1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Fielding

Nathan Drake, in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 1:79-86.



THE CHAMPION. The greater part of this work was written by the celebrated Henry Fielding, who was born at Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury, in Somersetshire, on April 22d, 1707. After a classical education at Eton, he was sent to study the civil law at Leyden; but, owing to the pecuniary difficulties of his father, who had a large family, he was under the necessity of relinquishing the university, after a residence of two years. Strong passions, an ardent imagination, and a taste for dissipation, soon plunged young Fielding, on his return to London, into all the gaieties of the metropolis. To supply a fund for his indulgences, he became, at the early age of twenty, a writer for the stage, and in the year 1727 produced his first Drama, entituled "Love in several Masques." This, though it immediately succeeded the popular comedy of the "Provok'd Husband," was well received by the public, and inducing our author to continue his dramatic labours, he annually brought forward, for a number of years, a regular supply for the stage, and, all together, wrote not less than twenty-six comedies and farces, few of which are now remembered, and but one or two occasionally represented. Many of them are, indeed, but translations from the French, and they were all written to obtain a temporary popularity, and a provision for the day; they are detective in plot, consistency, and finishing, and their humour is too generally coarse and extravagant.

At a period when, notwithstanding a series of exertions for the theatre of nearly seven years duration, and the patronage of several distinguished noblemen, the finances of Fielding were still in the most deplorable state, two events occurred, which, with common prudence, might have placed him beyond the reach of future want. He married, in his twenty-seventh year, a Miss Craddock, of Salisbury, a young lady of great beauty and worth, and with a fortune of fifteen hundred pounds; to this accession of happiness and wealth, was soon after added, by the death of his mother, an estate at Stower, in Dorsetshire, the value of which exceeded two hundred pounds per annum.

It was now within the power of Fielding, with this property, and the produce of his literary talents, to have enjoyed a permanent and liberal income; but, intoxicated with the sudden change of circumstances, totally void of economy, and ambitious of figuring as a gentleman of large landed property, he lived upon his estate in Dorsetshire with a splendor and with an establishment which would have demanded tenfold the amount of his income. In short, his servants, horses, and hounds, his luxury and unlimited hospitality, soon effected his ruin; and in less than three years, he beheld himself entirely stripped of his wife's fortune and his own patrimony!

Having thus dissipated what might have proved an elegant competency, and having a rising family to provide for, it became necessary to look round for a resource more permanent than what literature was likely to afford. At the age of thirty, therefore, he resumed his profession, entered as a student of the Temple, and in due time was called to the bar. His life was now a scene of great and varied industry; he attended the courts and circuits with regularity, and, until professional emoluments began to flow, supported himself by the efforts of his pen. He again composed for the stage, published a number of political pamphlets and miscellaneous pieces, and engaged in several periodical papers.

His extraordinary powers in fictitious narrative, however, were not developed until the year 1742, when the publication of his "Joseph Andrews" unveiled to the public a vein of humour and invention, and a facility and truth in the delineation of character, which rivalled the happiest effusions of Cervantes and Addison. The reputation which he acquired by this production was, however, much overbalanced, by a series of afflictions, the consequence of broken health and domestic anxiety. The effects of early intemperance had now made visible inroads upon a constitution otherwise strong, and he was agonized by violent and protracted fits of the gout; to this bodily suffering, was added the most poignant grief for the loss of a faithful and beloved wife, a blow, which, for some months, had nearly deprived him of reason.

Time, however, as in most human calamities, mitigated the severity of his sorrow, and he was roused to further exertion by the critical situation of the empire, when, in the year 1745, it was shaken by the terrors of rebellion. He wrote in support of government and tile protestant religion, and was rewarded by an appointment to the office of an acting magistrate for the county of Middlesex, a situation of some profit, but of great labour, and almost necessarily exposed to calumny and reproach. lie discharged its duties, notwithstanding, with unwearied vigilance, and published several useful tracts, on the causes of crime, and on the maintenance of the poor.

Great as were the fatigues of this official employment, his imagination, ever active, seemed to acquire fresh strength, and, during the intervals of business, was engaged in the composition of a tissue of adventures, which, for felicity of conduct and combination, may be pronounced unrivalled. No fable, indeed, ancient or modern, can vie with that of "Tom Jones" in variety and management of incident; no event or circumstance, however minute, even though mingled with a plot apparently intricate, seems lost or useless in the completion of the tale, and the characters are drawn with astonishing vivacity and skill. To the seductive tendency of some portions of the narrative, to a few scenes too warmly coloured, objections may be perhaps justly made, but the result of the whole is not unfriendly to morality; vice is invariably punished, the noblest feelings and affections are frequently awakened, and no unprejudiced person can peruse the work without being convinced that the author, as was really the case, was a lover of virtue, and a believer in revealed religion.

Neither poverty nor disease, nor the distractions of public business, could repress the activity of Fielding's mind. In 1751 he produced his "Amelia;" which, if not equal in the texture and variety of the fable, or in humorous delineation, to Torn Jones, is nevertheless possessed of great merit, and abounds more in pathos, and moral observation, than any other of the author's works.

In a year or two after this publication, the health of Fielding so rapidly declined, though he continued to amuse himself by literary employment, that it became evident to his friends that he could not long survive; a dropsy had supervened, and he was advised by his physicians to undertake a voyage to Lisbon, in hopes that the mildness and stability of the climate might renovate his powers; the experiment, however, failed, and he lived but two months after his atrival in Portugal, expiring on October 8th, 1754, in his forty-eighth year.

Though guilty of numerous errors in the early period of life, for which he afterwards severely atoned, the moral and religious principles of Fielding were never shaken; and had health been allowed him, it was his intention to have published a refutation of the sceptical tenets of Bolingbroke. As a writer, he is truly original, and in the comic epopeia without a rival.

The Champion was published thrice a week, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and consists of ninety-four numbers, the first of which is dated November 15th, 1739, and the last June 19th, 1740. The first edition in its collected form, which is that in my possession, was printed in 1741, in two volumes duodecimo, and the work has undergone, I believe, three impressions.

An advertisement prefixed to the first volume informs us, that "several persons having been concerned in writing the Champion, and it not being reasonable that any one should be answerable for the rest, it has been thought proper to signify to the reader, that all the papers distinguished with a C, or an L, are the work of one hand." The numbers thus distinguished were the composition of Fielding, and stamp a considerable value on the production, which, with the exception of the Freethinker, is superior to any that we have noticed since the close of the eighth volume of the Spectator. A great portion of the Champion is employed on the follies, vices, amusements, and literature of the age; and the remainder is occupied by political wit and discussion uniformly directed against the administration of Walpole; to every paper, indeed, is annexed what is termed an "Index to the Times," consisting of news miscellaneous and political, and frequently charged with the most sarcastic irony.