“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.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Maureen on April 3, 2011 at 11:08 am

    The lines you cite are downright uplifting in their clever use of logic and literature. And examples abound! Did not the Great and Powerful Oz stop being both the moment he took pity on a group of good and decent needy souls and became one himself?

    Still, I’m not so sure that Fielding would agree that finding lowness in decency and honesty is necessarily a ‘logical’ corollary to finding greatness in unscrupulousness and amorality, even according to his definition, which is that ‘greatness consists in bringing all manner of mischief on mankind’, and goodness in ‘removing it from them’. According to that definition, King Arthur himself could not be great and good. Nor Christ for that matter, as the mischievousness of turning water into wine, thus faciliating drunken disorder, was well-intentioned. But ‘low’? Synonymns and Antonyms are tricky fellows. I’d go with ‘non-greatness’ rather than ‘lowness’.

    How I enjoy your well-considered analyses!

    Reply

  2. Posted by alan on April 3, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    I’m surprised to see ‘great’ and ‘low’ as opposites.
    I had always supposed that the ‘History of Great Men’ that is no longer fashionable was a specialised use of the word ‘Great’.

    Reply

  3. Hello Maureen & Alan,

    Fielding does actually use the term “low” as the opposite of “great”. For instance Chapter 2 of Book 3, which tells of Heartfree’s honesty and integrity, is entitled (ironically, of course) “A soliloquy of Heartfree’s, full of low and base ideas, without a syllable of GREATNESS”.

    Fielding was quite clearly, it seems to me, a forerunner of Dickens. The writings of both share a robust vitality; and, despite being fully aware of the depths to which humans may sink, both harboured a belief in the possibility of human goodness. Orwell once described Dickens’ tone as being often angry, but “generously angry”. I take this to mean that while Dickens was frequently indignant at human behaviour, his indignation never turned cynical or misanthropic; that he continued, despite everything, actually to like people. I find this in Fielding as well: he was often angry, but generously angry.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Mike Risbridger on July 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Hi! I have recently been dipping into a book on !8th century humourists, including Henry Fielding. So your comments are of interest. Tales from A Hanging Court, is very good, being based on verbatim court sessions of the day. As for Jonathan Wild..I imagine he’s on a spit next to Hitler!

    Reply

    • Hello Mike, I believe Fielding just took the name of Jonathan Wild and composed his own fantasia around it. From what i know, Jonathan Wild was about as villainous as they come, but I do like Fielding’s insistence that he was, nonetheless, “great”!

      Reply

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