Archive for October 22nd, 2011

“Amelia” by Henry Fielding

In many ways, Amelia, Fielding’s last novel before his somewhat untimely death, is a sort of antithesis of the earlier Tom Jones, written only two years earlier. The principal male character, William Booth, husband of the eponymous Amelia, is like Tom in many respects. He has a frank and open nature, has about him an honesty and a lack of guile, is attractive, and is also easily attracted. But where Tom’s qualities were viewed by Fielding generally with approval and at worst with a benevolent tolerance, here, things are different: it is a dark and potentially tragic world that Booth inhabits, a world in which frankness and openness are dangerous qualities, and a world in which sexual misdemeanours cannot be so easily excused: all human actions here have serious consequences. The fictional world presented is much closer in spirit to the dark, menacing world presented by Daniel Defoe in Roxana, or by Samuel Richardson in Clarissa (Fielding’s none-too-affectionate send-up of Richardson’s earlier novel Pamela often overshadows his admiration for Richardson’s later masterpiece): it is an iniquitous world in which certain people exert virtually unlimited power over others; and Fielding knew, as did Richardson, that where power is held, it is exercised. They that have power to hurt and will do none may, as Shakespeare puts it, rightly inherit heaven’s graces, but in the world of Clarissa and of Amelia, such people tend to be conspicuous by their absence.

Fielding has moved on from Tom Jones also in that he now no longer depicts the courtship that ends in marriage: it is the marriage itself that is now his subject. The earlier novel ended when Tom had married Sophia, but this novel proceeds to ask “What next?” Unlike Tom and Sophia, William and Amelia Booth are not wealthy. This is partly the consequence of the iniquitous society in which they live, but the pressures on the marriage are not merely external: William is vain and irresponsible, and whatever the iniquities of a world in which a decent living can only be obtained through an inheritance or through preferment, William himself is responsible for much of the pressure that their marriage comes under. He is, in a sense, the darker side of Tom Jones.

We see him first in a prison. He had tried to intervene – as, no doubt, Tom Jones would have done – on behalf of a stranger who was being beaten by ruffians, and the corrupt and rotten courts have seen fit to find him, the would-be rescuer, guilty of assault. The description of the prison and of its various inmates is wonderful, with a dash and a sense of colour that recalls even Dickens at his best; and as we are bombarded with story after story of the most appalling cruelty and of perversions of justice, I was reminded, to my surprise, of Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Echoes of Dickens and of Tolstoy – possibly my two favourite novelists – in the opening pages were more than enough to make me read on.

As in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, the prison becomes one of the major themes and symbols of the novel – real prisons, certainly, but other prisons also. Booth, Amelia and the children live in lodgings in the verge of the court in London, and as long as Booth doesn’t step out of this verge, he is safe from arrest for debt: even in his day-to-day life, he is a prisoner. And there are prisons of the mind as well, the “mind-forged manacles” that Blake spoke of: Booth, a man who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions, has built a prison for himself, and also for his beloved family. We are very far from the sunny world of Tom Jones.

It is in the real prison that William Booth meets a fellow prisoner and former acquaintance Mrs Mathews, and, as in various classical epics (which Fielding claimed were his models), we learn of Booth’s earlier life in a long narration. It is in this narration that he tells of his marriage to Amelia, and it is something of a shock when, after having sung his wife’s praises so profusely, Booth ends up going to bed with Mrs Mathews. Tom Jones, we feel, may have acted similarly: Mrs Mathews is an attractive lady, after all, and Tom, like William here, is very susceptible to feminine charms, and acts all too frequently on the spur of the moment. But actions have consequences here, and they are hardly expunged by a period of guilt following the infidelity.

Once released from prison, we meet up again with various characters we had been introduced to in William’s narrative, and it is noticeable how different they appear from the pictures William had presented in his narration. William is too open, too frank and trusting – once again, all the qualities that had made Tom Jones so attractive a character – to judge other people well, and as a consequence, runs himself and his family into all sorts of dangers. For the world they inhabit is unpleasant and sinister, and hardly anyone is as they seem. Bosom friends turn out to be scheming reprobates, helpful aristocrats turn out to be unprincipled lechers, affable landladies and helpful friends turn out to be pimps. At the centre of the narrative is a masquerade: like the prison, the masquerade too is a major symbol in the novel.

And at times, it is difficult to judge character because character itself is not a stable thing. This is a significant departure from the world of Tom Jones. In that novel, what a character was, the character so remained: here, human character is in itself fluid. Even the good and virtuous Dr Harrison, so often Fielding’s mouthpiece in this novel, finds his feathers ruffled, and possibly feels threatened, when he encounters a woman whose classical learning is comparable to his own, and, as a consequence, falls somewhat short of his usual courteous self.

This lady classical scholar is Mrs Bennet – later Mrs Atkinson – and her narration, embedded into this novel, is shocking even now. There, she tells of “His Lordship”, a sinister and unnamed aristocrat, who, under the pretence of helping her husband Mr Bennet in his career, drugs and then rapes her. (It was called “seduction” in those days, and continued to be called “seduction” even when Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles over a century later, but Fielding, like Hardy, had no doubt regarding the enormity of the act.) In the process, His Lordship infects his victim with disease, and she in turn infects her husband. The scene in which her husband turns on her and beats her is like something one may expect to encounter in a novel by Zola rather than in a novel written by the author of Tom Jones: it is astonishing how dramatically Fielding’s artistic vision had darkened within just a couple of years or so.

