The outstanding event in the literary history of this period was the rise of the modern novel. Clarissa and Tom Jones are more important historically than any English poem or play of the age. From 1740, as the scope of significant life broadened from the court to the people, and from actions to sentiments, the novel replaced the drama as the voice and mirror of England.
Stories were as old as writing. India had had her tales and fables; Judea had included in her literature such legends as those of Ruth, Esther, and Job; Hellenistic Greece and medieval Christendom had produced romances of adventure and love; Renaissance Italy had turned out thousands of novelle (“little novelties”), as in Boccaccio and Bandello; Renaissance Spain and Elizabethan England had written picaresque accounts of picturesque rogues; seventeenth-century France had weighted the world with love stories far longer than love. Lesage had spun out Gil Bias; Defoe had perfected the narrative of adventure to illustrate human courage; Swift had used a travelogue to excoriate mankind.
But were these productions novels in our present sense? They resembled eighteenth-century fiction in being imaginary narratives; some had the substance of indubitable length; some portrayed character with an effort at reality; but (perhaps exceptingCrusoe)they lacked a plot that would unify events and characters in a developing whole. Mrs. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), the story of an African slave, had a unifying plot; so did Defoe’s Captain Singleton (1720), Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724); but all these were still a string of episodes rather than a structural unity in which every part advances a unifying theme. When Richardson and Fielding seized this art of development, portrayed character growing through events, and made their novels picture the manners of an age, the modern novel was born.
1. Samuel Richardson: 1689–1761
The man who inaugurated the new novel was the son of a Derbyshire carpenter who moved to London soon after Samuel’s birth. The family hoped to make him a clergyman, but was too poor to give him the requisite schooling; he managed, however, to do some preaching in his books. The circle in which he grew retained the Puritan morality. He was apprenticed to a printer, and his reputation for calligraphy enabled him to add to his income by composing letters for illiterate lovesick girls; this accident determined the epistolary form of his novels, and their extensive exploration of feminine psychology and sentiment. His industry and thrift served him well; he set up his own printing shop, married his ex-master’s daughter (1721), and begot by her six children, of whom five died in infancy. She too died (1730), still young and loved, and these bereavements helped to form his rather somber mood. He married again, begot six more children, suffered more bereavements, and rose to be printer to the House of Commons. He was fifty years old before he published a book.
In 1739 two printer friends engaged him to write a little volume of sample letters as a guide for “those country readers who were unable to indite for themselves,” and also as instruction in “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common concerns of human life.” 72 While preparing this book—and here genius took hold of circumstance—Richardson conceived the idea of weaving a succession of letters into a love story that would illustrate a virgin’s wise morality. The theme, chastity preserved through a long succession of temptations, may have been suggested by Marivaux’s Vie de Marianne (1731–41). In any case Richardson, in November, 1740, set a milestone in English literature by issuing, in two volumes, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel to Her Parents; now first published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes. The book went well, and Richardson added two more volumes in 1741, Pamela in Her Exalted Condition, telling of her virtues and wisdom after her marriage.
The first half of the story is still interesting, for we are never too old to be interested in seduction—though after a thousand pages even seduction becomes a bore. The stress on sentiment begins on the first page, where Pamela writes: “Oh, how my eyes run! Don’t wonder to see the paper so blotted.” She is a model of goodness, gentleness, and modesty. Sent out to “service” at sixteen, she remits to her parents the first money she earns, “for Providence will not let me want.… If I get more I am sure it is my duty, as it shall be my care, to love and cherish you both; for you have loved and cherished me when I could do nothing for myself.” 73 The cautious parents refuse to use the money until they have assurance that it is not her bachelor employer’s advance payment for Pamela’s favors. They warn her that her beauty imperils her continence. “We fear—yes, my dear child, we fear— [lest] you should be too grateful, and reward him with that jewel, your virtue, which no riches … can make up to you.” She promises to be chary, and adds: “Oh, how amiable a thing is doing good! It is all I envy great folks for.” Her sentiments are admirable, though they lose some charm by being professed. In a culminating catastrophe her employer enters her bed without the proper preliminaries, and clasps her to his agitated bosom. She faints, and his program is disturbed. Recovering consciousness, “I put my hand to his mouth, and said, ‘Oh, tell me, yet tell me not, what have I suffered in this distress?’” 74 He assures her that his intentions had miscarried. Appreciating the compliment of his desire, she gradually learns to love him; and the gradations by which her fear is shown turning to love are among the many subtle touches that support Richardson’s reputation as a psychologist. Nevertheless she resists all his sieges, and finally he breaks down and offers her marriage. Happy to have saved her virtue and his soul, Pamela resolves to be a perfect English wife: to stay at home, avoid grand parties, keep the household accounts carefully, distribute charity, make jellies, cookies, candies, and preserves, and be grateful if her husband, descending the ladder of class, will give her now and then the grace and benefit of his conversation. Richardson concludes Volume II with a homily on the advantages of virtue in the bargaining of the sexes. “The editor of these sheets will have his end if it [Pamela’s virtue] inspires a laudable emulation in the minds of any worthy persons, who may thereby entitle themselves to the rewards, the praises, and the blessings by which Pamela was so deservedly distinguished.”
