“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.”

Later debaucheries and excesses are for the most part treated indulgently by the Battestins, portrayed as a series of lighthearted flirtations with heiresses in the country interspersed with more rumbustious adventures in the taverns and brothels of London.

And then quite suddenly, when we reach the year 1746, and Fielding is approaching forty, there is a harsher and more censorious note. Seeking as usual to make copy out of whatever came to hand, he published a sixpenny pamphlet called The Female Husband, an account based on the life of Mary Hamilton, a lesbian and a transvestite who had recently been arrested for posing as a man and marrying a woman. It is clear that the Battestins are shocked by what they call “this case of unnatural sexuality” and by the use Fielding made of it. We are told that he indulged “the darker fancies of his imagination” in order to produce “the shoddiest work of fiction he ever wrote.” “What can have prompted Fielding,” they ask, “to turn the simple fact of Mary Hamilton’s perversion into so elaborate a fantasy?”

The answer seems obvious enough: he knew a good subject when he saw it and he thought he knew best how to handle it. There was no shortage of notorious transvestites in the eighteenth century and stories about them sold well. Mother Ross of Dublin, alias Christian Davies, fought with Marlborough’s armies in Flanders and Germany until an operation necessitated by a wound received at the battle of Ramillies revealed that she was not a man. Hannah Snell, an account of whose exploits was published in 1750, claimed to have served both as a soldier and as a sailor and to have received five hundred lashes, as well as wounds in her legs and groin, without her sex being discovered. Like Fielding’s darker fancies, this sadomasochistic excursus probably had little basis in fact. But it served its purpose: Hannah managed to get a pension from the War Office as well as a string of profitable theatrical engagements. In Fielding’s case however we are not allowed to settle for the profit motive as sufficient explanation. Instead we are told, in language that echoes Fielding’s Bill of Fare, that he saw the Hamilton affair as “an instance of the power of lust to degrade human nature.” Apparently it held for him “an irresistible, yet disturbing fascination.”

It seems that this was largely because “his own sexual appetites were sufficiently ungovernable to have led him in his youth to incestuous experimentation.” The opening paragraphs of The Female Husband are then interpreted as Fielding’s own admission that a person who had actually committed things “monstrous and unnatural,…brutal and shocking,” would be the more capable of inventing them. It is suggested that his own dark doings in earlier days led now to these dark fancies of his imagination. First the poor man is accused of incestuous experimentation and then he is arraigned for allowing it to fester into pornography. There is little we can do about the second accusation. If the Battestins tell us that a man’s memories of incest with one or more of his sisters can leave him with an indecent readiness to imagine sex between two women, then we cannot gainsay them. But we can and we should do something about the first charge. If the evidence is strong enough to secure a conviction of experiment with incest then Fielding is guilty and the Battestins have greatly enhanced our knowledge and understanding of him. If not we must face the possibility that the dark fancies may be in their imagination and not in his.

The evidence is a statement by Frances Barber, a nursery maid, to the effect that Henry’s mother’s aunt, Mrs. Cottington, had encouraged him to commit indecent acts with his sister Beatrice when he was twelve and she was four. This accusation was made in the course of a lawsuit over the custody of Henry and his siblings after his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage. His father, General Edmund Fielding, who had served under John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was fighting to keep possession not only of the children but also of the estate that they should have inherited from their mother. He called several witnesses in an attempt to show that Mrs. Cottington—who would have charge of the children if he and his new wife did not—could not be trusted to look after them properly or even decently. Mrs. Barber was one of these witnesses and her job was to represent Mrs. Cottington as a lewd and lubricious woman unfit to have charge of children. Henry’s only brother, Edmund, had been aged three when these things were supposed to have taken place, so he was not really suited to the role of the disgusting great aunt’s chosen instrument. And no capital was to be made out of the other sisters, since the bedtime intimacy of little girls was not thought very shocking in the 1720s. That left Henry as the only one who could convincingly be portrayed as the precocious seducer.

