/*bootstrap*/ My Maugham Collection Concordance Library: Henry Fielding and Tom Jones

Henry Fielding and Tom Jones

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


The difficulty of writing about Henry Fielding, the man, is that very little is known about him. Arthur Murphy, who wrote a short life of him in 1762, only eight years after his death, as an introduction to an edition of his works, seems to have known him, if he knew him at all, only in his later years, and had so little material to work with that, presumably to fill the eighty pages of his essay, he indulged in long and tedious digressions. The facts he tells are few, and subsequent research has shown that they are not always accurate. The last author to deal at length with Fielding is Dr Homes Dudden, Master of Pembroke. The two stout volumes of his work are a monument of painstaking industry. By giving a lively picture of the political circumstances of the times, and a vivid account of the Young Pretender’s disastrous adventure in 1745, he has added colour, depth and substance to the narrative of his hero’s checkered career. I don’t believe that there is anything to be said about Henry Fielding that the eminent Master of Pembroke has left unsaid.

Fielding was a gentleman born. His father was the third son of John Fielding, a Canon of Salisbury, and he in turn was the fifth son of an Earl of Desmond. The Desmonds were a younger branch of the family of Denbigh, who flattered themselves that they were descended from the Habsburgs. Gibbon, the Gibbon of The Decline and Fall, wrote in his autobiography: ‘The successors of Charles the Fifth may disclaim their brethren of England; but the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of human manners, will outlive the palace of the Escorial, and the imperial eagle of the House of Austria.’ The phrase has a fine resonance, and it is a pity that the claim of these noble lords has been shown to have no foundation. They spelt their name Feilding, and there is a well-known story that on one occasion the then Earl asked Henry Fielding how this came about; whereupon he answered: ‘I can only suppose it is because my branch of the family learnt to spell before your lordship’s.’

Fielding’s father entered the army and served in the wars under Marlborough ‘with much bravery and reputation’. He married Sarah, the daughter of Sir Henry Gould, a Judge of the King’s Bench; and at his country seat, Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury, our author was born in 1707. Two or three years later the Fieldings, who by this time had had two more children, daughters, moved to East Stour in Dorsetshire, a property which the judge had settled on his daughter, and there three more girls and boy were born. Mrs. Fielding died in 1718, and in the following year Henry went to Eton. Here he made some valuable friends and, if he did not leave, as Arthur Murphy states, ‘uncommonly well versed in the Greek authors and an early master of the Latin classics,’ he certainly acquired a real love for classical learning. Later in life, when he was ill and poverty-stricken, he found comfort in reading Cicero’s De Consolatione; and when, dying, he set out in the ship that took him to Lisbon, he carried with him a volume of Plato.

On leaving Eton, instead of going up to a university, he lived for a while at Salisbury with his grandmother, Lady Gould, the judge being dead; and there, according to Dr. Dudden, read some law and a good deal of miscellaneous literature. He was then a handsome youth, over six feet tall, strong and active, with deep-set eyes, a Roman nose, a short upper lip with an ironical curl to it, and a stubborn, prominent chin. His hair was brown and curly, his teeth white and even. By the time he was eighteen, he gave promise of the sort of man he was going to be. He happened to be staying at Lyme Regis with a trusty servant, ready to ‘beat, maim or kill’ for his master, and there fell in love with a Miss Sarah Andrews, whose considerable fortune added to the charm of her beauty, and he concocted a scheme to carry her off, by main force if necessary, and marry her. It was discovered, and the young woman was hurried away and safely married to a more eligible suitor. For all one knows to the contrary, Fielding spent the next two or three years in London, with an allowance from his grandmother, engaging in the gaieties of the town as agreeably as a well-connected young man can do when he has good looks and charm of manner. In 1728, by the influence of his cousin, Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, and with the help of the charming, but not particularly chaste, actress, Anne Oldfield, a play of Fielding’s was put on by Colley Cibber at Drury Lane. It was called Love in Several Masques and was given four performances. Shortly after this he entered the University of Leyden with an allowance from his father of two hundred pounds a year. But his father had married again and either could not, or would not, continue to pay him the allowance he had promised, so after about a year Fielding was obliged to return to England. He was in such straits then that, as in his light-hearted way he put it himself, he had no choice but to be a hackney coachman or a hackney writer.

