Among the five Etonian statesmen whose lives we have just been contemplating, was one, whose career in life was far less brilliant, but whose fame is spread more widely than theirs, and is likely to endure as long. I mean our great novelist, Henry Fielding, whom Byron has truly termed "The prose Homer of human nature."
Henry Fielding was born at Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury, in Somersetshire, April 22nd, 1701. His father, Edmund Fielding, had served in the wars of Marlborough, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant-General. He was nearly related to several noble families. He was twice married, and had a large family by each marriage.
Henry Fielding received the earliest part of his education at home, under the Rev. Mr. Oliver, of whose capacity and character we may judge, from the fact that he was the original of Parson Trulliber, in Joseph Andrews. From his superintendence Henry was released, by being sent to Eton, where he remained till he was nearly eighteen.
Fielding's high abilities, and his natural love for the classics, obtained him great distinction at Eton; and from the circumstances of his subsequent life, it is evident that he must have acquired principally at Eton that solid and accurate knowledge of the Greek and Latin authors, which is displayed (though never paraded) in all his varied compositions. To judge from the frequency of his allusions to the Odyssey, Homer must have been his favourite author, and the Odyssey his favourite poem. Indeed, there could be no study better calculated to train up such a novelist as Fielding afterwards became, than the constant perusal of this most entertaining, as well as most beautiful poem, in which characters of every class of life are drawn with such liveliness and skill, — in which the descriptions are so minute and picturesque, and in which the various threads of the narrative are so skilfully woven together.
Fielding's generous and manly character won for him, among his schoolfellows, many friendships that were retained through life, and of which he often felt the substantial advantage in his frequent difficulties and distresses. In the dedication of Tom Jones to Lord Lyttelton, he feelingly acknowledges that nobleman's friendly generosity, to which both the book and its author were indebted for existence.
On leaving Eton, Fielding went to the University of Leyden, where he remained for two years, engaged in studying the civil law. He is said to have been a diligent student at Leyden; and if the means had been afforded him of completing his education as a civilian, there can be little doubt but that he would have acquired wealth and distinction in those courts of this country, which do not follow the rules and principles of the ordinary common law. But, unfortunately, he had not a fair chance given him, of qualifying himself for a profession. General Fielding's increasing family and moderate fortune prevented him from being regular in his remittances to his son. Henry's allowance was nominally £200 a year; but, as he used to remark, "anybody might pay it that would." Unwilling, therefore, to harass his father, or to run in debt abroad, he found it expedient to return to London before the termination of his twenty-first year.
It appears, from the preface to one of his plays, that he had very early formed a taste for dramatic composition. His "Don Quixote in England," a comedy which he finished and produced some time after his return to London, was projected and partly written by him while he was at Leyden. Writing for the stage seemed to offer him, when he found himself thrown on the world, the readiest and the most pleasant means of getting a livelihood; and he accordingly composed play upon play, and farce upon farce, with a rapidity which did not allow him to do himself justice, or to take that high station among the dramatic writers of England which he undoubtedly would have acquired, if he could have paused to correct one drama before he projected half-a-dozen more.
Those who remember the late Theodore Hook, or who have read the saddening biographical memoir of him which has lately appeared, can appreciate the temptations and the difficulties of the position, in which Henry Fielding found himself on his return to England, without a profession, without the means of studying for one, without any certain income from his relatives; but with a fresh and creative imagination, a ready pen, high animal spirits, brilliant wit, with a keen relish for social enjoyments, and with powers of shining in conversation, which made his society courted by the high-born and the wealthy, and by men of literary talent in every rank. It cannot be wondered at that, in such circumstances, he ran an early career of dissipation and folly; but it is rather to be wondered at and admired in him that his heart never became hardened, nor was his disposition soured. He was never wanting in filial affection and respect, though it cannot be said that the father, to whom he was dutiful, had fully performed a father's duty to him. His friend and biographer, Murphy, says of him, "By difficulties his resolution was never subdued; on the contrary, they only roused him to struggle through them with a peculiar spirit and magnanimity. When he advanced a little more in life, and his commerce with mankind became enlarged, disappointments were observed by his acquaintances to provoke him into an occasional peevishness and severity of animadversion. This, however, had not a tendency to embitter his mind, or to give a tinge to his general temper, which was remarkably gay, and for the most part overflowing with wit, mirth, and good humour."
