Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Henry Fielding (1707–1754)
 
[Henry Fielding was born on the 22nd of April 1707 at Sharpham Park, in Somersetshire. His father was Edmund Fielding, an officer and subsequently a general in the army, who was himself the son of John Fielding, canon of Salisbury, and grandson of the first Earl of Desmond of the Fielding family. That family also possessed the title of Denbigh, with which at present that of Desmond is united. The novelist’s mother was Sarah Gould, daughter of a judge whose seat Sharpham was; and there, or at East Stour in Dorset, Fielding spent his childhood. He was sent to Eton and subsequently to the University of Leyden; but our knowledge of the events of his youth (as indeed of most of his life) is very scanty and uncertain. At about the time when he came of age we find him back in London, where for some seven years he occupied himself in writing numerous plays, the best or the least bad of which is Tom Thumb. About 1735 he married a young lady named Charlotte Cradock, who is said to have possessed great beauty and charm, and to have been the model of his heroines, especially Amelia; and for a time he seems to have retired to East Stour and lived the life of a country gentleman. But if he did he soon returned to town, to play-writing, to the management of the Haymarket Theatre, and to the composition of miscellaneous literature, including in 1739 great part of a periodical called The Champion. He also was called to the bar and practised a little. But in 1742 his first novel, Joseph Andrews, appeared, and was warmly received by good judges. This may have encouraged him to issue next year three volumes of Miscellanies, which with much inferior work included not only the Journey from this World to the Next but also Jonathan Wild. Shortly afterwards his wife died; and four years later he married her maid. In the crisis of 1745 he had edited or written two Whig periodicals, the True Patriot and the Jacobite’s Journal; but again very little is known of him till the influence of Mr. Lyttelton procured him the Bow Street magistrateship, and he published Tom Jones in 1749. He worked very hard in his office; published Amelia in 1751, wrote not a few pamphlets and a fresh periodical, the Covent Garden Journal, which lasted for the greater part of 1752. Next year his health, which had long been unsatisfactory, grew steadily worse, and a journey to some warmer climate was ordered. He started for Lisbon in June 1754 and reached it in August, but died there on the 8th October. His Journal of the voyage, one of his not least charming things, was published shortly afterwards, but contains no account of anything subsequent to his landing.]  1
 
CONSIDERING how much has been said of the qualities of Fielding as a novelist by authorities of all degrees of competence, and how little pains in comparison have been bestowed on him strictly as a writer, the part of the subject with which it will be most profitable to deal here seems to be pretty clearly indicated. On the first head indeed, though it cannot be said that agreement is absolute, belief in Fielding’s extraordinary excellence is unquestionably the orthodox faith, while the dissenters from it are few and, with rare exceptions among those few, unimportant. Objections in detail have indeed been taken, and may in part be taken justly, to the digressions and secondary stories which interrupt and prolong the narrative in almost all the books, to the somewhat easy-going morality, and the very complaisant dealing with loose if engaging incidents, to the relentless picture of human villainy in Jonathan Wild, to the obtrusion of political and other dissertation in Amelia. Some of these objections (as well as others which might be mentioned) are of force. But they touch mere details, and fall altogether short of the level of the excellencies which may on the other hand be assigned to him. The highest praise of all has sometimes been claimed for the mathematical exactness of construction which has been thought to make the plot of Tom Jones the most symmetrical and faultless to be found in modern times. A still higher value has been assigned—perhaps justly—by others to the combination of inventiveness and truth in character-drawing wherein Fielding has hardly a rival. It is almost impossible for him to produce a class of character which, even after a great lapse of time and a greater change of manners, does not strike us now as real and alive; nor has he any difficulty in differentiating his characters of the same class from each other by little living touches and shades. His descriptions of persons, of places, of incidents, have this same veracity and brilliancy of drawing in a hardly less extraordinary degree. Others again have fixed for special admiration on the acuteness and (within certain limits) the profundity of his general observations on human life and nature; others on his irony—a gift in which among English writers he is only excelled by Swift and only approached by Thackeray; others on the genial and humane conception of life which, though certainly not coupled with any very great optimism of philosophical view, distinguishes his books; others on the lambent easy light of the humour which—deriving in part from qualities and gifts already referred to, but containing in it something peculiar and additional—illuminates the whole of his work. It is not necessary to attempt to rank these gifts in order; the more excellent way is to admire and enjoy them all in their certainly unique combination.  2
