Archive for April, 2011

“Treasure Island” and childhood memories

It was 1968. I was then eight years old, and, at that time, we did not have a television set. The BBC was serialising Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island on Sunday afternoons (with Peter Vaughan, as I remember, as Long John Silver), and I used to go to my friend’s house (Kevin, I remember his name was) to watch it. And afterwards, we used to play at being pirates. And I remember taking out the book from the children’s section of the library in Kirkcaldy (where we were living at the time), and thrilling both to the story, and also to the vivid illustrations that brought to life an imaginative world that has stayed with me since.

My apologies for boring you all with a bit of autobiography: I do try to avoid childhood reminiscences on this blog, since one’s nostalgia is generally of no interest but to anyone but one’s self. But if it is true that experiences of one’s childhood shape what one becomes as an adult, then I have no doubt that my childhood immersion in the imaginative world of Treasure Island has shaped me. Not that I’ve become a pirate, of course, nor yet that I have led an adventurous life: I have always been physically timid, and turn away in trepidation even from some of the more adventurous rides in Thorpe Park. But the imagination does, after all, exist to fill the gaps in one’s personal experience, and no story looms larger in my imagination, even now, than does Treasure Island.

There is many a book I enjoyed as a child, but which are impossible to enjoy as an adult, not even with all the mitigating factors afforded by nostalgia. Treasure Island, however, needs no mitigating factor at all: quite simply, there has not been a better adventure story written – not by Rider Haggard, not by Anthony Hope, nor even by the great Alexandre Dumas. From the very opening paragraph, where Captain Billy Bones knocks on the door of the inn run by Jim’s father, I am hooked. And after that, it is one adventure after another. Even before we encounter the treasure map, we hear of the one-legged buccaneer of whom even Billy Bones seems to be frightened; we see the appearance and disappearance of Black Dog; and, most strikingly, we see Blind Pew, who, to anyone who has experienced this story at a suitably impressionable age, remains the most terrifying creation in all literature.

It is Blind Pew who slips Billy Bones the dreaded black spot, and Billy Bones is so frightened by this that he dies on the spot. And on the reverse side of the black spot is the ominous message: “You have till ten tonight”. Even as I write this, I feel an involuntary shiver of excitement run down my spine.

There is no point my summarising the story: it has no longueurs – it’s just one thrilling adventure after another. It contains just about everything we associate with the sea except the White Whale: there are bloodthirsty pirates, the Jolly Roger, the black spot, buried treasure, parrots perched on the shoulder squawking “Pieces of eight!”, the castaway on the desert island dreaming of toasted cheese … and, of course, the one-legged buccaneer of whom even Billy Bones had been frightened: Long John Silver. Except that when he first appears, he is so warm and genial that it’s hard to associate him with anything nasty. Jim instantly takes to him – and, indeed, who wouldn’t? But Stevenson knows better than to present his greatest villain merely as a lovable rogue:

“… If I die like a dog, I’ll die in my dooty. You’ve killed Alan, have you? Kill me too, if you can. But I defies you.”

And with that, this brave fellow turned his back directly on the cook and set off walking for the beach. But he was not destined to go far. With a cry John seized the branch of a tree, whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back. His hands flew up, he gave a sort of gasp, and fell.

Whether he were injured much or little, none could ever tell. Like enough, to judge from the sound, his back was broken on the spot. But he had no time given him to recover. Silver, agile as a monkey even without leg or crutch, was on the top of him next moment and had twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body. From my place of ambush, I could hear him pant aloud as he struck the blows.

After this, one doesn’t doubt Silver’s words of warning to Jim and his friends: “Them that dies will be the lucky ones.”

And yet, somehow, one can’t help continuing to like Silver. In the final section of the novel (after that quite thrilling scene where Jim is atop the ship’s rigging desperately trying to load his pistol while a pirate carrying a dagger in his mouth – quite literally armed to the teeth – is climbing up after him), Silver actually protects Jim from the other buccaneers. This is partly because Silver needs to: he knows that if he cannot find the treasure, the other pirates will turn against him, and he may need to turn to Jim’s friends for his own protection. But it is also because, despite everything, Silver rather likes Jim. Of course, if he had to, he’d kill Jim without any hesitation at all; but on the whole, he’d rather not.

