fellamar and his other city portraits. The profligacy of Lady Bellaston, and the meanness of Tom Jones in accepting support from such a source, are, we hope, circumstances which have rarely occurred even in fashionable life. The tone of morality is never very high in Fielding, but the case we have cited is his lowest descent.

Though written amidst discouraging circumstances and irksome duties, "Tom Jones" bears no marks of haste. The author committed some errors as to time and place, but his fable is constructed with historical exactness and precision, and is a finished model of the comic romance. "Since the days of Homer," says Dr Beattie, "the world has not seen a more artful epic fable. The characters and adventures are wonderfully diversified; yet the circumstances are all so natural, and rise so easily from one another, and co-operate with so much regularity in bringing, or even while they seem to retard the catastrophe, that the curiosity of the reader is always kept awake, and, instead of flagging, grows more and more impatient as the story advances, till at last it becomes downright anxiety. And when we get to this end, and look back on the whole contrivance, we are amazed to find that of so many incidents there should be so few superfluous; that in such a variety of fiction there should be so great a probability, and that so complex a tale should be en perspicuously conducted, and with perfect unity of design." The only digression from the main story which is felt to be tedious is the episode of the Man of the Hill. In "Don Quixote" and "Gil Blas" we are reconciled to such interpolations by the air of romance which pervades the whole, and which seems indigenous to the soil of Spain. In Cervantes, too, these digressions are sometimes highly poetical and striking tales. But in the plain life-like scenes of "Tom Jones" — English life in the eighteenth century, in the county of Somerset — such a tedious "hermit of the vale" is felt to be an unnatural incumbrance. Fielding had little of the poetical or imaginative faculty. His study lay in real life and everyday scenes, which he depicted with a truth and freshness, a buoyancy and vigour, and such an exuberance of practical knowledge, easy satire, and lively fancy, that in his own department lie stands unrivalled. Others have had bolder invention, a higher cast of thought, more poetical imagery, and profounder passion (for Fielding has little pathos or sentiment), but in the perfect nature of his characters, especially in low life, and in the perfect skill with which he combined and wrought up his comic powers, seasoning the whole with wit and wisdom, the ripened fruit of genius and long experience, this great English author is still unapproached.

A passage from Fielding or Smollett can convey no more idea of the work from which it is taken, or the manner of the author, than a single stone or brick would of the architecture of a house. We are tempted, however, to extract the account of Partridge's impressions on first visiting a playhouse, when he witnessed the representation of Hamlet. The faithful attendant of Tom Jones was half-barber and half-schoolmaster, shrewd, yet simple as a child.