Fielding was born in 1707 into a family in straitened circumstances but of aristocratic connections. A family myth, based on forged papers, claimed descent from the Hapsburgs. The combination of financial embarrassment and gentlemanly caste is emblematic of the whole atmosphere of his life, and is variously reflected in his writings. He turned to writing fiction for a living (and to practising law for the same reason) after his career as a prominent and successful dramatist was ended by the Licensing Act of 1737, which his own anti-Government plays helped to precipitate, and which remained in force until 1968 (in later years it functioned more as an instrument of moral than of political censorship). He is the only one among the important early novelists whose origins were patrician, and the only one also whose style and cultural loyalties were closely tied to the tradition we sometimes call Augustan, of which the dominant representatives in Fielding’s lifetime were Swift and Pope. Early in his career he sometimes called himself Scriblerus Secundus, after their famous coterie the Scriblerus Club. One of his earliest poems, however, was an unfinished mock-Dunciad against them, discovered some twenty years ago by Isobel Grundy among the papers of his cousin Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Fielding seems to have been playing on Lady Mary’s hostility to Pope and his friends, and may have hoped through her influence to secure the patronage of the Prime Minister Walpole. There was no love lost between Walpole and the Scriblerians either, and Fielding’s fluctuating attitudes to them are sometimes inverse indicators of where Fielding stood (or wanted to stand) with Walpole.
Nevertheless, his literary tastes and his cultural outlook were extensions of theirs, even when personal ties or political allegiance pulled the other way. Even his political allegiances were, in fact, more often and more publicly against Walpole than not. His praise of Swift’s writings, and his sense of Swift as one of his own great literary masters, along with (and perhaps surpassing) Aristophanes, Lucian, Rabelais and Cervantes, was strong. In return, Swift is said to have admired Fielding’s wit and to have confessed that one of the only two occasions in his life when he remembered having laughed was ‘at the circumstance of Tom Thumb’s killing the ghost’.
That occurs, as it happens, in a play to which Fielding attached a mock-commentary by Scriblerus Secundus, modelled mainly on Pope’s Dunciad, not very long after his mock-Dunciadic attack on Pope and Swift themselves. The remarkable thing, however, was not so much that Fielding appropriated specific routines from the Scriblerian masters as that he later extended his deep assimilation of their stylistic manner into his novels: into a genre, that is, whose defining characteristics might have been thought outside the range of their literary sympathies and even antithetical to them. His first two works of prose fiction, Shamela and Joseph Andrews, were triggered by his dislike of one of the earliest English novels, Richardson’s Pamela, and both treated its author as a low vulgarian, in a manner plainly derived from the older satirists’ treatment of the dunces and Grub Street hacks. One of the piquancies of the case was that the patrician Fielding picked up his lordly accents, to some extent at least, from authors who were themselves non-patrician.
Fielding’s antipathy was partly conditioned by a dislike of the veristic power of Richardson’s novel: its pretence of ‘to the Moment’ narration by a participant in the thick of the action, its particularity of specification, and its thrusting of its readers into an intimacy with the narrative which Fielding seems to have regarded as voyeuristic. It is the power which made Diderot cry out to warn Richardsonian heroines not to believe their deceivers, and which seems temporarily to accompany all significant escalations, whether stylistic or technological, of the pursuit of ‘realism’: the anxiety and grief which readers conveyed to Richardson or to Dickens over the fate of Clarissa or Paul Dombey (whose death ‘threw a whole nation into mourning’) is disconcertingly replicated in popular responses to radio and TV soap-operas. What Flaubert was to extol as novelistic ‘illusion’ has obvious affinities with the hoax and other forms of vulgar verism.
Fielding’s distaste for Richardson’s achievement can properly be seen as a resistance to what was to become one of the most powerful animating forces behind the evolution of the novel as a genre. That this has a cheaply sensational obverse enables us more easily to see the point of Fielding’s recoil. This is not to impute to him any special prescience, though the example of Swift’s prefigurations (often in the form of advance-parody) of modes of modern writing and thought not visible to the ordinary observer in his own time suggests that one should not rule out some intuitive awareness of future directions on Fielding’s part. An ambivalent interest in literary hoaxes, and in the rewards, risks and even dangers of irony collapsing into hoax through the naivety of readers, was common to both writers. If some proto-Flaubertian model of ‘illusion’ had been proposed to Fielding, I think he would have understood it in lowered terms, as what later came to be called illusionism, a fairground quackery, one of the licensed deceptions of popular culture, like soap opera; or, if you prefer, as a hoax without irony. Irony, not a usual idiom of Richardsonian narrative, is a badge of caste, a coded language meaning one thing to the few and another to the many. It indicates both command and aloofness, the imperiousness with which, in the ironies of Fielding as of Swift, words are made to carry the speaker’s meaning rather than submitting him to theirs; and a distance from the vulnerably literal or the merely particular, intimating a wise perspective de haut en bas.
