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- Fielding - 3/31 -


to Richardson's _Pamela_. It has no special merit, although some of the couplets have the true Swiftian turn. If Murphy's statement be correct, that the author "went from Eton to Leyden," it must have been planned at the latter place, where, he tells us in the preface to _Don Quixote in England_, he also began that comedy. Notwithstanding these literary distractions, he is nevertheless reported to have studied the civilians "with a remarkable application for about two years." At the expiration of this time, remittances from home failing, he was obliged to forego the lectures of the "learned Vitriarius" (then Professor of Civil Law at Leyden University), and return to London, which he did at the beginning of 1728 or the end of 1727.

The fact was that his father, never a rich man, had married again. His second wife was a widow named Eleanor Rasa; and by this time he was fast acquiring a second family. Under the pressure of his growing cares, he found himself, however willing, as unable to maintain his eldest son in London as he had previously been to discharge his expenses at Leyden. Nominally, he made him an allowance of two hundred a year; but this, as Fielding himself explained, "any body might pay that would." The consequence was, that not long after the arrival of the latter in the Metropolis he had given up all idea of pursuing the law, to which his mother's legal connections had perhaps first attracted him, and had determined to adopt the more seductive occupation of living by his wits. At this date he was in the prime of youth. From the portrait by Hogarth representing him at a time when he was broken in health and had lost his teeth, it is difficult to reconstruct his likeness at twenty. But we may fairly assume the "high-arched Roman nose" with which his enemies reproached him, the dark eyes, the prominent chin, and the humorous expression; and it is clear that he must have been tall and vigorous, for he was over six feet when he died, and had been remarkably strong and active. Add to this that he inherited a splendid constitution, with an unlimited capacity for enjoyment, and we have a fair idea of Henry Fielding at that moment of his career, when with passions "tremblingly alive all o'er"--as Murphy says--he stood,

"This way and that dividing the swift mind,"

between the professions of hackney-writer and hackney-coachman. His natural bias was towards literature, and his opportunities, if not his inclinations, directed him to dramatic writing.

It is not necessary to attempt any detailed account of the state of the stage at this epoch. Nevertheless, if only to avoid confusion in the future, it will be well to enumerate the several London theatres in 1728, the more especially as the list is by no means lengthy. First and foremost there was the old Opera House in the Haymarket, built by Vanbrugh, as far back as 1705, upon the site now occupied by Her Majesty's Theatre. This was the home of that popular Italian song which so excited the anger of thorough-going Britons; and here, at the beginning of 1728, they were performing Handel's opera of _Siroe_, and delighting the _cognoscenti_ by _Dite che fa_, the echo-air in the same composer's _Tolomeo_. Opposite the Opera House, and, in position, only "a few feet distant" from the existing Haymarket Theatre, was the New, or Little Theatre in the Haymarket, which, from the fact that it had been opened eight years before by "the French Comedians," was also sometimes styled the French House. Next comes the no-longer-existent theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which Christopher Rich had rebuilt in 1714, and which his son John had made notorious for pantomimes. Here the _Beggar's Opera_, precursor of a long line of similar productions, had just been successfully produced. Finally, most ancient of them all, there was the Theatre-Royal in Drury Lane, otherwise the King's Play House, or Old House. The virtual patentees at this time were the actors Colley Cibber, Robert Wilks, and Barton Booth. The two former were just playing the _Provok'd Husband_, in which the famous Mrs. Oldfield (Pope's "Narcissa") had created a _furore_ by her assumption of Lady Townley. These, in February 1728, were the four principal London theatres. Goodman's Fields, where Garrick made his debut, was not opened until the following year, and Covent Garden belongs to a still later date.

Fielding's first dramatic essay--or, to speak more precisely, the first of his dramatic essays that was produced upon the stage--was a five-act comedy entitled _Love in Several Masques_. It was played at Drury Lane in February 1728, succeeding the _Provok'd Husband_. In his "Preface" the young author refers to the disadvantage under which he laboured in following close upon that comedy, and also in being "contemporary with an Entertainment which engrosses the whole Talk and Admiration of the Town,"--i.e. the _Beggar's Opera_. He also acknowledges the kindness of Wilks and Cibber "previous to its Representation," and the fact that he had thus acquired their suffrages makes it doubtful whether his stay at Leyden was not really briefer than is generally supposed, or that he left Eton much earlier. In either case he must have been in London some months before _Love in Several Masques_ appeared, for a first play by an untried youth of twenty, however promising, is not easily brought upon the boards in any era; and from his own utterances in _Pasquin_, ten years later, it is clear that it was no easier then than now. The sentiments of the Fustian of that piece in the following protest probably give an accurate picture of the average dramatic experiences of Henry Fielding:--

"These little things, Mr. _Sneerwell_, will sometimes happen. Indeed a Poet undergoes a great deal before he comes to his Third Night; first with the Muses, who are humorous Ladies, and must be attended; for if they take it into their Head at any time to go abroad and leave you, you will pump your Brain in vain: Then, Sir, with the Master of a _Playhouse_ to get it acted, _whom you generally follow a quarter of a Year before you know whether he will receive it or no_; and then perhaps he tells you it won't do, and returns it you again, reserving the Subject, and perhaps the Name, which he brings out in his next _Pantomime_; but if he should receive the Play, then you must attend again to get it writ out into Parts, and Rehears'd. Well, Sir, at last the Rehearsals begin; then, Sir, begins another Scene of Trouble with the Actors, some of whom don't like their Parts, and all are continually plaguing you with Alterations: At length, after having waded thro' all these Difficulties, his [the?] Play appears on the Stage, where one Man Hisses out of Resentment to the Author; a Second out of Dislike to the House; a Third out of Dislike to the Actor; a Fourth out of Dislike to the Play; a Fifth for the Joke sake; a Sixth to keep all the rest in Company. Enemies abuse him, Friends give him up, the Play is damn'd, and the Author goes to the Devil, so ends the Farce."