Fielding's plays were not very successful on the stage; and the nature of their subjects, and the frequent coarseness of their style, prevent them now from having many readers. Fielding's genius, however, sparkles frequently even through the worst of them; and I strongly suspect some modern writers of resorting to these plays for a little safe pilfering. Fielding's own qualities of carelessness and independence prevented his dramatic productions from obtaining their fair share of applause from the audiences before whom they were represented. He would never trouble himself about stage effect. Murphy, his commentator, who was himself a successful dramatist, considered that these plays were defrauded of much of their due fame by the obstinacy of the author, who showed an undue self-reliance and contempt of public opinion in a branch of literature which, beyond all others, must be swayed by the temper of the multitude. He tells us that Garrick had once attempted in vain to remove a passage, which he saw the author himself was quite conscious was ill-adapted for the stage; the answer was, "If the scene is not a good one, let them find that out." In the midst of the disapprobation of the house, Garrick retreated to the green-room, where he found the author was indulging himself with champagne and tobacco. "What's the matter now, Garrick?" he said; "what are they hissing now?" "Why, the scene I begged you to retrench," observed Garrick; "I knew it would not do; and they have so frightened me, that I shall not be able to recollect myself again the whole night." "Oh!" replied the author, "they have found it out, have they?" As another specimen of the same careless spirit, he chose to present the world with the farce of "Eurydice" "as it was damned at the theatre-royal Drury Lane."
There are two of Fielding's dramatic works which must not be passed over unnoticed. These are his two burlesques of "Pasquin" and "Tom Thumb." The first of these was avowedly written in imitation of the "Rehearsal," and in its turn served Sheridan with a model for his "Critic." "Pasquin," however, had not the success of its predecessor, nor did it receive the admiration which has been justly awarded to its successor. In "Pasquin," Fielding satirised every thing and every body. In particular, he made the three great peaceful professions (if it be not a bull to apply that epithet to law) the objects of his special satire. "The three black Graces, Law, Physic, and Divinity" (as another burlesque writer has called them), united in indignant complaint against this modern Aristophanes. The assumed licence, and the undeniable personality of "Pasquin," were put forward as two main reasons for the celebrated Bill, whereby all dramatic compositions were made subject to the veto of the Chamberlain before they may be represented on the stage.
Notwithstanding the ill fate which attended "Pasquin," I venture to pronounce it a work of the highest talent, if genius be not the more appropriate word. The humour is excellent; nor do I think that the satire at all oversteps the fair bounds of comic writing.
Fielding's other burlesque, "Tom Thumb," had better fortune, and still keeps possession of the stage. It is, however, the barbaric version of Kane O'Hara which is represented; and they who wish to appreciate this genuine specimen of good-humoured ridicule, must look to Fielding's pages, and not to the theatre. Indeed, in any form, "Tom Thumb" is a play rather to be read than to be seen. Tom Thumb and Glumdalca ought to be left to our imagination, and not to the Property-man. If the popularity of this work of Fielding's pen is to be ascertained by a common test, the number of quotations from it, that are universally current, it will be rated very high indeed.
