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No. 3278 May 4, 1907.
Henry Fielding and His Writings. By Harry Christopher Minchin
Women and Politics: Two Rejoinders. By Caroline E. Stephen
The Enemy's Camp. Chapter VII. (To be continued)
Higher Education in the United States. By A. T. S. NATURE 316
SATURDAY REVIEW 318
By H. W. Just
A PAGE OF VERSE
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HENRY FIELDING AND HIS WRITINGS.
Some years ago the late Dr. Traill, in one of his witty dialogues written after Lucian's manner, represented Samuel Richardson as inflamed with jealousy because posterity had raised a statue to Henry Fielding and left him without one. Whereupon Fielding offered the satirical consolation that in one particular at least they had been treated impartially-for that posterity did not read the works of either of them.
This statement, whatever we may think of its probability, is scarcely susceptible of proof. Publishers occasionally assure us that such and such an author is "the favorite reading" of such and such a great personage; the novels of Gaboriau, for instance, have been described as "the favorite reading of Prince Bismarck." The Waverley novels accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns, and Charles II. took especial delight in Hudibras. I have not discovered that any person of note has admitted the works of Henry Fielding to the first place in his regard-Horace Walpole actually says he found them stupid and vulgar-but I do know that a British admiral who came home from his last cruise about 1850 always made Tom Jones a part of his sea library. These attested facts do not, of course, materially help us to gauge the taste of "the great variety of readers." But as the majority of them are usually credited with a good appetite for fiction, it would certainly be strange if Henry Fielding, whom Sir Walter deemed the father of the English novel, were, in the multitude of his descendants, left stranded high and dry; if Tom Jones, "that exquisite picture of human manners," as Gibbon called it, so far from outliving "the Palace of the Escurial and the Imperial Eagle of Austria,” were to pass, along with the hobby
horse, to the land where all things are forgotten.
Whether that History of a Foundling would continue to exist if nobody read it, let metaphysicians decide. Dr. Traill's statement, sweeping as it is, must not be taken literally. Fielding still has readers, still has admirers. But Dr. Traill, who was an excellent judge of such matters, clearly thought that their number was not very extensive, and I venture to believe that he was right. If that were not the case, if I supposed that all the readers of this Review knew as much of Henry Fielding and his works as they desire to know, I would hold my hand; but it is because I surmise the contrary that I have dared to string together some random thoughts about the man and his writings, now that the bi-centenary of his birth approaches. Even so might a Lilliputian who had made a study of Gulliver during many nights and days discourse of the Man-Mountain to other Lilliputians, whose avocations had debarred them from so close a scrutiny. For, whatever else we may think of Fielding, he is admittedly among the Titans; and as to the comparative neg lect which has overtaken him, it may be partially explained by the fairly common feeling that the first half of the eighteenth century, of which he wrote, is an especially ignoble period in our annals. Yet it may be of service to cast a backward glance at that noisy, robustious age, when our rude forefathers were (it appears) so very different from their polite descendants.
There is little doubt that the most striking instance of that contrast in manners is to be found in the person of Squire Western, Tory, fox-hunter, and preserver of the game. Bred at the University, he talked the broad dia
lect of Somersetshire, cursed and swore and used foul language in the presence of his womenkind on any provocation, was a cruel tyrant to his daughter Sophia (whom at the same time he idolized) and got drunk every day of his life. What is worse, he constantly vilified his late wife, an unhappy and inoffensive lady, in Sophia's hearing; to no purpose, be it said, for Sophia loved and reverenced her mother's memory, and could never be brought to assent to his abuse. In this one particular he was, we may hope, rather worse than his neighbors, but in his other characteristics Fielding would have us take him for an average specimen of his class. Thus the language with which he "bespattered" Jones on one occasion is described as of that kind "which passes between country gentlemen who embrace opposite sides of the question," ard included a certain invitation "which is generally introduced into all controversies that arise among the lower orders of the English gentry at horse-races, cock-matches, and other public places." 1 Well might Anthony Trollope exclaim, in describing a country gentleman of the mid-nineteenth century, that if Western was a true representative of the race of squires, that race had made marvellous progress in improvement in a hundred years.2 At the same time, he would be a bold man who would take upon himself to assert that there cannot be found today in that position any man as violent, as brutal, and as drunken as Western; but the difference is, that such a man is now exceptional. He is frowned upon by his class, probably reduced to a minority of one, and forced to fall back on the company of inferiors, who drink with him and are his toadies, but laugh at him behind his back. Western, on the other hand, set the tone in his country. Yet we must
1" Tom Jones," Book II., ch. ix. 2. Barchester Towers," cl. xxii.
not forget that his neighbor, Mr. Allworthy, was in every respect his exact opposite. Allworthy, however, filled his house (as did Ralph Allen, his original) with educated men, so as to be independent of the society of his fellowsquires-I had almost said, in Allworthy's case, with educated scoundrels.
