Rogue Genius

Henry Fielding: A Life

by Martin C. Battestin, with Ruthe R. Battestin
Routledge, 738 pp., $45.00

New Essays by Henry Fielding: His Contributions to the Craftsman (1734–1739) and Other Early Journalism

by Martin C. Battestin
University Press of Virginia, 604 pp., $50.00

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said Dr. Johnson. Few men exemplified the dictum better than Henry Fielding. He was a great writer, a hard-working journalist, and a prolific playwright as well as perhaps the first and greatest of English novelists, but he was certainly not a great letter writer. On the rare occasions when his friends did receive missives from him they were expected to cherish them since each was “a certain Token of a violent Affection,” since the writing of them was “an Exercise…I so much detest, that I believe it is not in the Power of three Persons to expose my epistolary Correspondence.” Even though he was born into one of the great ages of English letter writing he seldom put pen to paper except to earn money, ask for money, or explain why he could not repay money. Other kinds of correspondence were not only wasteful, taking up time and energy that could be put to more profitable use, but also dangerous: they might well put it into the recipients’ power to make public things that were better kept private.

Fielding had no intention of leaving behind him any more footprints in the sands of time than were strictly necessary. But time has had its revenge and now we see him instead through the eyes of his enemies:

Brown as a Jakes, his Snuff-strown Chin he rais’d;
While his big Plug he chew’d, the People gaz’d.
The pungent Grains (a Present for his Vote)
Heighten’d the yellow Horrors of his Coat.

This was Fielding as lampooned by an anonymous satirist in 1750, a fortnight before his forty-third birthday. He had long been notorious for his addiction to tobacco, which he sometimes chewed but more often took as snuff. In his younger days he had been an impressive and even intimidating figure of a man, powerfully built and exceptionally tall—over six feet at a time when average height in the Western world was considerably less than it is in the twentieth century—but now he was crippled by gout and had less than five years to live. He had always been excessively fond of eating and drinking, so that in his more penitent moments he feared he was being “visited for his sins.” Indeed, the best known and most popular of his compositions during his lifetime was neither a novel nor a political satire but a song called “The Roast Beef of Old England,” which it soon became customary for theater audiences to sing before and after and even during performances.

Its burden was that good plain English roast beef “ennobled our hearts and enriched our blood,” whereas fancy foreign food was merely the outward and visible sign of the superstition and slavery and decadence which prevailed on the other side of the English Channel. In 1749, some fifteen years after the song was first heard, Fielding’s friend Hogarth established it even more securely in the canon of…

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