Of all the works of imagination, to which English genius has given origin, the writings of Henry Fielding are, perhaps, most decidedly and exclusively her own. They are not only altogether beyond the reach of translation, in the proper sense and spirit of the word, but we even question, whether they can be fully understood, or relished to the highest extent, by such natives of Scotland and Ireland, as are not habitually and intimately acquainted with the characters and manners of Old England. Parson Adams, Towwouse, Partridge, above all, Squire Western, are personages as peculiar to England, as they are unknown to other countries. Nay, the actors, whose character is of a more general cast, as Allworthy, Mrs. Miller, Tom Jones himself, and almost all the subordinate agents in the narrative, have the same cast of nationality, which adds not a little to the verisimilitude of the tale. The persons of the story live in England, travel in England, quarrel and fight in England; and scarce an incident occurs, without its being marked by something, which could not well have happened in any other country. This nationality may be ascribed to the author's own habits of life, which rendered him conversant, at different periods, with all the various classes of English society, specimens of which he has selected with inimitable spirit of choice and description, for the amusement of his readers. Like many other men of talent, Fielding was unfortunate, — his life was a life of imprudence and uncertainty; but it was while passing from the high society to which he was born, to that of the lowest and most miscellaneous kind to which his fortune condemned him, that he acquired the extended familiarity with the English character, in every rank and aspect, which has made his name immortal as a painter of national manners.
HENRY FIELDING, born 22d April 1707, was of noble descent, the third son of General Edmund Fielding, himself the third son of the Hon. John Fielding, who was the fifth son of William, Earl of Denbigh, who died in 1655. Our author was nearly connected with the ducal family of Kingston, which boasted a brighter ornament than rank or titles could bestow, in the wit and beauty of the celebrated Lady-Mary Wortley Montague. The mother of Henry Fielding was a daughter of Judge Gold, the first wife of his father the General. Henry was the only son of this marriage; but he had four sisters of the full blood, of whom Sarah, the third, was distinguished as an authoress by the history of David Simple, and other literary attempts. General Fielding married a second time, after the death of his first lady, and had a numerous family, one of whom is well remembered as a judge of police, by the title of Sir John Fielding. It is most probable, that the expense attending so large a family, together with a natural thoughtlessness of disposition on the part of his father, occasioned Henry's being early thrown into those precarious circumstances, with which, excepting at brief intervals, he continued to struggle through life.
After receiving the rudiments of education from the Rev. Mr. Oliver, who is supposed to have furnished him with the outline of Parson Trulliber's character, Fielding was removed to Eton, where he became imbued deeply with that love of classic literature, which may be traced through all his works. As his father destined him to the bar, he was sent from Eton to study at Leyden, where he is said to have given earnest attention to the civil law. Had he remained in this regular course of study, the courts would probably have gained a lawyer, and the world would have lost a man of genius; but the circumstances of General Fielding determined the chance in favour of posterity, though perhaps against his son. Remittances failed, and the young student was compelled to return, at the age of twenty, to plunge into the dissipation of London, without a monitor to warn, or a friend to support him. General Fielding, indeed, promised his son an allowance of two hundred pounds a-year; but this, as his son used to say, "any one might pay who would." It is only necessary to add, that Fielding was tall, handsome, and well-proportioned, had an expressive countenance, and possessed, with an uncommonly strong constitution, a keen relish of pleasure, with the power of enjoying the present moment, and trusting to chance for the future,and the reader has before him sufficient grounds to estimate the extent of his improvidence and distress. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, his kinswoman, and early acquaintance, has traced his temperament, and its consequences, in a few lines; and no one who can use her words, would willingly employ his own.
"I am sorry for Henry Fielding's death," says her ladyship, in one of her letters, upon receiving information of that event, "not only as I shall read no more of his writings, but because I believe he lost more than others, as no man enjoyed life more than he did; though few had less occasion to do so, the highest of his preferment being raking in the lowest sinks of vice and misery. I should think it a nobler and less nauseous employment, to be one of the staff-officers that conduct the nocturnal weddings. His happy constitution (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 champaign; 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. There was a great similitude between his character and that of Sir Richard Steele. He had the advantage, both in learning, and, in my opinion, genius; they both agreed in wanting money, in spite of all their friends, and would have wanted it, if their hereditary lands had been as extensive as their imagination; yet each of them was so formed for happiness, it is pity he was not immortal."
Some resources were necessary for a man of pleasure, and Fielding found them in his pen, having, as he used to say himself, no alternative, but to be a hackney writer, or a hackney coachman. He at first employed himself in writing for the theatre, then in high reputation, having recently engaged the talents of Wycherley, of Congreve, Vanburgh, and Farquhar. Fielding's comedies and farces were brought on the stage in hasty succession; and play after play, to the number of eighteen, sunk or swam on the theatrical sea, betwixt the years 1727 and 1736. None of these are now known or read, excepting the mock-tragedy of Tom Thumb, the translated play of The Miser, and the farces of The Mock-Doctor and Intriguing Chamber-Maid; and yet they are the production of an author unrivalled for his conception and illustration of character in the kindred walk of imaginary narrative.