Austin Dobson, who wrote his life for the English Men of Letters Series, says that ‘his inclinations as well as his opportunities led him to the stage’. He had the high spirits, the humour, the keen-witted observation of the contemporary scene, which are needed by the playwright; and he seems to have had, besides, some ingenuity and a sense of construction. The ‘inclinations’ of which Austin Dobson speaks may very well mean that he had the vicarious exhibitionism which is part of the playwright’s make-up, and that he looked upon writing plays as an easy way to make quick money; the ‘opportunities’ may be a delicate way of saying that he was a handsome fellow of exuberant virility and had taken the fancy of a popular actress. To please a leading lady has ever been the surest way for a young dramatist to get his play produced. Between 1729 and 1737 Fielding composed or adapted twenty-six plays, of which at least three greatly pleased the town; and one of which made Swift laugh, a thing that to the best of the Dean’s recollection he had only done twice in his life before. Fielding did not do very well when he attempted pure comedy; his great successes seem to have been in a genre which, so far as I know, he devised himself, an entertainment in which there were singing and dancing, brief topical sketches, parodies and allusions to public figures: in fact, something indistinguishable from the revues popular in our own day. According to Arthur Murphy, Fielding’s farces ‘were generally the production of two or three mornings, so great was his facility in writing’. Dr. Dudden looks upon this as an exaggeration. I don’t think it is. Some of these pieces were very short, and I have myself heard of light comedies that were written over a week-end and were none the worse for that. The last two plays Fielding wrote were attacks on the political corruption of the times, and the attacks were effective enough to cause the Ministry to pass a Licensing Act which obliged managers to obtain the Lord Chamberlain’s licence to produce a play. This act still obtains, to torment British authors. After this, Fielding wrote only rarely for the theatre and, when he did, presumably for no other reason than that he was more than usually hard up.

I will not pretend that I have read his plays, but I have flipped through the pages, reading a scene here and there, and the dialogue seems natural and sprightly. The most amusing bit I have come across is the description which, after the fashion of the day, he gives in the list of Dramatis Personæ in Tom Thumb the Great: ‘A woman entirely faultless, save that she is a little given to drink.’ It is usual to dismiss Fielding’s plays as of no account, and doubtless no one would give them a thought if he were not the author of Tom Jones. They lack the literary distinction (such as Congreve’s plays have) which the critic, reading them in his library two hundred years later, would like them to have. But plays are written to be acted, not to be read; it is certainly well for them to have literary distinction; but it is not that which makes them good plays, it may (and often does) make them less actable. Fielding’s plays have by now lost what merit they had, for the drama depends very much on actuality and so is ephemeral, almost as ephemeral as a newspaper, and Fielding’ plays, as I have said, owed their success to the fact that they were topical; but light as they were, they must have had merit, for neither a young man’s wish to write plays, nor pressure brought to bear by a favourite actress, will induce managers to put on play after play unless they please the public. For in this matter the public is the final judge. Unless the manager can gauge their taste, he will go bankrupt. Fielding’s plays had at least the merit that the public liked to go to see them. Tom Thumb the Great ran for ‘upwards of forty nights’, and Pasquin for sixty, which was as long as The Beggar’s Opera had run.

Fielding had no illusions about the worth of his plays, and himself said that he left off writing for the stage when he should have begun. He wrote for money, and had no great respect for the understanding of an audience. ‘When he had contracted to bring on a play, or a farce,’ says Murphy, ‘it is well known by many of his friends now living, that he would go home rather late from a tavern and would, the next morning, deliver a scene to the players, written upon the papers which had wrapped the tobacco, in which he so much delighted.’ During the rehearsals of a comedy called The Wedding Day, Garrick, who was playing in it, objected to a scene and asked Fielding to cut it. ‘No, damn ’em,’ said Fielding, ‘if the scene isn’t a good one let them find it out.’ The scene was played, the audience noisily expressed their displeasure, and Garrick retired to the green-room, where his author was indulging his genius and solacing himself with a bottle of champagne. He had by this time drunk pretty plentifully; and cocking his eye at the actor, with streams of tobacco trickling down from the corner of his mouth, “What’s the matter, Garrick,” says he, “what are they hissing now?”

‘“Why, the scene that I begged you to retrench; I knew it would not do; and they have so frightened me, that I shall not be able to collect myself the whole night.”

‘“Oh, damn ’em,” replies the author, “they have found it out, have they?”’

This story is told by Arthur Murphy, and I am bound to say that I doubt its truth. I have known and had dealings with actor-managers, which is what Garrick was, and it does seem to me very unlikely that he would have consented to play a scene which he thought would wreck the play; but the anecdote wouldn’t have been invented unless it had been plausible. It at least indicates how Fielding’s friends and boon-companions regarded him.

If I have dwelt on his activity as a playwright, though it was after all not much more than an episode in his career, it is because I think it was important to his development as a novelist. Quite a number of eminent novelists have tried their hands at playwriting, but I cannot think of any that have conspicuously succeeded. The fact is that the techniques are very different, and to have learnt how to write a novel is of no help when it comes to writing a play. The novelist has all the time he wants to develop his theme, he can describe his characters as minutely as he chooses and make their behaviour plain to the reader by relating their motives; if he is skilful, he can give verisimilitude to improbabilities; if he has a gift for narrative, he can gradually work up to a climax which a long preparation makes more striking (a supreme example of this is Clarissa’s letter in which she announced her seduction); he does not have to show action, but only to tell it; he can make the persons explain themselves in dialogue for as many pages as he likes. But a play depends on action, and by action, of course, I don’t mean violent action like falling off a precipice or being run over by a bus; such an action as handing a person a glass of water may be of the highest dramatic intensity. The power of attention that an audience has is very limited, and it must be held by a constant succession of incidents; something fresh must be doing all the time; the theme must be presented at once and its development must follow a definite line, without digression into irrelevant bypaths; the dialogue must be crisp and to the point, and it must be so put that the listener can catch its meaning without having to stop and think; the characters must be all of a piece, easily grasped by the eye and the understanding, and however complex, their complexity must be plausible. A play cannot afford loose ends; however slight, its foundation must be secure and its structure solid.