The Lord Chancellor of England gave some indication of the value of Frances Barber’s testimony by finding against the side for which she appeared. The Battestins are less skeptical: they consider it “likely” that she was telling the truth and they also suggest that Fielding may have had a similarly incestuous affair with Sarah, another of his sisters. This is firstly because she bore the same name as his dead mother. Secondly, that at one time she slept in the room next to his for more than a year. Thirdly, that she came to live with him after his first wife died. Fourthly, that she later wrote stories about brothers and sisters falsely accused of sleeping together.

This last suggestion is odd, because elsewhere in the book the Battestins constantly link their speculations about what Fielding did to their accounts of what he wrote. Indeed, their narrative of his early years is so liberally laced with references to his novels that it is sometimes hard to know whether we are reading about what actually happened to him or about what he later made happen to the characters he created. And always the link is assumed to be a direct one: the fictions people invent recall the experiences they have undergone. Not however in the case of Sarah: her writings are said to “invite a biographical interpretation,” but not because they mirror the truth. On the contrary, they are assumed to have turned it on its head. The very fact that she wrote novels about false accusations and about incest that did not happen apparently means that in real life it may well have happened. The Battestins’ discussion of the whole business ends in a welter of speculation coupled with an assurance that incest between Henry and Sarah “would not be improbable.”

Doubtless some readers will think that the evidence is sufficient to find Fielding guilty of incest and others will not. But the thing that many readers will note with unease is the shift from suggestion to assertion. Incest is “not improbable” on page 29 but by page 411, when the assault on The Female Husband is mounted, it has become an accepted fact.

Nor is this the only such shift. From the preface we learn that one of the most exciting things to come out of Martin Battestin’s work has been “the disclosure of one of the best-kept secrets of eighteenth-century literature: namely, that for a period of six years, from 1734 to 1739, Fielding was a regular contributor to The Craftsman, the principal organ of the Opposition as it tried to bring down the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.” This discovery is however described as being only “potentially” exciting because it must “pass the test of time.” But when we get to page 175 we find that the test of time seems already to have been passed: there is no longer any doubt that in 1734 Fielding “began to play this clandestine role in The Craftsman.” Fifty pages later we are told not only that he assuredly wrote the newly attributed essay of May 28, 1737, On the Bill to license the Stage, but also that we can guess what he was thinking at the time: “As he wrote these words Fielding was aware that, unlike recent attempts to put the stage under restraint, this Bill had an excellent chance of succeeding.”

The evidence for the new attributions is presented in Martin Battestin’s New Essays by Henry Fielding: His Contributions to the Craftsman (1734–1739) and Other Early Journalism. It is an impressive piece of work. Having described how he “sensed Fielding’s presence repeatedly in the pages of the Craftsman,” Battestin goes on to quote Professor Schoenbaum’s warning that “intuitions, convictions, and subjective judgments generally, carry no weight as evidence.” Such intuitions must be buttressed, Schoenbaum insisted, by “the testimony of parallels.” And so Battestin gives us parallels, many hundreds of them, between Fielding’s known work and the essays he seeks to attribute to him. He also incorporates in the book a computer-assisted stylometric analysis, carried out independently by Michael Farringdon of the University College of Swansea, which for the most part supports the contentions put forward in the rest of the work. If Fielding’s authorship of the essays can be proved from internal evidence there is little doubt that Battestin’s careful and exhaustive examination of that evidence comes as near to providing proof as can reasonably be expected of any scholarly exercise.

He is by no means as careful or as exhaustive when it comes to putting the essays into their historical context. It is unfortunate that on his very first page, in the introductory note to the essay on septennial elections, he assumes that the Septennial Act was passed in 1714 rather than in 1716. It is also sad that in his determination to ply us with parallels he sometimes omits to tell us what the essays are actually about. The fifth, “Machiavelli Admires Walpole’s Foreign Policy,” deals with one of the most labyrinthine periods in the history of European diplomacy, the series of alliances and counteralliances which began in 1725 with the Treaties of Vienna and Hanover and culminated in the Treaty of Seville of 1729 and the second Treaty of Vienna of 1731. The introductory note lumps the Hanover and Seville treaties together as examples of “the Walpole ministry’s bungled foreign policy”—not a description with which all of us would agree—but it fails to tell us when they were signed or which monarchs signed them. Nor is there any attempt to provide explanatory notes when the treaties are mentioned in the essay itself.