Cold-blooded and bloodthirsty killer he may be, it’s difficult for Jim – and, consequently, for us – not to like him. Certainly, when the other pirates give him the black spot (on a page ripped out of a Bible!) we are on Silver’s side, even though we know full well what kind of person he is. And this gives what is but a boys’ own adventure story a certain edge of moral ambiguity: there is something surely not quite right about finding so attractive a figure who is so obviously evil, and yet, to our discomfort, that is precisely what we find ourselves doing.

After all that had gone before, it would have been easy for the finale to have been a bit of an anti-climax. But there’s no danger of that. Captain Flint had taken a group of men to the island to bury the treasure, but had emerged alone: he had killed all his companions, and had laid their bodies out at various places on the island, each pointing towards where the treasure is buried. So Silver and the pirates, with Jim as their hostage, encounter grinning skeletons with their bony arms stretched out towards the long longed-for treasure – surely among the finest and most gruesome of images in any adventure story. But the pirates aren’t the kind of people to be scared merely by a few skeletons of murdered men: what does scare them, though, is the voice ofFlint’s ghost. And then … no, sorry, that would be telling: if you are in the fortunate position of yet to experience this wonderful book for the first time, let me not ruin it for you.

So, here I am, over forty years since I first thrilled to this book. And it is a sunny Easter weekend. And what better way of spending it than to sit in the back garden, a cold drink to one side, and to relive once again the adventures of Jim Hawkins onTreasure Island! All I’m missing now is my mate Kevin with whom I used to play at being pirates.

On being well read

What is it to be “well read”? It is usually used to describe someone who has read a great deal, but the word “well” seems to imply quality rather than – or, at least, in addition to – quantity. After all, we’d hesitate to describe someone as “well read” merely on the grounds that they have read every single issue of Viz! Don’t get me wrong – I like a bit of smut myself, and often enjoy Viz: but I just don’t think that reading Viz contributes to my being “well read”. 

I’d personally describe someone as well-read if they have read with care and have taken in (i.e. understood to a high level) a large quantity of the best that has been written. And this raises the obvious questions “How much is a large quantity?” and “How do we determine the best that has been written?” Let us not get too hung up trying to answer these questions: on the issue of quantity, more is obviously better than less, although careful reading of less is preferable to casual reading of more; and on the question of quality, I am more than happy take as my guide the consensus of knowledgeable opinion across the generations: for such a consensus most certainly does exist, and its existence renders highly unlikely the hypothesis (taken as an absolute truth by so many who claim not to believe in absolutes) that all is merely subjective, and no more. 

Obviously, the expression “well read” is pretty meaningless without a context, and if our context is Western culture in general (and let’s just limit this discussion to Western culture for now), then the list of books that one should read is enormous. This list should encompass philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc etc); the sciences (Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc. – although the sciences are perhaps exceptional in that secondary texts can be at least as valuable as primary texts); economics (Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, etc); theology (St Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, Aquinas, etc); poetry (Homer, Pindar, Horace, Virgil, Dante, Heine, Pushkin, Leopardi, Yeats, Eliot, etc etc); drama (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Molière, Racine, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, etc); prose fiction (Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Richardson, Austen, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, etc.); history (Thucydides, Froissart, Gibbon, Bloch, Huizinga, Braudel, etc.); and so on and so forth. Basically, there’s no end to it. And, without any false modesty at all (false modesty is not something I’ve ever believed in!), I have only read a very tiny fraction of what I think one should have read to be considered “well read”.

After a while, one realises that one won’t have time to read everything that is worth reading. A lifetime isn’t enough. And it isn’t simply a question of reading: one has to re-read. For how much can one take in of a profound work merely at first reading? The very use of the metaphor “profound” implies that much of the substance of the work lies below its surface – i.e. is not fully discernible on first acquaintance: such works need not merely to be read, but lived with. 

It seems to follow from all this that there is no-one who may truly be described as “well read”. Given that we, all of us, have but one lifetime, even the most learned of professors are, I think, unlikely to have lived with all that is worth living with. Being “well read” is a relative matter, not an absolute. 