Fielding, the first of British novelists; for such he may surely be termed, has thus added his name to that of Le Sage and others, who, eminent for fictitious narration, have either altogether failed in their dramatic attempts, or at least have fallen far short of that degree of excellence, which might have been previously augured of them. It is hard to fix upon any plausible reason for a failure, which has occurred in too many instances to be the operation of mere chance, especially since a priori one would think the same talents necessary for both walks of literature. Force of character, strength of expression, felicity of contrast and situation, a well-constructed plot, in which the developement is at once natural and unexpected, and where the interest is kept uniformly alive, till summed up by the catastrophe — all these are requisites as essential to the labour of the novelist, as to that of the dramatist, and, indeed, appear to comprehend the sum of the qualities necessary to success in both departments. Fielding's biographers have, in this particular instance, explained his lack of theatrical success, as arising entirely from the careless haste with which he huddled up his dramatic compositions; it being no uncommon thing with him to finish an act or two in a morning, and to write out whole scenes upon the paper in which his favourite tobacco had been wrapped up. Negligence of this kind will no doubt give rise to great inequalities in the productions of an author, so careless of his reputation; but will scarcely account for an attribute something like dulness, which pervades Fielding's plays, and which is rarely found in those works which a man of genius throws off "at a heat," to use Dryden's expression, in prodigal self-reliance on his internal resources. Neither are we at all disposed to believe, that an author, so careless as Fielding, took much more pains in labouring his novels, than in composing his plays; and we are, therefore compelled to seek some other and more general reason for the inferiority of the latter. This may perhaps be found in the nature of those two studies, which, intimately connected as they seem to be, are yet naturally distinct in some very essential particulars; so much so as to vindicate the general opinion, that he who applies himself with eminent success to the one, becomes, in some degree, unqualified for the other; — like the artizan, who, by a particular turn for excellence in one mechanical department, loses the habit of dexterity necessary for acquitting himself with equal reputation in another, or as the artist, who has dedicated himself to the use of water-colours, is usually less distinguished by his skill in oil-painting.
It is the object of the novel-writer to place before the reader as full and accurate a representation of the events which he relates, as can be done by the mere force of an excited imagination, without the assistance of material objects. His sole appeal is made to the world of fancy and of ideas, and in this consists his strength and his weakness, his poverty and his wealth. He cannot, like the painter, present a visible and tangible representation of his towns and his woods, his palaces and his castles; but, by awakening the imagination of a congenial reader, he places before his mind's eye, landscapes fairer than those of Claude, and wilder than those of Salvator. He cannot, like the dramatist, present before our living eyes the heroes of former days, or the beautiful creations of his own fancy, embodied in the grace and majesty of Kemble or of Siddons; but he can teach his reader to conjure up forms even more dignified and beautiful than theirs. The same difference follows him through every branch of his art. The author of a novel, in short, has neither stage nor scene-painter, nor company of comedians, nor dresser, nor wardrobe; words, applied with the best of his skill, must supply all that these bring to the assistance of the dramatist. Action, and tone, and gesture, the smile of the lover, the frown of the tyrant, the grimace of the buffoon, — all must be told, for nothing can be shown. Thus, the very dialogue becomes mixed with the narration; for he must not only tell what the characters actually said, in which his task is the same as that of the dramatic author, but must also describe the tone, the look, the gesture, with which their speech was accompanied, — telling, in short, all which, in the drama, it becomes the province of the actor to express. It must, therefore, frequently happen, that the author best qualified for a province, in which all depends on the communication of his own ideas and feelings to the reader, without any intervening medium, may fall short of the skill necessary to adapt his compositions to the medium of the stage, where the very qualities most excellent in a novelist are out of place, and an impediment to success. Description and narration, which form the essence of the novel, must be very sparingly introduced into dramatic composition, and scarce ever have a good effect upon the stage. Even Puff, in The Critic, has the good sense to leave out "all about gilding the eastern hemisphere;" and the very first thing which the players struck out of his memorable tragedy was, the description of queen Elizabeth, her palfrey, and her side-saddle. The drama speaks to the eye and ear; and when it ceases to address these bodily organs, and would exact from a theatrical audience that exercise of the imagination which is necessary to follow forth and embody circumstances neither spoken nor exhibited, there is an immediate failure, though it may be the failure of a man of genius. Hence it follows, that though a good acting play may be made by selecting a plot and characters from a novel, yet scarce any effort of genius could render a play into a narrative romance. In the former case, the author has only to contract the events within the space necessary for representation, to choose the most striking characters, and exhibit them in the most forcible contrast, discard from the dialogue whatever is redundant or tedious, and so dramatize the whole. But we know not any effort of genius, which could successfully insert into a good play, those accessories of description and delineation, which are necessary to dilate it into a readable novel. It may thus easily be conceived, that he whose chief talent lies in addressing the imagination only, and whose style, therefore, must be expanded and circumstantial, may fail in a kind of composition where so much must be left to the efforts of the actor, with his allies and assistants the scene-painter and property-man, and where every attempt to interfere with their province, is an error unfavourable to the success of the piece. Besides, it must be further remembered, that in fictitious narrative an author carries on his manufacture alone, and upon his own account; whereas, in dramatic writing, he enters into partnership with the performers, and it is by their joint efforts that the piece is to succeed. Copartnery is called, by Civilians, the mother of discord; and how likely it is to prove so in the present instance, may be illustrated by reference to the admirable dialogue between the Player and Poet in Joseph Andrews, Book III, chap. 10. The poet must either be contented to fail, or to make great condescensions to the experience, and pay much attention to the peculiar qualifications, of those by whom his piece is to be represented. And he who in a novel had only to fit sentiments, action, and character, to the ideal beings, is now compelled to assume the much more difficult task of adapting all these to real existing persons, who, unless their parts are exactly suited to their own taste, and their peculiar capacities, have, each in his line, the means, and not infrequently the inclination, to ruin the success of the play. Such are, amongst many others, the peculiar difficulties of the dramatic art, and they seem impediments which lie peculiarly in the way of the novelist who aspires to extend his sway over the stage.