Some Englishmen, like the lusty Fielding, laughed, but thousands of middle-class readers entered sympathetically into Pamela’s throbs. The clergy praised the book, glad to have found such reinforcements of their sermons in a literature that had seemed sold to Beelzebub. Four editions of Pamela were taken up in six months; naturally the publishers urged Richardson to dig further in the same rich vein. But he was not mercenary, and besides, his health had begun to fail. He took his time, and proceeded with his printing. It was not till 1747 that he sent forth the masterpiece that brought all bourgeois Europe to his feet.
Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady, two thousand pages long, came out in seven volumes between November, 1747, and December, 1748. Hurt by the charge that Pamela had shown virtue as merely a bargaining strategy, and had pictured a reformed rake as a good husband, Richardson undertook to show virtue as a divine gift to be rewarded in heaven, and an unreformed rake as inevitably bound for an evil and shattering end. The impetuous Lovelace, reputed a devil with women, seeks the hand of Clarissa Harlowe. She distrusts him, but is insensibly fascinated by his reputation. Her family forbids her to meet such a scoundrel; it closes its doors to him, and offers her Mr. Solmes, a man of no vices and no character. She refuses. To make her yield they scold her, torment her, lock her up. Lovelace hires an aide to simulate an armed attack upon her by her relatives; to escape them she allows him to abduct her to St. Albans. She is willing to marry him, but he thinks this too desperate a venture. He writes to a friend:
… Determined to marry I would be, were it not for this consideration, that once married, I am married for life.
That’s the plague of it! Could a man do as the birds do, change [mates] every Valentine’s Day, … there would be nothing at all in it.… Such a change would be a means of annihilating … four or five very atrocious capital sins: rape, vulgarly so called, adultery, and fornication; nor would polygamy be panted after. Frequently it would prevent murders and dueling; hardly any such thing as jealousy (the causes of shocking violences) would be heard of.… Nor would there possibly be such a person as a barren woman.… Both sexes would bear with each other, in the view that they could help themselves in a few months.… The newspapers would be crowded with paragraphs … concerned to see who and who’s together. Then would not the distinction be very pretty, Jack? as in flowers: such a gentleman, or such a lady, is an annual, such a one is a perennial.75
He tries to seduce Clarissa; she warns him that if he touches her she will kill herself. He keeps her in durance vile but genteel, during which she sends heartbroken letters to her confidante, Anna Howe. He invents one scheme after another to break through her defenses; she resists him, yet considers her honor irrevocably tarnished by her half-consenting to elope. She writes pitiful letters to her father begging him, not to forgive her, but to withdraw the curse which he has laid upon her, and which, she thinks, forever closes to her the gates of Paradise; he refuses. She falls into a wasting illness, in which her only support is her religious faith. Lovelace disappears into France, and is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s uncle. At last her parents come offering forgiveness, and find her dead.
It is a simple story, too long drawn out on a single note to hold the attention of our hectic minds; but in eighteenth-century England it became a national issue; hundreds of readers, in the intervals of publication, wrote to Richardson imploring him not to let Clarissa die. 76 One father described his three daughters as having “at this moment each a separate volume [of Clarissa] in her hand; and all their eyes like a wet flower in April.” 77 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, as sophisticated as any Englishwoman of her rime, took up the book as a concession to middle-class sentiment and the popular furor, but it offended her aristocratic taste:
I was such an old fool as to weep over Clarissa Harlowe, like any milkmaid of sixteen over the ballad of the Lady’s Fall. To say truth, the first volumes softened me by a near resemblance of my maiden days; but on the whole it is miserable stuff.… Clarissa follows the maxim of declaring all she thinks to all the people she sees, without reflecting that, in this mortal state of imperfection, fig leaves are as necessary for our minds as our bodies, and ’tis as indecent to show all we think as all we have. 78
The women of England now importuned the triumphant Richardson to depict for them an ideal man, as he had, they thought, portrayed an ideal woman in Pamela. He hesitated before this ensnaring task, but he was goaded on by Fielding’s satire of PamelainJoseph Andrews, and Fielding’s full-length portrait of a man in Tom Jones. So, between November, 1753, and March, 1754, he sent forth in seven volumes The History of Sir Charles Grandison. The blasé mood of our time finds it hard to understand why this third novel had as great a success as the other two; the twentieth-century reaction against Puritanism and the Mid-Victorian compromise has closed our hearts to pictures of ideal goodness, at least in the male; we have found good men, but none without redeeming faults. Richardson tried to embellish Sir Charles with some minor shortcomings, but we still resent the impassable distance between him and ourselves. Moreover, virtue loses charm when it is put on parade. Grandison barely escaped canonization.
Richardson was so intent on preaching that he allowed some flaws into his literary art. He was almost devoid of humor and wit. His attempt to tell a long story through letters involved him in many improbabilities (remembering such reams of conversation); but it allowed him to present the same events from a variety of views, and it gave the narrative an intimacy hardly possible in a less subjective form. It was quite in the custom of the time to write long and confiding letters to trusted relatives or friends. Furthermore, the epistolary method gave scope to Richardson’s forte—the display of feminine character. There are faults here too: he knew men less than women, nobles less than commoners; and he seldom caught the variations, contradictions, and development in the soul. But a thousand details show his careful observation of human conduct. In these novels English psychological fiction was born, and the subjectivism that came to a fever in Rousseau.