Perhaps we should not expect this sort of information in a book primarily concerned with textual analysis. It may be that scholarship in one discipline can be perfectly sound without extending itself to another. It may even be argued that neither of the two books, neither the collection of new attributions nor the biography, can be expected to meet the expectations of historians. Edmund Clerihew Bentley has already marked out one boundary for us:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography,
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Do we need an equally clear line of demarcation between biography and history? It might seem that because the two activities have much the same subject matter—biography is about chaps taken one at a time while history is about chaps taken en masse—they should both observe the same rules. But when chaps choose, as Fielding did, to leave behind them only a minimal amount of material which historians can accept as evidence, is it possible to give a comprehensive and intelligible account of their lives within the confines and conventions of historical scholarship? Martin Battestin has his doubts about this and he voices them in his preface to the biography. Though written for the most part in the first person plural, listing the discoveries he and his wife have jointly made and acknowledging the help they have jointly received, this preface also contains a startling definition of the nature of biography written uncompromisingly and unflinchingly in the first person singular. Whatever may have been agreed between husband and wife about the collection and classification of material, it is clear that the husband took upon himself sole responsibility for interpreting that material and deciding what picture of Fielding was to emerge from it:

I found myself therefore turning for comfort to the words of the pious biographer Agnellus, who a thousand years ago, when faced with similar difficulties in discovering hard facts about his subjects, hit upon a simple, not to say inspired, solution: “I invented lives for them,” he explained, “and I do not believe them to be false.” In a sense, of course, this is the condition of all biography. “What are facts,” C. S. Lewis asked, “without interpretation?”—and the interpretation of facts being a subjective business, the lives we read in books will always be the invention of the author.

This is challenging stuff. It is no wonder that when the book was published in London last year The Times Literary Supplement described it as “heroic.” It takes courage for an academic to remind other academics that a truly objective reconstruction of the past is an impossibility. However, in the book itself Battestin has more scholarly scruples than he gives himself credit for in the preface. Some of the statements he makes are indeed purely speculative, as when he tells us that Fielding’s father “must have been an attractive figure” or that Fielding himself “must have been his mother’s darling.” But there is usually some evidence, however slender, for his more daring hypotheses.

One of the most ingenious of these is the suggestion that Fielding, who took up classical studies at Leyden University when he was twenty-one, several years after leaving Eton, did not return to London directly in the spring of 1729 but spent many months traveling in France and Italy. In support of this idea Battestin produces evidence to show that although Fielding’s creditors in Leyden were allowed to seize his property in April 1729 they did not bring an action against him until July of the following year. It is also pointed out that one of Fielding’s plays contains a character who had to leave his property behind him as surety for his debts, while another has a character who has just returned from traveling in France and Italy.

Here we see the meeting of two quite distinct disciplines. While Battestin the historian puts his own interpretation on the seizure of property and the subsequent legal proceedings, Battestin the professor of English looks to “the testimony of parallels,” not this time parallels between Fielding’s known work and that which he wishes to attribute to him, but parallels between real life and such writings as he deems relevant. Each approach has its dangers. The first may leave us with a Fielding who materializes only when there is a document to mark his passing, while the second may give us a Fielding who is what he is and does what he does only because he wrote what he wrote. Both approaches are of course available to the biographer, or at any rate to the biographer of anybody who ever wrote fiction, but the second is seldom of much use to the historian. This, rather than contrasting attitudes to the interpretation of evidence, is the real reason why history, like geography, is different from biography.

Battestin’s prefatory remarks about subjectivity cut both ways. Just as it is up to the biographer to reach his own conclusions about the evidence, so it is up to the reader to reach his own conclusions about the conclusions. This particular reader is quite content to entertain the idea that what Fielding wrote about a tour through France and Italy may point to the reality of such a tour, but he is much less content when he is invited to believe in Fielding’s unproven incestuous activities because “such a hypothesis helps to account for Fielding’s later fascination with the theme of incest in his plays and novels.” “Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past,” wrote Lytton Strachey in the preface to Eminent Victorians; and human beings who happen to have written fiction are too important to be treated as symptoms of what they have invented. “Almighty Zeus, who am I?” cries Sartre’s Aegisthus, “Am I anything more than the dread that others have of me?” It will be a sad day when dead authors become nothing more than the theories that others have about their work.

