Posts Tagged ‘Fielding’

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

My rediscovery of Jane Austen continued with a reading of possibly the best loved of her novels – possibly, even, the best loved of all novels.

A rum lot, the British. They have built themselves a reputation for the stiff upper lip, for decorous emotional detachment; and yet, possibly the three most archetypal love stories – Romeo and Juliet, certainly, and also, I’d argue, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre – were all written by British writers. I’m not, admittedly, very well read in the area of romantic fiction (that’s “romantic” without a capital R) but I do get the impression that most romantic novels owe at least something to at least one or other of these three works. Or possibly even to all: those better versed in this area can correct me if I am wrong.

Not that everyone would agree that Austen was particularly romantic – with or without that capital R. The author of Jane Eyre was particularly severe, describing Austen’s novels as “bloodless”; and I, being by temperament more at home with the Gothic blood and thunder of the Brontës than with the cultivated elegance of Austen, was happy to agree, going so far as to say in an earlier post (to which, out of embarrassment, I will not link) that Austen had not a Romantic bone in her body. I am happy to admit I was wrong – very wrong: but at least, I console myself, I was in good company in being wrong.

For there is, indeed, much depth of feeling and of sensibility in Austen. It is true, I think, that Austen’s temperament was more Classical than Romantic: she tended, I think, to mistrust sensibility when not accompanied by at least some modicum of sense. But the fact of sense accompanying the sensibility does not in itself diminish the sensibility, and that’s the point. What Elizabeth and Darcy feel for each other is a passion, no less in intensity than the passion Jane Eyre and Rochester feel for each other; what is different is not the nature of the emotions, but their expression. In Jane Eyre, the passions are out in the open, and are set against a turbulent background of Gothic halls and of tempestuous skies; in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, we are in the world of elegant balls, and of well-maintained ornamental gardens. The emotions may not in this decorous environment be out in the open, but they are there nonetheless.

Of course, Austen was keenly aware, as ever, of social status, and of money matters. It is often pointed out triumphantly by those who refuse to see anything of the Romantic in Austen that Elizabeth, when asked by her sister Jane when she first realised that she loved Darcy, replies : “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” But of course,  Elizabeth is joking: like her father, she finds it hard to resist a good gag. And Jane knows this: she entreats her sister that “she should be serious”. However, we have to ask ourselves, I think, why Elizabeth should make this particular joke. We have to bring to bring to mind as well Elizabeth’s feelings when she first sees the grounds at Pemberley:

She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

This is not to say that Elizabeth is a vulgar mercenary: she had, after all, turned Darcy down knowing full well how wealthy he was; and even though she fantasises about being mistress of Pemberley, she does not at the time regret having turned down the opportunity to be so. But what her joke to her sister does indicate is that human motives are not always easy to disentangle; and that Elizabeth, intelligent and self-aware, is aware of this, and not entirely sure of the extent to which her love is properly disinterested. She makes this particular joke, I think, because she has at the back of her mind the worry that she may indeed be, at least in part, mercenary.

Such subtlety and intricacy place Pride and Prejudice in a very different psychological world from that of Jane Eyre, and certainly from that of Wuthering Heights – a novel in which the darkest and most intense of our desires are terrifyingly out in the open. Here, human minds are extremely complex things, and, unless one is an airhead such as Lydia or Mrs Bennet, there can be no feeling, no emotion, no sensibility, that can be so pure as to be unmixed with other matter. Not even love. This is not to deny the validity of love, or even of its overriding importance in our lives: indeed, so far is Austen from the hard-headed cynic she is often taken to be, Pride and Prejudice can easily be seen as a depiction of the transforming power of love. But it cannot override everything else: the world here is too complex for any one thing, even love, to override all other considerations. And if this means that a Heathcliff or a Captain Ahab is beyond Austen’s range, it may just as well be argued that Elizabeth and Darcy are similarly beyond the range of Emily Brontë or of Herman Melville: no work of art, no matter how vast in scope, can hope to encompass the whole truth about ourselves.