About the year 1733, Fielding married Charlotte, the daughter of Mr. Cradock of Salisbury, a lady of great personal beauty, and possessed of a small fortune of about £1500. Very nearly at the same time his mother's death made him the proprietor of an estate of £200 a year. His marriage was one entirely of affection; he loved his wife dearly, and he resolved to bid adieu to the pleasures of the town, and enjoy the comforts of his moderate income in retirement. But the unexpected possession of so large a sum in hard cash, was a temptation which Fielding was unable to resist. Whatever speculative views he might have indulged in on the subject of domestic retirement and limited income, he never seems to have once practically formed a plan for maintaining the integrity of his capital. He plunged instantaneously and deeply into every rustic extravagance; and it may afford a good instance to those who are fond of noting the variety of the courses adopted by the reason and the passions in the same man, to recollect that the describer of Squire Western was fired with the ambition of excelling among fox-hunting squires. He kept a retinue of servants, bought horses and hounds, and threw open his gates to convivial hospitality. When in three years his fortune had completely vanished, he stopped a little to consider his situation; and then his naturally strong mind, never overcome by difficulties, though it might yield to prosperity, boldly seized on the arduous profession of the law as a resource. He brought to his attendance at the Temple a settled determination to devote himself to his profession; and he commenced a course of reading which was only at times chequered by ebullitions of his former recklessness and dissipation, after which, it has been remarked, he could at any hour of the night resume his application to the most abstruse professional works. After he was called, he commenced a sedulous attendance at Westminster Hall, and went the western circuit, where he gave promise of eminence; but he now was so frequently and severely attacked with gout, that it became impossible for him to give that regular attendance on circuit and at Westminster, without which it is impossible for a barrister to keep together any business which his talents and good fortune may have acquired. Yet, under these disadvantages, he did not at once succumb or despair, but worked hard at his profession at home, and compiled two volumes in folio on the criminal law. Murphy says:—
"This work remains still unpublished in the hands of his brother, Sir John Fielding; and by him I am informed, that it is deemed perfect in some parts. It will serve to give us an idea of the great force and vigour of his mind, if we consider him pursuing so arduous a study under the exigences of family distress; with a wife and children whom he tenderly loved, looking up to him for subsistence; with a body lacerated with the acutest pains; and with a mind distracted by a thousand avocations; and obliged, for immediate supply, to produce, almost extempore, a play, a farce, a pamphlet, or a newspaper. A large number of fugitive political tracts, which had their value when the incidents were actually passing on. the great scene of business, came from his pen: the periodical paper, called the 'Champion,' owing its chief support to his abilities; and though his essays, in that collection, cannot now be so ascertained, as to perpetuate them in this edition of his works, yet the reputation arising to him at the time of publication was not inconsiderable."
Like Scott, Fielding, though a juvenile author, did not become a novelist till comparatively late in life. His "Joseph Andrews" appeared in 1742.
The main object of Fielding in composing this celebrated novel must certainly have been to ridicule Richardson's "Pamela," which had recently made its appearance; but Fielding introduced into his story one of the finest creations of his pen, his Parson Adams, one of the most favourite characters in all our works of fiction. I have before mentioned from what archetype Parson Trulliber was drawn; it is a more agreeable office to mention the original of Parson Adams.
"The reverend Mr. Young, a learned and much esteemed friend of Mr. Fielding's, sat for this picture. Mr. Young was remarkable for his intimate acquaintance with the Greek authors, and had as passionate a veneration for Aeschylus as Parson Adams; the overflowings of his benevolence were as strong, and his fits of reverie were as frequent, and occurred too upon the most interesting occasions. Of this last observation a singular instance is given by a gentleman who served during the last war, in Flanders, in the very same regiment to which Mr. Young was chaplain. On a fine summer's evening, he thought proper to indulge himself in his love of a solitary walk: and accordingly he sallied forth from his tent: the beauties of the hemisphere, and the landscape round him, pressed warmly on his imagination; his heart overflowed with benevolence to all God's creatures, and gratitude to the Supreme Dispenser of that emanation of glory, which covered the face of things. It is very possible that a passage in his dearly beloved Aeschylus occurred to his memory on this occasion, and seduced his thoughts into a profound meditation. Whatever was the object of his reflections, certain it is that something did powerfully seize his imagination, so as to preclude all attention to things that lay immediately before him; and, in that deep fit of absence, Mr. Young proceeded on his journey, till he arrived very quietly and calmly in the enemy's camp, where he was, with difficulty, brought to a recollection of himself, by the repetition of 'Qui va la?' from the soldiers upon duty. The officer who commanded, finding that he had strayed thither in the undesigning simplicity of his heart, and seeing an innate goodness in his prisoner, which commanded his respect, very politely gave him leave to pursue his contemplations home again. Such was the gentleman, from whom the idea of Parson Adams was derived; how it is interwoven into the History of Joseph Andrews, and how sustained with unabating pleasantry to the conclusion, need not be mentioned here, as it is sufficiently felt and acknowledged."
About two years after the appearance of Joseph Andrews, Fielding published his History of the Life of the late Jonathan Wild the Great.
I draw particular attention to this work, not only on account of the graphic power which Fielding has displayed in it, but also because it establishes his right to be considered as a writer who earnestly desired to inculcate true principles of thought and action, and who loved to expose the hollowness of that greatness which has not truth for its foundation. I quote therefore Fielding's account of his objects and his motives which caused him to write Jonathan Wild.