But does it matter? Is it actually important to be “well read”? The answer depends upon the individual. Speaking for myself, I do want to take in and to appreciate, if I can and as far as I am capable of doing, at least some of what is considered the best. I want to do this because I find it enriching in ways I am not sufficiently articulate to explain to any degree of clarity; and, as someone-or-other nearly said, whereof one cannot articulate to any degree of clarity, one must shut the hell up. 

I do realise that there is far, far too much out there for me to take in. What chance do I have of catching up with all that I know I should catch up with? None. So I do what I imagine everyone else does: I restrict myself to what interests me most – or to what I haven’t yet tried, but feel might interest me most – and accept that there is much of immense value that I will never get to know. Inevitably, it means that I will never be as well read as I’d like to be, but that can’t be helped: it’s the same for everyone, and one learns to live with it. At least we’ll never run out of books to read!

All books are interesting

It’s true. All books are interesting. And I can prove it.

As you know, one standard method of proof is “Proof by contradiction” – i.e. postulate the opposite of what you’re setting out to prove, and then demonstrate that this leads to a contradiction.

Now, what I’m setting out to prove is “All books are interesting”. The opposite to that is “There exists a set of books that aren’t interesting”.

Then, either:

(i) The set contains only one book; if so, then that one book must be interesting, as it’s the only book in this set, and that itself is a point of interest. Therefore this book cannot belong to this set … Hence, we have a contradiction.

(ii) The set contains several books; if so, the book in this set that was written earliest is interesting, because its point of interest is “This is the earliest written book in this set”. Since it is interesting, we must eliminate it from this set. We may then eliminate the next earliest written book from the set by similar reasoning, and continue in this manner until there is only one member left in this set. And then, the argument given in (i) applies, and once again, we have a contradiction.

Therefore, all books are interesting.

(Yes, I know, this is a variation on a well-known mathematical paradox. But it’s quite an interesting variation all the same. Indeed, I can prove there’s no uninteresting variation of this…)

What Lawrence was on about

When I was a teenager back in the 1970s, the position of D. H. Lawrence in the literary pantheon seemed unassailable. Eager to sample as much as I could of what was highly regarded, I read as many of his works as I could lay my hands on. And I put down my failure to appreciate these works to my lack of understanding.

Lawrence’s stock has fallen greatly since then (although there remains the odd Booker Prize winner who, despite current fashions, is happy to sing his praise), but, while my incomprehension remains, I prefer not to join in the chorus of disapproval. Indeed, the very fact that he is so deeply unfashionable these days rather makes me warm to him, and wish I liked him better. Certainly, many of the arguments made against him seem to me to be of little importance. His politics, apparently, were suspect: I suppose if his novels had been written specifically to promote whatever dubious politics he had, that would have been a serious consideration; but since they weren’t, it isn’t. I’m told also that he was humourless; and, of course, by modern standards, that is an unforgivable crime. But once again, this doesn’t bother me: if it’s a good laugh I want, I can always reach for my Wodehouse books: I don’t see why I should demand that every writer should make me laugh.

I’m also told that Lawrence wrote badly. Well, yes, it is certainly true that much of his prose is vague and maddeningly repetitive; but that is only to be expected of a writer who, no doubt quite legitimately, saw the act of writing as not so much an attempt to depict with a finality what is, but, rather, to explore without any thought of finality the various possibilities of what might be. No: Lawrence’s awkward repetitiveness, his frequent clumsiness in striving after that which by its nature cannot be pinned down to anything definite – none of this bothers me. And in any case, it is surely obvious that when he put his mind to it, the old boy could write as well as anyone.

What bothers me about Lawrence is not that he couldn’t write: what bothers me about Lawrence is that he was a looney. I have returned to his works – often to his shorter fiction – frequently, in the hope that with my passing years, my own view of life may have changed to the point where Lawrence might start making some sense. But try as I might, I just cannot figure out what it is he is writing about. He seems to be a creature from some alien planet: whatever concerns he had are no doubt profound and important, but they aren’t my concerns, they have never loomed large in my life. And by no stretch of the imagination – and I have tried stretching my imagination as far as it can go – can I share them.

But I do not want to dismiss Lawrence either, because, whatever one might say about him, he was never bland. I admire artists who have an intensity of vision, even though, as in this case, the nature of the vision eludes me. I understand a fury in his words, but not the words.