Another circumstance may in the present day greatly interfere with the success of dramatic authors, and arises from the decay of that familiar acquaintance with the stage and its affairs, which prevailed during the more splendid days of the British theatre. It requires a frequent and close attendance upon the stage to learn the peculiar points which interest an audience, and the art of forming the situations, as they are technically called, which arrest attention and bring down applause. This is a qualification for dramatic excellence, which fashionable hours and modern manners render difficult to any one who is not absolutely himself an actor. Nevertheless it is of such consequence, that it will be found, that the dullest and worst plays, written by authors who have themselves trod the stage, are, however intolerable in the closet, redeemed, in action, by some felicitous position or encounter of persons, which makes them pass muster on the boards. But this observation, though arising naturally out of the subject, cannot be said to apply to Fielding, much of whose life had probably been passed behind the scenes, and who had, indeed, as we shall see, been at one time a sort of manager himself.
We have noticed, that until the year 1737, or thereabouts, Fielding lived the life of a man of wit and pleasure about town, seeking and finding amusement in scenes of gaiety and dissipation, and discharging the expense incidental to such a life, by the precarious resources afforded by the stage. He even became, for a season, the manager of a company, having assembled together, in 1735, a number of discarded comedians, who, he proposed, should execute his own dramas at the little theatre in the Haymarket, under the title of the Great Mogul's Company of Comedians. The project did not succeed; and the company, which, as he expressed it, had seemed to drop from the clouds, were under the necessity of disbanding.
During his theatrical career, Fielding, like most authors of the time, found it impossible to interest the public sufficiently in the various attempts which he made to gain popular favour, without condescending to flatter their political animosities. Two of his dramatic pieces, Pasquin, and The Historical Register, display great acrimony against Sir Robert Walpole, from whom, in the year 1730, he had in vain sought for patronage. The freedom of his satire is said to have operated considerably in producing a measure which was thought necessary to arrest the license of the stage, and put an end to that proneness to personal and political satire which had been fostered by the success of Gay's Beggars' Opera. This measure was the discretional power vested in the Lord Chamberlain, of refusing a license to any piece of which he should disapprove. The regulation was the cause of much clamour at the time; but licentious satire has since found so many convenient modes of access to the public, that its exclusion from the stage is no longer a matter of interest or regret; nor is it now deemed a violent aggression on liberty, that contending political parties cannot be brought into collision within the walls of the theatres, intended, as they are, for places of public amusement, not for scenes of party struggle.
About 1736, Fielding seems to have formed the resolution of settling in life. He espoused a young lady of Salisbury, named Craddock, beautiful, amiable, and possessed of £1500. About the same time, by the death, it has been supposed, of his mother, he succeeded to a small estate of about £200 per annum, situated at Stower, in Derbyshire, affording him, in those days, the means of decent competence. To this place he retired from London, but unfortunately carried with him the same improvident disposition to enjoy the present at expense of the future, which seems to have marked his whole life. He established an equipage, with showy liveries; and his biographers lay some stress on the circumstance, that the colour, being a bright yellow, required to be frequently renewed, — an important particular, which, in humble imitation of our accurate predecessors, we deem it unpardonable to suppress. Horses, hounds, and the exercise of an unbounded hospitality, soon aided the yellow livery-men in devouring the substance of their improvident master; and three years found Fielding without land, home, or revenue, a student in the Temple, where he applied himself closely to the law, and after the usual term was called to the bar. It is probable, he brought nothing from Derbyshire save that experience of a rural life, and its pleasures, which afterwards enabled him to delineate the inimitable Squire Western.