"I solemnly protest," says he, "that I do by no means intend, in the character of my hero, to represent human nature in general, such insinuations must he attended with very dreadful conclusions: nor do I see any other tendency they can naturally have, but to encourage and soothe men in their villanies, and to make every well-disposed man disclaim his own species, and curse the hour of his birth into such a society. For my part, I understand those writers, who describe human nature in this depraved character, as speaking only of such persons as Wild and his gang; and, I think, it may be justly inferred, that they do not find in their own bosoms any deviation from the general rule. Indeed it would be an insufferable vanity in them, to conceive themselves as the only exception to it. But without considering Newgate as no other than human nature with its mask off, which some very shameless writers have done, I think we may be excused for suspecting, that the splendid palaces of the great are often no other than Newgate with the mask on; nor do I know anything which can raise an honest man's indignation higher, than that the same morals should be in one place attended with all imaginable misery and infamy, and, in the other, with the highest luxury and honour. Let any impartial man in his senses be asked, for which of these two places a composition of cruelty, vice, avarice, rapine, insolence, hypocrisy, fraud, and treachery, is best fitted? Surely his answer must be certain and immediate; and yet I am afraid all these ingredients, glossed over with wealth and a title, have been treated with the highest respect and veneration in the one, while one or two of them have been condemned to the gallows in the other. If there are, then, any men of such morals, who dare call themselves great, and are so reputed, or called, at least by the deceived multitude, surely a little private censure by the few, is a very moderate tax for them to pay, provided no more was to be demanded; but however the glare of riches and awe of title may dazzle and terrify the vulgar; nay, however hypocrisy may deceive the more discerning, there is still a judge in every man's breast, which none can cheat or corrupt, though perhaps it is the only uncorrupt thing about him. And yet, inflexible and honest as this judge is (however polluted the bench be on which he sits) no man can, in my opinion, enjoy any applause, which is not adjudged to be his due. Nothing seems to be more preposterous, than that, while the way to true honour lies so open and plain, men should seek faults by such perverse and rugged paths; that, while it is so easy, and safe, and truly honourable to he good, men should wade through difficulty and danger, and real infamy, to be great, or, to use a synonimous word, villains. Nor hath goodness less advantage, in the article of pleasure, than of honour, over this kind of greatness. The same righteous judge always annexes a bitter anxiety to the purchases of guilt, whilst it adds double sweetness to the enjoyments of innocence and virtue; for fear, which, all the wise agree, is the most wretched of human evils, is, in some degree, always attending the former, and never can, in any manner, molest the happiness of the latter. This is the doctrine which I have endeavoured to inculcate in this history; confining myself, at the same time, within the rules of probability: for, except in one chapter, which is meant as a burlesque on the extravagant account of travellers, I believe, I have not exceeded it. And though, perhaps, it sometimes happens, contrary to the instances I have given, that the villain succeeds in his pursuit, and acquires some transitory, imperfect honour or pleasure to himself for his iniquity; yet, I believe, he oftener shares the fate of Jonathan Wild, and suffers the punishment, without obtaining the reward. As I believe it is not easy to teach a more useful lesson than this, if I have been able to add the pleasant to it, I might flatter myself with having carried every point. But, perhaps, some apology may be required of me, for having used the word greatness, to which the world has annexed such honourable ideas, in so disgraceful and contemptuous a light. Now if the fact be, that the greatness, which is commonly worshipped, is really of that kind, which I have here represented, the fault seems rather to lie in those, who have ascribed to it those honours, to which it hath not, in reality, the least claim. The truth, I apprehend, is, we often confound the ideas of goodness and greatness together, or rather include the former in our idea of the latter. If this be so, it is surely a great error, and no less than a mistake of the capacity for the will. In reality, no qualities can be more distinct: for as it cannot be doubted, but that benevolence, honour, honesty, and charity, make a good man; and that parts and courage are the efficient qualities of a great man; so it must be confessed, that the ingredients which compose the former of these characters, bear no analogy to, nor dependence on, those which constitute the latter. A man may therefore be great, without being good, or good, without being great. However, though the one bear no necessary dependence on the other, neither is there any absolute repugnancy among them, which may totally prevent their union; so that they may, though not of necessity, assemble in the same mind, as they actually did, and all in the highest degree, in those of Socrates and Brutus; and, perhaps, in some among us. I at least know one, to whom Nature could have added no one great or good quality, more than she hath bestowed on him. Here then appear three distinct characters; the great, the good, and the great and good. The last of these is the true Sublime in human nature; that elevation, by which the soul of man, raising and extending