When the playwright, who has acquired the qualities which I have suggested are essential to writing a play which audiences will sit through with pleasure, starts writing novels, he is at an advantage. He has learnt to be brief; he has learnt the value of rapid incident; he has learnt not to linger on the way, but to stick to his point and get on with his story; he has learnt to make his characters display themselves by their words and actions, without the help of description; and so, when he comes to work on the larger canvas which the novel allows, he can not only profit by the advantages peculiar to the form of the novel, but his training as a playwright will enable him to make his novel lively, swift-moving and dramatic. These are excellent qualities, and some very good novelists, whatever their other merits, have not possessed them. I cannot look upon the years Fielding spent writing plays as wasted; I think, on the contrary, the experience he gained then was of value to him when he came to writing novels.

In 1734 Fielding married Charlotte Cradock. She was one of the two daughters of a widow who lived in Salisbury, and nothing is known of her but that she was beautiful and charming. Mrs. Cradock was a worldly, strong-minded woman, who apparently did not approve of Fielding’s attentions to her daughter, and she can hardly be blamed for that, since his means of livelihood were uncertain and his connection with the theatre can hardly have inspired a prudent mother with confidence; anyhow, the lovers eloped, and though Mrs. Cradock pursued, ‘she did not catch up with them in time to stop the marriage.’ Fielding has described Charlotte as Sophia in Tom Jones and again as Amelia in the novel of that name, so that the reader of those books can gain a very exact notion of what she looked like in the eyes of her lover and husband. Mrs. Cradock died a year later and left Charlotte fifteen hundred pounds. It came at a fortunate moment, since a play that Fielding had produced early in the year was a disastrous failure, and he was very short of cash. He had been in the habit of staying from time to time on the small estate which had been his mother’s, and he went there now with his young wife. He spent the next nine months lavishly entertaining his friends and enjoying the various pursuits which the country offered, and on his return to London with what, it may be supposed, remained of Charlotte’s legacy he took the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, and there presently produced the best (they say) and the most successful of his plays – Pasquin; a Dramatic Satire on the Times.

When the Licensing Act became law, and so put an end to his theatrical career, Fielding had a wife and two children and precious little money to support them on.

He had to find a means of livelihood. He was thirty-one. He entered the Middle Temple, and though, according to Arthur Murphy, ‘it happened that the early taste he had taken of pleasure would occasionally return upon him; and conspire with his spirit and vivacity to carry him into the wild enjoyments of the town’, he worked hard, and he was in due course called to the Bar. He was ready to follow his profession with assiduity, but he seems to have had few briefs; and it may well be that the attorneys were suspicious of a man who was known only as a writer of light comedies and political satires. Moreover, within three years of being called, he began to suffer from frequent attacks of gout which prevented him from regularly attending the courts. In order to make money he was obliged to do hack work for the papers. He found time, meanwhile, to write Joseph Andrews, his first novel. Two years later his wife died. Her death left him distracted with grief. Lady Louisa Stuart wrote: ‘He loved her passionately, and she returned his affection; yet led no happy life, for they were almost always miserably poor, and seldom in a state of quiet and safety. All the world knows what was his imprudence; if ever he possessed a score of pounds nothing could keep him from lavishing it idly, or make him think of tomorrow. Sometimes they were living in decent lodgings with tolerable comfort; sometimes in a wretched garret without necessaries, not to speak of the sponging-houses and hiding places where he was occasionally to be found. His elastic gaiety of spirit carried him through it all; but, meanwhile, care and anxiety were preying upon her more delicate mind, and undermining her constitution. She gradually declined, caught a fever, and died in his arms.’ This has an air of truth, and is in part confirmed by Fielding’s Amelia. We know that novelists habitually make use of any little experience that they have had, and when Fielding created the character of Billy Booth, he not only drew a portrait of himself and of his wife as Amelia, but utilized various incidents in their married life. Four years after his wife’s death he married her maid, Mary Daniel. She was at the time three months’ pregnant. The marriage shocked his friends, and his sister, who had lived with him since Charlotte’s death, left the house. His cousin Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu was haughtily scornful because he could ‘feel rapture with his cook-maid’. Mary Daniel had few personal charms, but she was an excellent creature and he never spoke of her but with affection and respect. She was a very decent woman, who looked after him well, a good wife and a good mother. She bore him two boys and a girl.