Fielding had now a profession, and, as he strongly applied his powerful mind to the principles of the law, it might have been expected that success would have followed in proportion. But those professional persons who can advance or retard the practice of a young lawyer, mistrusted, probably, the application of a wit and a man of pleasure, to the business they might otherwise have confided to him; and it is said, that Fielding's own conduct was such as to justify their want of confidence. Disease, the consequence of a free life, came to the aid of dissipation of mind, and interrupted the course of Fielding's practice by severe fits of the gout, which gradually impaired his robust constitution. We find him, therefore, having again recourse to the stage, where he attempted to produce a continuation of his own piece of The Virgin Unmasked; but, as one of the characters was supposed to be written in ridicule of a man of quality, the Chamberlain refused his license. Pamphlets of political controversy, fugitive tracts, and essays, were the next means he had recourse to for subsistence; and as his ready pen produced them upon every emergency, he contrived, by the profits, to support himself and his family, to which he was fondly attached.
Amid this anxious career of precarious expedient, and constant labour, he had the misfortune to lose his wife; and his grief at this domestic calamity was so extreme, that his friends became alarmed for the consequences to his reason. The violence of the emotion, however, was transient, though his regret was lasting; and the necessity of subsistence compelled him again to resume his literary labours. At length, in the year 1741 or 1742, circumstances induced him to engage in a mode of composition, which he retrieved from the disgrace in which he found it, and rendered a classical department of British literature.
The novel of Pamela, published in 1740, had carried the fame of Richardson to the highest pitch; and Fielding, — whether he was tired of hearing it over-praised, (for a book, several passages of which would now be thought highly indelicate, was in those days even recommended from the pulpit,) or whether, as a writer for daily subsistence, he caught at whatever interested the public for the time; or, whether, in fine, he was seduced by that wicked spirit of wit which cannot forbear turning into ridicule the idol of the day, — resolved to caricature the style, principles, and personages of this favourite performance. As Gay's desire to satirize Philips gave rise to The Shepherd's Week, so Fielding's purpose to ridicule Pamela produced the History of Joseph Andrews; and in both cases, but especially in the latter, a work was executed infinitely better than could have been expected to arise out of such a motive, and the reader received a degree of pleasure very different, as well as far superior, to what the author himself appears to have proposed. There is, indeed, a fine vein of irony in Fielding's novel, as will appear from comparing it with the pages of Pamela; but Pamela, to which that irony was applied, is now in a manner forgotten, and Joseph Andrews continues to be read, for the admirable pictures of manners which it presents, and, above all, for the inimitable character of Mr. Abraham Adams, which alone is sufficient to stamp the superiority of Fielding over all writers of his class. The worthy parson's learning, his simplicity, his evangelical purity of heart, and benevolence of disposition, are so admirably mingled with pedantry, absence of mind, and with the habit of athletic and gymnastic exercise, then acquired at the universities by students of all descriptions, that he may be safely termed one of the richest productions of the Muse of Fiction. Like Don Quixote, Parson Adams is beaten a little too much, and too often; but the cudgel lights upon his shoulders, as on those of the honoured Knight of La Mancha, without the slightest stain to his reputation; and he is bastinadoed without being degraded. The style of this piece is said, in the preface, to have been an imitation of Cervantes; but both in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, the author appears also to have had in view the Roman Comique of the once celebrated Scarron. From this author he has copied the mock heroic style, which tells ludicrous events in the language of the classical Epic; a vein of pleasantry which is soon wrought out, and which Fielding has employed so often as to expose him to the charge of pedantry.
Joseph Andrews was eminently successful; and the aggrieved Richardson, who was fond of praise even to adulation, was proportionally offended, while his group of admirers, male and female, took care to echo back his sentiments, and to heap Fielding with reproach. Their animosity survived his life, and we find the most ungenerous reproaches thrown upon his memory, in the course of Richardson's correspondence. Richardson was well acquainted with Fielding's sisters, and complained to them, — not of Eielding's usage of himself, that he was too wise, or too proud to mention, — but of his unfortunate predilection to what was mean and low in character and description. The following expressions are remarkable, as well for the extreme modesty of the writer who thus rears himself into the paramount judge of Fielding's qualities, as for the delicacy which could intrude such observations on the ear of his rival's sister: "Poor Fielding! I could not help telling his sister, that I was equally surprised at, and concerned for, his continued lowness. Had your brother, said I, been born in a stable, or been a runner at a spunging-house, one should have thought him a genius, and wished he had had the advantage of a liberal education, and of being admitted into good company!" — After this, we are not surprised at its being alleged that Fielding was destitute of invention and talents; that the run of his best works was nearly over; and that he would soon be forgotten as an author! Fielding does not appear to have retorted any of this ill-will; so that, if he gave the first offence, and that an unprovoked one, he was also the first to retreat from the contest, and to allow to Richardson those claims which his genius really demanded from the liberality of his contemporaries. In the fifth number of the Jacobite Journal, Fielding highly commends Clarissa, which is by far the best and most powerful of Richardson's novels, and, with those scenes in Sir Charles Grandison which refer to the history of Clementina, contains the passages of deep pathos on which his claim to immortality must finally rest. Perhaps this is one of the cases in which one would rather have sympathized with the thoughtless offender, than with the less liberal and almost ungenerous mind which so long retained its resentment.