itself above the order of this creation, and brightened with a certain ray of divinity, looks down on the condition of mortals. This is indeed a glorious object, on which we can never gaze with too much praise and admiration. A perfect work! the Iliad of Nature! ravishing and astonishing, and which at once fills us with love, with wonder, and delight. The second falls greatly short of this perfection, and yet hath its merit. Our wonder ceases; our delight is lessened; but our love remains: of which passion goodness hath always appeared to me the only true and proper object. On this head it may be proper to observe, that I do not conceive my good man to be absolutely a fool or a coward; but that he often partakes too little of parts or courage, to have any pretension to greatness. Now as to that greatness, which is totally devoid of goodness, it seems to me in nature to resemble the false sublime in poetry; where bombast is, by the ignorant and ill-judging vulgar, often mistaken for solid wit and eloquence, whilst it is in effect the very reverse. Thus pride, ostentation, insolence, cruelty, and every kind of villainy, are often construed into true greatness of mind, in which we always include an idea of goodness. This bombast greatness, then, is the character I intend to expose; and the more this prevails in, and deceives the world, taking to itself not only riches and power, but often honour, or at least the shadow of it, the more necessary it is to strip the monster of these false colours, and show it in its native deformity; for, by suffering vice to possess the reward of virtue, we do a double injury to society, by encouraging the former, and taking away the chief incentive to the latter. Nay, though it is, I believe, impossible to give vice a true relish of honour and glory, or, though we give it riches and power, to give it the enjoyment of them; yet it contaminates the food it cannot taste; and sullies the robe, which neither fits nor becomes it, till virtue disdains them both."
This admirable satire is written throughout on the plan which the author thus indicates. Not only is roguery in low places shown to be the same thing in grain as villainy in higher classes; but all the forms and developments in which spurious greatness loves to exhibit itself, such as daring, resolution, skill, presence of mind, and the like, are shown to be qualities commonly displayed by the most execrable ruffians in the very dregs of society. The character which Fielding draws of his Ideal Great Man at the end of the narrative, is perfect. I quote it the more readily, because this work of Fielding's is by no means so universally read and appreciated, as is the case with his other novels.
"We will now endeavour to draw the character of this Great Man: and by bringing together those several features as it were of his mind, which lie scattered up and down in this history, to present our readers with a perfect picture of greatness.
"Jonathan Wild had every qualification necessary to form a great man. As his most powerful and predominant passion was ambition, so nature had, with consummate propriety, adapted all his faculties to the attaining those glorious ends to which this passion directed him. He was extremely ingenious in inventing designs, artful in contriving the means to accomplish his purposes, and resolute in executing them: for as the most exquisite cunning, and most undaunted boldness qualified him for any undertaking; so was he not restrained by any of those weaknesses which disappoint the views of mean and vulgar souls, and which are comprehended in one general term of honesty, which is a corruption of HONOSTY, a word derived from what the Greeks call an Ass. He was entirely free from those low vices of modesty and good-nature, which, as he said, implied a total negation of human greatness, and were the only qualities which absolutely rendered a man incapable of making a considerable figure in the world. His avarice was immense: but it was of the rapacious, not of the tenacious kind; his rapaciousness was indeed so violent, that nothing ever contented him but the whole; for, however considerable the share was, which his coadjutors allowed him of a booty, he was restless in inventing means to make himself master of the smallest pittance reserved by them. He said laws were made for the use of Prigs only, and to secure their property; they were never therefore more perverted, than when their edge was turned against these; but that this generally happened through their want of sufficient dexterity. The character which he most valued himself upon, and which he principally honoured in others, was that of hypocrisy. His opinion was, that no one could carry Priggism very far without it; for which reason, he said, there was little greatness to be expected in a man who acknowledged his vices; but always much to be hoped from him who professed great virtues: wherefore, though he would always shun the person whom he discovered guilty of a good action, yet he was never deterred by a good character, which was more commonly the effect of profession than of action: for which reason, he himself was always very liberal of honest professions, and had as much virtue and goodness in his mouth as a saint; never in the least scrupling to swear by his honour, even to those who knew him the best; nay, though he held good-nature and modesty in the highest contempt, he constantly practised the affectation of both, and recommended this to others, whose welfare, on his own account, he wished well to. He laid down several maxims, as the certain methods of attaining greatness, to which, in his own pursuit of it, he constantly adhered. As,
1. Never do more mischief to another, than was necessary to the effecting his purpose; for that mischief was too precious a thing to be thrown away.