Richardson took his success modestly. He continued his work as a printer, but he built himself a better home. He wrote long letters of advice to a wide circle of women, some of whom called him “dear Papa.” In his later years he paid with nervous sensitivity and insomnia the price of concentrated thought and diffuse art. On July 4, 1761, he died of a paralytic stroke.
His international influence was greater than that of any other Englishman of his time except Wesley and the elder Pitt. At home he helped to mold the moral tone of Johnson’s England, and to raise the morals of the court after George II. His ethical and literary legacy shared in forming Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). In France he was considered without a rival in English fiction; “In no language whatsoever,” said Rousseau, “has a novel the equal of Clarissa, or even approaching it, ever been written.” 79 Richardson was translated by the Abbé Prévost; Voltaire dramatized Pamela in Nanine; Rousseau modeled La Nonvelle Héloïse on Clarissa in theme, form, and moral aim. Diderot rose to an ecstatic apostrophe in hisÉloge de Richardson (1761); if, he said, he had to sell his library, he would keep, of all his books, only Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, and Richardson. In Germany Gellert translated and imitated Pamela, and wept over Grandison;80 Klopstock went into raptures overClarissa; Wieland based a play on Grandison; Germans made pilgrimages to Richardson’s home. 81 In Italy Goldoni adapted Pamela to the stage.
No one reads Richardson today except through the compulsions of scholarship; we have no leisure to write such letters, much less to read them; and the moral code of an industrial and Darwinian age flees impatiently from Puritan cautions and restraints. But we know that these novels represented, far more than the poetry of Thomson, Collins, and Gray, the revolt of feeling against the worship of intellect and reason; and we recognize in Richardson the father—as in Rousseau the protagonist—of that Romantic movement which, toward the end of the century, would triumph over the classical artistry of Pope and the lusty realism of Fielding.
2. Henry Fielding: 1707–54
When he came upon London in 1727 everyone admired his tall figure, stalwart presence, handsome face, jolly speech, and open heart; here was a man equipped by nature to enjoy life in all its relish and disreputable reality. He had everything but money. Forced, as he put it, to be a hackney coachman or a hackney scribe, he harnessed himself to a pen, and buttered his bread with comedies and burlesques. His second cousin, Lady Mary Montagu, used her influence to have his play Love in Several Masques produced at the Drury Lane Theatre (1728); she went twice to see it, graciously conspicuous; and in 1732 she helped his Modern Husband to a good run. He persisted with one mediocre play after another, and struck a vein of good-natured satire in The Tragedy of Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1731).
After four years’ courtship he married Charlotte Cradock (1734). Soon she inherited £1,500, and Fielding retired with her to ease as a country gentleman. He fell in love with his wife; he described her uxoriously as the shyly beautiful Sophia Western and the infinitely patient Amelia Booth. Lady Bute assures us that “the glowing language he knew how to employ did no more than justice to the amiable qualities of the original, or to her beauty.” 82
In 1736 he was back in London, producing unmemorable plays. But in 1737 the Licensing Act laid restrictions upon the drama, and Fielding withdrew from the stage. He studied law, and was admitted to the bar (1740). The course of his life was diverted in that year by the appearance of Richardson’s Pamela. All of Fielding’s propensity to satire was provoked by the conscious virtues of the heroine and her creator. It was as a parody of Pamela that he began The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams, Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes (1742). Joseph, who is introduced as Pamela’s brother, is as pure and beautiful a youth as Pamela was a maiden. Like her he is repeatedly tempted by his employer, and resists; and like her he details in his letters the insidious attempts upon his virginity. His letter to Pamela is almost, not quite, Richardsonian:
DEAR SISTER PAMELA:
Hoping you are well, what news have I to tell you! … My mistress has fallen in love with me—that is, what great folks call falling in love—she has a mind to ruin me; but I hope I shall have more resolution and more grace than to part with my virtue to any lady on earth.
Mr. Adams hath often told me that chastity is as great a virtue in a man as in a woman. He says he never knew any more than his wife, and I shall endeavor to follow his example. Indeed, it is owing entirely to his excellent sermons and advice, together with your letters, that I have been able to resist a temptation which, he says, no man complies with but he repents in this world and is damned for it in the next.… What fine things are good advice and good examples! But I am glad she turned me out of the chamber as she did; for I had once almost forgotten every word Parson Adams had ever said to me.