The comedy of “Pickwick Papers”

I’ve long felt that there are, broadly speaking, two distinct types of comedy. One is dark, and takes seriously the tragic aspects of human life. The other is a celebration of the joys of life, and is pure sunshine. Of course, there are many different shades of grey in between, but firmly in the former category we have, I think, Gulliver’s Travels, Dead Souls, Waiting for Godot, Steptoe and Son; in the latter, we have As You Like It, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Code of the Woosters, Dad’s Army. And, I think, Pickwick Papers.

In this latter type of comedy, the author has to judge the extent to which the darker aspects of life are acknowledged. Something such as The Importance of Being Earnest chooses to ignore such aspects completely. The Jeeves & Wooster stories feature a fascist demagogue, and, although he is presented as a blighter, there is no reference to the horrors of fascism, as that would have fatally compromised the delicate comic balance. In Dad’s Army, references to the Blitz, to shortages and to rationing, and, naturally, to the Nazis across the channel, are unavoidable, but once again, the horrors of those dark days are not evoked, as those horrors are not the point of the programme. In Pickwick Papers, Dickens does acknowledge the darker aspects of life – most especially in those marvellous chapters set in the Fleet debtors’ prison. But the focus is on joy, on friendship and on fellow-feeling, on the warmth and conviviality of human relations. To Dickens, these things are important, and life would be diminished if we were to overlook them. As he comments towards the end of the novel:

There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them.

For many people, it may appear trivial or shallow to focus on the joys of life and banishing – at least up to a point – the dark shadows. But I don’t know that I’d go along with that. Dickens obviously believed in the importance of acknowledging human goodness, and of celebrating what life had to offer. And if it is claimed that doing so presents a one-sided view of life, it may also be argued that no single work of art can present every single aspect of life; and that the unrelievedly gloomy tragedy presents a view of life that is every bit as one-sided as something such as this.

Speaking for myself, I can think of nothing more joyous or life-affirming than Pickwick Papers. True, it is not a profound work – in the sense that it doesn’t depict the inner lives of its characters; and nor does it explore any great moral or psychological or even social theme. The novel also has its flaws: the characters are full of life and vitality as long as they’re presented in a comic mode, but as soon as they are presented as romantic lovers, they become merely insipid and dull. (This applies both to male and to female characters, and is a problem that besets much of Dickens’ work right up to his very late novels.) And, since there is little quite as subjective as laughter, I can imagine there will be many who simply won’t respond to Dickens’ very idiosyncratic sense of humour. But for those – like myself – who do find this sort of thing funny, the 800 or so pages just whizz by.

The novel started off as a series of linked sketches, and although a narrative momentum of sorts does develop after a while, it never quite loses its freewheeling quality. If, say, Dickens fancies writing a few chapters describing Christmas celebrations at Dingley Dell, he just goes ahead and does it: it doesn’t bother him whether or not the plot demands it, or whether it advances our understanding of the themes or characters, or anything like that. (And those Christmas scenes, incidentally, are a delight: I think it’s thanks to this novel that we have, even now, Christmas cards depicting horse-drawn carriages travelling through the snow.)

The comic characters and situations are (to my sense of humour, at least) wonderful. Sam Weller is possibly the original “chirpy Cockney” and we first see him working at the inn:

“Number twenty-two wants his boots.”
“Ask number twenty-two whether he’ll have ‘em now, or wait till he gets ‘em”

Sam’s father, Tony, is, perhaps, an even finer comic creation. And there’s Jingle, of course, with that marvellous staccato delivery:

“Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in …”

Much later in the novel, we see Jingle again in the debtor’s prison, starving and close to death. He still has the same delivery, but what he delivers now is quite different:

“Nothing soon – lie in bed – starve – die – Inquest – little bone-house – poor prisoner – common necessaries – hush it up – gentlemen of the jury – warden’s tradesmen – keep it snug – natural death – coroner’s order – workhouse funeral – serve him right – all over – drop the curtain.”