The principal plot, as is well-known, is, effectively, the story of Beatrice and Benedick: a young couple take a dislike to each other, and squabble and bicker; but even as they squabble and bicker, they are in love; and while, in terms merely of the events of the novel, misunderstandings are cleared up, at a deeper level, the characters come to discover themselves, learn to see with clearer eyes, and, finding themselves in love, find themselves ennobled by being so. As a summary, this is crude – far cruder than is warranted by the extreme elegance and subtlety of the writing; but it is easy to see why such a novel should be so well-liked: for it is hard to escape the conviction, or at least the hope, that human love has, at least, the capacity to ennoble; and never has the capacity of love to ennoble been presented with greater conviction than it is here.

But for Austen, sensibility has to be balanced with sense. As in her previous novels, this question of balance is rarely far from the centre of the work. Elizabeth’s airhead sister, Lydia, has not the slightest vestige of sense, and she is perhaps the only person in the entire novel (apart from her equally airheaded mother) who does not seem to realise that her unfortunate marriage to the rascally Wickham is bound to end in unhappiness. And Elizabeth’s beloved father had displayed more sensibility than sense in his own marriage, and is, as a consequence, desperately unhappy. He hides himself away in his library, and takes refuge in barbs of sarcasm; and, apart from his love for his two eldest daughters, he has, effectively, washed his hands of his family. As he himself concedes after Lydia’s elopement, he has been a failure as a father. Austen had a marvellous Mozartian facility of switching for the briefest but most poignant of moments from the major to the minor, and it is hard not to be affected by the lightning modulation into the minor when, in the midst of the celebrations following Elizabeth’s engagement to Darcy, Mr Bennet tells his daughter how important it is for one’s happiness to have a life-partner whom one can respect. The tonality immediately turns to the major again, but that single minor chord so deftly placed leaves behind the saddest of impressions.

And despite Elizabeth’s love for her father – or, rather, because of her love for him – she can find herself pained by his witticisms. Mr Bennet is a man so habituated to sarcasm that he finds it difficult to adopt any other tone; so when Mary is making a fool of herself in public by her singing, and Elizabeth indicates to her father that he should put a stop to it, he says in his accustomed manner “You have delighted us long enough”. Mary is, we are told, “disconcerted”, and Elizabeth is hurt that her sister, foolish though she is, should be so humiliated by her own father in public:

Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth was sorry for her, and sorry for her father’s speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good.

And later, when Mr Bennet reads Elizabeth the letter from Mr Collins speaking of rumours about Elizabeth and Darcy, and unthinkingly makes light of feelings that should be treated with greater respect, Elizabeth finds herself feeling that “never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her”; indeed, we are told a few paragraphs later, “her father had most cruelly mortified her”. (Memo to Charlotte  Brontë: could creatures who are “bloodless” really be mortified?) It is because she so loves her father that her feeling of mortification is so very strong.

There are other dark clouds as well in the novel. Sometimes, when reading certain works, I wonder whether one could write a different novel focussing on some characters who, in these particular works, are peripheral. I couldn’t help feeling this about Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent person, and not deficient in feeling, but who, for the sake of her future security, quite knowingly sacrifices herself by marrying a man she knows to be an idiot.  What’s her future? I couldn’t help wondering. Would a novel with Charlotte Lucas at the centre be another great 19th century novel of adultery? Or can she remain resigned to her fate and fade sadly into an unfulfilled old age? Either way, it is hard to envisage for her a happy ending.

But the tragic elements – or, rather, elements that have the potential to become tragic if further developed – are kept well in the periphery. For, as with Fielding’s Tom Jones – a very different work in virtually all other respects – this is the sunniest of novels. Indeed, Austen herself worried whether it was not too “light”. Generations of those who have been captivated and enchanted by this novel will hardly complain, but it is noticeable that in her very next novel, Mansfield Park, Austen produced her most sombre work, with a heroine as unlike Elizabeth Bennet as is possible to imagine. It is almost as if, having produced Pride and Prejudice, Austen wanted to explore perspectives as far removed from it as possible. (Similarly, I think, Fielding wrote the very dark Amelia immediately after Tom Jones almost as a direct counterpart to the earlier work.) In the three novels that followed Pride and Prejudice, Austen addressed moral ambiguities and psychological intricacies in comparison to which Pride and Prejudice seems, if not slight (I hesitate to describe as slight any work that treats seriously, without sentimentalising or deriding, the theme of human love), then, at least, straight-forward, and relatively uncluttered by the messiness of our human lives – “all mere complexities”, as Yeats put it. But of course, it is this uncluttered directness that makes Pride and Prejudice so well-loved a work. At its heart is the happiest of stories – the story of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. It is a story of two people who, at the start, do not really understand themselves, let alone each other: one is proud and the other prejudiced. However, unlike the two abstractions in the title of her previous novel, the pride and prejudice are not unmixed here in either character: the proud Darcy can also be prejudiced, and the prejudiced Elizabeth proud. But by the end, the two understand each other so well, that Mr Darcy does not even need formally to propose, nor Elizabeth formally to accept. The stages of this progress are depicted with the lightest, deftest, and most accomplished of touches.