But that "if" of Trollope's, though it may not have "much virtue," has at least much suggestiveness. As to Western, Fielding is borne out by the evidence of his great contemporary, John Wesley, who tells how at Newcastle he "met a gentleman in the streets cursing and swearing in so dreadful a manner that I could not but stop him." Wesley managed to appease the gentleman, who said he would come and hear him preach, "only he was afraid I should say something against fighting of cocks." At Bradford-on-Avon, too, which is on the border of Squire Western's county, Wesley's discourse was interrupted "especially by one, called a gentleman, who had filled his pockets with rotten eggs; but a young man coming unawares clapped his hands on each side, and smashed them all at once. In an instant," the entry concludes with pardonable humor, "he was perfumed all over, though it was so sweet as balsam." Western's truth to nature, then, I do not think that we need question; but the doubt which lurked in Trollope's mind crops up unbidden in other connections, as one turns the pages of Tom Jones or of Amelia. Is there indeed (or was there then) such a preponderance in the mass of mankind of meanness over generosity, of hypocrisy over candor, of callousness over humanity? Were women in general so careless of their honor, and men in general so ready to betray it? Were the manners and customs of eighteenthcentury England really so corrupted?
* Wesley's "Journal." January, 1743.
4 Wesley's Journal." September 19th, 1769.
In a word, has Henry Fielding drawn his picture with impartiality, or are we to allow for any bias due to the bent of his mind, to the sort of life he had led, or to that excessive employment of contrast which perhaps no imaginative writer, however great, has been able wholly to avoid?
One who promises to be an avid reader, and upon whose eyes the wide and noble prospect of English literature has just begun to dawn, said lately in my hearing that he did not want to know anything about the lives or characters of authors, for such knowledge would tend to destroy the illusion created by their works. There is something to be said for this view-if we are satisfied to rest in an illusion. But if we would see further into the matter, if we would be assured how far the illusion is just, we cannot afford to remain ignorant of the circumstances and temperament of its creator. No man or writer can be wholly impersonal. Shakespeare gets very near it; he, of all writers, seems most aloof from any bias due to disposition or surroundings; his detachment is Olympian. Yet even in his works the voice of intimate personal experience is occasionally heard. Were it otherwise, we should hardly think him human. But such aloofness as his is extremely rare. We do not find it, for instance, in Burns or Shelley, in Thackeray or Sterne. And hence it is that two or more writers will survey the features of their age, and will portray them very variously. They look at them through different glasses. Three eighteenth-century novelists, Fielding, Sterne, and Goldsmith-a realist, a sentimentalist, and an idealist, if a rough classification may be hazarded-have recorded their impressions of their times, which impressions, as every one is aware, are various and individual. Fielding was a more exact observer than the other two, and their superior in talent; but even in his case
it does not do to overlook (if I may borrow an astronomical phrase) the personal equation.
Let us recall for a moment the circumstances of his early manhood. Macaulay, in a famous and justly admired passage, has drawn a brilliant picture of the denizens of Grub Street in the first half of the eighteenth century, when Samuel Johnson joined their ranks; how they were "sometimes blazing in gold-laced hats and waistcoats; sometimes lying in bed because their coats had gone to pieces, or wearing paper cravats because their linen was in pawn; sometimes drinking champagne and tokay with Betty Careless; sometimes standing at the window of an eating-house in Porridge Island, to snuff up the scent of what they could not afford to taste," with much more to the same effect, which is too well known to need repetition. This was the company in which Fielding found himself thrown at the age of twenty. Practically without resources except those afforded by a good education, good health, and abundant animal spirits, he had, as he said afterwards, to choose between turning hackney writer or hackney coachman." The choice was soon made. He determined to follow in the footsteps of Dryden, and to challenge fortune as a writer for the stage. He met with a fair measure of success at once, and managed to rub along in this fashion for a dozen years. His plays served their purpose, and he was probably quite aware that they had, for the most part, only an ephemeral value. He saw a great deal of the seamy side of life, so much of it, indeed, that he inclined to take a poor opinion of humanity. He rubbed shoulders with those noisy comrades described by Lord Macaulay, perhaps with Savage, for in
Essay on Crocker's Edition of "Boswell's Life of Johnson."
6 Letter of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to the Countess of Bute, June 23rd, 1754.