Some will see this as an example of Dickens the Social Reformer, or Dickens the Social Commentator. To me, it seems more like Dickens the Artist. For if Dickens really is proposing social reform, it’s hard to see what reform it is he is proposing. The debtors’ prison is obviously a foul and evil place, but Dickens has no alternative proposal on how to deal with debt; and neither does he consider the point that if all debt were to be excused, the economic foundation of society would collapse. But it’s not Dickens’ purpose to consider such points, or to propose social change: what he does in these chapters is to chronicle human misery, and, being the artist that he is, he does this with the same narrative techniques and the same rhythms of speech that he had earlier used for comic effects. The effect is devastating.

Indeed, if we were to look into it closely, we could ask where the now retired Pickwick became wealthy in the first place: it certainly wasn’t by benevolence and by throwing his money around. But we aren’t, I think, intended to look at this novel in such terms: it isn’t a social treatise, and Dickens – despite the repeated vehemence with which he is described as a “social writer” – is not writing a sociological tract: he is writing a comedy, albeit a comedy that acknowledges and at certain points depicts some of life’s darker shadows. And he is celebrating all that is best and most generous about humanity.

Dickens went on to write more intricate and more sophisticated novels later in his career, some of which are, to my mind, amongst the finest of all novels. In comparison, this novel (like Oliver Twist that followed immediately afterwards – in many ways a dark counterpart to Pickwick Papers) is straight-forward, and lacking in complexity or depth. But it is a sheer delight, and I wouldn’t be without it. What a marvellous comic world to enter!

And in conclusion, let me leave you with a couple of verses from the “Ode to an Expiring Frog” by that renowned poet Mrs Leo Hunter:

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Expiring frog!

Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
With wild halloo, and brutal noise,
Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!

A bit of recycling, perhaps?

As part of the service from WordPress, for every hit I get from search engines, I get to see the various items that had been searched on. And many of these items seem quite clearly to be essay assignments from schools and colleges: sometimes, the exact question appears to have been typed into Google, word for word.

This does make me wonder whether some of my posts, either in whole or in part, have been appearing in college essays. If so, I do find myself rather amused by the idea: I haven’t studied literature in the classroom since I was sixteen (I studied physics, and, later, operational research at university), and I doubt very much whether my ramblings here are the kind of thing examiners are looking for. And furthermore, if students can find my blog with a simple Google search, so, presumably, can examiners.

However, if anyone has used any of my posts in school or college assignments, I’d be very curious to know what sort of feedback they received from tutors or examiners. So please feel free – in complete confidence, of course – to contact me with this: I promise I won’t give you away!

“Jonathan Wild” by Henry Fielding

The real Jonathan Wild, hanged in Tyburn in 1725, was a sort criminal godfather, an utterly amoral and unscrupulous villain who ran brothels and organised gangs of thieves, pickpockets and highwaymen, not hesitating to provide evidence against any of them (and get them hanged) as and when required. All of this, Fielding insists, is a mark of “greatness”, a quality that should not be confused with “goodness”:

But before we enter on this great work we must endeavour to remove some errors of opinion which mankind have, by the disingenuity of writers, contracted: for these, from their fear of contradicting the obsolete and absurd doctrines of a set of simple fellows, called, in derision, sages or philosophers, have endeavoured, as much as possible, to confound the ideas of greatness and goodness; whereas no two things can possibly be more distinct from each other, for greatness consists in bringing all manner of mischief on mankind, and goodness in removing it from them. It seems therefore very unlikely that the same person should possess them both; and yet nothing is more usual with writers, who find many instances of greatness in their favourite hero, than to make him a compliment of goodness into the bargain; and this, without considering that by such means they destroy the great perfection called uniformity of character. In the histories of Alexander and Caesar we are frequently, and indeed impertinently, reminded of their benevolence and generosity, of their clemency and kindness. When the former had with fire and sword overrun a vast empire, had destroyed the lives of an immense number of innocent wretches, had scattered ruin and desolation like a whirlwind, we are told, as an example of his clemency, that he did not cut the throat of an old woman, and ravish her daughters, but was content with only undoing them. And when the mighty Caesar, with wonderful greatness of mind, had destroyed the liberties of his country, and with all the means of fraud and force had placed himself at the head of his equals, had corrupted and enslaved the greatest people whom the sun ever saw, we are reminded, as an evidence of his generosity, of his largesses to his followers and tools, by whose means he had accomplished his purpose, and by whose assistance he was to establish it.