  A question too important to omit altogether, but too complicated to examine thoroughly, is the relation of this wonderful work in fiction to earlier members of the same class in English Literature. The delusive and rhetorical title of “Father of the English Novel” has been applied to Fielding, as to Richardson, to Defoe and to others. What is certain is, that he raised that novel at once in the scales of complexity, of variety, and of truth to life. But we have nothing whatever to guide us in seeking to discover the motives which put him upon the practice of this art; and not very much to help us to his own theory of the novel. He calls it indeed in one place a comic epic poem in prose; but it would be distinctly dangerous to accept this definition in too good faith, and other passages in which he claims for the novelist a sort of parity with the historian proper in the philosophical arrangement of motive and event, may not be more serious. He did not, it must be remembered, produce Joseph Andrews, his first published novel, till he was just ceasing to be a young man even at the liberal computation of youth, which makes it cease at thirty-five; and it is very improbable that he wrote Jonathan Wild much earlier, even if its age in production be not identical with its date of publication. I should indeed judge from internal evidence—there is no other—that the Journey from this World to the Next was a good deal the senior of both of these. But here, though there is much of Fielding’s acute observation and shrewd recording of traits of human nature, neither gift is put to any real degree at the service of the art of story-telling proper, and the book is merely a string of character-sketches, not much if at all more like those of a novel or even a romance, than the essays with personages of Addison and his group. Surprising therefore as it may seem that such a masterpiece as Joseph Andrews should be a mere recoil from something else, a mere parody not to say caricature, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the desire to ridicule Richardson and Pamela was its real original; while I am inclined to think that no very different motive need be assigned to the possibly contemporary Jonathan Wild. Indeed, careful readers of Jonathan, especially of the curious episode of Mrs. Heartfree’s adventures, will have noticed not a few attempts at burlesque of the French and other romances. That these two exercises must have revealed to Fielding his own powers and set him on the construction of the far more ambitious edifice of Tom Jones is not so much probable as certain; while no additional disposing causes except reminiscences of his youth and observations made in his Bow Street office need be assigned for Amelia.  3
  The acquired accomplishments, as distinguished from the natural genius, with which Fielding set about the production of his masterpieces, and the qualities of craftsman in English as distinguished from those of expert in human nature which he possessed are not uninteresting or unimportant to investigate. Although a man of good reading, and (as is now known) the possessor in his later years at any rate of a considerable library, he can hardly be ranked among the most scholarly of English writers. He enjoyed indeed the inestimable advantage—sometimes flouted by ungrateful persons who have had it, or disdained in fox-and-grapes fashion by those who have not, but absolutely unmistakable in the results of its presence or absence—which is conferred, and conferred only, by the old-fashioned classical education. But it is uncertain how long he was exposed to its influence at Eton, and certain that the greater part of his intellectual breeding was rather haphazard. And when he began to write (which he did very early, and when most men are still at the University) it was in the service of the most careless and ungirt of all the Muses, the Muse of Farce and stage burlesque. Nor can it be said that, even after many years of practice in somewhat severer kinds, he was ever a very correct writer; though there is a great advance in correctness to be noticed between the Journey from this World to the Next and the Voyage to Lisbon. In the former, as elsewhere, the distinction which he himself both ingeniously and ingenuously puts in his Epistle to Sir Robert Walpole,
        “Latin I write and Greek—I read,”
is illustrated; for a translator of the First Olynthiac ought to have known better than to use the non-existent and indeed impossible form “Nousphoric.” In this same piece the mere English is also far from perfect. Relatives and demonstratives are perpetually used without precision and with confusion; the sentences are piled up with addition after addition in the old fashion; and it is particularly noteworthy that Fielding is here trying, with very partial success, at the crisp ironic phrase to which he afterwards attained in perfection.