When still a struggling dramatist, Fielding had made advances to Sir Robert Walpole, then all-powerful; but though he dedicated to him with effusive compliments his play, The Modern Husband, the ungrateful Minister seems to have been disinclined to do anything for him. He therefore decided that he could do better with the party opposed to Walpole, and forthwith made overtures to Lord Chesterfield, one of its leaders. As Dr. Dudden puts it: ‘He could hardly have given a broader hint that he was ready to place his wit and humour at the disposal of the opposition, should they be willing to employ him.’ Eventually they showed themselves willing, and Fielding was made editor of a paper called The Champion, founded to attack and ridicule Sir Robert and his Ministry. Walpole fell in 1742 and, after a brief interlude, was succeeded by Henry Pelham. The party Fielding worked for was now in power, and for some years he edited and wrote for the papers which supported and defended the Government. He naturally expected that his services should be rewarded. Among the friends he had made at Eton, and whose friendship he had retained, was George Lyttelton, a member of a distinguished political family (distinguished to the present day) and a generous patron of literature. Lyttelton was made a Lord of the Treasury in Henry Pelham’s Government, and in 1784 by his influence Fielding was made Justice of the Peace for Westminster. Presently, so that he might discharge his duties more effectively, his jurisdiction was extended over Middlesex, and he established himself with his family in the official residence in Bow Street. He was well fitted for the post by his training as a lawyer, his knowledge of life and his natural gifts. Fielding says that before his accession the job was worth five hundred pounds a year of dirty money, but that he made no more than three hundred a year of clean. Through the Duke of Bedford he was granted a pension out of the public-service money. It is supposed that this was either one or two hundred pounds a year. In 1749 he published Tom Jones, which he must have been writing when he was still editing a paper on behalf of the Government. He received altogether seven hundred pounds for it, and since money at that period was worth five or six times at least what it is worth now, this sum was equivalent to something like four thousand pounds. That would be good payment for a novel to-day.

Fielding’s health by now was poor. His attacks of gout were frequent, and he had often to go to Bath to recuperate, or to a cottage he had near London. But he did not cease to write. He wrote pamphlets concerning his office; one, an Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Menace of Robbers is said to have caused the famous Gin Act to be passed; and he wrote Amelia. His industry was indeed amazing. Amelia was published in 1751 and in the same year Fielding undertook to edit still another paper, The Covent Garden Journal. His health grew worse. It was evident that he could no longer perform his duties at Bow Street, and in 1754, after breaking up ‘a gang of villains and cut-throats’ who had become the terror of London, he resigned his office to his half-brother, John Fielding. It looked as though his only chance of life was to seek a milder climate than that of England, and so, in the June of that year, 1954, he left his native country in The Queen of Portugal, Richard Veal, master, for Lisbon. He arrived in August, and two months later died. He was forty-seven years old.


When I consider Fielding’s life, which from inadequate material I have briefly sketched, I am seized with a singular emotion. He was a man. As you read his novels, and few novelists have put more of themselves into their books than he, you feel the same sort of affection as you feel for someone with whom you have been for years intimate. There is something contemporary about him. There is a sort of Englishman that till recently was far from uncommon. You might meet him in London, at Newmarket, in Leicestershire during the hunting season, at Cowes in August, at Cannes or Monte Carlo in midwinter. He is a gentleman, and he has good manners. He is good-looking, good-natured, friendly and easy to get on with. He is not particularly cultured, but he is tolerant of those who are. He is fond of the girls and is apt to find himself cited as a co-respondent. He is not one of the world’s workers, but he sees no reason why he should be. Though he does nothing, he is far from idle. He has an adequate income and is free with his money. If war breaks out, he joins up and his gallantry is conspicuous. There is absolutely no harm in him and everyone likes him. The years pass and youth is over, he is not so well-off any more and life is not so easy as it was. He has had to give up hunting, but he still plays a good game of golf and you are always glad to see him in the card-room of your club. He marries an old flame, a widow with money, and, settling down to middle age, makes her a very good husband. The world to-day has no room for him and in a few years his type will be extinct. Such a man, I fancy, was Fielding. But he happened to have the great gift which made him the writer he was and, when he wanted to, he could work hard. He was fond of the bottle and he liked women. When people speak of virtue, it is generally sex they have in mind, but chastity is only a small part of virtue, and perhaps not the chief one. Fielding had strong passions, and he had no hesitation in yielding to them. He was capable of loving tenderly. Now love, not affection, which is a different thing, is rooted in sex, but there can be sexual desire without love. It is only hypocrisy or ignorance that denies it. Sexual desire is an animal instinct, and there is nothing more shameful in it than in thirst or hunger, and no more reason not to satisfy it. If Fielding enjoyed, somewhat promiscuously, the pleasures of sex, he was not worse than most men. Like most of us, he regretted his sins, if sins they are, but when opportunity occurred, committed them again. He was hot-tempered, but kind-hearted, generous and, in a corrupt age, honest; an affectionate husband and father; courageous and truthful, and a good friend to his friends, who till his death remained faithful to him. Though tolerant to the faults of others, he hated brutality and double-dealing. He was not puffed up by success and, with the help of a brace of partridges and a bottle of claret, bore adversity with fortitude. He took life as it came, with high spirits and good humour, and enjoyed it to the full. In fact he was very like his own Tom Jones, and not unlike his own Billy Booth. He was a very proper man.

