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Fielding, Sterne, and Dickens

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne. By Wilbur L. Cross. 2 vols. New Haven: The Yale University Press. $7.00.

Fielding the Novelist. By Frederic T. Blanchard. New Haven: The Yale University Press. $6.00.

The Days of Dickens. By Arthur L. Hayward. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $6.00.

From the outbreak of the World War it became more difficult to place a serious “scholarly” book with a publisher in America, and despite the flux of biographies and other non-fiction publications it is scarcely exaggeration to say that even with them popularity rather than accuracy has been the primary desideratum of author and publisher alike. When such books have been as fascinatingly presented as “The Pilgrimage of Henry James” with the imaginative conjectures not improperly impinging upon the field of critical investigation, they may be read with as much pleasure and as little compunction as a novel. The art of others like “Ariel” might cause the recording angel to blot out (without the aid of a Shandian tear) whatever marks were made against some trivial inaccuracies. But many of the popular biographies have been vulgar or written with cheap facility. Perhaps it will be the university presses at the last that will save the finest fruits of investigation to the scholarship of America. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of North Carolina, to name leading ones, are performing as definite an educational service through the fine scholastic idealism of their publications as they are through the class room. The imprint of the Yale Press upon a book is as really a guarantee of its value as the government’s stamp upon the minted dollar. Two books before me bear that seal; Frederick T. Blanchard’s “Fielding the Novelist” and Wilbur Cross’s “The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne.” Of either book it might justly be said, “This is a book fit to be sent as an ambassador to the universities of the world.”


It was apparently of the man, Henry Fielding, that Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote something about the evil that men do living after them and their good often being interred with their bones. Such at least is the case that Mr. Blanchard makes. Not, of course, that the best of Fielding may not be living in his books: it is the history of a reputation that Mr. Blanchard has written. And he proves his case, in the language of an enthusiastic voter in meeting, “overwhelmingly and unanimously.” The obvious criticism of the book is implied right there: it is at times heavy with minutiae of citation and in places prolix (the only respect in which it is prolix, by the way) through repetition. Both faults no doubt are minor and are due to the fidelity with which an historical plan with a summiry for conclusion is adhered to with persistent consistency (big words, both of them!). The familiar story, told by Walpole, of Fielding at table dining with “a blind man, three Irishmen, and a whore, on some cold mutton and a bone of ham, both in one dish, and the cussedest dirtiest cloth!” is traced through its devastating repetitions through nearly two centuries. The lie is nailed. Fielding sat at dinner with his brother, his perfectly respectable wife, and his invited guests. The anecdote is typical. So is the use of it; like a Banquo of slander it rises disturbingly to make its point: so Fielding’s enemies hated and fought him. Political, religious, social, and personal opponents, they were detractors all, who used poison gases. Easy biography was known before our day. Murphy wrote the first Fielding life with the aid of the hostile anecdotes, and without injury to his own eyes. Thackeray, for all his debt to Fielding and admiration for his work, prepared his lecture and then put it in his book of Humorists with as little sense of an investigative conscience as a modern reporter on the alleged typical daily newspaper. Thackeray no doubt was to blame but his heart was not at fault. I am not so sure as Mr. Blanchard that it was the heart that was wrong with Samuel Richardson and the moralists; or even Dr. Johnson and Horace Walpole. I agree with Mr. Blanchard: the morality of Henry Fielding was sound. I stand for Tom Jones against the hypocrites and canting time-servers; but all defenders of conventions, even false conventions, are not hypocrites. A man may be dishonest intellectually, and perfectly honest at heart. I’ve little doubt myself that Sam Richardson believed the things he wrote about Fielding: no doubt he wanted to believe them. Not understanding the morality of Fielding, he hated what seemed to him the immoralities of his books.

