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The Two Sides of Henry Fielding

ISSUE:  Summer 1991
Henry Fielding: A Life. By Martin C. and Ruthe R. Battestin. Roudedge, Chapman & Hall. $45.00.

Henry Fielding is one of those writers who seem to demand biography. The works of Fielding or Keats or Woolf appear to have a personality of their own which in some manner persuades us that we should know more about the man or woman who wrote them, and that if we do we will understand something, something important, about the works. One of course does not want to put this baldly; after all, since Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction we know better than to identify the creator too closely with his or her creation. And yet that wisecracking, learned fellow who narrates Tom Jones is somehow Henry Fielding; we would like to know in just what ways. Martin and Ruthe Battestin’s splendid new biography will go a long way toward explaining the matter, insofar as artistic creativity can be explained.

They show that Fielding came by both his wit and his learning naturally, as it were. In a fascinating review of his ancestry, Battestin—and I will henceforth for the sake of convenience use the singular to denote the team—highlights the dual nature of that ancestry: on his mother’s side the solemn legal scholars of the Gould family, exemplified by his grandfather Sir Henry, Justice of the Queen’s Bench, on whose gravestone was carved the characterizing adjective “Prudentissimi.” On his father’s side flamboyant aristocrats, kinsmen to the Earls of Denbigh and personified by father Edmund Fielding himself: professional soldier, gambler, careless parent who sired children and then forgot them. The contradictory sides of Fielding’s character, Battestin comments, seem to have been bred in the bone, “the lawyer that he became being already present in his grandfather, Judge Gould, and the high-living, intemperate rake that he was in his early years being the legacy of his father’s own pleasure-loving disposition.”

The Goulds were West Country people, and the novelist was born in 1707 at his grandfather’s house, Sharphem Park, in Glastonbury, Somerset. The house and its glorious prospect of Tor Hill were transmuted in Fielding’s imagination into some aspects of Squire Allworthy’s Paradise Hall— “Paradise” was one of the local names for Glastonbury itself. In 1710 the family moved into scarcely less celestial environs, when Judge Gould acquired a handsome farm, proper for landed gentry, in East Stour, Dorset. The house was intended for his daughter Sarah Gould Fielding and her expanding family—Fielding had two younger sisters by that year and three more by 1714. Edmund, by now a colonel, was for the most part off pursuing his military career, punctuated, obviously, with visits home to Dorset. In April 1718 Sarah died, leaving her son Henry as the eldest child, son and heir, to be cosseted and indulged by relatives like those young male characters in his later novels who are on their way to trouble: Mr. Wilson in Joseph Andrews, for example. Father Edmund meanwhile remarried right away and set about spawning a second large family in London.

Into this idyllic West Country setting, Battestin hypothesizes, trouble may have intruded in the form of incest between Fielding and one or more of his sisters. The discussion of this dark subject is a mark of how completely Battestin’s work has superseded that of his predecessors, Wilbur Cross (1918) and F. Holmes Dudden (1952). Cross and Dudden probably could not and certainly would not have addressed this biographical problem; Battestin faces it squarely, without either prurience or evasion.

His evidence is entirely circumstantial and boils down to two considerations. The first is opportunity: all those sisters and their one big brother together in a large, isolated country house. The second is thematic reflection, that is, the fact that the theme of incest recurs with such surprising insistency in the works both of Henry and his sister Sarah Fielding—and rarely anywhere else in the fiction of the time. Sometimes the theme is organically intrinsic to the plot, as in Tom Jones’ richly comic liaison with his “mother” at Upton, but sometimes it seems to appear from nowhere. The very curious interpolated episode in Amelia, for example, in which Booth tells of the visit to his dying favorite sister; what is it doing there? The sister expires in Booth’s arms and the episode reveals a “previously unsuspected, emotional conflict, the claim of his “Passion” for his sister being set in opposition to his “Love” for Amelia. . . ..” After the sister’s sudden appearance and disappearance Booth is able to marry Amelia. Battestin sensibly concludes that Henry and Sarah’s preoccupation with incest—particularly brother-sister incest—may have had its origin in accusations brought against them and the other children during the bitter internecine wrangling over the estate, following their mother’s death and the remarriage of their father.

Edmund Fielding, as Battestin portrays him, was feckless and improvident but basically a kindly man, who arranged for his eldest son to go to the best school in England, Eton, and supported him generously there. But not generously enough, by Henry’s standards; he left Eton with an excellent classical education, a circle of friends, and a sense that his abilities were greater than his financial resources. “Fielding,” Battestin drily remarks, “had many admirable qualities, but the Christian virtue of humility was not among them.” Trouble between proud father and proud son was absolutely predictable, and it came. It is significant that Fielding’s heroes Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews have wise mentors, Squire Allworthy and Parson Adams, rather than fathers: the real article Fielding may have found too difficult to handle in his fiction.