After the publication of Joseph Andrews, Fielding had again recourse to the stage, and brought out The Wedding-day, which, though on the whole unsuccessful, produced him some small profit. This was the last of his theatrical efforts which appeared during his life. The manuscript comedy of The Fathers was lost by Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, and, when recovered, was acted after the author's death for the benefit of his family. An anecdote respecting the carelessness with which Fielding regarded his theatrical fame, is thus given by former biographers:—
"On one of the days of its rehearsal, (i.e. the rehearsal of the Wedding-day,) Garrick, who performed a principal part, and who was even then a favourite with the public, told Fielding, he was apprehensive that the audience would make free with him in a particular passage, and remarked, that as a repulse might disconcert him during the remainder of the night, the passage should be omitted, — 'No, d—n 'em,' replied he, 'if the scene is not a good one, let them find that out.' Accordingly, the play was brought out without alteration, and, as had been foreseen, marks of disapprobation appeared. Garrick, alarmed at the hisses he had met with, retired into the green-room, where the author was solacing himself with a bottle of champaign. He had by this time drank pretty freely; and, glancing his eye at the actor, while clouds of tobacco issued from his mouth, cried out, — 'What's the matter, Garrick? what are they hissing now?' — 'Why, the scene that I begged you to retrench,' replied the actor; I knew it would not do; and they have so frightened me, that I shall not be able to collect myself again the whole night.' — 'Oh! d—n 'em,' rejoined he, with great coolness,' they have found it out, have they?'"
Besides various fugitive pieces, Fielding published in, or about, 1743, a volume of Miscellanies, including The Journey from this World to the Next, a tract containing a good deal of Fielding's peculiar humour, but of which it is difficult to conceive the plan or purport. The History of Jonathan Wild the Great next followed. It is not easy to see what Fielding proposed to himself by a picture of complete vice, unrelieved by anything of human feeling, and never by any accident even deviating into virtue; and the ascribing a train of fictitious adventures to a real character, has in it something clumsy and inartificial on the one hand, and, on the other, subjects the author to a suspicion that he only used the title of Jonathan Wild in order to connect his book with the popular renown of that infamous depredator. But there are few passages in Fielding's more celebrated works, more marked with his peculiar genius, than the scene betwixt his hero and the Ordinary, when in Newgate.
Besides these more permanent proofs of his industrious application to literature, the pen of Fielding was busily employed in the political and literary controversies of the times. He conducted one paper called The Jacobite Journal, the object of which was to eradicate those feelings and sentiments which had been already so effectually crushed upon the Field of Culloden. The True Patriot, and The Champion, were works of the same kind, which he entirely composed, or in which, at least, he had a principal share. In these various papers he steadily advocated what was then called the Whig cause, being attached to the principles of the Revolution, and the royal family of Brunswick, or, in other words, a person well affected to church and state. His zeal was long unnoticed, while far inferior writers were enriched out of the secret-service-money with unexampled prodigality. At length, in 1749, he received a small pension, together with the then disreputable office of a Justice of Peace for Westminster and Middlesex, of which he was at liberty to make the best he could by the worst means he might choose. This office, such as it was, he owed to the interference of Mr., afterwards Lord Lyttleton.
At this period, the Magistrates of Westminster, thence termed Trading Justices, were repaid by fees for their services to the public; a mean and wretched system, which made it the interest of these functionaries to inflame every petty dispute which was brought before them, to trade, as it were, in guilt and in misery, and to wring their precarious subsistence out of thieves and pickpockets. The habits of Fielding, never choice or select in his society, were not improved by that to which his place exposed him. Horace Walpole gives us, in his usual unfeeling, but lively manner, the following description of a visit made to Fielding in his capacity of a Justice, by which we see his mind had stooped itself completely to his situation.
"Rigby gave me as strong a picture of nature. He and Peter Bathurst, t'other night, carried a servant of the latter's, who had attempted to shoot him, before Fielding, who, to all his other avocations, has, by the grace of Mr. Littleton, added that of Middlesex Justice. He sent them word he was at supper, — they must come next morning. They did not understand that freedom, and ran up, where they found him banqueting with a blind man, [Fielding's brother probably,] a wh—, and three Irishmen, on some cold mutton, and a bone of ham, both in one dish, and the dirtiest cloth. He never stirred, or asked them to sit. Rigby, who had seen him come so often 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 civilized."