To which Sneerwell replies, with much promptitude:

"The Tragedy rather, I think, Mr. _Fustian_." But whatever may have been its preliminary difficulties, Fielding's first play was not exposed to so untoward a fate. It was well received. As might be expected in a beginner, and as indeed the references in the Preface to Wycherley and Congreve would lead us to expect, it was an obvious attempt in the manner of those then all-popular writers. The dialogue is ready and witty. But the characters have that obvious defect which Lord Beaconsfield recognised when he spoke in later life of his own earliest efforts. "Books written by boys," he says, "which pretend to give a picture of manners and to deal in knowledge of human nature must necessarily be founded on affectation." To this rule the personages of _Love in Several Masques_ are no exception. They are drawn rather from the stage than from life, and there is little constructive skill in the plot. A certain booby squire, Sir Positive Trap, seems like a first indication of some of the later successes in the novels; but the rest of the _dramatis personae_ are puppets. The success of the piece was probably owing to the acting of Mrs. Oldfield, who took the part of Lady Matchless, a character closely related to the Lady Townleys and Lady Betty Modishes, in which she won her triumphs. She seems, indeed, to have been unusually interested in this comedy, for she consented to play in it notwithstanding a "slight Indisposition" contracted "by her violent Fatigue in the Part of Lady Townly," and she assisted the author with her corrections and advice--perhaps with her influence as an actress. Fielding's distinguished kinswoman Lady Mary Wortley Montagu also read the MS. Looking to certain scenes in it, the protestation in the Prologue--

"Nought shall offend the Fair Ones Ears to-day, Which they might blush to hear, or blush to say"--

has an air of insincerity, although, contrasted with some of the writer's later productions, _Love in Several Masques_ is comparatively pure. But he might honestly think that the work which had received the _imprimatur_ of a stage-queen and a lady of quality should fairly be regarded as morally blameless, and it is not necessary to bring any bulk of evidence to prove that the morality of 1728 differed from the morality of to-day.

To the last-mentioned year is ascribed a poem entitled the "_Masquerade_. Inscribed to C--t H--d--g--r. By Lemuel Gulliver, Poet Laureate to the King of Lilliput." In this Fielding made his satirical contribution to the attacks on those impure gatherings organised by the notorious Heidegger, which Hogarth had not long before stigmatised pictorially in the plate known to collectors as the "large Masquerade Ticket." As verse this performance is worthless, and it is not very forcibly on the side of good manners; but the ironic dedication has a certain touch of Fielding's later fashion. Two other poetical pieces, afterwards included in the _Miscellanies_ of 1743, also bear the date of 1728. One is _A Description of U--n G--_ (alias _New Hog's Norton_) _in Com. Hants_, which Mr. Keightley has identified with Upton Grey, near Odiham, in Hampshire. It is a burlesque description of a tumbledown country-house in which the writer was staying, and is addressed to Rosalinda. The other is entitled _To Euthalia_, from which it must be concluded that, in 1728, Sarah Andrew had found more than one successor. But in spite of some biographers, and of the apparent encouragement given to his first comedy, Fielding does not seem to have followed up dramatic authorship with equal vigour, or at all events with equal success. His real connection with the stage does not begin until January 1730, when the _Temple Beau_ was produced by Giffard the actor at the theatre in Goodman's Fields, which had then just been opened by Thomas Odell; and it may be presumed that his incentive was rather want of funds than desire of fame. _The Temple Beau_ certainly shows an advance upon its predecessor; but it is an advance in the same direction, imitation of Congreve; and although Geneste ranks it among the best of Fielding's plays, it is doubtful whether modern criticism would sustain his verdict. It ran for a short time, and was then withdrawn. The Prologue was the work of James Ralph, afterwards Fielding's colleague in the _Champion_, and it thus refers to the prevailing taste. The _Beggar's Opera_ had killed Italian song, but now a new danger had arisen,--

"Humour and Wit, in each politer Age, Triumphant, rear'd the Trophies of the Stage: But only Farce, and Shew, will now go down, And Harlequin's the Darling of the Town."

As if to confirm his friend's opinion, Fielding's next piece combined the popular ingredients above referred to. In March following he produced at the Haymarket, under the pseudonym of Scriblerus Secundus, _The Author's Farce_, with a "Puppet Show" called _The Pleasures of the Town_. In the Puppet Show, Henley, the Clare-Market Orator, and Samuel Johnson, the quack author of the popular _Hurlothrumbo_, were smartly satirised, as also was the fashionable craze for Opera and Pantomime. But the most enduring part of this odd medley is the farce which occupies the two first acts, and under thin disguises no doubt depicts much which was within the writer's experience. At all events, Luckless, the author in the play, has more than one of the characteristics which


Fielding - 3/31

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