Cough up

Thomas Keymer

‘There are certain Mysteries or Secrets in all Trades from the highest to the lowest, from that of Prime Ministring to this of Authoring,’ Fielding announces with mock pomposity in Joseph Andrews. In a work published just days after the fall from office of Sir Robert Walpole – ‘prime minister’ in a sense that had no constitutional legitimacy at the time, and implied an alarming concentration of power – there was nothing innocent about the joke. Walpole’s self-promotion was a standard target, but Fielding’s sly participle gave a new twist to the usual complaint, and suggests how unlike a ministering angel an exponent of prime ministering might be. Yet there was also something distinctly self-implicating, in an age of servile laureates and hired pens, about Fielding’s talk of authorship as a trade that somehow resembled political management. In the Champion, his trenchant periodical of 1739-41, he had personally spearheaded the campaign against Walpole in its final phase, excoriating the administration as a kleptocracy that maintained power through bribery and electoral chicanery. If this was the nature of a prime minister’s trade, was that of a professional author any purer?

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