This is a humiliating anecdote, even after we have made allowance for the aristocratic exaggeration of Walpole, who, in acknowledging Fielding's talents elsewhere, has not failed to stigmatize the lowness of his society and habits. Yet it is consoling to observe, that Fielding's principles remained unshaken, though the circumstances attending his official situation tended to increase the careless, disrespectability of his private habits. His own account of his conduct respecting the dues of the office on which he depended for subsistence, has never been denied or doubted. "I will confess," says he, "that my private affairs, at the beginning of the winter, had but a gloomy aspect; for I had not plundered the public, or the poor, of those sums which men, who are always ready to plunder both as much as they can, have been pleased to suspect me of taking; on the contrary, by composing, instead of inflaming, the quarrels of porters and beggars, (which, I blush when I say, hath not been universally practised,) and by refusing to take a shilling from a man who most undoubtedly would not have had another left, I had reduced an income of about £500 a-year, of the dirtiest money upon earth, to little more than £300; a considerable portion of which remained with my clerk."
Besides the disinterestedness, of which he set an example unusual in those days, Fielding endeavoured, by various suggestions, to abridge the catalogue of crimes and depravity which his office placed so closely under his eye. His Inquiry into the Increase of Thieves and Robbers, contains several hints which have been adopted by succeeding statesmen, and some which are still worthy of more attention than they have yet received. As a magistrate, indeed, he was desirous of retrieving the dignity and independence of his own office; and his zeal on that subject has led him a little further than he will be followed by the friends of rational freedom. But we cannot omit mentioning, that he was the first to touch on the frequency of pardons, rendered necessary by the multiplication of capital punishments, and that he placed his finger on that swelling imposthume of the state, the poor's-rates, which has wrought so much evil, and is likely to work so much more. He published also a Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex, some Tracts concerning Law Trials of importance, and left behind him a manuscript on Crown Law. On the subject of the poor, he afterwards published a scheme for restricting them to their parishes, and providing for them in work-houses, which, like many others which have since appeared, only showed that he was fully sensible of the evil, without being able to suggest an effectual or practical remedy. A subsequent writer on the same thorny subject, Sir Frederick Morton Eden, observes, that Fielding's treatise exhibits both the knowledge of the magistrate, and the energy and expression of the novel writer. It was, however, before publishing his scheme for the provision of the poor, that he made himself immortal by the production of Tom Jones.
The History of a Foundling was composed under all the disadvantages incident to an author alternately pressed by the disagreeable task of his magisterial duties, and by the necessity of hurrying out some ephemeral essay or pamphlet to meet the demands of the passing day. It is inscribed to the Hon. Mr. Lyttleton, afterwards Lord Lyttleton, with a dedication, in which he intimates, that without his assistance, and that of the Duke of Bedford, the work had never been completed, as the author had been indebted to them for the means of subsistence while engaged in composing it. Ralph Allen, the friend of Pope, is also alluded to as one of his benefactors, but unnamed, by his own desire; thus confirming the truth of Pope's beautiful couplet—
Let humble Allen, with an awkward shame,
Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.
It is said that this munificent and modest patron made Fielding a present of £200 at one time, and that even before he was personally acquainted with him.
Under such, precarious circumstances the first English novel was given to the public, which had not yet seen any works of fiction founded upon the plan of painting from nature. Even Richardson's novels are but a step from the old romance, approaching, indeed, more nearly to the ordinary course of events, but still dealing in improbable incidents, and in characters swelled out beyond the ordinary limits of humanity. The History of a Foundling is truth and human nature itself, and there lies the inestimable advantage which it possesses over all previous fictions of this particular kind. It was received with unanimous acclamation by the public, and proved so productive to Millar the publisher, that he handsomely added £100 to £600, for which last sum he had purchased the work.
The general merits of this popular and delightful work have been so often dwelt upon, and its imperfections so frequently censured, that we can do little more than hastily run over ground which has been repeatedly occupied. The felicitous contrivance, and happy extrication of the story, where every incident tells upon and advances the catastrophe, while, at the same time, it illustrates the characters of those interested in its approach, cannot too often be mentioned with the highest approbation. The attention of the reader is never diverted or puzzled by unnecessary digressions, or recalled to the main story by abrupt and startling occurrences; he glides down the narrative like a boat on the surface of some broad navigable stream, which only winds enough to gratify the voyager with the varied beauty of its banks. One exception to this praise, otherwise so well merited, occurs in the story of the Old Man of the Hill; an episode, which, in compliance with a custom introduced by Cervantes, and followed by Le Sage, Fielding has thrust into the midst of his narrative, as he had formerly introduced the History of Leonora, equally unnecessarily and inartificially, into that of Joseph Andrews. It has also been wondered, why Fielding should have chosen to leave the stain of illegitimacy on the birth of his hero; and it has been surmised, that he did so in, allusion to his own first wife, who was also a natural child. A better reason may be discovered in the story itself; for had Miss Bridget been privately married to the father of Tom Jones, there could have been no adequate motive assigned for keeping his birth secret from a man so reasonable and compassionate as Allworthy.
