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- Fielding - 20/31 -


Lady Bellaston, as Fielding has carefully explained (chap. i. Book xiv.), was not a typical, but an exceptional, member of society; and although there were eighteenth-century precedents for such alliances (e.g. Miss Edwards and Lord Anne Hamilton, Mrs. Upton and General Braddock,) it is a question whether in a picture of average English life it was necessary to deal with exceptions of this kind, or, at all events, to exemplify them in the principal personage. But the discussion of this subject would prove endless. Right or wrong, Fielding has certainly suffered in popularity for his candour in this respect, since one of the wisest and wittiest books ever written cannot, without hesitation, be now placed in the hands of women or very young people. Moreover, this same candour has undoubtedly attracted to its pages many, neither young nor women, whom its wit finds unintelligent, and its wisdom leaves unconcerned.

But what a brave wit it is, what a wisdom after all, that is contained in this wonderful novel! Where shall we find its like for richness of reflection--for inexhaustible good-humour--for large and liberal humanity! Like Fontenelle, Fielding might fairly claim that he had never cast the smallest ridicule upon the most infinitesimal of virtues; it is against hypocrisy, affectation, insincerity of all kinds, that he wages war. And what a keen and searching observation,--what a perpetual faculty of surprise,--what an endless variety of method! Take the chapter headed ironically _A Receipt to regain the lost Affections of a Wife_, in which Captain John Blifil gives so striking an example of Mr. Samuel Johnson's just published _Vanity of Human Wishes_, by dying suddenly of apoplexy while he is considering what he will do with Mr. Allworthy's property (when it reverts to him); or that admirable scene, commended by Macaulay, of Partridge at the Playhouse, which is none the worse because it has just a slight look of kinship with that other famous visit which Sir Roger de Coverley paid to Philips's _Distrest Mother_. Or take again, as utterly unlike either of these, that burlesque Homeric battle in the churchyard, where the "sweetly-winding Stour" stands for "reedy Simois," and the bumpkins round for Greeks and Trojans! Or take yet once more, though it is woful work to offer bricks from this edifice which _has_ already (in a sense) outlived the Escorial, [Footnote: The Escorial, it will be remembered, was partially burned in 1872.] the still more diverse passage which depicts the changing conflict in Black George's mind as to whether he shall return to Jones the sixteen guineas that he has found:--

"_Black George_ having received the Purse, set forward towards the Alehouse; but in the Way a Thought occurred whether he should not detain this Money likewise. His Conscience, however, immediately started at this Suggestion, and began to upbraid him with Ingratitude to his Benefactor. To this his Avarice answered, 'That his conscience should have considered that Matter before, when he deprived poor _Jones_ of his 500l. That having quietly acquiesced in what was of so much greater Importance, it was absurd, if not downright Hypocrisy, to affect any Qualms at this Trifle.'--In return to which, Conscience, like a good Lawyer, attempted to distinguish between an absolute Breach of Trust, as here where the Goods were delivered, and a bare Concealment of what was found, as in the former Case. Avarice presently treated this with Ridicule, called it a Distinction without a Difference, and absolutely insisted, that when once all Pretensions of Honour and Virtue were given up in any one Instance, that there was no Precedent for resorting to them upon a second Occasion. In short, poor Conscience had certainly been defeated in the Argument, had not Fear stept in to her Assistance, and very strenuously urged, that the real Distinction between the two Actions, did not lie in the different degrees of Honour, but of Safety: For that the secreting the 500l. was a Matter of very little Hazard; whereas the detaining the sixteen Guineas was liable to the utmost Danger of Discovery.

"By this friendly Aid of Fear, Conscience obtained a compleat Victory in the Mind of _Black George_, and after making him a few Compliments on his Honesty, forced him to deliver the Money to _Jones_."

When one remembers that this is but one of many such passages, and that the book, notwithstanding the indulgence claimed by the author in the Preface, and despite a certain hurry at the close, is singularly even in its workmanship, it certainly increases our respect for the manly genius of the writer, who, amid all the distractions of ill-health and poverty, could find the courage to pursue and perfect such a conception. It is true that both Cervantes and Bunyan wrote their immortal works in the confinement of a prison. But they must at least have enjoyed the seclusion so needful to literary labour; while _Tom Jones_ was written here and there, at all times and in all places, with the dun at the door and the wolf not very far from the gate. [Footnote: Salisbury, in the neighbourhood of which _Tom Jones_ is laid, claims the originals of some of the characters. Thwackum is said to have been Hele, a schoolmaster; Square, one Chubb, a Deist; and Dowling the lawyer a person named Stillingfleet.]

The little sentence quoted some pages back from Walpole's letters is sufficient proof, if proof were needed, of its immediate success. Andrew Millar was shrewd enough, despite his constitutional confusion, and he is not likely to have given an additional L100 to the author of any book without good reason. But the indications of that success are not very plainly impressed upon the public prints. The _Gentleman's Magazine_ for 1749, which, as might be expected from Johnson's connection with it, contains ample accounts of his own tragedy of _Irene_ and Richardson's recently-published _Clarissa_, has no notice of _Tom Jones_, nor is there even any advertisement of the second edition issued in the same year. But, in the emblematic frontispiece, it appears under _Clarissa_ (and sharing with that work a possibly unintended proximity to a sprig of laurel stuck in a bottle of Nantes), among a pile of the books of the year; and in the "poetical essays" for August, one Thomas Cawthorn breaks into rhymed panegyric. "Sick of her fools," sings this enthusiastic but scarcely lucid admirer--

"Sick of her fools, great _Nature_ broke the jest, And _Truth_ held out each character to test, When _Genius_ spoke: Let _Fielding_ take the pen! Life dropt her mask, and all mankind were men."