2. To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
3. Never to communicate more of an affair than was necessary, to the person who was to execute it.
4. Not to trust him who hath deceived you, nor who knows he hath been deceived by you.
5. To forgive no enemy; but to be cautious and often dilatory in revenge.
6. To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
7. To maintain a constant gravity in his countenance and behaviour, and to affect wisdom on all occasions.
8. To foment eternal jealousies in his gang, one of another.
9. Never to reward any one equal to his merit; but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
10. That all men were knaves or fools, and much the greater number a composition of both.
11. That a good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring the owner any advantage.
12. That virtues, like precious stones, were easily counterfeited; that the counterfeits in both cases adorned the wearer equally, and that very few had knowledge or discernment sufficient to distinguish the counterfeit jewel from the real.
13. That many men were undone by not going deep enough in roguery: as in gaming any man may be a loser who doth not play the whole game.
14. That men proclaim their own virtues, as shopkeepers expose their goods, in order to profit by them.
16. That the heart was the proper seat of hatred, and the countenance of affection and friendship.
He had many more of the same kind all equally good with these, and which were after his decease found in his study, as the twelve excellent and celebrated rules were in that of King Charles the First; for he never promulgated them in his lifetime, not having them constantly in his mouth, as some grave persons have the rules of virtue and morality, without paying the least regard to them in their actions: whereas our hero, by a constant and steady adherence to his rules in conforming every thing he did to them, acquired at length a settled habit of walking by them, till at last he was in no danger of inadvertently going out of the way; and by these means he arrived at that degree of greatness, which few have equalled; none, we may say have exceeded: for, though it must be allowed that there have been some few heroes, who have done greater mischiefs to mankind, such as those who have betrayed the liberty of their country to others, or have undermined and overpowered it themselves; or conquerors who have impoverished, pillaged, sacked, burnt, and destroyed the countries and cities of their fellow-creatures, from no other provocation than that of glory; i.e. as the tragic poet calls it,
a privilege to kill,
A strong temptation to do bravely ill;
yet if we consider it in the light wherein actions are placed in this line,
Laetius est, quoties magno tibi constat honestum,
when we see our hero, without the least assistance or pretence, setting himself at the head of a gang, which he had not any shadow of right to govern; if we view him maintaining absolute power, and exercising tyranny over a lawless crew, contrary to all law, but that of his own will; if we consider him setting up an open trade publicly, in defiance, not only of the laws of his country, but of the common sense of his countrymen; if we see him first contriving the robbery of others, and again the defrauding the very robbers of that booty, which they had ventured their necks to acquire, and which without any hazard they might have retained: here sure he must appear admirable, and we may challenge not only the truth of history, but almost the latitude of fiction to equal his glory.
"Nor had he any of those flaws in his character, which, though they have been commended by weak writers, have (as I hinted in the beginning of this history) by the judicious reader been censured and despised. Such was the clemency of Alexander and Caesar, which nature had so grossly erred in giving them, as a painter would, who should dress a peasant in robes of state, or give the nose, or any other feature of a Venus, to a satyr. What had the destroyers of mankind, that glorious pair, one of whom came into the world to usurp the dominion, and abolish the constitution of his own country; the other to conquer, enslave, and rule over the whole world, at least as much as was well known to him, and the shortness of his life would give him leave to visit; what had, I say, such as these to do with clemency? Who cannot see the absurdity and contradiction of mixing such an ingredient with those noble and great qualities I have before mentioned. Now in Wild, every thing was truly great, almost without alloy, as his imperfections (for surely some small ones he had) were only such as served to denominate him a human creature, of which kind none ever arrived at consummate excellence: but surely his whole behaviour to his friend Heartfree is a convincing proof, that the true iron or steel greatness of his heart was not debased by any softer metal. Indeed, while greatness consists in power, pride, insolence, and doing mischief to mankind; — to speak out — while a great man and a great rogue are synonymous terms, so long shall Wild stand unrivalled on the pinnacle of GREATNESS."