But even the high praise due to the construction and, arrangement of the story, is inferior to that claimed by the truth, force, and spirit of the characters, from Tom Jones himself, down to Black George the game-keeper, and his family. Amongst these, Squire Western stands alone; imitated from no prototype, and in himself an inimitable picture of ignorance, prejudice, irascibility, and rusticity, united with natural shrewdness, constitutional good-humour, and an instinctive affection for his daughter, — all which qualities, good and bad, are grounded upon that basis of thorough selfishness, natural to one bred up, from infancy, where no one dared to contradict his arguments, or to control his conduct. In one incident alone, Fielding has departed from this admirable sketch. As an English squire, Western ought not to have taken a beating so unresistingly from the friend of Lord Fellamar. We half suspect that the passage is an interpolation. It is inconsistent with the Squire's readiness to engage in rustic affrays. We grant a pistol or sword might have appalled him; but Squire Western should have yielded to no one in the use of the English horsewhip; and as, with all his brutalities, we have a sneaking interest in the honest jolly country-gentleman, we would willingly hope there is some mistake in this matter.
The character of Jones, otherwise a model of generosity, openness, and manly spirit, mingled with thoughtless dissipation, is, in like manner, unnecessarily degraded by the nature of his intercourse with Lady Bellaston; and this is one of the circumstances which incline us to believe that Fielding's ideas of what was gentleman-like and honourable had sustained some depreciation, in consequence of the unhappy circumstances of his life, and of the society to which they condemned him.
A more sweeping and general objection was made against the History of a Foundling, by the admirers of Richardson, and has been often repeated since. It is alleged, that the ultimate moral of Tom Jones, which conducts to happiness, and holds up to our sympathy and esteem, a youth who gives way to licentious habits, is detrimental to society, and tends to encourage the youthful reader in the practice of those follies, to which his natural passions, and the usual course of the world, but too much direct him. French delicacy, which, on so many occasions, has strained at a gnat, and swallowed a camel, saw this fatal tendency in the work, and by an "arret" prohibited the circulation of a bungled abridgement by De la Place, entitled a translation. To this charge Fielding himself might probably have replied, that the vices into which Jones suffers himself to fall, are made the direct cause of placing him in the distressful situation, which he occupies during the greater part of the narrative; while his generosity, his charity, and his amiable qualities, become the means of saving him from the consequences of his folly. But we suspect with Dr. Johnson, that there is something of cant both in the objection, and in the answer to it. "Men," says that moralist, "will not become highwaymen, because Macheath is acquitted on the stage;" and we add, they will not become swindlers and thieves, because they sympathize with the fortunes of the witty picaroon Gil Blas, or licentious debauchees, because they read Tom Jones. The professed moral of a piece is usually what the reader is least interested in; it is like the mendicant, who cripples after some splendid and gay procession, and in vain solicits the attention of those who have been gazing upon it. Excluding from consideration those infamous works, which address themselves directly to awakening the grosser passions of our nature, we are inclined to think, the worst evil to be apprehended from the perusal of novels is, that the habit is apt to generate an indisposition to real history, and useful literature; and that the best which can be hoped is, that they may sometimes instruct the youthful mind by real pictures of life, and sometimes awaken their better feelings and sympathies by strains of generous sentiment, and tales of fictitious woe. Beyond this point they are a mere elegance, a luxury contrived for the amusement of polished life, and the gratification of that half love of literature, which pervades all ranks in an advanced stage of society, and are read much more for amusement, than with the least hope of deriving instruction from them. The vices and follies of Tom Jones, are those which the world soon teaches to all who enter on the career of life, and to which society is unhappily but too indulgent; nor do we believe, that, in any one instance, the perusal of Fielding's Novel has added one libertine to the large list who would not have been such, had it never crossed the press. And it is with concern we add our sincere belief, that the fine picture of frankness and generosity, exhibited in that fictitious character, has had as few imitators as the career of his follies. Let it not be supposed that we are indifferent to morality, because we treat with scorn that affectation, which, while, in common life, it connives at the open practice of libertinism, pretends to detest the memory of an author, who painted life as it was, with all its shades, and more than all the lights which it occasionally exhibits, to relieve them. For particular passages of the work, the author can only be defended under the custom of his age, which permitted, in certain cases, much stronger language than ours. He has himself said, that there is nothing which can offend the chastest eye in the perusal; and he spoke probably according to the ideas of his time. But in modern estimation, there are, several passages at which delicacy may justly take offence; and we can only say, that they may be termed rather jocularly coarse than seductive; and that they are atoned for by the admirable mixture of wit and argument, by which, in others, the cause of true religion and virtue is supported and advanced.
Fielding considered his works as an experiment in British literature; and, therefore, he chose to prefix a preliminary Chapter to each Book, explanatory of his own views, and of the rules attached to this mode of composition. Those critical introductions, which rather interrupt the course of the story, and the flow of the interest at the first perusal, are found, on a second or third, the most entertaining chapters of the whole work.