This translated itself into saying that Richardson, and with him a whole line of future novelistic development, was ill-bred. His prolix and clammy immediacies were regarded by patrician readers as large-scale solecisms. They were at the same time felt to be immensely affecting. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wept copiously even as she despised and Fielding clearly experienced over Clarissa a more thoughtful and generous version of the same ambivalence. He may even have been influenced by Clarissa into changing his own style in Amelia, though the results don’t actually resemble Richardson much. His earlier rejection of Pamela was more complete, though he must quickly have become conscious of the irony whereby his rejection of Richardson’s novel was being expressed in novels of his own.
What Fielding brought to this paradoxical task was a manner shaped for other purposes by the Augustan satirists, urbanely interventionist rather than self-effacing, and designed to indicate authorial management rather than to induce an illusion of unprocessed reality. This is even true of Shamela, which is written in Richardson’s letter-form and thus ostensibly cuts out the author. It is an example of a recurrent phenomenon in the history of literary forms, and especially perhaps of the novel: that an anti-form quickly resolves itself into a member of the class it is subverting. The writing style which Fielding made his own in the novels, in the formal structurings and closures of its periods and paragraphs, in its highly personal blend of hauteur, irony and fervour, its parodic set-pieces and inventive grotesqueries, contributed to the establishment of a rival narrative mode. It grew largely out of Augustan satirical rhetoric. But it helped to turn Fielding into the principal inventor of the English comic novel, and one of the earliest practitioners of the kind of novel that is concerned, self-consciously and on a substantial scale, with the writing of itself.
Although it is as a novelist that Fielding is still chiefly known, he was in his day England’s leading playwright, a political journalist of considerable power, a barrister and, in his last years, a highly influential magistrate, who had a hand in shaping what eventually developed into the Metropolitan Police. His writings on the legal and social aspects of poverty and crime, which are collected in one of the recent volumes of the Wesleyan Edition, are by-products of his magistracy. Like his other late works, including Amelia and the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, they form an impressive body of work, still relatively little known, which, in its affronted recognition of social and personal disorder, differs greatly from the more genial and confident atmosphere of the earlier and better-known books. Amelia suggests that had he lived longer, he might have opened up the range of English fiction even more than he did. Parts of this novel are informed by a sense of pained disconnection not found again until Dickens’s grimmest portrayals of London life. Fielding died in 1754, in Lisbon, where he had gone for his health.
There has been no full-scale biography of Fielding since 1952, though a very good short life by Pat Rogers appeared in 1979. The two principal biographies, still widely used as works of reference, and which Martin Battestin’s long-awaited volume is designed to supersede, are those of Wilbur Cross (1918) and F. Homes Dudden (1952). Cross has usually been treated as the standard work, while Dudden’s book has had a bad press. In my undergraduate days I heard dons refer to it as the Dud. He was heavily indebted to Cross and omitted to incorporate some subsequent knowledge, but his two massive volumes are for the most part a useful and orderly synthesis, with good accounts of the social settings (rural and urban) and the religious and legal backgrounds of Fielding’s career, and information on Fielding’s Classical and other sources, which have been freely plundered by his detractors. He also wrote better than many of his rivals, and readers of the latest life may feel in this regard that the competition hasn’t exactly been hotting up.
