Henry Fielding. (17071754). The History of Tom Jones.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
I. By William Makepeace Thackeray
FIELDING, too, has described, though with a greater hand, the characters and scenes which he knew and saw. He had more than ordinary opportunities for becoming acquainted with life. His family and education, firsthis fortunes and misfortunes afterwards, brought him into the society of every rank and condition of man. He is himself the hero of his books; he is wild Tom Jones, he is wild Captain Booth; less wild, I am glad to think, than his predecessor: at least heartily conscious of demerit, and anxious to amend.
When Fielding first came upon the town in 1727, the recollection of the great wits was still fresh in the coffeehouses and assemblies and the judges there declared that young Harry Fielding had more spirits and wit than Congreve or any of his brilliant successors. His figure was tall and stalwart; his face handsome, manly, and noble-looking; to the very last days of his life he retained a grandeur of air, and although worn down by disease, his aspect and presence imposed respect upon the people round about him.
A dispute took place between Mr. Fielding and the captain of the ship in which he was making his last voyage, and Fielding relates how the man finally went down on his knees, and begged his passengers pardon. He was living up to the last days of his life, and his spirit never gave in. His vital power must have been immensely strong. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu prettily characterises Fielding and this capacity for happiness which he possessed, in a little notice of his death when she compares him to Steele, who was as improvident and as happy as he was, and says that both should have gone on living forever. One can fancy the eagerness and gusto with which a man of Fieldings frame, with his vast health and robust appetite, his ardent spirits, his joyful humour, and his keen and healthy relish for life, must have seized and drunk that cup of pleasure which the town offered to him. Can any of my hearers remember the youthful feats of a college breakfastthe meats devoured and the cups quaffed in that Homeric feast? I can call to mind some of the heroes of those youthful banquets, and fancy young Fielding from Leyden rushing upon the feast, with his great laugh, and immense healthy young appetite, eager and vigorous to enjoy. The young mans wit and manners made him friends everywhere: he lived with the grand Mans society of those days; he was courted by peers and men of wealth and fashion. As he had a paternal allowance from his father, General Fielding, which, to use Henrys own phrase, any man might pay who would; as he liked good wine, good clothes, and good company, which are all expensive articles to purchase, Harry Fielding began to run into debt, and borrow money in that easy manner in which Captain Booth borrows money in the novel: was in nowise particular in accepting a few pieces from the purses of his rich friends, and bore down upon more than one of them, as Walpole tells us only too truly, for a dinner or a guinea. To supply himself with the latter, he began to write theatrical pieces, having already, no doubt, a considerable acquaintance amongst the Oldfields and Bracegirdles behind the scenes. He laughed at these pieces and scorned them. When the audience upon one occasion began to hiss a scene which he was too lazy to correct, and regarding which, when Garrick remonstrated with him, he said that the public was too stupid to find out the badness of his work: when the audience began to hiss, Fielding said with characteristic coolnessThey have found it out, have they? He did not prepare his novels in this way, and with a very different care and interest laid the foundations and built up the edifices of his future fame.
Time and shower have very little damaged those. The fashion and ornaments are, perhaps, of the architecture of that age, but the buildings remain strong and lofty, and of admirable proportionsmasterpieces of genius and monuments of workmanlike skill.
I cannot offer or hope to make a hero of Harry Fielding. Why hide his faults? Why conceal his weaknesses in a cloud of periphrases? Why not show him, like him as he is, not robed in a marble toga, and draped and polished in an heroic attitude, but with inked ruffles, and claret stains on his tarnished laced coat, and on his manly face the marks of good fellowship, of illness, of kindness, of care and wine? Stained as you see him, and worn by care and dissipation, that man retains some of the most precious and splendid human qualities and endowments. He has an admirable natural love of truth, the keenest instinctive antipathy to hypocrisy, the happiest satirical gift of laughing it to scorn. His wit is wonderfully wise and detective; it flashes upon a rogue and lightens up a rascal like a policemans lantern. He is one of the manliest and kindliest of human beings: in the midst of all his imperfections, he respects female innocence and infantine tenderness as you would suppose such a great-hearted, courageous soul would respect and care for them. He could not be so brave, generous, truth-telling as he is, were he not infinitely merciful, pitiful, and tender. He will give any man his pursehe cant help kindness and profusion.
He may have low tastes, but not a mean mind; he admires with all his heart good and virtuous men, stoops to no flattery, bears no rancour, disdains all disloyal arts, does his public duty uprightly, is fondly loved by his family, and dies at his work.