Many of the comic touches in this tale are inimitable. Such for instance is the scene between Jonathan Wild and the Count La Ruse, when "The two friends sat down to cards, a circumstance which I should not have mentioned, but for the sake of observing the prodigious force of habit; for, though the Count knew, if he won ever so much of Mr. Wild, he should not receive a shilling, yet could he not refrain from packing the cards; nor could Wild keep his hands out of his friend's pockets, though he knew there was nothing in them."
The gloomiest period of Fielding's life came soon after the publication of these novels. Repeated and severe illness prevented him from attending not only to his business as a lawyer, but to the miscellaneous labours of his pen, while it brought with it the train of additional expenses and vexations attendant on sickness. At the same time, his wife, to whom he was deeply attached, was afflicted with a permanent and dangerous disorder, and he beheld the object of his fondest affections gradually sunk by his own follies, from comfort and even opulence, to meet a slowly but steadily approaching death in the midst of hopeless penury. On her decease, the vehemence of his sorrow and self-reproach made his friends apprehensive that the blow had deprived him of reason. Time, however, restored his wonted activity and energy. On the breaking out of the rebellion in 1745, he gave a spirited support to government, in a periodical termed "The True Patriot;" and, with the same view, conducted a similar work in 1748, called "The Jacobite's Journal." It is to this period, when he probably lived with some of his nearest relatives, that we can best refer an anecdote, apparently authentic, which strikingly demonstrates how little selfishness there was in the dissipation or sensuality of Fielding, and how easily he could be imprudent at the dictation of his feelings. He had been, for a considerable period, in arrears with the payment of some parish taxes, for a house in Beaufort buildings, and the collector had repeatedly called. In his difficulty, Fielding applied to Tonson, who forwarded to him ten or twelve guineas on the deposit of a few sheets of some work on hand. While returning in the evening with his money, he met an old college friend, from whom he had been long separated, and the opportunity for a social bottle in a coffee-room was not to be neglected. In the course of the friendly and confidential conversation which naturally followed, Fielding discovered that his friend was unfortunate, and forgetting all his own woes in the possession of a few guineas, which was probably the chief distinction between them at the time, he emptied the contents of his pocket into that of his friend. On returning he told his story and the fate of the money to his sister Emilia, who answered that the collector had called in his absence. "Friendship," he said, "has called for the money, and had it. Let the collector call again."
At the age of forty-three, Fielding gladly accepted the office of a paid metropolitan justice, which gave him the means of existence; though the situation was far inferior in emolument as well as in respectability to what such an appointment is at present. Fielding's marvellous powers of discerning the true workings of the human heart, and his keen perception of character must have been kept in constant exercise while he filled this office, which to many would have been repulsive, but which presented him with an infinite variety of all those scenes which he loved to watch and to depict; both those wherein occur the apparently strange truths and hard realities of common daily life, as well as scenes of startling crime and complicated villainy.
I have mentioned Fielding's two first novels; they would have been enough to ensure him fame, but it is his third work, "Tom Jones," which has given him the European celebrity which is attached to his name. I use the term "European celebrity," because translations of this work are even more popular abroad, than the original is here; and foreign critics far outvie Fielding's countrymen in their praises of it. La Harpe, for instance, goes the length of calling "Tom Jones," "le premier roman du monde, et le livre le mieux fait de l' Angleterre." Fielding says in this preface, that he was engaged on this work for many years; and the results of care and artistic skill are visible not only in the variety of characters which are introduced, the individuality which each of these possesses, and the consistent appropriateness of the language and, actions ascribed to each, but also in the admirable arrangement of the events of the story. Coleridge has pronounced a high eulogium on this, and he adds to it a beautiful and felicitous simile, which describes some of Fielding's peculiar merits more vividly than can be done by any formal definitions, or detached examples. The passage of Coleridge which I refer to is as follows:
"What a master of composition Fielding was! Upon my word, I think the 'Oedipus Tyrannus,' 'The Alchemist,' and 'Tom Jones,' the three most perfect plots ever planned. And how charming, how wholesome Fielding always is. To take him up after Richardson is like emerging from a sick room heated by stoves into an open lawn, on a breezy day in May." — (Table Talk, Vol. i.)