It would have been easy to have presented Mrs Bennet solely as a figure deserving of pity, but Fielding’s artistry went beyond easy stereotypes. After the death of her first husband, His Lordship is persuaded by the affable pimp who had helped him rape Mrs Bennet to settle on his victim a small annuity; and his Lordship is happy to do this – for after all, what is money? In a moral fable, this money would have been thrown back at him in disgust, but Fielding was writing about this world as he saw it, not as he would have liked it to have been. Accepting money from His Lordship is certainly to compromise one’s moral standards, but to have refused His Lordship’s generosity would equally certainly have meant dying destitute on the streets. Mrs Bennet accepts His lordship’s “generosity”.

But to what extent can moral standards reasonably be compromised? While accepting His Lordship’s money may be understandable in the context, to Fielding, such moral compromise is only the beginning; and when Mrs Bennet becomes Mrs Atkinson, despite her natural generosity of spirit, and despite her friendship for Amelia, she cannot resist going that one step further down the slippery moral slope to obtain a commission for her new husband; and in doing so, she implicates Amelia. Moral issues are no longer as clear-cut as they had been in Tom Jones.

As before, Fielding stands at the forefront of the action, narrating, commenting, speaking directly to the reader. But he seems to have little power to direct the plot. In Tom Jones, the plot seemed to work with a clockwork precision: here, by contrast, it seems almost meandering at times, and the fate of the marriage of William and of Amelia seems always in doubt. One wonders, though, whether Fielding’s usual narrative style, which had served him so well in his previous comic works, is entirely appropriate here in this much darker fictional world: the narrator in control of the narrative does seem somewhat incongruous in a novel in which events constantly threaten to run out of control. Of course, Fielding was living in an age that did not like tragic endings: it was the age that preferred Nahum Tate’s re-written version of King Lear to Shakespeare’s uncompromising vision; it was the age in which Handel, even when dealing with such tragic stories as those of Saul or Samson or Hercules, had to end in an uplifting mood of praise. So here also, the tragedy that had threatened is avoided – though not by the consequences of what had passed previously, but by what may only be described as an unexpected stroke of luck. Such were the demands of the fashion of the day, although I can’t help feeling that had Fielding lived longer, he may well have deepened his tragic vision sufficiently to have dared defy those fashions, and we may have been thinking of Amelia as a sort of transitionary work between his earlier comic masterpieces, and his later tragic ones. But that, of course, is mere conjecture, and, leaving such conjecture aside, what we do have here is a work that presents a gloomy and pessimistic vision of humanity, but in which the implications of the premises are not followed through to their logical ends. As a consequence, the ending can only be considered unsatisfactory – not because it is a traditionally “happy” ending, but because it does not come close to resolving the issues raised. How happy will William and Amelia be after the closing pages? We do not ask such a question about Tom and Sophia Jones after the end of Fielding’s previous novel, because a comic novel can legitimately end with a marriage and a happy-ever-after: but that won’t do here. Here, the world remains a wicked world, and the flaws in William Booth’s character give us no confidence either of his or of Amelia’s future remaining unclouded.

In short, the closing chapters do not satisfy: they do not dispel the darkness. And even in the journey to this end, Fielding’s narrative style seems at times somewhat incongruous, and even, on occasion, clumsy – as when he uses Dr Harrison as his mouthpiece. But this is Fielding experimenting: he is trying to take the novel into a new direction, and, while the experiment is by no means entirely successful, neither is it by any means a failure. The shortcomings – at least, when compared to Defoe’s Roxana or to Richardson’s Clarissa, both of which depict a world as dark and as menacing as that of Amelia – are due to Fielding, unlike Defoe or Richardson, being essentially a comic writer, and, seemingly, unable or unwilling to discard here the various techniques of comic writing that had served him so well in the past. And as the novel progresses, these techniques seem increasingly at odds with his tragic vision.

For the vision is tragic indeed. Consider, for instance, the exchange between William Booth and Dr Harrison towards the end of the novel:

“..My chief doubt was founded on this — that, as men appeared to me to act entirely from their passions, their actions could have neither merit nor demerit.” “A very worthy conclusion truly!” cries the doctor; “but if men act, as I believe they do, from their passions, it would be fair to conclude that religion to be true which applies immediately to the strongest of these passions, hope and fear; chusing rather to rely on its rewards and punishments than on that native beauty of virtue which some of the antient philosophers thought proper to recommend to their disciples.”

Although Dr Harrison is frequently Fielding’s mouthpiece, it is hard to say whether or not he reflects here Fielding’s own views, but the possibility, at least, that human beings are ruled essentially by their passions, and that the only possible means of control is not through appeals to their more rational or nobler natures, but merely through bribes and threats, seems to me to be about as depressing a view of mankind as can be imagined. Was this really the man who had written Tom Jones only two years earlier?