As a picture of manners, 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.1
But against Mr. Thomas Jones himself we have a right to put in a protest, and quarrel with the esteem the author evidently has for that character. Charles Lamb says finely of Jones that a single hearty laugh from him clears the airbut then it is in a certain state of the atmosphere. It might clear the air when such personages as Blifil or Lady Bellaston poison it. But I fear very much that (except until the very last scene of the story), when Mr. Jones enters Sophias drawing-room, the pure air there is rather tainted with the young gentlemans tobacco-pipe and punch.
I cant say that I think Mr. Jones a virtuous character; I cant say but that I think Fieldings evident liking and admiration for Mr. Jones shows that the great humorists moral sense was blunted by his life, and that here, in Art and Ethics, there is a great error. If it is right to have a hero whom we may admire, let us at least take care that he is admirable: if, as is the plan of some authors (a plan decidedly against their interests, be it said), it is propounded that there exists in life no such being, and therefore that in novels, the picture of life, there should appear no such character; then Mr. Thomas Jones becomes an admissible person, and we examine his defects and good qualities, as we do those of Parson Thwackum, or Miss Seagrim. But a hero with a flawed reputation; a hero spunging for a guinea; a hero who cant pay his landlady, and is obliged to let his honour out to hire, is absurd and his claim to heroic rank untenable. I protest against Mr. Thomas Jones holding such rank at all. I protest even against his being considered a more than ordinary young fellow, ruddy-cheeked, broad-shouldered, and fond of wine and pleasure. He would not rob a church, but that is all; and a pretty long argument may be debated, as to which of these old typesthe spendthrift, the hypocrite, Jones and Blifil, Charles and Joseph Surfaceis the worst member of society and the most deserving of censure.
What a wonderful art! What an admirable gift of nature was it by which the author of these tales was endowed, and which enabled him to fix our interest, to waken our sympathy, to seize upon our credulity, so that we believe in his peoplespeculate gravely upon their faults or their excellences, prefer this one or that, deplore Joness fondness for play and drink, Booths fondness for play and drink, and the unfortunate position of the wives of both gentlemenlove and admire those ladies with all our hearts, and talk about them as faithfully as if the Park! What a genius! what a vigour! what a bright-eyed intelligence and observation! what a wholesome hatred for meanness and knavery! what a vast sympathy! what a cheerfulness! what a manly relish of life! what a love of human kind! what a poet is here!watching, meditating, brooding, creating! What multitudes of truths has that man left behind him! What generations he has taught to laugh wisely and fairly! What scholars he has formed and accustomed to the exercise of thoughtful humour and the manly play of wit! What a courage he had! What a dauntless and constant cheerfulness of intellect, that burned bright and steady through all the storms of his life and never deserted its last wreck! It is wonderful to think of the pains and misery which the man suffered; the pressure of want, illness, remorse which he endured! and that the writer was neither malignant nor melancholy, his view of truth never warped, and his generous human kindness never surrendered.
In the quarrel mentioned before, which happened on Fieldings last voyage to Lisbon, and when the stout captain of the ship fell down on his knees, and asked the sick mans pardonI did not suffer, Fielding says, in his hearty, manly way, his eyes lighting up as it were with their old fireI did not suffer a brave man and an old man to remain a moment in that posture, but immediately forgave him. Indeed, I think, with his noble spirit and unconquerable generosity, Fielding reminds one of those brave men of whom one reads in stories of English shipwrecks and disastersof the officer on the African shore, when disease had destroyed the crew, and he himself is seized by fever, who throws the lead with a death-stricken hand, takes the soundings, carries the ship out of the river or off the dangerous coast, and dies in the manly endeavorof the wounded captain, when the vessel founders, who never loses his heart, who eyes the danger steadily, and has a cheery word for all, until the inevitable fate overwhelms him, and the gallant ship goes down. Such a brave and gentle heart, such an intrepid and courageous spirit, I love to recognise in the manly, the English Harry Fielding.From The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century.
Note 1. Manners change from generation to generation, and with manners morals appear to changeactually change with some, but appear to change with all but the abandoned. A young man of the present day who should act as Tom Jones is supposed to act at Upton, with Lady Bellaston, &c., would not be a Tom Jones; and a Tom Jones of the present day, without perhaps being in the ground a better man, would have perished rather than submit to be kept by a harridan of fortune. Therefore, this novel is, and indeed pretends to be, no example of conduct. But, notwithstanding all this, I do loathe the cant which can recommend Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe as strictly moral, although they poison the imagination of the young with continued doses of tinct, lyttæ, while Tom Jones is prohibited as loose. I do not speak of young women; but a young man whose heart or feelings can be injured, or even his passions excited by this novel, is already thoroughly corrupt. There is a cheerful, sunshiny, breezy spirit, that prevails everywhere, strongly contrasted with the close, hot, day-dreamy continuity of Richardson.COLERIDGE. Literary Remains, vol. ii. p. 374. [back]