I should, however, tell the reader that the picture I have drawn of Henry Fielding does not at all accord with that drawn by the Master of Pembroke in the monumental work to which I have often referred, and to which I owe much useful information. ‘Until comparatively recently,’ he writes, ‘the conception of Fielding which prevailed in the popular imagination was that of a man of brilliant genius, endowed with what is called “a good heart” and many amiable qualities, but dissipated and irresponsible, guilty of regrettable follies, and not wholly unstained even by graver vices.’ And he has done his best to persuade his readers that Fielding has been grossly maligned.

But this conception, which Dr. Dudden tries to refute, is that which prevailed in Fielding’s lifetime. It was held by persons who knew him well. It is true that he was violently attacked in his own day by his political and literary enemies, and it is very likely that the charges that were brought against him were exaggerated; but if charges are to be damaging they must be plausible. For example: the late Sir Stafford Cripps had many bitter enemies who were only too anxious to throw mud at him; they said that he was a turncoat and a traitor to his class; but it would never have occurred to them to say that he was a lecher and a drunkard, since he was well-known to be a man of high moral character and fiercely abstemious. It would only have made them absurd. In the same way, the legends that gather round a famous man may not be true, but they could not be believed unless they are specious. Arthur Murphy relates that on one occasion Fielding, in order to pay the tax-collector, got his publisher to give him an advance and, while taking the money home, met a friend who was in even worse case than himself, so he gave him the money and, when the tax-collector called, sent him the message: ‘Friendship has called for the money and had it; let the collector call again.’ Dr. Dudden shows that there can be no truth in the anecdote; but if it was invented, it is because it was credible. Fielding was accused of being a spendthrift; he probably was; it went with his insouciance, his high spirits, his friendliness, conviviality and indifference to money. He was thus often in debt and probably on occasion haunted by ‘duns and bumbailiffs’; there is little doubt that when he was at his wits’ end for money he applied to his friends for help and they gave it. So did the noble-minded Edmund Burke. As a playwright, Fielding had lived for years in theatrical circles, and the theatre has in no country, either in the past or the present, been regarded as a favourable place to teach the young a rigid continence. Anne Oldfield, by whose influence Fielding had his first play produced, was buried in Westminster Abbey; but since she had been kept by two gentlemen, and had had two illegitimate children, permission to honour her with a monument was refused. It would be strange if she did not grant her favours to the handsome youth that Fielding then was; and, since he was pretty well penniless, it would not be surprising if she had helped him with some of the funds she received from her protectors. It may be that his poverty, but not his will, consented. If in his youth he was much given to wenching, he was no different from most young men in his day (and ours) who had his opportunities and advantages. And, doubtless, he spent ‘many a night drinking deep in taverns’. Whatever philosophers may aver, common sense is pretty well agreed that there is a different morality for youth and age, and a different one according to the station in life. It would be reprehensible for a doctor of divinity to engage in promiscuous fornication, but natural for a young man to do so; and it would be unpardonable for the master of a college to get drunk, but to be expected on occasion, and not really disapproved, in an undergraduate.

Fielding’s enemies accuse him of being a political hireling. He was. He was quite ready to put his great gifts at the service of Sir Robert Walpole and, when he found they were not wanted, he was equally ready to put them at the service of his enemies. That demanded no particular sacrifice of principle, since at that time the only real difference between the Government and the Opposition was that the Government enjoyed the emoluments of office and the Opposition did not. Corruption was universal, and great lords were as willing to change sides when it was to their advantage as was Fielding when it was a question of bread and butter. It should be said to his credit that when Walpole discovered he was dangerous, and offered to give him his own terms if he would desert the Opposition, he refused. It was also intelligent of him, for not so long afterwards Walpole fell! Fielding had a number of friends in the higher ranks of society, and friends eminent in the arts, but from his writings it seems certain that he enjoyed the company of the low and disreputable. He was severely censured for this, but it seems to me that he could not have described with such wonderful vivacity scenes of what is called low life unless he had himself taken part in them, and enjoyed it. Common opinion in his own day decided that Fielding was licentious and profligate. The evidence that he was is too great to be ignored. If he had been the respectable, chaste, abstemious creature that the Master of Pembroke would have us believe, it is surely very unlikely that he would have written Tom Jones. I think what has misled Dr. Dudden, in his perhaps meritorious attempt to whitewash Fielding, is that it has not occurred to him that contradictory, and even mutually exclusive, qualities may exist in the same man and somehow or other form a tolerably plausible harmony. That is natural enough in one who has led a sheltered, academic life. Because Fielding was generous, good-hearted, upright, kindly, affectionate and honest, it has seemed to the Master impossible that he should have been at the same time a spendthrift who would cadge a dinner and a guinea from his rich friends, who would haunt taverns and drink to the ruin of his health, and who would engage in sexual congress whenever he had the chance. Dr. Dudden states that, as long as his first wife lived, Fielding was absolutely faithful to her. How does he know? Certainly Fielding loved her, he loved her passionately, but he would not have been the first loving husband who, when the circumstances were propitious, had a flutter on the side; and it is very probable that after such an occurrence, like his own Captain Booth in similar circumstances, he bitterly regretted it; but that did not prevent him from transgressing again when the opportunity offered.