I don’t doubt, dear sister, but you will have grace to preserve your virtue against all trials; and I beg you earnestly to pray I may be enabled to preserve mine; for truly it is very severely attacked by more than one; but I hope I shall copy your example, and that of Joseph my namesake, and maintain my virtue against all temptation. … 83
He succeeds, and remains a virgin till he marries the virgin Fanny. Pamela, lifted a social notch as wife of her rich employer, condemns Fanny for presuming to marry Joseph, whose social status has been raised by Pamela’s genteel marriage. Richardson complained that Fielding had committed a “lewd and ungenerous engraftment” on Pamela.84
Fielding’s appetite for satire was not sated by parodying Richardson; he burlesqued the Iliad by invoking the Muses and making his book an epic. His fount of humor bubbled over in the various characters that Joseph and Adams meet on their way, and especially the innkeeper Tow-wouse, who is surprised by Mrs. Tow-wouse in flagrante delicto with Betty the chambermaid, is forgiven, and “quietly and contentedly bore to be reminded of his transgressions … once or twice a day during the residue of his life.” And since it was not in Fielding’s nature to make a hero, and a whole novel, out of an impeccable youth, he soon lost interest in Joseph, and made Parson Adams the central figure of his book. This seemed an unlikely choice, for Adams was an honestly orthodox divine, who carried with him a manuscript of his sermons in search of a reckless publisher. But his creator endowed Adams with a strong pipe, a tough stomach, and a hard pair of fists; and though the parson is against war, he is a good fighter, and lays low a succession of scoundrels in the wake of his tale. He is by all odds the most lovable character in Fielding; and we share the author’s pleasure in putting him through strange encounters with pigs, mud, and blood. Those of us who in youth were deeply moved by the Christian ideal must feel a warm affection for a clergyman who is utterly without guile and overflows with charity. Fielding contrasts him with the moneygrubbing Parson Trulliber, who was “one of the largest men you should see, and could have acted the part of Sir John Falstaff without stuffing.” 85
Flushed with success, Fielding issued in 1743 three volumes modestly entitled Miscellanies. Volume III contained a masterpiece of sustained irony in The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. It was not a factual biography of the famous eighteenth-century Fagin; “my narrative is rather of such actions which he might have performed.” 86 In its first form it was a hit at Sir Robert Walpole as a dealer in stolen votes; after Walpole’s death it was reissued as a satire of “greatness” as usually rated and achieved. Most “great men,” Fielding held, had done more harm than good to mankind; so Alexander was called “the Great” because, after “he had with fire and sword overrun a vast empire, had destroyed the lives of an immense number of innocent wretches, had scattered ruin and desolation like a whirlwind, we are told, as an act of his clemency, that he did not cut the throat of an old woman and ravish her daughters.” 87 The thief should have an easier conscience than the “statesman,” since his victims are fewer and his booty less. 88
In the style of a political biography Fielding gives Jonathan a lofty ancestral tree, tracing his lineage to “Wolfstan Wild, who came over with Hengist.” His mother “had a most marvelous glutinous quality attending her fingers.” 89 From her Jonathan learned the art and ethics of thievery. His superior intelligence soon enabled him to organize a gang of brave youths dedicated to separating superfluous people from their superfluous goods or a meaningless life. He took the lion’s share of their gains, and rid himself of disobedient subalterns by surrendering them to the forces of law and order. He failed to seduce the chased Laetitia, who preferred to be ruined by his assistant Fireblood, who “in a few minutes ravished this fair creature, or at least would have ravished her, if she had not by a timely compliance, prevented him.” 90 Thereafter she married Wild. Two weeks later they indulge in “a dialogue matrimonial,” wherein she explains her natural right to promiscuity; he calls her a bitch; they kiss and make up. He rises higher still and higher in the grandeur of his crimes, until his wife has the satisfaction of seeing him condemned to death. A clergyman attends him to the gallows; Wild picks his pocket en route, but gets only a corkscrew, for the dominie was a connoisseur of vintages. And “Jonathan Wild the Great, after all his mighty exploits was—what so few GREAT MEN can accomplish—hanged by the neck till he was dead.” 91
Toward the end of 1744 Fielding lost his wife; the event darkened his mood until he purged his grief by portraying her fondly, through the pathos of distance, as Sophia and Amelia. He was so grateful for the loyal devotion of his wife’s maid, who remained to take care of his children, that in 1747 he married her. Meanwhile he suffered both in health and in income. He was rescued by appointment (1748) as justice of the peace for Westminster, and shortly thereafter for Middlesex. It was a laborious office, precariously paid by the fees of the litigants who came to his court in Bow Street. He called the aggregate three hundred pounds a year “the dirtiest money upon earth.” 92
During these troubled years, 1744–48, he must have been working on his greatest novel, for in February, 1749, it appeared in six volumes as The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. The book was composed, he tells us, in “some thousands of hours” salvaged from law and hack writing; and no one could tell, from its robust humor and virile ethic, that these were years of grief and gout and thinning purse. Yet here were twelve hundred pages of what many consider the greatest English novel. Never before in English literature had a man been so fully and frankly described in body and mind, morals and character. Famous are the words of Thackeray introducing Pendennis:
Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him, and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the Natural in our Art.… You will not hear … what moves in the real world, what passes in society, in the clubs, colleges, mess-rooms—what is the life and talk of your sons.