Somebody once said that the great thing about incest is that it is “a game the whole family can play.” Battestin seems to have been influenced by this observation. He thinks that Fielding’s supposed boyhood experiences with his sisters could account not only for Joseph Andrews finding out that his sweetheart may be his sister but also for Tom Jones discovering that Mrs. Waters may be his mother. And then there is old Stedfast, a character in one of the early plays who finds out in the nick of time that his bride is his daughter. If one were given to this kind of speculation one might suggest that Fielding had in mind Sir William Pynsent, who lived for many years in what Horace Walpole called “pretty notorious incest” with one of his daughters at Burton Pynsent, some ten miles from Fielding’s birthplace. Or one might even suggest that in all three cases there was nothing in mind at all but the need for a suitable dramatic device. The fact that Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro turns out to be Figaro’s mother does not necessarily mean that either Beaumarchais or da Ponte slept with their sisters.

Fortunately Battestin becomes steadily less reliant on inferences of this kind as the book progresses and as newly discovered evidence becomes more germane. Halfway through the book we reach September 1741 and Fielding’s first letter to his friend James Harris, the same letter in which he confesses his detestation of letter writing. Horace Walpole had little time for Harris, dismissing him as “a very pliant courtier and wretched orator,” but the Fielding-Harris correspondence, one of the most valuable fruits of the Battestin’s researches, suggests that he was a civilized and kindly man who was remarkably charitable about Fielding’s constant attempts to sponge off him. “With all his command of rhetoric,” Battestin says at one point, “Fielding struggled to make Harris understand that he was his ‘dear Friend’ first and only incidentally a plentiful and patient source of money.”

Another important discovery has been the correspondence between Fielding and his patron the Duke of Bedford, sometimes carried on directly but more often through Bedford’s agent Robert Butcher. It was with Bedford’s help that Fielding was appointed justice of the peace, first for Westminster in October 1748 and then for Middlesex at the beginning of the following year. He had been a practicing barrister on the western circuit for several years and his new dignity as a magistrate made him at once more respectable and more vulnerable. On the one hand he was constantly lampooned by those he had left behind, his rivals and enemies in the days when he had risked government wrath both as a playwright and as a journalist, and on the other he was disdained by those more gentlemanly beings with whom he now had to associate. Horace Walpole recounted with a sneer how Richard Rigby, one of the more raffish of Bedford’s political followers, found Fielding “banqueting with a blind man, a whore, and three Irishmen, on some cold mutton and a bone of ham, both in one dish, and the dirtiest cloth. He never stirred nor asked them to sit.”

Though his surroundings may have been squalid and his manners not to the liking of Rigby and his fashionable friends, Fielding was far from being a spent force. He was determined, says Battestin, “to apply his talents, whether as magistrate or author, to repair England’s constitution.” Between them he and his half brother, John, also a Westminster magistrate, made the court in Bow Street a byword for fairness and efficiency and humanity. They set up the Bow Street Runners, the nearest thing eighteenth-century London had to a police force, and they published a series of forward-looking proposals for social and judicial reform. But the proposals were largely ignored and England’s constitution remained unrepaired while Fielding’s own constitution continued to weaken. At last, at the end of June 1754, he set off for Lisbon to see if a warmer climate would restore him to health. It did not; he died there three months later at the age of forty-seven.

All this Battestin chronicles sympathetically and vividly. Most vivid of all is his picture of Fielding being hauled on board ship at Rotherhithe, “like so much dead freight,” while the sailors and the watermen mocked and jeered. Whatever reservations we may have about some of its more venturesome speculations, there can be no doubt that this is the most learned and the most readable life of Fielding we are likely to see for a very long time.

This Issue

November 22, 1990