  4
  In Joseph and Jonathan, but especially in the former, he was face to face with a new task—the recounting of lively and vivid action; and here what Carlyle might have called “the coming together of the man and the tools” produces at once a great improvement. This is considerably less noticeable in Jonathan Wild, which for that reason, as well as others, I should suppose to have been composed earlier than its forerunner in print; but it is noticeable here to some extent, and in Joseph Andrews to an extent much greater. The sentences are not indeed invariably but frequently shortened; the ambiguities of reference in the pronouns are less frequent; and from this time forward most of what looks like incorrectness will be found to be confined to passages in which Fielding—according to a practice rather dubious but evidently a favourite with him—puts into the mouth of his characters, not speeches in the first person, but a sort of summary in oratio obliqua of the substance of what they said.  5
  A still further improvement is noticeable in Tom Jones; indeed by the date of that great book Fielding had in every way attained the majority and climax of his powers. He cannot have written it hurriedly; and though we know extremely little of his life during the seven years between 1742 and 1749, what we do know authorises us in supposing a quieter and less distracted existence than that of his early manhood, when he boxed the compass of experiences between the stage and the bar, the hunting-field and the gaol. The abundance of incident and the pungency of the conversation are apt to divert the attention in Tom Jones from merely scholastic questions of style; but the frequent digressions and dissertations, which still form part of the author’s plan, show him in the possession of a far freer, crisper, more highly organised vehicle and medium of discussion, than he had attained in the Journey, or even in his earlier novels. And if this advance was not pushed further, it was at least fully maintained in Amelia and in the Voyage to Lisbon. Indeed this little posthumous Memoir exhibits Fielding for the most part quite at his best as far as writing goes. Yet even here we may note lapses—allowing, of course, for the fact that the author never saw the book in type, but noting at the same time that all the little imperfections noticeable are to be paralleled in the books which he himself passed through the press. Here, for instance, is an example taken from that interesting passage in which Fielding expresses his wonder that yachting is not a more popular amusement, thus following Roger North (I think) as the second Englishman of letters to eulogise the most English of sports. “The truth,” he says, “I believe is that sailing in the manner I have just mentioned is a pleasure rather unknown or unthought of than rejected by those who have experienced it; unless, perhaps, the apprehension of danger or sea-sickness may be supposed by the timorous and delicate to make too large deductions—insisting that all their enjoyments should come to them pure and unmixed, and ever being ready to cry out—
        Nocet empta dolore voluptas.”
Now this awkward construction of “insisting” with “the timorous and delicate” would not in the least surprise us in the middle of the seventeenth century, but it is a little surprising to find a writer of the first class employing it in the middle of the eighteenth.
  6
  In fact, however, imperfections of this kind (on the criticism whereof Fielding himself, perhaps not without some touch of conscience, is not unfrequently a little severe) are of less importance in the kind of literature to which he fortunately addicted himself than anywhere else. In history, in philosophy, in oratory, in essay-writing they are much more material; and I am rather disposed to believe that the impatience sometimes shown of Fielding’s digressions and divagations is in part due to the fact that the shortcomings of his mere style are most obvious there. But in novel-writing proper they matter comparatively little. It is true that only the veriest glutton of romance is entirely indifferent to the style of the romancer when it is positively and shockingly bad; while the taste for the novel of character can hardly coexist with a complete insensibility to the merits and defects of writing. But relatively the goodness and badness of mere writing count for less in either case than in the case of any other kind of composition; and as a matter of fact the practitioners of fiction have, for this reason or that, been more careless than any of their brethren in regard to this point. There are only two other writers whom I at least should rank with Fielding in the very topmost class, of English novelists. And both Scott and Thackeray were notoriously careless in the mint and anise and cumin of style.  7
  Yet Fielding had, and had eminently, the style which belongs to his own kind of work. The picked and outlandish epithets, the elaborately set conceits, of some writers would have been not more or less inappropriate to his downright and massive grasp of human nature, than the flourish and ornament of others, would have been awkwardly suited with his direct and piercing irony, his simple and sincere humour. It was not his object, and it would not have fitted his nature, to give his readers “blessed words” to chew and puzzle over, conundrums to guess, dainty tissues of writing to admire independently of the subject and the meaning. He might, if his education and early practice had been different, have written with more formal correctness and yet none the worse; he could hardly, if the paradox may be pardoned, have written otherwise than he did and yet have written much the better. Of no one is the much-quoted and much-misquoted maxim of Buffon more justified than of him. His style is exactly suited to his character and his production—which latter, be it remembered, considering the pleasures of his youth and the business of his age, was very considerable. No fault of his style can ever, either in the general reader or in the really qualified critic, have hindered the enjoyment of the best part of his work: and like the work itself the style in which it is clothed is eminently English. It is English no less in its petty shortcomings of correctness, precision, and grace, than in its mighty merits of power and range. Of the letter Fielding may be here and there a little neglectful; in the spirit he always holds fast to the one indispensable excellence, the adjustment of truth and life to art.  8
 
 
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