Page images
[blocks in formation]

MINGLED with the delighted murmur of praise and congratulation which welcomed Richardson's“Pamela,” there rang a mocking laugh from the crowd of scamps and fast men, who ran riot in London streets, beating the feeble old watchmen, and frightening timid wayfarers out of their wits. To such men virtue was a jest; and among the loudest laughers was a careless, good-humoured, very clever lawyer of thirty-five, called Harry Fielding. Richardson scarcely heeded—for he must have expected—the jeers of the aristocratic coffee-houses; but he was bitterly mortified at Fielding's laughter, for that mad wag laughed on paper, and in 1745 gave the world the novel of Joseph Andrews, a wicked mockery of those virtuous lessons which the respectable printer of Salisbury Court had endeavoured to inculcate by his first book.

The life of Fielding has in it much of the same colouring and scenery as the life of Dick Steele-a thoroughly congenial spirit, gay, careless, improvident, witty, and excessively good-natured. Lady Mary Montagu well knew of whom she was writing, when she described Fielding as one who forgot every evil, when he was before a venison pasty and a flask of champagne.

He was born in 1707, at Sharpham Park in Somersetshire. His father was a general in the army, and his mother was the daughter of a judge. General Fielding, who was a grandson of the Earl of Denbigh, set an example of extravagance, which his celebrated son was but too ready to imitate. A broken residence at Eton and Leyden gave Harry a kind of rambling education; buty




no supplies coming from home, he was obliged at the age of twenty to cut his studies short, and try to make his bread by writing for the London stage. He entered literary life as a composer of light comedies and farces; but in this department he gained no great renown.

About 1735 he married Miss Cradock, who brought him £1500, upon the strength of which, and a small estate left him by his mother, he retired to the country for a time. But only for a time. Two years sufficed to scatter to the winds almost every guinea he had; and he came up to town again, to enter the

Middle Temple, and there complete his long suspended 1740 study of the law. Called to the bar in 1740, he struggled A.D. for a while with the opening difficulties of a lawyer's career;

but few briefs came his way, and his pen was the chief bread-winner of the household. It was principally as a pamphleteer, or political writer, in defence of the Hanoverian succession, that he employed his literary powers during this period of his life. In our day, he would have written telling leaders for the Times, or rather for the Saturday Review.

Then came that tide in the current of his life, which, taken at the flood, bore him on, if not to fortune, at least to lasting fame. Richardson published "Pamela ;" and Fielding ridiculed the senti

mentalism of the work in his Joseph Andrews. This start 1742 in the novel-writing line took place in 1742. The charA.D. acter of Parson Adams is justly considered to be Fielding's

master-piece of literary portraiture. Now fairly embarked as a successful novelist, and fully awake to the powers of that pen, long degraded to petty uses, he continued to produce the works inseparably associated with hiş

His political connections, however, were still kept up. For a while he edited a journal directed against the Jacobites, who, in 1745, showed a front so threatening. And in 1749 he was appointed, through the interest of Lord Lyttelton, one of the Justices of Peace for Middlesex and Westminster. This position, similar in nearly all respects to that of a Londou police-magistrate, brought him in fees amounting to not quite £300 a year,





But though the emoluments of the office were small, and obtained by unpleasant drudgery, his position yet enabled him to observe phases of low and criminal life, which supplied fine material for his darker sketches of English society.

Unhappily, this active man never could shake off the habits of dissipation he had contracted in his early life; and such bore, in middle age, their necessary fruits. Dropsy, jaundice, and asthma seized him in their dreadful grip, and, after a vain struggle for health in England, he sailed in 1754 for Lisbon, to try 1754 the effect of a warmer climate. All was useless. His life's strength was gone. In the autumn of that year he died in the city of his exile, and was buried there in the cemetery of the British Factory.