Facts about Fielding’s life have always been relatively sparse, for a writer of his time, and especially one with such a high public profile. The total number of surviving letters, after the Battestins’ intensive searches, remains about seventy, almost three times as many as were previously known, but small compared with those of Swift, Pope, Richardson, Johnson and even Sterne. (In an age which had recently acquired the habit of preserving the private papers of writers on a substantial if haphazard scale, the question of why this wasn’t done by or for Fielding invites study.) Two important correspondences in particular have recently come to light: one with James Harris of Salisbury, the author of Hermes, whom Johnson called ‘a prig, and a bad prig’, but who was a warm friend to Fielding, lent him money sometimes, and wrote an unpublished essay on his ‘Life and Genius’; the other concerned with Fielding’s legal and judicial work under the patronage of the Duke of Bedford. The Battestins have also brought to light pieces of information from legal documents and local archives, some of them of such interest (judging from the quotations) that one might wish to see the most important printed out in full; and they have naturally made full use of material found by others, including the new verse discovered by Isobel Grundy two decades ago. Martin Battestin has also combed the printed sources, including newspapers and the Old Bailey Sessions Papers, and his account of the cases Fielding was concerned with as a magistrate adds vividness to the latter part of the book. The standard of accuracy seems high, though there’s some shakiness about titles and modes of address (Lady Louisa Stuart, for example, is sometimes called Lady Stuart) surprising in someone who has spent many years on a book of this kind, and some imprecision of other kinds.
The biography contains relatively little critical discussion of Fielding’s works, and some of Battestin’s literary judgments suggest that he was wise not to give very many: ‘Fielding’s is the Comic Spirit we meet in Chaucer, but in few other English authors (Shakespeare is too brittle or too deep, Dickens too dark).’ His understanding of literary history seems insecure. Fielding’s defence, as quoted from a letter to Harris, of prose against the heroic couplet is not in the least ‘like Wordsworth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, not even ‘a little’, and his dislike of the fetters of rhyme is similarly not a presage of Romanticism: the debate about rhyme was an old one, opponents of rhyme frequently appealed to the example of the Greek and Latin poets, and the specific objection to rhyme as a constraint had been made by Milton among others. There is, however, some good discussion of Fielding’s plays, which brings out the remarkably ‘experimental’ quality of some of them. On the novels, Battestin has frequently had his say elsewhere. He is the chief spokesman for a view of the novels as dedicated to the promotion of chastity and of a prudential morality, reinforced by an implausibly theologised conception of the workings of Providence, mainly manifested in the happy endings. Some of this survives into the biography in abbreviated form.
The idea that Fielding’s novels were written in the service of the prevailing pieties did not at the time commend itself to the prevailingly pious, who thought them scurrilous and drew biographical inferences from them. They did not confine themselves to the sexual infamies. Richardson added that ‘his brawls, his jarrs, his goals, his spunging-houses, are all drawn from what he has seen and known.’ Others added gaming, drinking and being a political hireling. Cross and Dudden made strenuous efforts to sanitise the biographical record, but Battestin says it’s all true, and adds incest to boot: more of this later. It seems that having laboured for years to make the novels dull he is now determined to keep the life interesting. He not only restores many of the imputations of contemporaries and of earlier biographers, but offers vividly disreputable glimpses of Fielding in childhood and youth, foul-tempered and violent as well as randy, spitting at servants and being cited in the King’s Bench, probably by a servant of his father, ‘for having “shook, wounded and manhandled him so that he was desperately frightened for his life” ’.
At 18, at Lyme Regis, he fell in love with a 15-year-old heiress called Sarah Andrew and may have ‘attempted to ravish her away by force one Sunday while she was on her way to church’. Her uncle and guardian Andrew Tucker made a deposition before the Mayor that he was ‘in fear of his life or of some bodily hurt to be done... to him by Henry ffeilding Gent and his servant or companion’, and Fielding posted the following notice in a prominent spot before leaving the town: ‘This is to give notice to all the World that Andrew Tucker and his son John Tucker are Clowns, and Cowards.’ It is his earliest extant manuscript, and is reproduced here along with the portrait of Sarah Andrew.
Such episodes, taken from local archives and legal records, are among the best things in the book, though part of the latter story was already in Cross and most of it in Dudden. Nevertheless, they have a fresh factual tang, sometimes marred by low-grade psychologising, as in the parenthetical suggestion that ‘psychologists would say [Sarah Andrew] had the additional charm for him of having the same Christian name as... his mother and grandmother and sister Sarah.’ Names are big in Battestin’s psychological armoury, but the really bad habit is the unloading of his pseudo-insights on unnamed ‘psychologists’, which creates a glow of authority without any acceptance of responsibility, with the parentheses here providing additional disengagement. The following three instances occur within four pages: ‘this ... will surprise no one acquainted with ... modern psychoanalysis’, ‘a phenomenon well known to psychologists’, ‘one of the commonest erotic fantasies identified by modern psychologists’.