Now, who doth not see that such sneaking qualities as these are rather to be bewailed as imperfections than admired as ornaments in these great men; rather obscuring their glory, and holding them back in their race to greatness, indeed unworthy the end for which they seem to have come into the world, viz. of perpetrating vast and mighty mischief?

Now, Jonathan Wild, Fielding insists, is “great”. If we can discern greatness in Alexander bewailing the fact that there were no more people left to enslave, there is no reason why we shouldn’t see Jonathan Wild in similar terms. And of course, the logical corollary of seeing greatness in unscrupulousness and amorality is to see lowness in decency and in honesty. That may run counter to our sensibilities, but, nonetheless, in ascribing “greatness” to the likes of Alexander or Caesar, these are the values that we, as a society, have chosen.

 It is rather surprising to read such disdain of classical heroes: Fielding was writing at a time when the British imperialist adventure was still in its early stages, and the heroes of this adventure were explicitly regarded and depicted as the modern counterparts of the heroes of antiquity. It is doubtful to what extent Fielding had British imperialism in mind when writing this: in the narration of Mrs Heartfree (incidentally, the weakest section of the novel) we are briefly taken into Africa, and a slave ship is mentioned in passing, but Fielding does not comment on any of this: perhaps he felt that this would have taken us too far from the central scenes of the novel; or perhaps he did not feel as much at ease in depicting Africa as he did in depicting London’s East End, or Newgate Prison; or perhaps, in this instance, Fielding felt constrained in following his ironic premise to its logical end. But it does not require too much imagination on the part of the reader to extend Fielding’s general disdain of the conquest of other nations to the imperialism of Fielding’s own time.

It seems that Fielding’s primary purpose is to satirise Robert Walpole, reputedly one of the most corrupt politicians of his day. Using a criminal to represent a real-life political figure rather interestingly looks forward to Brecht’s Arturo Ui; but, whatever the parallels are between Wild and Walpole, they are likely to be lost on any reader not familiar with 18th century British politics. Not that it matters. The story of an unscrupulous and utterly heartless villain, who doesn’t care how much unhappiness he causes in his quest for wealth and power, need not be restricted to the satire of an individual politician: such people have hardly disappeared since Fielding’s time.

Despite the rather unsuccessful chapters relating Mrs Heartfree’s adventures, The novel is centred in and around London – particularly the London underworld that Defoe had depicted so memorably in Moll Flanders. But Fielding, as a writer, is as far from Defoe as may be imagined. Defoe, in his novels, spoke always in character: the narrative is always from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and we are forced to try to read between the lines to find even a glimpse of any other perspective; and throughout, there is little clue, if any, of where Defoe himself stands on any matter. Fielding, on the other hand, places himself always in the foreground: whatever we see, whatever we perceive, comes from him, and we see nothing that is not refracted through his personality. Given that this personality is large and generous, and humane and companionable, there isn’t much to object to in this; but it does mean that the characters, even one as flamboyant as Jonathan Wild, never appear to assume independence of their creator: we never see them as anything other than puppets, with Fielding himself as puppet-master. By the time Fielding came to writing Tom Jones, he had found ways of giving his characters lives of their own without relinquishing his own position in the foreground, but in this earlier work, he hadn’t yet quite mastered that technique.

Fielding takes Wild’s name, and some of his murky exploits; but the rest is pure invention: this is a novel, not a history. While the real Jonathan Wild was born in 1682, Fielding places his birth in 1665, to allow him to come in with the Plague. As for the other incidents, complete with characters with such descriptive names such as Heartfree or Snap or Friendly, they are effectively staple diet of 18th century English fiction. There is certainly a vigour to the writing that carries the reader along; and, of course, Fielding personality, at the forefront of everything, is engaging, but nonetheless, it is a good thing that the novel is as short as it is: one doubts whether Fielding could have maintained the reader’s interest for much longer, with the stage populated as it is with mere puppets. For we are at a puppet show here, not in a theatre.

But for the modest length of this novel, Fielding keeps us royally entertained. He went on to greater heights, of course, with Tom Jones (and with two other novels that I am reliably informed are masterpieces but which I still have not read: Joseph Andrews and Amelia): here, we see him merely getting into his stride. But we may see here nonetheless a great many foreshadowings of his later achievements. Quite apart from anything else, it is hard to think of an authorial presence more companionable.