It is not that all my own former prejudices against Austen have entirely dissipated: I still get the impression that, on the whole, Austen did not really like people very much. And it does still does worry me a bit that her laughs – for she is, indeed, a very funny writer – are always at someone’s expense: there is rarely an open, hearty laugh, as there is so frequently in Dickens. But whatever prejudice I may still harbour, I am not so proud that I can’t concede that, in view of the achievement, these reservations do not weigh anywhere near so heavily for me as they had formerly done. For all her often coruscating wit, Austen, unlike Mr Bennet, knew when not to exercise it. And so, by the end, does Elizabeth: she has at the tip of her tongue a waspish comment concerning Mr Bingley propensity to be easily led, but she bites that wicked tongue of hers:

Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself.

Sometimes, it is worthwhile suppressing even the most elegantly phrased of barbs for the sake of simple human kindness.

“Joseph Andrews” by Henry Fielding

I had been putting off reading Fielding’s Joseph Andrews until I had read Richardson’s Pamela, the object of its satire; but eventually, I decided I didn’t have the patience. True, I have read the 1700 or so often excruciatingly slow pages of Richardson’s later novel Clarissa, but that was a masterpiece, and, despite its very slow tempo, utterly engrossing: but Pamela, quite frankly, promised to be a stinker. Maidservant Pamela Andrews resists for some 500 pages the sexual advances of her employer Mr B, and, as a “reward” for her virtue, gets to marry the very man who had harassed her, abducted her, imprisoned her, and had even attempted to rape her: both morally and psychologically, this seems dubious stuff. Maybe if I were to read the entire novel, I would find various moral and psychological nuances that a mere summary of the plot could not hope to convey; but frankly, even armed with the conviction that something written by the author of a masterpiece such as Clarissa could not be entirely without merit, I found the idea of sinking my teeth into Pamela (pardon the image) entirely resistible. The main reason I felt I should read it was that I would then be able to appreciate all the better Fielding’s satire of Pamela in Joseph Andrews: while I had little desire to read Pamela, I desperately wanted to read the jolly comic romp promised by Joseph Andrews. Eventually, I decided to by-pass the Richardson novel and move straight to the parody. After all, I reasoned, one need not have read the various chivalric romances to enjoy Don Quixote. Did I really have to wade through Pamela before I could come on to this, the first novel of the writer who later went on to produce such marvels as Jonathan Wild, Amelia, and, of course, Tom Jones?

Fielding decides to give us the full name of Pamela’s employer, Mr B: it is, he insists, Mr Booby. That name takes on a somewhat different comic complexion when applied to his aunt – Lady Booby. This good lady, newly widowed, sets out to seduce her young servant, Joseph Andrews, just as Squire Booby had set out to “seduce” Joseph’s sister, Pamela; but Joseph is as chaste as his sister, and, indeed, as his Biblical namesake, and, despite Lady Booby displaying to him her well-endowed charms, resists heroically. For this, he is turned out, penniless. And now, Fielding has a problem: while he was taking the no doubt well-deserved piss out of Richardson’s Pamela, he was on safe comic ground; but he could not keep this going for an entire full-length novel. Once Joseph is turned out, Fielding is forced to move away from parody and pastiche, and invent comic material that is more, as it were, free-standing. And in this, it must be admitted, he succeeded only partially: the comic genius that is consistently in view in the later Tom Jones is apparent here only intermittently.