This sub-Freudian patter is a knock-down appeal to non-evidence of a type nowadays common among amateur psychobiographers, but actually not far removed from the old routine of sliding from ‘may’ to ‘would’ to ‘did’, of which there is also more than a trace in Battestin’s book. The three appeals to ‘psychologists’ all have to do with the possibility of an incestuous relationship between Henry Fielding and his sister Sarah, also a novelist. Only the third is associated with a name, that of Ferenczi, cited not on incest as such but on ‘sexually unsatisfied women’ who ‘very commonly dream of thieves breaking in’. The relevance of this is that the hero’s sister in Amelia, in the delirium of a fatal illness, mistook her brother ‘for a Highwayman who had [actually, and not in a dream] a little before robbed her’.
The incest allegation is the kind of thing people latch onto, and likely to elbow its way into popular myth. It is one of two major novelties in Battestin’s book (the other is the attribution to Fielding of a large body of ‘new’ political essays) which rest on wholly unsubstantiated speculation. Because this biogaphy has pretensions to being regarded as ‘definitive’, it is likely to be relied on as a work of reference by people who won’t always read the small print or be equipped to evaluate the evidence, and it seems important to spell out the nature of this evidence before spurious orthodoxies develop and secondary hypotheses are generated from them.
The story begins with the death of Fielding’s mother. Fielding had several sisters and ‘no one acquainted with the findings of modern psychoanalysis’ would be ‘surprised’ if there were ‘overt erotic experimentation’. Sarah (‘who bore his dead mother’s name’) slept in the next room, so that an ‘absolute’ intimacy ‘would not be impossible’. Fielding was 11 and Sarah was seven. It is not clear whether all siblings of that age are to be suspected of incest if they sleep in neighbouring rooms. But then, Sarah never married. Nor did Fielding’s other sisters, but ‘it was Sarah alone’ who, 26 years later, ‘when Fielding’s beloved first wife died in November 1744, moved into his house at Boswell Court to console her brother, remaining with him there until he married again three years later’. There is a considerable escalation of innuendo within a few short pages of the book itself, and another escalation between this part of the book and the original learned article of 1979 on which it is based. This only says that Sarah ‘appears to have lived with Fielding ... between the death of his beloved wife, Charlotte ... and his marriage three years later to Mary Daniel’ (my italics): for evidence of this we are referred to the despised Dudden. The notion that an unmarried sister might move in to look after a widowed brother and his children from other than incestuous motives isn’t allowed to detract from the scenario.
What neither the article nor the book says at this stage is that Fielding became the lover of his servant Mary Daniel, whom he impregnated before marrying, and that this might suggest that his sexual energies were directed at other than sisterly objects. Later it is used to reinforce a generalised connection with incest: commenting on Fielding’s pot-boiler, The Female Husband, about a lesbian transvestite, Battestin says that Fielding’s ‘own sexual appetites were sufficiently ungovernable to have led him in his youth to incestuous experimentation, and after his wife’s death he would commit (as the gentlemen he believed himself to be) the humiliating impropriety of seducing his servant’. Among the incidental oddities of this passage are its surprising notions about gentlemen’s attitudes to the seduction of servants, and its assumption that ‘incest’ represents an intensification of some general pool of appetites. ‘Ungovernability’ has nothing to do with the question either way, but the idea is handy for assimilating incest to fornication with servants, and both to lesbianism and transvestism (which so far as I can see Fielding isn’t alleged to have practised).
On 11 January 1746 Fielding referred in a letter to James Harris to ‘the Woman in the world whom I like best’. Sarah is not named, but ‘he could trust Harris to know the woman he meant without naming her: Sarah had taken Charlotte’s place in his affections.’ No evidence is given that Sarah is the woman referred to. If she is, the likeliest explanation is a statement, not unduly hyperbolic in the language of the time, that now that his wife is dead his sister is his dearest friend. The unlikeliest explanation is that he would be confessing incestuous feelings to a third party. The suggestion that Sarah had supplanted Charlotte is gratuitous except as an incremental insinuation.