Tom makes his debut as an illegitimate infant found in Mr. Allworthy’s virtuous bed. Between this and Tom’s concluding marriage Fielding squeezed a hundred episodes, apparently in picaresque and unconnected succession; but the reader is surprised, if he persists to the end, to find that nearly all those incidents were necessary to the skillfully woven plot, or to the exposition and development of the characters; the threads are unraveled, the knots are untied. Several of the personnel are idealized, like the almost Grandisonian Allworthy; some are too simplified, like the unfailingly despicable Blifil, or the Reverend Mr. Thwackum, the pedagogue “whose meditations were full of birch.” 93 But many of them show the sap of life. Squire Western, of all things in this world, “held most dear … his guns, dogs and horses,” 94 then his bottle, then his incomparable daughter Sophia. Here is a Clarissa who knows her ways among the snares of men, a Pamela who snares her man without ado about his premarital experiments.
Tom is a little loose in the loins, but otherwise he is almost too good to survive. Adopted by Allworthy, schooled and thrashed by Thwackum, he grows into a sturdy manhood disturbed only by malicious reminders of his mysterious parentage. He robs an orchard and steals a duck, but his adoptive father forgives these pranks as in the best Shakespearean tradition. Sophia admires him from a chaste distance, but Tom, conscious of his illegitimacy, never dares to fall in love with a lady so remote from him in status and means. He contents himself with Molly Seagrim, the gamekeeper’s daughter, and confesses himself as possibly the father of her child; he is much relieved to find that he is only one of several such possibilities. Sophia suffers when she learns of this liaison, but her admiration for Tom is only transiently cooled. He catches her in his arms as she falls from her horse while hunting; her blushes reveal her feeling for him; and now he loses no time losing his heart. Squire Western, however, has set his purse on marrying her to Mr. Blifil, who is the legitimate nephew and heir of the wealthy and childless Allworthy. Sophia refuses to marry this young hypocrite; the Squire insists; and the battle between father’s will and daughter’s tears saddens several volumes. Tom shies away, and lets himself be discovered in a grove with Molly in his arms; Sophie comes upon the scene, and faints. Tom is reluctantly dismissed by Allworthy, and begins those episodic travels without which Fielding, still apparented to Cervantes and Lesage, found it difficult to write a novel. His heart remains with the brokenhearted Sophia, but, thinking her forever lost to him, he slips into Mrs. Waters’ bed. After many tribulations, and complications surpassing all belief, he is pardoned by Allworthy, replaces Blifil as heir, clears up matters with shy but forgiving Sophia, and is heartily welcomed as son-in-law by Squire Western, who a week before had been ready to slay him. The Squire is now all haste for consummation:
“To her, boy, to her, go to her.… Is it all over? Hath she appointed the day, boy? What, shall it be tomorrow or the next day? I shan’t be put off a minute longer than the next day.… Zoodikers! she’d have the wedding tonight with all her heart. Wouldst not, Sophy? … Where the devil’s Allworthy? Harkee, Allworthy, I’ll bet thee five pounds to a crown we have a boy tomorrow nine months.” 95
Not since Shakespeare had anyone depicted English life so abundantly or so frankly. It is not all there; we miss the tenderness, devotion, heroism, civilities, and pathos that can be found in any society. Fielding preferred the man of instinct to the man of thought. He scorned the bowdlerizers who in his time were trying to fumigate Chaucer and Shakespeare, and those poets and critics who supposed that serious literature should deal only with the upper class. He interpreted love between the sexes as physical love, and relegated other aspects of it to the world of delusion. He despised the money madness that he saw in every rank, and he abominated humbug and hypocrisy. He made short shrift of preachers; but he loved Parson Adams, and the only hero in Amelia is Dr. Harrison, an Anglican clergyman; Fielding himself preached at every opportunity.
After publishing Tom Jones he turned his pen for a while to the problems that he faced as a magistrate. His experience was bringing him daily into contact with London’s violence and crime. He suggested methods of tightening the guard of public order and the administration of justice. Through his efforts, and those of his half brother Sir John Fielding, who succeeded him as magistrate in Bow Street, one of the gangs that had terrified London was broken up, and nearly all its members were hanged. An optimist reported in 1757 that “the reigning evil of street robberies has been almost wholly suppressed.” 96
Meanwhile (December, 1751) Henry had published his last novel, Amelia. He could not forget his first wife; he had forgotten any faults she may have had; now he raised a monument to her as the faultless mate of an improvident soldier. Captain Booth is kind, brave, and generous; he adores his Amelia; but he gambles himself into debt, and the book opens with him in jail. He takes a hundred pages to tell his story to another inmate, Miss Matthews; he expounds to her the beauty, modesty, fidelity, tenderness, and other perfections of his wife, and then accepts Miss Matthews’ invitation to share her bed. He continues “a whole week in this criminal conversation.” 97 In these and later prison scenes Fielding displays, with perhaps some exaggeration, the hypocrisies of men and women, the venality of constables and magistrates, the brutality of jailers. Here already are the debtors’ prisons that will linger on for a century more to stir Dickens’ ire. Justice Thrasher can tell a prisoner’s guilt from his brogue. “Sirrah, your tongue betrays your guilt. You are an Irishman, and that is always sufficient evidence with me.” 98 The number of villains rises with every chapter, until Amelia cries out to her pauperized children, “Forgive me for bringing you into the world.” 99
Amelia is Fielding’s patient Griselda. She has her nose broken in an early chapter, but rhinoplasty repairs it, and she becomes again so beautiful that an attempt is made on her virtue in almost every alternate chapter. She admits her intellectual inferiority to her husband. She obeys him in everything, except that she refuses to go to a masquerade. She attends an oratorio by Handel, but hesitates to expose herself to the gaze of the philanderers in Vauxhall. When Booth returns to her after one of his escapades he finds her “performing the office of a cook with as much pleasure as a fine lady generally enjoys in dressing herself for a ball.” 100 She receives a letter from the evil Miss Matthews betraying Booth’s prison adultery; she destroys the letter, says nothing about it to her husband, and continues to love him through all his drinking, gambling, debts, and imprisonments; she sells her trinkets, then her clothing, to feed him and their children. She is discouraged less by his faults than by the cruelty of the men and institutions that enmesh him. Fielding, like Rousseau and Helvétius, supposed that most men are by nature good, but are corrupted by evil environments and bad laws. Thackeray thought Amelia “the most charming character in English fiction”; 101 but perhaps she was only a husband’s dream. In the end, of course, Amelia turns out to be an heiress; she and Booth retire to her estate, and Booth becomes a good man.