There were others, however, who would scarcely have echoed the laudatory sentiments of Mr. Cawthorn. Among these was again the excellent Richardson, who seems to have been wholly unpropitiated by the olive branch held out to him in the _Jacobite's Journal_. His vexation at the indignity put upon _Pamela_ by _Joseph Andrews_ was now complicated by a twittering jealousy of the "spurious brat," as he obligingly called _Tom Jones_, whose success had been so "unaccountable." In these circumstances, some of the letters of his correspondents must have been gall and wormwood to him. Lady Bradshaigh, for instance, under her _nom de guerre_ of "Belfour," tells him that she is fatigued with the very name of the book, having met several young ladies who were for ever talking of their Tom Jones's, "for so they call their favourites," and that the gentlemen, on their side, had their Sophias, one having gone so far as to give that all-popular name to his "Dutch mastiff puppy." But perhaps the best and freshest exhibition (for, as far as can be ascertained, it has never hitherto been made public) of Richardson's attitude to his rival is to be found in a little group of letters in the Forster collection at South Kensington. The writers are Aaron Hill and his daughters; but the letters do not seem to have been known to Mrs. Barbauld, whose last communication from Hill is dated November 2, 1748. Nor are they to be found in Hill's own Correspondence. The ladies, it appears, had visited Richardson at Salisbury Court in 1741, and were great admirers of _Pamela_, and the "divine _Clarissa_." Some months after _Tom Jones_ was published, Richardson (not yet having brought himself to read the book) had asked them to do so, and give him their opinion as to its merits. Thereupon Minerva and Astraea, who despite their names, and their description of themselves as "Girls of an untittering Disposition," must have been very bright and lively young persons, began seriously "to lay their two wise heads together" and "hazard this Discovery of their Emptiness." Having "with much ado got over some Reluctance, that was bred by a familiar coarseness in the _Title_," they report "much (masqu'd) merit" in the "whole six volumes" --"a double merit, both of Head, and _Heart_."

Had it been the latter only it would be more worthy of Mr. Richardson's perusal; but, say these considerate pioneers, if he does spare it his attention, he must only do so at his leisure, for the author "introduces All his Sections (and too often interweaves the _serious_ Body of his meanings), with long Runs of bantering Levity, which his [Fielding's] Good sense may suffer by Effect of." "It is true (they continue), he seems to wear this Lightness, as a grave Head sometime wears a _Feather_: which tho' He and Fashion may consider as an ornament, Reflection will condemn, as a Disguise, and _covering_." Then follows a brief excursus, intended for their correspondent's special consolation, upon the folly of treating grave things lightly; and with delightful sententiousness the letter thus concludes:--

"Mean while, it is an honest pleasure, which we take in adding, that (exclusive of one wild, detach'd, and independent Story of a _Man of the Hill_, that neither brings on Anything, nor rose from Anything that went before it) All the changefull windings of the Author's Fancy carry on a course of regular Design; and end in an extremely moving Close, where Lives that seem'd to wander and run different ways, meet, All, in an instructive Center.

"The whole Piece consists of an inventive Race of Disapointments and Recoveries. It excites Curiosity, and holds it watchful. It has just and pointed Satire; but it is a partial Satire, and confin'd, too narrowly: It sacrifices to Authority, and Interest. Its _Events_ reward Sincerity, and punish and expose Hypocrisy; shew Pity and Benevolence in amiable Lights, and Avarice and Brutality in very despicable ones. In every Part It has Humanity for its Intention: In too many, it _seems_ wantoner than It was meant to be: It has bold shocking Pictures; and (I fear) [Footnote: The "pen-holder" is the fair Astraea.] not unresembling ones, in high Life, and in low. And (to conclude this too adventurous Guess- work, from a Pair of forward Baggages) woud, every where, (we think,) _deserve_ to please,--if stript of what the Author thought himself most sure to _please by_.

"And thus, Sir, we have told you our sincere opinion of _Tom Jones_....

"Your most profest Admirers and most humble Servants,

"Astraea and Minerva Hill.

"PLAISTOW the 27th of July 1749."

Richardson's reply to this ingenuous criticism is dated the 4th of August. His requesting two young women to study and criticise a book which he has heard strongly condemned as immoral,--his own obvious familiarity with what he has not read but does not scruple to censure,-- his transparently jealous anticipation of its author's ability,--all this forms a picture so characteristic alike of the man and the time that no apology is needed for the following textual extract:--

"I must confess, that I have been prejudiced by the Opinion of Several judicious Friends against the truly coarse-titled Tom Jones; and so have been discouraged from reading it.--I was told, that it was a rambling Collection of Waking Dreams, in which Probability was not observed: And that it had a very bad Tendency. And I had Reason to think that the Author intended for his Second View (His _first_, to fill his Pocket, by accommodating it to the reigning Taste) in writing it, to whiten a vicious Character, and to make Morality bend to his Practices. What Reason had he to make his Tom illegitimate, in an Age where Keeping is


Fielding - 20/31

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