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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 English chauvinism by making it the subtitle of his immensely successful print The Gate of Calais, a picture of a side of English beef being carried past cringing and starving Frenchmen. Fielding the novelist never put anything quite so theatrical as this before his readers, but he did ensure that his hero Tom Jones, after having to swallow “a large mess of chicken, or rather cock, broth” in the company of an expatriate French officer and other military gentlemen, was later treated to a suitably uplifting discourse from the Man of the Hill on the shortcomings of foreigners, followed by a proper English meal consisting of “three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox.”

Drinking as well as eating had its political overtones. Tories and Jacobites, supposedly always plotting to reestablish Stuart despotism and the Roman Catholic religion, were ready to drink claret from France, England’s natural enemy and the country which gave the Stuarts shelter and support; but Whigs, true freeborn Englishmen loyal to the Hanoverian dynasty, must prefer the wines of Portugal, unfortunately a Roman Catholic country but nevertheless England’s most reliable European ally and consistently hostile to the French. Fielding was loud in his praises of port, a good bottle of which, he averred, “will make you drunk but never sick.” But these bibulous niceties were soon forgotten: Thackeray, lecturing on Fielding in 1851, conjured up a picture of him with “inked ruffles and tarnished lace coat,” stained not with port but with claret.

His genius had been nursed on sack posset and not on dishes of tea,” Thackeray continued, “His muse had sung the loudest in tavern choruses, had seen the daylight streaming in over thousands of emptied bowls, and reeled home to chambers on the shoulders of the watchman. Richardson’s goddess was attended by old maids and dowagers, and fed on muffins and bohea.” Whether or not Richardson drank tea and was attended by elderly ladies, there can be no doubt about Fielding’s carousing. He freely admitted that he quickly forgot his good resolutions about temperance as soon as he met with “a good dinner, or a bottle of good wine, and like my company, and think they like me.” He was a convivial man and he wrote convivial books.

Thackeray was neither the first nor the last to think that Richardson’s books were rather less convivial than Fielding’s. The exercise of comparing and contrasting the two writers has always been popular and most critics have come up with antitheses a good deal more solemn than that between sack posset and tea. Fielding’s first novel, Joseph Andrews, was originally conceived as a satire on Richardson’s Pamela, one of the greatest literary successes of the eighteenth century; and it has often been said that the two main streams of English fiction spring from the two books. Pamela has been described as the first great domestic novel, the first novel of character and introspection, while Joseph Andrews, the title page of which proclaimed that it was “written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes,” has been seen as the first great English comic novel in the picaresque tradition stemming from Don Quixote.

Since “picaresque” derives from the Spanish word for a rogue it was hardly to be expected that Fielding’s work would be as morally uplifting or as suited to the squeamish as that of Richardson. Thackeray, dismissing Richardson as “a puny cockney bookseller pouring out endless volumes of sentimental twaddle” and hailing Fielding as “an athletic and boisterous genius,” went on to portray the two of them hurling insults at each other as a drunken Fielding battered on the shutters of Richardson’s shop in the early hours of the morning. The truth was rather different, as Martin and Ruthe Battestin make clear in their new biography of Fielding. In fact Fielding seems to have had some respect for Richardson’s work and could be surprisingly generous in his praise of it, though Richardson for his part remained implacably hostile to his rival, sneering constantly at his “continued lowness” and decrying Joseph Andrews as “a lewd and ungenerous engraftment” on his own much prized Pamela.

Just how low and lewd was this picaresque rogue, this wine-stained and tobacco-stained debauchee? Certainly there was no lack of contemporary condemnation. When Londoners felt a series of earth tremors shortly after the publication of Tom Jones they were told that God was angry with them because they had dared to read and enjoy such an immoral book. When Hannah More mentioned it to Dr. Johnson he was much offended. “I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book,” he told her, “I am sorry to hear you have read it; a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work.” He seems to have confused content and intent. Whether or not Tom Jones set out to corrupt, there is no doubt that it was a book about corruption. Fielding said as much himself in his “Introduction to the Work, or Bill of Fare to the Feast.” Just as an innkeeper’s bill of fare told customers what they might expect to eat, so Fielding’s told them what they might expect to read. And it warned them that this same subject matter might undergo transformation for the worse, just as good honest beef could be degraded and corrupted by fashionable foreign cooks:

The provision then which we have here made is no other than HUMAN NATURE…. We shall represent Human Nature at first to the keen appetite of the reader, in that plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragoo it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford.

It was dangerous to push the metaphor too far. Men and women did not view those they ravished or who ravished them as mere food and drink. If corruption entered in, if human nature was degraded and hashed and ragooed, it was because of processes far different from those of the digestive tract: “How much soever we may be in love with an excellent sirloin of beef…yet do we never smile, nor ogle, nor dress, nor flatter, nor endeavour by any other arts or tricks to gain the affection of the said beef.” After Tom Jones had belabored the villain Northerton and rescued Mrs. Waters he sat down to a meal with her while she ogled and flattered him outrageously. For a while “the God of Eating (if there be any such deity; for I do not confidently assert it) preserved his votary”; but once dinner was over and the cloth removed Mrs. Waters renewed her onslaught and finally “enjoyed the usual fruits of her victory.” The boisterous and athletic roistering upon which Thackeray could afford to smile, even in the 1850s, had given way to athleticism of quite another kind about which he must needs be silent in the face of his Victorian audience.

In the performance of any office of nature there must be a sensible and necessary pleasure attend it,” Fielding wrote, “how is it possible to satisfy hunger without enjoying the pleasure?” And if, believing this, he created lusty characters whose bodily urges led them on from fisticuffs to feasting and from feasting to fornication, who is to say he was being lewd or low? Certainly not the Battestins—or so it would at first appear. They produce evidence to suggest that one of his earliest amatory exploits, his attempt at the age of eighteen to seduce a wealthy fifteen-year-old cousin called Sarah Andrew, resulted in the girl’s guardian, Andrew Tucker, appearing before the local town corporation and swearing on oath that he was “in fear of his life or of some bodily hurt to be done to him by Henry ffielding Gent and his servant.” Provoked by this pusillanimous appeal to authority, Fielding posted up a public notice “to give Notice to all the World that Andrew Tucker and his son John Tucker are Clowns, and Cowards.”

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