Coleridge, La Harpe and Byron are sufficient witnesses of the admiration which Fielding inspires in the most gifted and highly cultured minds. But, like Shakspeare, he is the idol not merely of the most learned and refined, but of every class of readers. Probably "Tom Jones" is the most universally read work of fiction in the language. Criticism on such a book is superfluous. But there is a reproach commonly urged against Fielding, especially when "Tom Jones" is mentioned, which must not be left unnoticed, though to some extent it must remain unanswered. Fielding is accused of coarseness and immorality. Coarse he undoubtedly is when his subject leads him to describe coarse scenes and personages. But I do not think that he ever goes out of his way to find filth, as Swift does, or that he wallows in it when it lies in his path. As for the other branch of the charge, if it mean that the general object of any of Fielding's writings was immoral, or that he ever made vice attractive, or scoffed at virtue, the imputation is wholly false. Fielding's favourite characters, and which he holds up to our esteem most earnestly, are always pure and good. Such, for instance, are the Heartfrees, Allworthy, and Amelia Booth. He never narrates a vicious adventure without making it bring ridicule as well as suffering on those engaged in it. But if it be meant that Fielding narrates adventures of this description more frequently and more in detail than was necessary, the charge must, with regret and shame, be admitted to be too true. Still it only shows that he has laid himself open to the same objection which applies to nearly all the greatest comic and satiric writers. Until Aristophanes, Rabelais, Swift, Dryden, and many more are banished from our libraries I cannot see that Fielding ought to be ostracised. We must also discriminate how much of this censure applies to the individual and how much to the age in which he lived. I do not mean that change of place or time can change the standards of Right and Wrong, of Purity and Licentiousness; but where a writer is gross in a gross age, it only shows that he has not the singular virtue of rejecting the taint of evil communications; whereas, he who writes licentiously in defiance of custom and example, must draw his impurities from the foul depths of his own bad heart. I gladly on this disagreeable subject refer to Sir Walter Scott's defence of Swift, a far worse offender than Fielding. Scott says—
"The best apology for this unfortunate perversion of taste, indulgence of caprice, and abuse of talent is the habits of the times and situation of the author. In the former respect, we should do great injustice to the present day by comparing our manners with those of the reign of George I. The writings even of the most esteemed poets of that period contain passages which in modern times would be accounted to deserve the pillory. Nor was the tone of conversation more pure than that of composition; for the taint of Charles the Second's reign continued to infect society until the present reign, when, if not more moral, we have become at least more decent than our fathers."
Scott quotes, in a note to this passage, several curious proofs of how gross (if judged of by modern rules) the conversation of even ladies of the highest rank used to be, fifty or sixty years before the time when he was writing. He might, in fact, have done more than claim for us a superiority in this respect over our fathers. We are entitled to vary the celebrated boast of Sthenelus, and say— [Greek characters].
Fielding's last novel was his "Amelia," a work in which some have fancied that they could trace symptoms of declining genius. This book certainly wants the vigour and variety of "Tom Jones," but it is itself full of interest, power, and pathos. The character of Justice Thrasher is as severely and strongly drawn, as any in Fielding's other works; and neither he nor any other writer has surpassed the fearful truthfulness of the prison scenes. Above all, Fielding has made his heroine, throughout the story, an object of our admiration, and also of our anxious sympathy and interest: unlike the good personages in many novels, who are made by their authors so painfully meek, and who bear their sufferings with such elaborate propriety, that they seem fit for nothing but to be victims, and the reader feels quite disappointed when any good fortune befalls them.
Fielding 's last publication was "The Covent-garden Journal, by Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knight, Censor-general of Great Britain." This periodical, published twice a-week, he continued for a year, at the end of which the number and extent of his disorders induced him to make a last effort for recovery by a voyage to Portugal. In an account of his voyage, the last production of his active pen, he gives a mournful picture of the state of his health, while his remarks, although full of humour and his wonted vivacity, show occasional depression of spirits, and more than his usual sarcasm. He survived his arrival in Lisbon but two months, and died on the 8th of October, 1754, in the 48th year of his age.
(Scott's Lives of the Novelists. — Life, by Murphy. — Cunningham's Brit. Biog.)