What are the foundations for this whole speculative edifice? They consist of one unclear allegation in a legal document involving not Sarah but another sister, when they were small children; of clumsy inferences from fiction by both Henry and Sarah, reinforced by a misunderstanding of the comments of a French critic on an episode in Sarah’s David Simple; and on the freewheeling appeals to unnamed psychologists, already noticed. The first item is the only one involving the barest appearance of a biographical fact. After their mother died, Henry and the other children lived in the care of their great-aunt Mrs Cottington. Their father’s financial improvidence, his absence in London, and his rapid remarriage to an Italian and a Papist ‘who kept an eating house in London’, led Lady Gould, the children’s grandmother, to sue Fielding père for custody of the children and for the ‘right to what was left of the farm at East Stour’. The father counter-attacked. His witness, the nursery maid Frances Barber, declared that the children were being influenced against him by Mrs Cottington, that they were brought up ‘very much indulged and... unruly’, that Henry spat at servants, that he committed ‘some indecent actions with his sister Beatrice’, that he was ‘very much subject to passion’ and that (as was later to be said of Tom Jones) ‘he would ... come to some ill or unfortunate end’. As Battestin notes, Beatrice was only four and a half and Henry barely twelve. This, and the fact that Mrs Cottington, in whose room both children apparently slept, allegedly ‘seemed to encourage’ the ‘indecent actions’, suggests that these actions were hardly likely to be very perverse.
Battestin cites Lawrence Stone to the effect that in crowded country households in the 18th century, some intimacies between siblings which we might now think precocious were freely permitted and ‘even, in some families, a source of amusement’. In that context, the disclosure that Mrs Cottington apparently ‘smiled complacently on his fondling Beatrice’ (Battestin’s words rather than Mrs Barber’s) again tends to confirm that the indecency cannot have gone very far.
The indecency was alleged by a biased witness. It concerned another sister than Sarah. The remark about Henry being ‘very much subject to passion’ may well (the original document is not cited in full) refer to his amply documented violent temper. If it means that he was highly sexed, the fact has no necessary bearing on incestuous tendencies: What is well known about Fielding’s later life is that his sexuality found plenty of non-incestuous outlets. There is not one shred of evidence that he sought or found incestuous ones.
This is the biographical basis. The literary indications are that in two of Henry’s plays accidental incest is averted by a last-minute discovery, and that there are important incestscares in two of his novels. In Joseph Andrews a turn of the plot makes it appear briefly as if the chaste hero is the brother of the woman he hopes to marry, and in Tom Jones the unchaste hero learns, before the final resolution in which he becomes free to marry his Sophia, that one of his previous mistresses might be his mother. All four cases belong, as Battestin knows, to very common patterns of mistaken identity, traditional in both comedy and romance. In both novels they also function as last-minute complications, heightening suspense before the final resolution which clears the way for the hero and heroine to live happily ever after. If these patterns reflected an autobiographical experience of such sensitivity as Battestin alleges, Fielding would have been more likely to avoid the subject than to have introduced it at all, least of all with such ostentatious timing and in the preamble to a festively orchestrated finale.
The brio with which the fanfare of fright is brought into both novels seems in itself to rule out any unconscious projection of repressed material, though it is possible in the case of Tom Jones to think of the scare as some sort of punishment for having slept around. This would be consonant with Battestin’s moralistic conception of Fielding’s treatment of adultery, as Battestin used to reveal it when he wore his critical hat. It’s less obviously consistent with the rakish real-life Fielding promoted in this biography, though some playful parade of guilt, whether on his own or his hero’s behalf, would be a tenable interpretation of the available facts. Readers who think the novels are more relaxed about extra-marital sexual doings than Battestin does (or used to), or who take seriously the assertions in Tom Jones and Amelia that extra-marital love is better than none, might still concede that elements of a guilt scenario are being paraded (not repressed): a punitive scare, the frisson of anxiety which one critic has referred to as ‘the comic analogue of fear’, atoning not so much for Tom’s sexual lapses, as for not making a guilty fuss about them. This explanation might not apply to Joseph Andrews, who does not lapse, unless we wished to entertain the speculation that he might be mildly taunted for not lapsing. Both scenarios might be consistent with a patrician style that refused to lose its cool, in the manner of the low Richardson, over other people’s sexual transactions.
The remaining exhibits are two episodes in Sarah Fielding’s work, in both of which a brother and sister are falsely accused of incest: one occurs in the story of Anne Boleyn, probably written by Sarah at the end of Henry’s Journey from this World to the Next, and the other in the story of Camilla and Valentine in her own Adventures of David Simple. If any of this can be suspected of autobiographical implications, the only known fact to which it could conceivably refer is Mrs Barber’s allegation of an indecency, possibly but not certainly incestuous, not with Sarah but with her sister Beatrice. The implication of this would be that Sarah might have remembered that accusation and considered it false. That is not Battestin’s idea at all.