The conclusion is hardly justified by the premises: once a Booth always a Booth. Fielding tried to bring all the tangles of his plot to a happy unity, but here his sleight of hand is too obvious. The great novelist was tired, and he was sickened by his entourage of thieves and murderers. After completing Amelia he wrote: “I will trouble the world no more with any children of mine by the same Muse.” In January, 1752, he started The Covent Garden Journal, contributed some vigorous articles, answered Smollett’s criticism, took a shot at Roderick Random, and then, in November, he let the Journal die. The winter of 1753–54 was too much for his constitution, broken down by work, dropsy, jaundice, and asthma. He tried Bishop Berkeley’s tar water, but the dropsy grew worse. His doctor recommended travel to a sunnier clime. In June, 1754, he sailed on the Queen of Portugal with his wife and daughter. En route he composed his Journal of a Voyage; to Lisbon, one of his most amiable productions. He died in Lisbon October 8, 1754, and was buried there in the English cemetery.
What was his achievement? He established the realistic novel of manners; he described the life of the English middle classes more vividly than any historian has done; his books opened a world. He did not succeed so well with the upper classes; there, like Richardson, he had to be content with an outsider’s view. He knew the body of his country’s life better than its soul, and the body of love better than its spirit; the more delicate and subtle elements of the English character escaped him. Even so, he left his mark upon Smollett, Sterne, Dickens, and Thackeray; he was the father of them all.
3. Tobias Smollett: 1721–11
Smollett did not like him, for they competed for the same applause. The younger man was a Scot who agreed with Hume in regretting that England obstructed the way to France. His grandfather, however, had actively promoted the parliamentary union with England (1707), and had been a member of the united Parliament. His father died when Tobias was two years old, but the family financed the boy’s education at Dumbarton Grammar School and Glasgow University, where he took premedical courses. Instead of completing work for his degree, he succumbed to the infection of authorship, and rushed off to London and Garrick with a worthless tragedy; Garrick refused it. Tobias, after a little starvation, signed as surgeon’s mate on the battleship Cumberland, and sailed with it (1740) into the War of Jenkins’ Ear. He took part in the bungled attack on Cartagena, off the Colombian coast. In Jamaica he left the service; there he met Nancy Lascelles, whom he married soon after his return (1744) to England. He took a house in Downing Street and practiced surgery; but the itch to write was too much for him, and his experiences in the navy demanded at least one recital. So in 1748 he published the most famous of his novels.
The Adventures of Roderick Random is the old picaresque romance of events strung upon a character Smollett acknowledged no debt to Fielding, but much to Cervantes and Lesage. He was more interested in men and deeds than in books and words; he packed his story with incidents, gave it the stench of offal and the color of blood, and peopled it with characters reeking with personality and lusty speech. This is one of the first and best of a thousand English novels of the sea. But before being dragooned into the navy Roderick, like his creator, samples English inns and London morals. What have we not missed by not traveling in those eighteenth-century coaches and putting up in those inns!—such a gallery of conflicting egos, decaying soldiers, pimps and bawds, peddlers lugging their bundles and hiding their money, men turning over chamber pots in search of the wrong bed, women shrieking rape and quieted with coin, every poor soul pretending magnitude, and everyone swearing. Miss Jenny calls the peddler “you old cent per cent fornicator!” and asks the captain, “Damn you, sir, who are you? Who made you a captain, you pitiful, trencher-scraping, pimping curler? ’Sdeath! the army is come to a fine pass when such fellows as you get commissions.” 102
In London Roderick (who here = Smollett) becomes a “journeyman apothecary”—a druggist’s assistant. He escapes marriage by finding his betrothed in bed with another man. “Heaven gave me patience and presence of mind to withdraw immediately, and I thanked my stars a thousand times for the happy discovery by which I resolved to profit so much as to abandon all thoughts of marriage for the future.” 103 He contents himself with promiscuity, learns the ways and woes of streetwalkers, cures their infections, denounces the quacks that fleece them, and notes how the prostitute, “although often complained of as a nuisance, still escapes through her interest with the justices, to whom she and all of her employment pay contributions quarterly for protection.” 104