Fielding soon realises that the virtuous, strait-laced Joseph Andrews could not carry off the central role in a comic romp; and so he introduces Parson Adams, one of his finest comic creations. Parson Adams is an impoverished, other-worldy curate, unimpeachable in his moral integrity, but not quite equipped to negotiate the various vicissitudes of the material world. In some ways, he even recalls Nazarin of Benito Pérez Galdós; but while Nazarin rejects violence under any circumstances, and ends a tragic figure, Parson Adams is quite prepared to take up cudgels, quite literally, when there are villains to be disposed of and innocents protected. (And this being a Fielding novel, there is no shortage of mock-heroic fights and severe beatings.) Fielding resists any temptation to provide Parson Adams even with overtones of the tragic: while he clearly admires his incorruptible moral probity, he allows Parson Adams to remain throughout a gloriously comic figure. And, also, one of those rare believable portraits of a completely good man. Fielding laugh at him even as he admires him, and so do we. The laughter is never superior, and there is in it not the slightest hint of malice or of condescension.

Fielding introduces also a love interest for Joseph – the delightfully named Fanny Goodwill. (Tony Richardson’s 1977 film version came with the tagline: “The story of a young, English footman who served the Lady Booby but loved the little Fanny.”) There isn’t really much in the way of characterisation either of Joseph or of Fanny: they’re merely stock figures in a generally rumbustious romp.

However, for all the rumbustiousness, Fielding’s moral compass is very firmly established. His principal argument with Richardson is not, after all, that Richardson was too serious in his morals, but that he wasn’t serious enough – that allowing Pamela to be “rewarded” for her virtue with marriage with her former tormentor made virtue itself but a commodity. As in his other novels, Fielding is, throughout, an intrusive narrator: he addresses the reader directly, comments, delivers lectures, tells jokes, and does all those things that modern literary theory tells us authors should not do (unless they are being postmodern or something). And, as in his other novels, it works: it works because Fielding’s authorial presence is so very engrossing. His is a very distinctive voice, and holds our attention. It is a voice of great charm – the voice of a man who values virtue and admires selflessness and generosity, but who is also sympathetic and humane, and tolerant of human failings. We often read books for the companionship of the author, and there can be few authors as companionable as Henry Fielding.

But despite many fine things, Joseph Andrews does, it must be admitted, have its longueurs. In the later Tom Jones, the better qualities of Joseph Andrews are consistently in view, and the flaws entirely absent. For one thing, Fielding, when he came to writing Tom Jones, realised that the kind of novel he was attempting required an interesting plot: otherwise, the final chapters would merely provide resolution for a plot that the reader has long lost interest in, and become merely tedious; and the rest of the novel would become merely a sequence of more or less unrelated set pieces. Joseph Andrews suffers on both these points. But its high points are high enough, and while I don’t think I’ll re-read the entire novel again, I will be more than happy to dip into it from time to time to renew my acquaintance both with Parson Adams, and, indeed, with Henry Fielding himself.

(As a footnote, when Clarissa was published, Fielding had acknowledged it a masterpiece, and sent Richardson a warmly worded letter of congratulation. It is good to know that the generosity of spirit apparent in the authorial figure in Fielding’s novels was present also in Fielding the man.)

“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, was very susceptible to feminine charms, and acted 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. 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 his 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?

How Fielding disrupted my reading plans

You know how it is – you plan to read certain books, but then you notice others that take your fancy, and all of a sudden those unread books pile up. One needs, I know, to be more single-minded about these things. When one’s attention is caught by something in a bookshop, one should say to oneself: “No, I have such-and-such a book already on my to-be-read pile, and I must read through them before tackling something new”. One should be principled on these matters.

But then, only a few days ago, I was at that lovely second-hand bookshop that’s situated just opposite the South transept of York Minster, and I noticed a set of Folio Books – all four novels of Henry Fielding, in beautiful editions and at a tempting price, just waiting to be picked up and taken to the counter.