“Fielding the Novelist” is less descriptive of Mr. Blanchard’s book than his subtitle “A Study in Literary Reputation”; but it is a model of scholarship in the care and completeness with which the mutations of Fielding’s personal and literary fame are traced. And if the book is carefully read, a pretty full knowledge of Fielding is gathered by the way.


To Professor Wilbur l. Cross of Yale, credit is given by the author of “Fielding the Novelist” for stabilizing the just and complete reappraisement of Fielding in his “History of Henry Fielding” of 1918. With his discriminating, carefully documented volumes on the shelves of every good library, there is no longer an excuse for the smvval of the old scandals or for believing that Henry Fielding was either a dissolute man or an immoral author. Professor Cross had already done a similar task for the personality of dear old whimsical Laurence Sterne in 1909. His recent work “The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne,” brought out in two handsome volumes by the Yale Press, has all the significance of a new and important definitive study of one of the most engaging figures in literature. It is a book that may fairly stand as a model of scholarly biographical writing. Fnil, detailed, documented, critical, it is yet full of the meat of narrative incident, juicy with human interest. Laurence Sterne, neither white-washed nor slandered, emerges from Mr. Cross’s pages deliciously. His writings are shown as a part of himself and he is reanimated, with astonishing verisimilitude, as a character in his own books. Capricious, sentimental, humorous in the old as well as the modern sense, but above all human, Sterne is a fascinating personality. Mr. Cross makes one forget to excuse or to blame; we simply enjoy a delightful companion as his friends enjoyed him. This is the literary biography that I should wish American authorship to be known by in other countries. It is better reading for a thoughtful reader than the flighty cleverness or the brilliant futilities of most of the widely read biographical essays and psycho-analytic guesses. It is rich, too, in fresh material including new letters of Sterne, who always wrote entertainly whether in sermons, letters, or the talk of Uncle Toby.

“Here in the ‘Sentimental Journey’ occurs Sterne’s beautiful rendering of the French proverb: A brebis tondue Dieti mesure le vent. ‘God tempers the wind,’ said the unfortunate maid of Moulins, ‘to the shorn lamb’ ”; so writes Mr. Cross. None of the spirit of “tempering” marks his biography. He writes with the fullest sympathy and understanding, but he sets down the facts, nothing suppressed, nothing extenuated. In the hands of a less skilful and interesting writer the very exactness and completeness of Mr. Cross’s method would spell exhaustion and boredom. But this book in two full and closely printed volumes is a joy to read, entertaining as one of Sterne’s own books—and in fact replete with quotation and with new Sterne documents. Nothing short of the old-fashioned quarterly-type of review in the form of a long essay on Sterne and his works would do justice to Professor Cross’s notable volumes. Short of that, the best the reviewer can do is to refer the reader to the biography itself with the assurance that it is an altogether delightful, admirable, and distinguished book.


Mr. Hayward’s book on the habits and haunts of Victorians is pleasant, and certainly not heavy or over-serious, reading. “The Days of Dickens” is a book for the “general reader” but preferably the reader who knows his Dickens and his Thackeray. It is not brilliantly written as Mr. Beer’s “The Mauve Decade,” nor minutely full and chronological after the delightful fashion of Mark Sullivan’s “Our Times,” but it does for England of the first half of the nineteeth century pretty much what Mr. Sullivan’s book does for recent decades in America; and it is almost as richly illustrated and more beautifully printed. It evokes the past entertainiy and usefully, without much aid of the imagination or of clumsy footnotes or wearisome fullness. Though Dickens is quoted at length, and sometimes Thackeray, yet the volume is not in the least “a reader’s handbook”: Dickens and his characters are simply met now and then on the road. On the other hand, from prize fighters to princes, from “Cyder cellars” to Vauxhall and Almack’s, from the songs they sang to the Great Western and the Great Eastern on which they traveled, the worthy Victorians, low and high, are pictured as they lived. The impression the reader receives is that not all Victorians were as “respectable” as the term “Victorian” connotes for most of us. Mr. Hayward’s book is good reporting—and good reading.


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