His reading of the David Simple episode seems to have been affected by a misunderstanding of what the French scholar Aurélien Digeon said about it in 1923. He imagines a scenario in which Digeon ‘abruptly broke off’ his account of the story of Camilla, which, in Digeon’s words, sombre vite dans le plus affreux romanesque. Digeon didn’t abandon his account in ‘horrified dismay’, and his words have nothing to do with ‘a grotesque, nightmare world of psychological persecution’. They simply mean that the story ‘sinks rapidly into the most frightful novelettish drivel’. He had just been speaking of personal memories of Sarah’s scattered amid some extravagant romancing (jetés au milieu d’un romanesque extravagant), but these personal memories are of a sister defending her brother against their father’s complaints that he was spending too much money (such passages are more amply supported by known biographical facts than are any of Battestin’s own speculations).
The other major piece of new material resting on total non-evidence is ‘the disclosure of one of the best-kept secrets of 18th-century literature: namely, that for a period of six years, from 1734 to 1739, Fielding was a regular contributor to the Craftsman, the principal organ of the Opposition as it tried to bring down the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole’. This is described as potentially ‘by far the most exciting’ discovery, though the only evidence reported in the biography is that a correspondent to another paper once said that he had ‘overheard Amhurst’, editor of the Craftsman, ‘and Fielding conferring’. Fielding’s relations with Walpole, from the start of his literary career in 1728 to the publication of Jonathan Wild in 1743, were extraordinarily complex. Outspoken hostility was at different times punctuated by episodes of flattery, by bids for patronage and the acceptance of hush-money. Jonathan Wild itself, which Battestin considers ‘the most devasting of his prose satires’ (the conventional view), has sometimes been thought to project a more complex and modulated conception of the hero’s supposed diabolism, not necessarily but at least conceivably more favourable to Walpole. Walpole may have bribed Fielding into delaying its publication, but he subscribed handsomely and publicly to Fielding’s Miscellanies, in which it appeared. In the period between its completion, perhaps as early as 1740, and its publication in 1743, Fielding published The Opposition: A Vision, which attacked Walpole’s opponents and presented Walpole in an amiable light (December 1741). It is possible that the 1743 text of Jonathan Wild is a softened version, a feet (if it is one) which may or may not be connected with Walpole’s bribes or with his fall from power in 1742. Factors other than Fielding’s political and personal feelings about Walpole may have played a part, including a temperamental inability to sustain a style of ‘Swiftian’ hostility for very long, and certain difficulties with mock-heroic which were inherent in the culture at this time.
Uncertainties of a similar order, and signs of a two-way activity, attend Fielding’s relations with Walpole from the beginning, perhaps as early as the late 1720s. The external facts are too fragmentary to be interpreted confidently, while the nuances and subtexts of the writings are even more elusive as guides to the political sympathies of the moment. Fielding’s ‘changing politics’ are a tangled question, and no one now thinks that Fielding’s political integrity is unblemished or that he was merely a hireling. What needs to be established and clarified is the day-to-day record, and it is to a full biography such as this that one looks for authoritative information on the known facts. The muscling-in of a whole new mass of unauthenticated material, often in a manner which makes it difficult to tell at a glance whether a citation comes from an established or doubtful source, confuses, distorts and destabilises the account as a whole. The narrative of a crucial and extended period of Fielding’s life is saturated with quotations from the ‘new’ essays, and even more than in the case of incest Battestin’s practice is to slide from proper tentativeness to such bald assertions that an unguarded reader might easily suppose that some of the texts in question were as securely canonical as Tom Jones. So bland is his assurance on the point that he will readily talk himself into reporting occasions when Fielding didn’t submit ‘contributions to the Craftsman’, or discussing what happened after Fielding ‘ceased’ the ‘regular contributions’ which there is no evidence he ever made.
The newly attributed essays fill a 600-page volume, principally but not exclusively of contributions to the Craftsman in 1734-1739. Fielding sometimes attacked the Craftsman, never admitted contributing, and does not seem to have been suspected by anyone of doing so. Battestin concedes this, and properly distrusts attributions made on internal or ‘stylistic’ grounds – when, that is, they are made by others. His own case is different. The proprietorial intimacy he feels with Fielding’s world, expressed in the biography, for example, by calling Sophia Western Sophie, here makes claim to an unerring ability to recognise as Fielding’s any piece of writing wherever it may be found. Thirty years of reading Fielding aloud have given him ‘an ear for Fielding’s syntax’, and his starting-point for an attribution was ‘the sense’ that ‘I was hearing Fielding’s voice.’ He would then back it up by ‘parallels’, and a list of these follows each essay he prints.
