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?

Although Fielding’s most enduring work, and Tom Jones (1749) especially, were the result of a painstaking commitment to the craft of writing, he always wanted to disguise the vulgarities of effort, and nowhere more than in the comedies and farces of the 1730s, eight of which appear in this volume of Thomas Lockwood’s edition of Fielding’s drama. A third and final volume of plays is in preparation, and will complete the Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding – a heroic project, begun in the 1960s, which has now outlived all but three members of its 16-strong advisory board.

When Fielding writes about himself as a playwright – and the self-consciousness of his fiction certainly began with the plays – the emphasis is almost always on facility of output. The Welsh Opera opens with an actor’s complaint to the playwright Scriblerus (a persona borrowed from Pope and converted from a learned dunce into a supercharged hack): ‘Upon my word, Mr Scriblerus, you write Plays, (or something like Plays) faster than we can act them … I hope your Opera will take up more time in Running than it hath in Writing.’ It ran for 15 nights, so it probably did. A year later, turning to Molière (The Mock Doctor and The Miser are adaptations – ‘transplanting’ was Fielding’s term – of Le Médecin malgré lui and L’Avare), Fielding speaks admiringly of Molière’s speed as a writer, but can’t leave the subject without claiming to have produced his own versions even more quickly. In Eurydice Hiss’d, the playwright Pillage, who can ‘write nine scenes with spirit in one day’, is another obvious piece of self-representation. But here again the analogy with prime-ministering creeps in, for Pillage also functions in the farce as a surrogate for Walpole, the profiteering manipulator of a stage-play world.

If Fielding’s early biographer Arthur Murphy is to be believed, there was little exaggeration here. ‘When he had contracted to bring on a play,’ Murphy stiffly reports, ‘he would go home rather late from a tavern, and would, the next morning, deliver a scene to the players written upon the papers, which had wrapped the tobacco, in which he so much delighted.’ (In The Grub-Street Opera, ‘Sir Owen, smoking’, soliloquises about the energising powers of tobacco for all trades, politics and authorship included.) Yet Fielding’s mid-period plays make clear that he struggled to progress beyond the madcap farce of his early successes – hits such as The Author’s Farce and Tom Thumb, first staged at a fringe venue – and establish himself as a writer of classical comedy for the prestigious Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. His grim comedy of manners, The Modern Husband, renounces the hastily written farces that made his name, and even seems to blame the audience for their haphazard style: ‘Hence, your nice Tastes he strove to entertain,/With unshap’d Monsters of a wanton Brain!’ But The Modern Husband failed to recapture the riotous energy of those early monsters. Something of Fielding’s verve returns in The Old Debauchees, an exuberantly tasteless comedy about Roman Catholic priests and sexual abuse. It’s also there in the topical afterpiece, The Lottery, which might even – if Walpole hadn’t got there first – have invented the modern concept of a stupidity tax. ‘A Lottery is a Taxation,/Upon all the Fools in Creation,’ Mr Stocks, a cynical dealer in toxic investments, rejoices in its first song.

Clearly, the discipline of the well-made play went against Fielding’s nicotine-fuelled muse, to say nothing of draining his patience. His friend James Harris reports him inveighing against ‘the man who invented Fifth Acts’, and although his five-act comedies enjoyed long and lucrative runs (Fielding made nearly a thousand pounds from The Modern Husband, according to Aaron Hill, and lost it all at cards), he only regained his creative stride when he returned to the improvisatory chaos of farce in 1736-37 with the politically incendiary Pasquin and The Historical Register for the Year 1736.

The same disdain for technical smoothness is evident in the work included in Martin Battestin’s volume of Fielding’s Occasional Writings, which opens with his earliest extant publication, the hudibrastic satire The Masquerade (1728), continues on to Shamela (knocked out in 1741 from a debtors’ jail), and culminates with the valedictory Voyage to Lisbon, posthumously published in 1755. The Masquerade’s relish for these carnivalesque entertainments – ‘So here, in one Confusion hurl’d,/Seem all the Nations of the World’ – is matched by its unruly rhythms and disorderly structure. The rhyming is atrocious (‘Nature’ with ‘greater’, ‘Germany’ with ‘as any’), but gleefully, self-consciously atrocious, and all Fielding’s lapses are redeemed by an aposiopetic flourish that looks forward to Sterne. The masquerade is a place of licensed transgression and fulfilled desires, Fielding writes, in which ‘Fortune sends the Gamesters Luck,/Venus her Votary a – ’; he then asks readers to ‘spare the Crime,/Of one who cou’d not find a Rhyme’. Years later, no doubt recalling Milton’s view of blank verse as a republican form, he explained his incompetence with couplets on the grounds that his muse ‘is a free born Briton & disdains the slavish Fetters of Rhyme’.