In one of her letters Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu wrote: ‘I am sorry for H. Fielding’s death, not only as I shall read no more of his writings, but I believe he lost more than others, as no man enjoyed life more than he did, though few had less reason to do so, the highest of his preferment being raking in the lowest sinks of vice and misery. I should think it a nobler and less nauseous employment to be one of the staff officers that conduct the nocturnal weddings. His happy constitution (even when he had, with great pains, half demolished it) made him forget everything when he was before a venison pastry, or over a flask of champagne; and I am persuaded he has known more happy moments than any prince upon earth.’


There are people who cannot read Tom Jones. I am not thinking of those who never read anything but the newspapers and the illustrated weeklies, or of those who never read anything but detective stories; I am thinking of those who would not demur if you classed them as members of the intelligentsia, of those who read and re-read Pride and Prejudice with delight, Middlemarch with self-complacency, and The Golden Bowl with reverence. The chances are that it has never even occurred to them to read Tom Jones; but, sometimes, they have tried and not been able to get on with it. It bores them. Now it is no good saying that they ought to like it. There is no ‘‘ought” about the matter. You read a novel for its entertainment, and, I repeat, if it does not give you that, it has nothing to give you at all. No one has the right to blame you because you don’t find it interesting, any more than anyone has the right to blame you because you don’t like oysters. I cannot but ask myself, however, what it is that puts readers off a book which Gibbon described as an exquisite picture of human manners, which Walter Scott praised as truth and human nature itself, which Dickens admired and profited by, and of which Thackeray wrote: ‘The novel of Tom Jones is indeed exquisite; as a work of construction quite a wonder; the by-play of wisdom, the power of observation, the multiplied felicitous turns and thoughts, the varied character of the great comic epic, keep the reader in a perpetual admiration and curiosity.’ Is it that they cannot interest themselves in the way of life, the manners and customs, of persons who lived two hundred years ago? Is it the style? It is easy and natural. It has been said – I forget by whom, Fielding’s friend, Lord Chesterfield, perhaps – that a good style should resemble the conversation of cultivated man. That is precisely what Fielding’s style does. He is talking to the reader and telling him the story of Tom Jones as he might tell it over the dinner-table with a bottle of wine to a number of friends. He does not mince his words. The beautiful and virtuous Sophia was apparently quite used to hearing such words as ‘whore’, ‘bastard’, ‘strumpet’, and that which, for a reason hard to guess, Fielding writes ‘b..ch’. In fact, there were moments when her father, Squire Western, applied them very freely to herself.

The conversational method of writing a novel, the method in which the author takes you into his confidence, telling you what he feels about the creatures of his invention and the situations in which he had placed them, has its dangers. The author is always at your elbow, and so hinders your immediate communication with the persons of his story. He is apt to irritate you sometimes by moralizing and once he starts to digress, is apt to be tedious. You do not want to hear what he has to say on some moral or social point; you want him to get on with his story. Fielding’s digressions are nearly always sensible or amusing; they are brief, and he has the grace to apologise for them. His good nature shines through them. When Thackeray unwisely imitated him in this, he was priggish, sanctimonious and, you cannot but suspect, insincere.

Fielding prefaced each of the books into which Tom Jones is divided with an essay. Some critics have greatly admired them, and have looked upon them as adding to the excellence of the novel. I can only suppose that is because they were not interested in it as a novel. An essayist takes a subject and discusses it. If his subject is new to you, he may tell you something that you didn’t know before, but new subjects are hard to find and, in general, he expects to interest you by his own attitude and the characteristic way in which he regards things. That is to say, he expects to interest you in himself. But that is not what you want to do when you read a novel. You don’t care about the author; he is there to tell you a story and introduce you to a group of characters. The reader of a novel should want to know what happens next to the persons in whom the author has interested him and, if he doesn’t, there is no reason for him to read the novel at all. For the novel, I can never repeat too often, is not to be looked upon as a medium of instruction or edification, but as a source of intelligent diversion. It appears that Fielding wrote the essays with which he introduced the successive books of Tom Jones after he had finished the novel. They have hardly anything to do with the books they introduce; they gave him, he admits, a lot of trouble, and one wonders why he wrote them at all. He cannot have been unaware that many readers would look upon his novel as low, none too moral, and possibly even bawdy; and it may be that by them he thought to give it a certain elevation. These essays are sensible, and sometimes uncommonly shrewd; and when you know the novel well, you can read them with a certain amount of pleasure; but anyone who is reading Tom Jones for the first time is well advised to skip them. The plot of Tom Jones has been much admired. I learn from Dr. Dudden that Coleridge exclaimed: ‘What a master of composition Fielding was!’ Scott and Thackeray were equally enthusiastic. Dr. Dudden quotes the latter as follows: ‘Moral or immoral, let any man examine this romance as a work of art merely, and it must strike him as the most astonishing production of human ingenuity. There is not an incident ever so trifling but advances the story, grows out of former incidents, and is connected with the whole. Such a literary providence, if we may use such a word, is not to be seen in any other work of fiction. You might cut out half of Don Quixote, or add, transpose, or alter any given romance of Walter Scott, and neither would suffer. Roderick Random and heroes of that sort run through a series of adventures, at the end of which the fiddles are brought, and there is a marriage. But the history of Tom Jones connected the very first page with the very last, and it is marvellous to think how the author could have built and carried all the structure in his brain, as he must have done, before he put it on paper.’