Battestin writes at length about Fielding’s career in the theatre, a part of the author’s life which critics and biographers have tended to treat as simply a preface to his novel-writing, something that Fielding needed to get behind him and was inadvertently assisted in the process by Sir Robert Walpole, who passed the Licensing Act in 1737 enforcing preperformance censorship and thus excluded the gadfly playwright from the London stage. There is of course something to this version of events or it would not have lasted as long as it has, but the important point that Battestin makes (as Robert D. Hume also has done, in his recent book on Fielding and the stage) is that Fielding’s years in the theatre were not devoted solely, or even principally, to Walpole-bashing but were a period of great, creative theatrical innovation. Fielding took chances in his dramatic practice that we are only now beginning to appreciate fully, and he was successful at it, very successful. Battestin documents these activities in fascinating detail and concludes, as does Hume, that Fielding was the dominant force in the theatre of his time and made more money as a playwright than any other dramatic author of 18th-century Britain.

Fielding’s years as a novelist, with the publication of Joseph Andrews in 1742, of Tom Jones in 1749, and of Amelia in 1751 are more familiar to us because they have been the focus of critical attention, as they should be. What is less well known is Fielding’s simultaneous career as a lawyer. After the Licensing Act forced him out of the theatre, he turned to the law in order to support himself and his family. Readers who are lawyers will be especially interested in the ordeal Fielding went through at the Middle Temple on his way to qualifying for the Bar. The annotated and interleaved copies of his law books still exist, testifying to the hard work he put in, but he also had time for what a contemporary called “the wild enjoyments of the town.” This same contemporary noted that “amidst all his dissipations, nothing could suppress the thirst he had for knowledge, and the delight he felt in reading.” Here again, as Battestin demonstrates, is that doubled character: the inquiring intellectual from his mother’s side and the flamboyant aristocrat from his father’s.

Fielding had need of his intellectual energy because father Edmund died in 1741, having married for a fourth time. He was by then a lieutenant general—and a bankrupt. Henry’s hopes and expectations of some kind of financial legacy were buried with his father at St. Bride’s, Fleet Street. He was on his own.

The astonishing range of his intellectual talents was fully demonstrated during the next ten years, when he published not only the series of novels beginning with Shamela and culminating in Tom Jones but also his Miscellanies in three volumes, two more plays, and political papers and pamphlets almost beyond numbering. All the while he was pursuing his career as a lawyer, following the Western Assizes in their circuit from Winchester to Salisbury to Dorchester and so on around; immersed in those country towns and the legal and criminal societies which make up much of the narrative fabric of his novels. His appointment as “Court Justice,” magistrate for London, Middlesex and Westminster, in 1749 paralleled the publication of Tom Jones in the same year. Fielding’s energy and talent had carried him to eminence in both law and literature.

The one realm was no doubt good for the other; certainly his life in the law enriched immeasurably his fiction. As Battestin writes, “Like that of Joyce’s Dublin, the world in which Tom Jones lives and through which he moves is a world in which fiction and actuality coalesce . . . . It is a world inhabited both by characters of Fielding’s imagination and by living people of his acquaintance.” His skill as a writer proved useful, and more than useful, on the Bench. He was a reforming magistrate, one who was determined to impose some kind of order on the sprawling metropolis; London was by the middle of the 18th century far and away the largest city in Europe. Early in his career as magistrate he proposed to Lord Chancellor Hardwicke a radical plan, nothing short of establishing the first metropolitan police force to replace the haphazard and totally ineffective system of watch and constables. Though the plan died aborning, Fielding began on his own to organize a special body of constables or “thief-takers” which came to be known as the Bow-Street Runners. In 1751 he published his reflections on the problems of crime and punishment, An Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers. It is a tribute to its timeliness that the first edition of this forbidding social tract sold out within weeks. An Enquiry is a somber, conservative document and Fielding’s last novel, Amelia, which he was writing during 1751 reflects his darkening mood, concerning as it does, as Battestin puts it, “no longer the follies of men, but their errors and cupidities and the doubtful efficacy of those institutions, the law and the Church, which were meant to preserve the social order.”

Two years later Fielding’s health failed, and he took the final journey to Lisbon in search of a healing climate; boarding ship at Rotherhithe he had to be hoisted on board because of his debilitated condition, which attracted the jeers of the stevedores and sailors. It was, Fielding said, “a lively picture of that cruelty and inhumanity in the nature of men . . .which leads the mind into a train of very uncomfortable and melancholy thoughts.” The Lisbon climate did not help; he died two months after his arrival and was put to rest in the English burial ground there. The very last glimpse of the writer is, however, a happy one: the Battestins have found and published a final letter to his brother Jack, with an amusing account of Fielding’s buying parrots and watermelons to placate his large and contentious household, which concludes, “Dear Jack—You must wait for an account of new wonders which every Day produces ‘till the arrival of my amanuensis . . . .” Fielding, the great comic writer, was at work to the end.

Scholars will appreciate the astonishing amount of new material the Battestins have discovered in their research for this book, including dozens of unpublished letters and many contributions to The Craftsman, the major organ of the Opposition to Sir Robert Walpole’s government. Readers who want an introduction to Fielding, his works, or the complex and interesting time in which he lived, will find it in Henry Fielding: A Life.


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