Instead, Fielding had to cope with the fetters of patronage. The satire on masquerades bears a mock dedication to the impresario who organised these festivals of mobile identity at the Royal Opera House in the Haymarket (his name, wonderfully, was Heidegger). Patronage here is a joke, as it is in Shamela, which as well as spoofing Richardson’s Pamela, also sends up, in obscene parody, the recent dedication of a book about Cicero to Lord Hervey, Walpole’s bisexual political ally. But a running theme in these volumes is the twisting and turning necessary in a culture in which, for all the energies of the literary marketplace, older mechanisms of elite influence retained their power. It was Fielding’s well-connected cousin Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who engineered his youthful entrée into the theatre world; she was the dedicatee of his first play, and the driving force behind his burlesque of the Dunciad, which survives only in manuscript draft. (It may be that this particular satire, like the slightly later Epistle to Mr Lyttleton, remained unpublished because of his discomfort with having to display such virulent hostility towards Pope – a writer he elsewhere calls ‘the greatest Poet of his Time’ – in order to follow the line demanded by Montagu.) In 1742 Fielding wrote A Full Vindication of the Dutchess Dowager of Marlborough to solicit support from another influential noblewoman, the octogenarian widow of the victor of Blenheim. Battestin reports that she failed to respond, and produces a bogus death notice from a newspaper Fielding was running three years later: ‘A Man, supposed to be a Pensioner of the late Dutchess of Marlborough – He is supposed to have been poor.’

Part of the appeal of the theatre was the illusion it gave Fielding of unmediated access to the paying public, an audience with its own tastes and prejudices, but one that permitted him to speak with more latitude and flexibility than he could elsewhere. In the frame-breaking gestures of the plays, when Scriblerus or Pillage walks around his own drama, one senses an overwhelming desire for direct contact with the public, and the same is true of the novels, in which, as George Eliot put it, ‘he seems to bring his arm-chair to the proscenium.’ Powerful theatre managers had to be dealt with, like Marplay in The Author’s Farce, but according to the theatre historian Robert Hume, ‘Fielding quickly made himself the most dominant professional playwright in London since Dryden.’ There is a report in a recently discovered manuscript by the poet and playwright John Hoadly of Fielding arriving at rehearsals incongruously decked out ‘in a compleat Suit of Black Velvet’ – the outfit for which Dryden was still remembered, and which the Dryden surrogate in Buckingham’s satire The Rehearsal traditionally wore.

Like Dryden, Fielding played skilfully to his diverse audience, the pit, box and gallery, whose social stratification he analyses in Tom Jones. His appeal to servants and apprentices, ‘the nightly Residents of the upper Regions of the Theatre’, was enviously noted, and he delighted in setting up targets for bourgeois boos: ‘That ever such Plebeian Scoundrels, who are oblig’d to pay their Debts, shou’d presume to engage with us Men of Quality, who are not!’, Lord Puff exclaims when bilking a tradesman in The Intriguing Chambermaid. But the comedies also lay trails for a more educated audience. The Covent-Garden Tragedy riffs on Macbeth (‘Hanover-Square shall come to Drury-Lane’), and in The Modern Husband the wicked Mrs Modern invokes the penitent Trojan women of the Aeneid: ‘And now, t’obey a dull Poetic Sentence,/In lonely Woods, I must pursue Repentance!’ The same mixture can be found in the catchpenny prose that Fielding turned out to keep himself going while working on Tom Jones. The Female Husband exploits a true-life case of imposture, lesbianism and bigamy, while picking up themes of gender confusion from The Masquerade and his own lampoons on the ‘pretty Master-Miss’ Lord Hervey. Fielding never acknowledged this work of salacious mock outrage, though after his death in 1754 his publisher Andrew Millar was keen to promote it as Fielding’s, not just in 1758, as Battestin records, but two years earlier in the Whitehall Evening-Post.