There is some exaggeration here. Tom Jones is fashioned on the model of the Spanish picaresque novels and of Gil Blas, and the simple structure depends on the nature of the genre: the hero for one reason or another leaves his home, has a variety of adventures on his travels, mixes with all sorts and conditions of men, has his ups and downs of fortune, and in the end achieves prosperity and marries a charming wife. Fielding, following his models, interrupted his narrative with stories that had nothing to do with it. This was an unhappy device that authors adopted not only, I think, for the reason I give in my first chapter, because they had to furnish a certain amount of matter to the bookseller and a story or two served to fill up; but partly, also, because they feared that a long string of adventures would prove tedious, and felt it would give the reader a fillip if they provided him here and there with a tale; and partly because if they were minded to write a short story, there was no other way to put it before the public. The critics chid, but the practice died hard, and, as we know, Dickens resorted to it in The Pickwick Papers. The reader of Tom Jones can without loss skip the story of “The Man of the Hill” and Mrs. Fitzherbert’s narrative. Nor is Thackeray quite accurate in saying that there is not an incident that does not advance the story and grow out of former incidents. Tom Jones’s encounter with the gipsies leads to nothing; and the introduction of Mrs. Hunt, and her proposal of marriage to Tom, is very unnecessary. The incident of the hundred-pound bill has no use and is, besides, grossly, fantastically improbable. Thackeray marvelled that Fielding could have carried all the structure in his brain before he began to put it on paper. I don’t believe that he did anything of the sort, any more than Thackeray did before he began to write Vanity Fair. I think it much more probable that, with the main lines of his novel in his mind, Fielding invented the incidents as he went along. For the most part they are happily devised. Fielding was as little concerned with probability as the picaresque novelists who wrote before him, and the most unlikely events occur, the most outrageous coincidences bring people together; yet he bustles you along with such gusto that you have hardly time, and in any case little inclination, to protest. The characters are painted in primary colours with a slap-dash bravura, and if they somewhat lack subtlety, they make up for it by animation. They are sharply individualized, and if they are drawn with some exaggeration, that was the fashion of the day, and perhaps their exaggeration is no greater than comedy allows. I am afraid Mr. Allworthy is a little too good to be true, but here Fielding failed, as every novelist since has failed who has attempted to depict a perfectly virtuous man. Experience seems to show that it is impossible not to make him a trifle stupid. One is impatient with a character who is so good that he lets himself be imposed upon by all and sundry. Mr. Allworthy is said to have been a portrait of Ralph Allen of Prior Park. If this is so, and the portrait is accurate, it only shows that a character taken straight from life is never quite convincing in a piece of fiction.

Blifil, on the other hand, has been thought too bad to be true. Fielding hated deceit and hypocrisy, and his detestation of Blifil was such that it may be he laid on his colours with too heavy a hand; but. Blifil, a mean, sneaking, self-seeking, cold-blooded fish, is not an uncommon type. The fear of being found out is the only thing that keeps him from being an utter scoundrel. But I think we should have believed more in Blifil if he had not been so transparent. He is repellent. He is not alive, as Uriah Heep is alive, and I have asked myself whether Fielding did not deliberately under-write him from an instinctive feeling that if he gave him a more active and prominent role, he would make him so powerful and sinister a figure as to overshadow his hero.