Wrongly accused of theft, he loses his job, and falls into such destitution that “I saw no resource but the army and navy.” He is saved the torment of deciding by a press gang that knocks him unconscious and drags him aboard H. M. S. Thunder. He accepts his fate, and becomes surgeon’s mate. Only after a day at sea does he perceive that Captain Oakum is a half-insane brute, who for economy’s sake keeps sick sailors at work till they die. Roderick fights at Cartagena; he is shipwrecked, swims ashore to Jamaica, becomes footman to an old run-down poetess, falls “in love” with her niece Narcissa, and “conceived hopes of one day enjoying this amiable creature.” 105 And so the narrative runs on, in Smollett’s breathless flow, in paragraphs three pages long, in language simple, vigorous, and profane. In London Roderick makes a new set of eccentric friends, including Miss Melinda Goosetrap and Miss Biddy Gripewell. Then to Bath, with more coach scenes; there he encounters sweet Narcissa, wins her love, loses her, fights a duel.… He rejoins the navy as surgeon, sails to Guinea (where his captain “buys” four hundred slaves to sell them in Paraguay “to great advantage”), again to Jamaica, where he finds his long-lost, now moneyed father; back to Europe; back to Narcissa; marriage; back to Scotland and the paternal estate; Narcissa “begins to grow remarkably round in the waist.” As for Roderick,
If there be such a thing as true happiness on earth, I enjoy it. The tempestuous transports of my passion are now settled and mellowed into endearing fondness and tranquillity of love, rooted by that intimate connection and interchange of hearts which nought but virtuous wedlock can produce.
Roderick Random had a good sale. Smollett insisted now on publishing his play, The Regicide, with a prefatory annihilation of those who had rejected it; throughout his career he gave his temper carte blanche to make enemies. He went up to Aberdeen in 1750 and received the degree in medicine; but his personality impeded his practice, and he sank back into literature. In 1751 he brought forth The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle; here, as in Random, the title invited the reader to a round of exciting incidents in a wandering life; but now Smollett struck a vein of salty humor in his most successful character. Commodore Trunnion is described as “a very oddish kind of gentleman”; he has been “a great warrior in his time, and lost an eye and a heel in the service”; 106 he insists on telling, for the nth time, how he bombarded a French man-of-war off Cape Finisterre. He commands his servant Tom Piper to corroborate him; whereupon Tom “opened his mouth like a gasping cod, and, with a cadence like that of the east wind singing through a cranny,” gave the required support. (Here, perhaps, Sterne took some hints for Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim.)
Smollett frolics through a boisterous account of how Mrs. Grizzle courts the Commodore, whose one-legged lieutenant, Jack Hatchway, begs him not to let her “bring him to under her stern,” for “if once you are made fast to her poop, egad, she’ll spank it away, and make every beam in your body crack with straining.” The Commodore reassures him, “No man shall ever see Hawser Trunnion laying astern in the wake of e’er a b———h in Christendom.” 107 Sundry stratagems, however, break down his chastity; he consents to “grapple”—i.e., marry; but he goes to the splicing “like a felon to execution, … as if every moment he dreaded the dissolution of Nature.” He insists upon a hammock as a marriage bed; it breaks under the double load, but not before the lady “thought her great aim accomplished, and her authority secured against all the shocks of fortune.” Nevertheless this navel engagement ends without issue, and Mrs. Trunnion falls back upon brandy and “the duties of religion, which she performed with a most rancorous severity.”
Sir Walter Scott pictured Smollett in his forties as “eminently handsome, his features prepossessing, and, by the joint testimony of all his surviving friends, his conversation in the highest degree instructive and amusing.” 108 By all accounts he was a man of hot temper and vivid speech. So he described Sir Charles Knowles as “an admiral without conduct, an engineer without knowledge, an officer without resolution, and a man without veracity.” 109 The Admiral prosecuted him for libel, and Smollett suffered three months’ imprisonment and a fine of a hundred pounds (1757). Along with his irascibility went many virtues: he was generous and humane, helped poor authors, and became, said Sir Walter, “a doting father and an affectionate husband.” 110 His house in Lawrence Lane, Chelsea, was a rendezvous of minor scribes, who took his food if not his advice; some of them he organized into a corps of literary aides. He was one of the first prose writers (Dryden the first poet?) to make the booksellers support him in a condition befitting his genius. He earned sometimes six hundred pounds in a year, but he had to work hard for them. He wrote three more novels, two of them negligible; he persuaded Garrick to produce his play The Reprisal, which won success with its attacks upon France; he contributed pugnaciously to several magazines, and edited The Briton as a Tory mouthpiece. He translated Gil Bias, several works of Voltaire, and (with the help of an earlier version) Don Quixote; and he wrote—or presided over—a nine-volume History of England(1757–65). Certainly he used his “literary factory” of Grub Street hacks in compiling a Universal History, and an eight-volume Present State of the Nations.