An example from the first essay is the phrase ‘I mean’, seen as ‘a hallmark of Fielding’s style’ because it is used in his work ‘to specify a meaning previously only hinted at’. Later examples are ‘Emolument’, which Fielding uses ‘37 times in his known writings’; ‘dirt’ and ‘dirty’, which Fielding ‘often used ... figuratively... as terms of reproach’; and ‘with Impunity’, which is also used ‘frequently’. If the Craftsman cites a well-known author (e.g Swift) or passage (e.g. Horace’s Dulce... pro Patria mori) it counts as a ‘parallel’ that Fielding also praised or cited them. If Italian Opera is disparaged, we are told that ‘like most of his literary contemporaries’, Fielding considered it ‘inferior’, the point of which, surely, can only be that the passage might have been written by any of the ‘contemporaries’.
These attributions are supported by a ‘stylometric analysis’ by Michael Farringdon, claiming that most of the essays conform to chosen features of Fielding’s style, and differ from those of other authors of political periodicals. The exercise is so eccentric in its choice of samples that it cannot be taken seriously. In particular, the ‘control’ texts from other authors (Swift, Addison and Steele) do not include any of their mainstream political journalism (from the Examiner, Freeholder, Guardian or Englishman, for example), but of an obscure early unpublished pamphlet by Swift, supplemented even more strangely by two of the Bickerstaff papers, which are a mock-astrological hoax; a Spectator essay by Addison on fans; and three essays from Steele’s Town-Talk and Chit-Chat – there is political content in these, including theatrical politics, but the ‘fair sexing’ style is as remote from the ‘hard’ political journalism of Steele’s major papers as it is from the Craftsman, and the selection of these two little-known periodicals is in any case so unexpected and so lacking in any intelligible rationale that one is bound to be curious about the motives for their seeking out. Indeed, this applies to all the choices. They are so systematically and outlandishly irrelevant that they could hardly be the product of any random search.
Finally, there are ten samples from the Craftsman by its editor Nicholas Amhurst. It would have been useful to see more analysis of Craftsman writing not attributed to Fielding or known to be by Amhurst. To discover whether other essays in the Craftsman contain the features supposed to be characteristic of Fielding might be thought an elementary exercise in ground-clearing, but the idea doesn’t seem to have been entertained. I am not competent to evaluate Mr Farringdon’s mathematical models or his actual calculations, but the initiating literary decisions seem startling. The case as advanced so far can rest only on Battestin’s ear for Fielding’s voice, and in these circumstances the scale on which these essays are confidently cited as Fielding’s in the biography introduces an element of radical unreliability into the first half of that work so considerable as to discredit much of its pretension to ‘definitive’ status. Battestin’s predilection for turning his personal opinions into official knowledge has aroused concern in the past, when his commentaries to Fielding’s novels, in the standard Wesleyan Edition, were used to promote his prudential and Providentialist interpretations, hardly consensual or uncontested, as though they were accredited facts. The index to the edition of Amelia revealingly lists Battestin’s own name more often than Providence itself, or than any of the sources of Fielding’s alleged doctrines (Cicero, Seneca, Barrow, Tillotson), or even than Fielding’s first wife, who was the real-life original of the heroine. It is at least reassuring that these newly attributed essays do not appear as part of the Wesleyan enterprise.
In his Preface to one of the more recent Wesleyan volumes, The True Patriot and Related Writings, the Executive Editor confirms that individual editors are expected to provide information ‘relevant to the immediate context and essential meaning’ and ‘not... to supply interpretations or “readings” of the materials they edit’. The brief has been broadly observed in most other volumes, including the three latest, which are all devoted to non-fictional works of Fielding’s last decade. The True Patriot (1745-1746), like its successor the Jacobite’s Journal (1747-1748), which has already appeared in the same series, is a periodical in which Fielding wrote in support of the Pelham administration, during the ‘Jacobite fever’ which followed the rebellion of 1745. Both journals are of more than political interest, not least because they provide some of the real-life background to Tom Jones, which was being written during these years, and is set in the period of the rebellion.