On its appearance, Tom Jones was an immediate success with the public, but the critics were on the whole severe. Some of the objections were rather touchingly absurd: Lady Luxborough, for instance, complained that the characters were too like the persons ‘one meets with in the world’. It was on its supposed immorality, however, that the novel was generally condemned. Hannah More in her memoirs relates that she never saw Dr. Johnson angry with her but once, and that was when she alluded to some witty passage in Tom Jones. ‘I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book,’ he said. ‘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.’ Now, I should say that a modest lady would do very well to read the book before marriage. It will tell her pretty well all she needs to know about the facts of life, and a lot about men which cannot fail to be useful to her before entering upon that difficult state. But no one has ever looked upon Dr. Johnson as devoid of prejudice. He would allow no literary merit to Fielding, and once described him as a blockhead. When Boswell demurred, he said: ‘What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren rascal.’ ‘Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?’ answered Boswell. ‘Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say that had he not known who Fielding was he should have believed that he was an ostler.’ We are used to low life in fiction now, and there is nothing in Tom Jones that the novelists of our own day have not made us familiar with. Dr. Johnson might have remembered that in Sophia Western Fielding drew a charming and tender portrait of as delightful a young woman as ever enchanted a reader of fiction. She is simple but not silly, virtuous but no prude; she has character, determination and courage; she has a loving heart, and she is beautiful. Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, who very properly thought that Tom Jones was Fielding’s masterpiece, regretted that he did not perceive that he had made his hero a scoundrel. I suppose that she referred to the incident that has been looked upon as the most reprehensible in the career of Mr. Jones. Lady Bellaston took a fancy to him, and found him not unprepared to gratify her desires, for he regarded it as a part of good breeding to behave with ‘gallantry’ with a woman who showed an inclination for sexual commerce; he hadn’t a penny in his pocket, not even a shilling in his pocket to pay for a chair to convey him to her abode, and Lady Bellaston was rich. With a generosity unusual with women, who are apt to be lavish with the money of others but careful with their own, she handsomely relieved his necessities. Well, it is doubtless not a pretty thing for a man to accept money from a woman; it is also an unprofitable one, because rich ladies in these circumstances demand much more than their money’s worth; but morally it is no more shocking than for a woman to accept money from a man, and it is only foolishness on the part of common opinion to regard it as such. Our own day has found it necessary to invent a term, gigolo, to describe the male who turns his personal attractiveness into a source of profit; so Tom’s lack of delicacy, however reprehensible, can hardly be regarded as unique. I have no doubt that the gigolo flourished as hardily under the reign of George the Second as he did under that of George the Fifth. It was characteristic, and to Tom Jones’s credit, that on the very day on which Lady Bellaston had given him fifty pounds for passing the night with her, he was so moved by a hard-luck story which his landlady told him about some relations of hers that he handed her his purse and told her to take what she thought needful to relieve their distress. Tom Jones was honestly, sincerely and deeply in love with the charming Sophia, and yet felt no qualms about indulging in the pleasures of the flesh with any woman who was attractive and facile. He loved Sophia none the less for these episodes. Fielding was much too sensible to make his hero more continent than the normal man. He knew we should all be more virtuous if we were as prudent at night as we are in the morning. Nor was Sophia unreasonably vexed when she heard of these adventures. That in this particular she showed common sense unusual to her sex is surely one of the most engaging of her traits. It was well said by Austin Dobson, though with no elegance of style, that Fielding ‘made no pretence to produce models of perfection, but pictures of ordinary humanity, rather perhaps in the rough than in the polished, the natural than the artificial, his desire is to do this with absolute truthfulness, neither extenuating nor disguising defects and shortcomings.’ That is what the realist strives to do and, throughout history, he has always been more or less violently attacked for it. For this the two main reasons, so far as I know, are as follows: there is a vast number of people, especially among the elderly, the well-to-do, the privileged, who take up the attitude: ‘Of course we know that there is a lot of crime and immorality in the world, poverty and unhappiness, but we don’t want to read about it. Why should we make ourselves uncomfortable? It is not as though we could do anything about it. After all, there always have been rich and poor in the world.’ Another sort of people have other reasons for condemning the realist. They admit that there are vice and wickedness in the world, cruelty and oppression; but, they ask, is this proper matter for fiction? Is it well that the young should read about things which their elders know, but deplore, and may they not be corrupted by reading stories which are suggestive if not actually obscene? Surely fiction is better employed in showing how much beauty, kindness, self-sacrifice, generosity and heroism there is in the world. The answer the realist makes is that he is interested in telling the truth, as he sees it, about the world he has come in contact with. He does not believe in the unalloyed goodness of human beings; he thinks them a mixture of good and bad; and he is tolerant to idiosyncrasies of human nature which conventional morality reprobates, but which he accepts as human, natural, and therefore to be palliated. He hopes that he depicts the good in his characters as faithfully as the bad in them, and it is not his fault if his readers are more interested in their vices than in their virtues. That is a curious trait in the human animal for which he cannot be held responsible. If, however, he is honest with himself, he will admit that vice can be painted in colours that glow, whereas virtue seems to bear a hue that is somewhat dun. If you asked him how he could defend himself against the charge of corrupting the young, he would answer that it is very well for the young to learn what sort of a world it is that they will have to cope with. The result may be disastrous if they expect too much. If the realist can teach them to expect little from others; to realise from the beginning that each one’s main interest is in himself; if he can teach them that, in some way or other, they will have to pay for everything they get, be it place, fortune, honour, love, reputation; and that a great part of wisdom is not to pay for anything more than it is worth, he will have done more than all the pedagogues and preachers to enable them to make the best of this difficult business of living. He will add, however, that he is not a pedagogue or a preacher, but, he hopes, an artist.

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