Fielding in the dock

Claude Rawson

  • Henry Fielding: A Life by Martin Battestin and Ruthe Battestin
    Routledge, 738 pp, £29.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 415 01438 7
  • New Essays by Henry Fielding, edited by Martin Battestin
    Virginia, 604 pp, $50.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 8139 1221 0
  • The Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding. The True Patriot, and Related Writings edited by W.B. Coley
  • An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, and Related Writings edited by Malvin Zirker
  • The Covent-Garden Journal and A Plan of the Universal Register Office by Henry Fielding, edited by Bertrand Goldgar
    Oxford, 446 pp, £50.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 19 818511 1
  • Fielding and the Woman Question: The Novels of Henry Fielding and the Feminist Debate 1700-1750 by Angela Smallwood
    Harvester, 230 pp, £35.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 7108 0639 6

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.

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