The publication of Tom Jones carried Fielding's fame to its height; but seems to have been attended with no consequences to his fortune, beyond the temporary relief which the copy-money afforded him. It was after this period, that he published his proposal for making an effectual Provision for the Poor, formerly noticed, and a pamphlet relating to the mysterious case of the celebrated Elizabeth Canning, in which he adopted the cause of common sense against popular prejudice, and failed in consequence in the object of his publication.
Amelia was the author's last work of importance. It may be termed a continuation of Tom Jones; but, we have not the same sympathy for the ungrateful and dissolute conduct of Booth, which we yield to the youthful follies of Jones. The character of Amelia is said to have been drawn for Fielding's second wife. If he put her patience, as has been alleged, to tests of the same kind, he has, in some degree, repaid her, by the picture he has drawn of her feminine delicacy and pure tenderness. Fielding's Novels show few instances of pathos; it was, perhaps, inconsistent with the life which he was compelled to lead; for those who see most of human misery become necessarily, in some degree, hardened to its effects. But few scenes of fictitious distress are more affecting, than that in which Amelia is described as having made her little preparations for the evening, and sitting in anxious expectation of the return of her unworthy husband, whose folly is, in the mean time, preparing for her new scenes of misery. But our sympathy for the wife is disturbed by our dislike of her unthankful helpmate, of whose conversion we have no hope, and with whose errors we have no sympathy. The tale is, therefore, on the whole, unpleasing, even though relieved by the humours of the doughty Colonel Bath, and the learned Dr. Harrison, characters drawn with such force and precision as Fielding alone knew how to employ.
Millar published Amelia in 1751. He had paid a thousand pounds for the copy-right; 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 bookseller, 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.
Notwithstanding former failures, Fielding, in 1752, commenced a new attempt at a literary newspaper and review, which he entitled the Covent-Garden Journal, to be published twice a-week, and conducted by Sir Alexander Drawcansir. It was the author's failing, that he could not continue any plan of this nature, (for which otherwise his ready pen, sharp wit, and classical knowledge, so highly fitted him,) without involving himself in some of the party squabbles, or petty literary broils, of the day. On the present occasion, it was not long ere he involved himself in a quarrel with Dr. Hill, and other periodical writers. Among the latter, we are sorry to particularize Smollett, although possessed of the most kindred genius to Fielding's which has yet appeared in British literature. The warfare was of brief duration, and neither party would obtain honour by an enquiry into the cause or conduct of its hostilities.
Meanwhile, Fielding's life was fist decaying; a complication of diseases had terminated in a dropsical habit, which totally undermined his strong constitution. The Duke of Newcastle, then prime minister, was desirous of receiving assistance from him in the formation of a plan, for the remedy and prevention of secret robberies, and improving the police of the metropolis. For the small consideration of £600, paid by government, Fielding engaged to extirpate several gangs of daring ruffians, which at this time infested London, and its vicinity; and though his health was reduced to the last extremity, he continued himself to superintend the conduct of his agents, to take evidence, and make commitments, until this great object was attained.
These last exertions seem to have been fatal to his exhausted frame, which suffered at once under dropsy, and jaundice, and asthma. The Bath waters were tried in vain, and various modes of cure or alleviation were resorted to, of which tapping only appears to have succeeded to a certain extent. The medical attendants gave their last sad advice in recommending a milder climate. Of his departure for Lisbon, in conformity with their opinion, he has himself left the following melancholy record, painting the man and his situation a thousand times better than any other pen could achieve.
"On this day, Wednesday, June 26, 1754," he says, "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 doated 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 death. 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 not 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."
This affecting passage makes a part of his Journey to Lisbon, a work which he commenced during the voyage, with a hand trembling in almost its latest hour. It remains a singular example of Fielding's natural strength of mind, that while struggling hard at once with the depression and with the irritability of disease, he could still exhibit a few flashes of that bright wit, which once set the "world" in a roar. His perception of character, and power of describing it, had not forsaken him in those sad moments; for the master of the ship in which he sailed, the scolding landlady of the Isle of Wight, the military coxcomb who visits their vessel, are all portraits, marked with the master-hand which traced Parson Adams and Squire Western.
The Journey to Lisbon was abridged by fate. Fielding reached that city, indeed, alive, and remained there two months; but he was unable to continue his proposed literary labours. The hand of death was upon him, and seized upon its prey in the beginning of October 1754. He died in the forty-eighth year of his life, leaving behind him a widow, and four children, one of whom died soon afterwards. His brother, Sir John Fielding, well known as a magistrate, aided by the bounty of Mr. Allen, made suitable provision for the survivors; but of their fate we are ignorant.
Thus lived, and thus died, at a period of life when the world might have expected continued delight from his matured powers, the celebrated Henry Fielding, father of the English Novel; and in his powers of strong and national humour, and forcible yet natural exhibition of character, unapproached as yet, even by his successful followers.
ABBOTSFORD, OCTOBER 5, 1820.