Fielding’s career as a justice of the peace from 1748 produced a series of tracts on social and legal questions, of which the two most considerable are the ‘Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers’ (1751) and the ‘Proposal for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor’ (1753). Fielding’s longstanding reputation as a liberal and innovative social reformer was challenged by Malvin Zirker in an important study, Fielding’s Social Pamphlets (1966). Zirker has now produced a text of these pamphlets which consolidates his view that Fielding was, as a magistrate and legal thinker, more conservative and hardline, and more tied by ‘obligations to his office and to the men in power who utilised that office’, than has been allowed by some earlier interpreters. The feet that a warmer and more complex view of the social issues, and a harsh indictment of the judicial system to which Fielding belonged, may be found in the broadly contemporameous novels Tom Jones and Amelia is one which recent criticism has sometimes tried to account for. The discrepancies seem startling even when one recognises that fiction may offer scope for larger sympathies and completer perspectives than writings more directly involved in the world of practical action. But a erratic picture of Fielding’s decisions as a magistrate (some very harsh by modern standards, others sensitive and humane and others idiosyncratic or eccentric) also emerges from Battestin’s biography. Zirker’s volume includes seven works, one of which, ‘A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning’ (1753), concerns the well-known case which provided the basis for Josephine Tey’s novel The Franchise Affair.
The Covent-Garden Journal (1752) is the last of Fielding’s major works of journalism, and perhaps the most interesting to students of his literary opinions and his moral thought, as distinct from the more narrowly party-political concerns of his earlier journals. It includes some of Fielding’s chief pronouncements on the topic of ‘Good-Nature’, some interesting responses to the recent hostile reception of Amelia, and the well-known ‘modern Glossary’ in No 4, one of the briefer prototypes of the kind of satirical dictionary which reached its most elaborate development in Flaubert’s uncompleted Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues. The Covent-Garden Journal has existed in a serviceable scholarly edition by G.E. Jensen, published in 1915 and widely used. It did not aim at a critical text, and has now been superseded by new knowledge, both textual and historical. The present volume also includes ‘A Plan of the Universal Register-Office’, here reprinted for the first time since the 18th century.
Angela Smallwood’s Fielding and the Woman Question refuses to play the nowadays common game of my-author-more-feminist-than-yours, and rejects the traditional distinction, old-male and new-feminist alike, of Fielding as archetypally manly and Richardson as (honourably or otherwise) feminine. She argues that Henry’s edition, which is gradually being superseded by the Wesleyan, has distorted the record by omitting writings which dealt with female issues, and that Cross’s life replaced Henry’s repellent male heartiness by an equally masculine though more attractive chivalric ideal. She looks to the Wesleyan edition and to Battestin’s then forthcoming biography for rectification, and I hope she finds it. She is right in her insistence that there was a great deal more discussion of the ‘woman question’ in the 18th century than is customarily recognised, and she shows Fielding to have been more frequently and more decently concerned with it than many thought.
The book is not without special pleading: I know of almost no critic who has resisted bending the evidence or redefining the rules in the conduct of any similar argument. I think Smallwood is both right and wise to see Richardson and Fielding not as antithetical monsters but as working within ‘the same 18th century cultural consciousness for which women and ideas of femininity were of very great importance’. I suspect she does not adequately recognise how much of a put-down the gallant fair-sexing of Steele, or for that matter of Richardson, really was. The appropriation of Richardson, great novelist though he was, as a feminist hero has always struck me as one of the more bizzare features of the tribal pathology of university departments of literature. It would have turned Fielding’s stomach, as Richardson himself did, for not wholly unrelated reasons. At the same time, the elevation of Fielding into a greater champion of women than he sometimes really was calls for two cheers rather than three. Smallwood rightly draws attention to Fielding’s promotion of a common contemporary view that women were made inferior by bad educational practice rather than by natural defect, but I’m not sure that she always distributes her emphases to cover all the facts. In a copy of Horace inscribed to Jane Collier, Fielding complimented her ‘for an Understanding more than Female’. The words, cited by Battestin, were meant, and presumably taken, as a compliment, and it would have been interesting to see how Smallwood would have discussed them. Battestin’s Life appeared too late, though the inscription was, as he says, discovered in 1940. On the other hand, Smallwood has a brief discussion of the incest-scare in Joseph Andrews which Battestin might have studied with profit.
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