Like Dryden, Fielding also had princes to contend with, and opportunities and constraints involved in writing for, about and against the holders of political power provide the trickiest interpretative issue confronted by Battestin and Lockwood. The treatment of Walpole is key here. Both editors wisely resist the temptation of mid-20th-century commentators to interpret everything in the light of his stridently anti-ministerial Historical Register, when Fielding did as much as anyone to provoke Walpole’s 1737 Stage Licensing Act, and so brought his own career as a dramatist to a full stop. (There are indications that he almost did the same in 1740 for his journalistic career, when similar legislation against newspapers was projected because, as James Harris was told by a Westminster insider, ‘the champion’s way of writing,’ i.e. Fielding’s periodical, ‘they say, makes it necessary.’) Good counter-examples are cited by Battestin, starting with Fielding’s unpublished poems for the ardently pro-Walpole Montagu, though his jokey verse epistle ‘To the Right Honourable Sir Robert Walpole’, signed ‘Your Bard’ and openly pestering for a ‘Sinecure’, is a harder text to present as sarcasm-free. The Modern Husband was dedicated to Walpole, and the political satire in the other plays in Lockwood’s volume, though occasionally pronounced, is genial rather than strident, or merely scattershot, implicating opposition politicians as much as Walpole and his cronies. The most daring Fielding gets in this phase is in The Grub-Street Opera, which was rehearsed but then withdrawn ‘by a certain Influence, which has been very prevailing of late Years’, according to an early pirate edition. In the play Walpole and his opposition rival Pulteney are servants who squabble and steal the spoons, while family feuds and romantic intrigues distract their royal masters upstairs. (The play was eventually produced in 1993, when it failed, one reviewer said, because ‘not altered to suit the present times’.) But all the plays in Lockwood’s volume fall a long way short of the anti-ministerial provocations of Fielding’s later plays, or of Shamela, where the heroine’s self-interested ‘Vartue’ symbolises the prostitution of all values in Walpole’s England, including the corruption of ‘Pollitricks’.

It was recently proved by the scholar Frederick Ribble that Fielding struck a deal with Walpole after Shamela (‘upon very advantageous Terms’, he gloated to a friend), and this may explain the belated appearance of Jonathan Wild, which intermittently represents Walpole as a criminal godfather, a year after his fall. Walpole subscribed conspicuously for ten copies of the work in its costliest format, perhaps as part of the deal – though we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that he was simply repeating the insouciant display he put on during the first run of The Beggar’s Opera, when he responded to a pointed song about bribery by calling for an encore.

In the case of The Modern Husband, Lockwood rightly discounts the arguments of earlier scholars that the dedication to Walpole is a joke, and that the play itself is anti-ministerial. Yet the dedication reads very oddly, with its drumming emphasis on Walpole’s need for the best of pens to defend his tarnished reputation, and Fielding, who now begins to look like a literary extortionist, may have been playing a deep game. The play is not an anti-Walpole satire, but flaunts its undeveloped potential for such satire, especially in the ‘levee scene’, in which Lord Richly distributes patronage (an anti-Walpole play called The Levee was later banned). Look what I might go on to write, Fielding seems to be saying, if you don’t cough up. Walpole did not respond, or responded with too little, and the consequence was The Historical Register, which, we now know from the Hoadly manuscript, was presented as a direct and endlessly renewable lampoon, its ‘Foundation visibly laid for annual Misrepresentation and personal Abuse (for a Person like Sr. Robt. Walpole, and actually dress’d in his very Peruke and Coat was exhibited on the Stage)’. That was more or less the end of Fielding the playwright.

Looking back on his life in the Voyage to Lisbon, a text that lays traps on every page, Fielding produces perhaps the biggest surprise of these volumes: an aside about Walpole as ‘one of the best of men and of ministers’. But he then goes on to contextualise this compliment in all the wrong ways, talking first about Walpole’s funding of the navy (a particular focus of corruption allegations, not least in Fielding’s 1741 satire The Vernoniad) and then launching into a denunciation, very much in the idiom he used in the Champion, of ‘the supports of tyranny, the invaders of the just liberties and properties of mankind, the plunderers of the industrious’. The explicit praise is undeniable, but so is the implicit blame, and in handling the instabilities of this passage (and there are several like it, one concerning Marlborough) Battestin makes far too crude a distinction between simple sincerity and irony. The first of these interpretations is wrong, the latter is correct, being the view of ‘most scholars, including the late Sheridan Baker and Hugh Amory’.

This is an unusual moment of agreement between Battestin and his fellow editors because elsewhere an effect oddly reminiscent of the Dunciad Variorum is produced by Battestin’s decision to quote, and then dispute, editorial remarks made by Baker and Amory. ‘Murphy had no personal acquaintance with HF and his family,’ Amory notes at one point; ‘Murphy, on the contrary, was HF’s protégé and friend,’ Battestin responds. His verdict on the Walpole passage, however, rests on the false assumption that Fielding means only one thing at a time, when usually he means three or four. The complexity of Fielding’s rhetoric has never been better defined than in Empson’s essay on ‘double irony’ in Tom Jones, where thesis and antithesis are both put in question, without any compensating offer of a middle position. If the trade of authoring taught Fielding anything, it was to leave readers to make up their minds – whether they’d paid the cover price or slipped him a handsome bung.