By 1763, aged forty-two, he had paid with broken health for his eager life of adventure, work, brawls, and vocabulary. His physician advised him to consult a specialist, Dr. Fizes, at Montpellier. He went, and was told that his asthma, cough, and purulent expectoration indicated tuberculosis. Loath to return to England’s verdant moisture, he remained on the Continent for two years, covering his costs by writing Travels through France and Italy (1766). Here, as in his novels, he showed his quick, sharp eye for the signs and mannerisms of individual and national character; but he peppered his description with candid vituperation. He told coachmen, fellow travelers, innkeepers, servants, and foreign patriots just what he thought of them; he challenged every bill, demolished French and Italian art, belabored Catholicism, and dismissed the French as acquisitive thieves who did not always coat their thefts with courtesy. Hear him:
If a Frenchman is admitted into your family … the first return he makes for your civilities is to make love to your wife, if she is handsome; if not, to your sister, or daughter, or niece, … or grandmother.… If he is detected … he impudently declares that what he had done was no more than simple gallantry, considered in France as indispensable to good breeding. 111
Smollett returned to England much improved in health. But in 1768 his ailments revived, and he sought a cure in Bath. He found its waters useless to him, and its damp air dangerous; in 1769 he was back in Italy. In a villa near Leghorn he wrote his last and best book, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, which Thackeray thought “the most laughable story that has ever been written since the goodly art of novel-writing began.” 112 It is certainly the most pleasant and amiable of Smollett’s books, if we can stomach a little scatology. Almost at the outset we meet Dr. L—n, who discourses on “good” or “bad” smells as purely subjective prejudices, “for that every person who pretended to nauseate the smell of another’s excretions snuffed up his own with particular complacency; for the truth of which he appealed to all the ladies and gentlemen there present”; 113 followed by a page or two of still more pungent illustrations. Having relieved himself of this morsel, Smollett went on to invent a jolly gamut of characters, who carry the narrative forward by their letters in the most incredible and delightful way. At their head is Matthew Bramble, an “old gentleman” and invincible bachelor who serves as Smollett’s voice. He goes to Bath for health, but finds the stench of its waters more impressive than their curative power. He hates crowds, and once faints at their corporate odor. He cannot bear the polluted air of London, or its adulterated foods:
The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone ashes; insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration, but they prefer it to wholesome bread, because it is whiter.… Thus they sacrifice their taste and their health, … and the miller or the baker is obliged to poison them.… The same monstrous depravity appears in their veal, which is bleached by repeated bleedings, and other villainous arts, … so that a man might dine as comfortably on a fricassee of kidskin gloves.… You will hardly believe that they can be so mad as to boil their greens with brass half-pence in order to improve their color. 114
So Matthew hurries back to his rural estate, where he can breathe and eat without risking his life. En route, after the story is one-fourth told, he picks up a poor, half-naked country lad, Humphrey Clinker; “his looks denoted famine, and the rags that he wore could hardly conceal what decency requires to be covered.” This ragamuffin offers to drive the coach; but when he takes the high seat his aged breeches split, and Mrs. Tabitha Bramble (Matthew’s sister) complains that Humphrey “had the impudence to shock her sight by showing his bare posteriors.” Matthew clothes the boy, takes him into his service, and bears with him patiently even when the youth, having heard George Whitefield, becomes a Methodist preacher.
Another facet of the religious situation appears in Mr.H—t, whom Bramble meets in Scarborough, and who boasts of having conferred with Voltaire at Geneva “about giving the last blow to the Christian superstition.” 115 Another maverick, Captain Lismahago, enters the story at Durham—“a tall, meager figure, answering, with horse, to the description of Don Quixote mounted on Rozinante.” He has lived among North American Indians, and he tells with relish how these roasted two French missionaries for saying that God had allowed his son “to enter the bowels of a woman, and be executed as a malefactor,” and for pretending that they could “multiply God ad infinitum by the help of a little flour and water.” Lismahago “dwelt much upon the words reason, philosophy, andcontradiction in terms; he bade defiance to the eternity of hell-fire; and even threw such squibs at the immortality of the soul as singed a little the whiskers of Mrs. Tabitha’s faith.” 116
Smollett never saw Humphrey Clinker in print. On September 17, 1771, he died in his Italian villa, aged fifty, having made more enemies and created more vivacious characters than any other writer of his time. We miss in him the good nature, the healthy acceptance of life, and the painstaking construction of plot, that we find in Fielding; but there is a lusty vitality in Smollett, the tang and smell of Britain’s towns and ships and middle class; and his simple episodic narrative flows on more freely and vividly, unimpeded by homilies. Characterization is less striking in Fielding, but more complex; Smollett is often content to accumulate mannerisms instead of exploring the contradictions, doubts, and tentatives that make a personality. This mode of individualization—by exaggerating some peculiarity as a leitmotiv in each person—passed down to Dickens, whose Pickwick Papers continued the tour that Matthew Bramble began.
Taken together, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett describe mid-eighteenth-century England more fully and graphically than any or all the historians—who lose themselves in exceptions. Everything is here but that upper class which took from France her manners and her colonies. These novelists brought the middle classes triumphantly into literature, as Lillo brought them into drama, and Gay into opera, and Hogarth into art. They created the modern novel, and left it as a heritage unsurpassed.