Tom Jones I read many years ago, and enjoyed thoroughly: a re-read beckons, I think, especially given how much I enjoyed Jonathan Wild earlier this year. The other two novels in the set are Joseph Andrews and Amelia. Joseph Andrews is, of course, a parody of Richardson’s Pamela, and I had been meaning to save Fielding’s novel until after I had read Richardson’s, so I can tell what it is Fielding is taking the piss out of. But from all accounts, Fielding’s novel, like that of Cervantes, transcends that which it is parodying; and, furthermore, Fielding’s novel is reputed to be side-splittingly funny whereas Richardson’s is, from all accounts, staid and dull. I will read Pamela some day, I’m sure: quite apart from anything else, I cannot believe that the author of so astounding a masterpiece as Clarissa could write anything not worth reading. But for the moment, I think it is Fielding’s novel that comes first in the list of priorities.

(To be frank, I think I have been slightly put off Fielding in the past because of his antagonism to Richardson, but I was browsing through the article on Fielding recently in the 1970s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica – which my parents had bought for me when I was a child, and which, though very well-thumbed, still resides at my parents’ house in excellent condition – and there I found that Fielding’s antagonism related to Pamela only, and not to Clarissa: indeed, while Clarissa was appearing in instalments, Fielding wrote a letter of congratulations to Richardson, telling him that what he had read had made his heart “brim-full”. There are some writers who, in real life, do not live up to the image they present of themselves in their works, but it really did make me feel good to see that Fielding, as a man, seems to have been as open-hearted, as generous, and as free from malice as his authorial persona would suggest.)

Fielding’s last novel, Amelia has been on my to-be-read list for some time now. It is, reputedly, a rather dark and sombre work by Fielding’s standards, and I am curious to see how the author of so sunny and so riotous a novel as Tom Jones will deal with more grave material.

Among the many things I find myself enjoying about Fielding is his personality. One of the reasons for reading is, I think, the companionship of the author, and I can’t think of any author who is better company than Fielding. The picture I get of Fielding from his novels is that of a man of immense good humour, humane, and of an open-hearted and tolerant generosity; of a man who values morality but is understanding of human weaknesses and failures; of someone who, despite refusing to sentimentalise or to soften out the rough edges, actually likes people in all their variety. Yes, he could be angry at times, but, as Orwell said of Dickens, his anger is always a generous anger. What better company could one ask for?

So Fielding it is. But I must fit in all the other books I have been meaning to read. After my recent disappointing foray into science fiction, I bought myself A Perfect Spy by John le Carré: I like an intelligent thriller, and have, somehow, missed out on le Carré till now, so I thought I’d give this – widely reckoned to be amongst his finest works – a try. However, it’s nearly 700 pages long, so I don’t think I’ll be able to polish it of in just a few days. And nor would I want to: the 100 or so pages I have read so far is superb stuff, and if the rest is as good, this is a book I’d want to savour rather than rush through.

And then, I have a four-volume Folio Society set of Chekhov’s short stories I’ve been meaning to read through. I have read most of them before – though not in these translations by Ronald Hingley – but Chekhov is one of those writers I keep returning to, and I think I’d get a better grasp of his works were I to read through these stories in chronological order.

On top of this, I have lined up the works of Chaucer in the original medieval English – not merely The Canterbury Tales, but also Troilus and Criseyde, which, someone once told me, was the only one of Shakespeare’s sources that Shakespeare did not improve upon. I have read The Canterbury Tales in Neville Coghill’s translation into modern English, but really! – how can I claim to be at all knowledgeable about English literature if I have not even made at least an attempt at reading Chaucer in the original? Ezra Pound once said: “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.” Well, that’s me told!

And there’s still Dante. I read a translation of Inferno earlier this year, and I certainly don’t mean to stop there. On top of all this, I am still reading through – slowly but surely – the King James Bible, universally acclaimed as ranking with Shakespeare’s Complete Works as the most important book in the English language, but which, it seems, hardly anyone bothers to read.

As for re-reads, I must keep re-reading Shakespeare, because I don’t want to lose touch with that body of work; I must keep re-reading Sherlock Holmes, as it’s a pleasure I feel I owe myself at the end of a hard day; and it hasn’t escaped my notice that it’s been a long time since I read anything by my two favourite novelists – Dickens and Tolstoy.

Who knows when I’ll get through it all! And who knows when yet another item in a bookshop I’ll find irresistible!

“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.