In spite of the coarseness and indelicacy which mar its page Fielding's novel of Tom Jones is recognised as a work of remarkable genius. Written in his first year of magistrate life, it contains scenes and characters which could be drawn only from the daily experiences of the police bench. Jonathan Wild and Amelia are the principal remaining fictions of this great artist. The former depicts the career of a thief, who turns thief-catcher and ends his days upon the gallows. The latter commemorates the domestic virtue either of the novelist's first wife, or of that amiablo maid-servant, who sorrowed so deeply for the loss of her mistress, that, in gratitude and tender concern for his motherless children, he made her their second mother. And he never regretted the step, for she did her duty with loving faithfulness both to him and them.

The life described in Fielding's books was—let us be thankful for the change—totally unlike the life we now live. Much of the fun was of the roughest physical kind-practical jokes that would now-a-days fill our courts of law with actions for assault and battery, and violent altercations in road-side inns, which generally ended in a row, involving everybody present, to the serious detriment of eyes and limbs. The mêlée of fishwives, cabbage-mongers, and policemen, which enlivens every second or third scene of the comic business in our Christmas pantomimes, affords us a specimen of



the same boisterous humour. Everything is pelted about, and everybody beats everybody else, until the noisy crowd is hustled off the stage, and the scene or chapter ends. The tedious mode of travelling, especially the crawling of the stage waggon or slow coach of those days, necessarily gives a striking prominence to inn-life; for those who travelled much, a hundred years ago, spent one-third of their nights in the Maypoles and Blue Dragons that lined every road. The highwayman, too, is sure to figure wherever the progress of travellers is depicted. And here the novelist has ample scope for displaying the courage of his hero, or the cowardice of some braggart soldier, who has been swearing and twirling his moustache fiercely ever since the coach set out, but who turns pale, and with shaking hand fumbles silently for his purse, when the ominous pistol-barrel shows its dark muzzle at the coach window.

Fielding's early practice as a writer for the stage formed his first literary training for the great works that have made his name famous. We may safely hazard the conjecture, that his novels would have wanted much of their brilliant, changeful play, and skilful development of story, if his pen had not been well practised already in the farces and vaudevilles of his dramatic days. A play may be viewed, not improperly, as the skeleton of a novel. The frame-work of dialogue is there, which, being filled up and clothed with passages of description, grows into the full work of fiction. A play acted on the stage before us, and a novel in the hand, from which we read, address the mind through different channels, but with like result. In a play, we see the bustling movement of the plot, the varied dresses of the actors, and the painted scenery amid which they play their parts; and, combining these with the spoken words, we trace the outline of each individual character, and become wrapped in the interest of the story. In the novel, action, costume, and ery are depicted by those descriptive passages, of which Sir Walter Scott was so fine a painter.




As soon as the play, which was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, began, Par. tridge was all attention, nor did he break silence till the entrance of the ghost; upon which he asked Jones : What man that was in the strange dress; something," said he, “like what I have seen in a picture. Sure it's not armour, is it ? Jones answered : “ That is the ghost.” To which Partridge replied, with a smile: “Persuade me to that, sir, if you can. Though I can't say I ever actually saw a ghost in my life, yet I am certain I should know one if I saw him better than that comes to. No, no, sir; ghosts don't appear in such dresses as that neither.” In this mistake, which caused much laughter in the neighbour. hood of Partridge, he was suffered to continue till the scene between the ghost and Hamlet, when Partridge gave that credit to Mr. Garrick which he had denied to Jones, and fell into so violent a trembling that his knees knocked against each other. Jones asked him what was the matter, and whether he was afraid of the warrior upon the stage. “O la ! sir," said he, “I perceive now it is what you told me. I am not afraid of anything, for i know it is but a play; and if it was really a ghost, it could do one no harm at such a distance, and in so much company; and yet if I was frightened, I am not the only person.” “Why, who,” cries Jones; “ dost thou take me to be such a coward here besides thyself ?” “Nay, you may call me coward if you will; but if that little man there upon the stage is not frightened, I never saw any man frightened in my life. Ay, ay; go along with you! Ay, to be sure! Who's fool, then ? Will you? Who ever saw such foolhardiness? Whatever happens, it is good enough for you. Ob! here he is again ! No further! No, you've gone far enough already; further than I'd have gone for all the king's dominions !" Jones offered to speak, but Partridge cried : “ Hush, hush, dear sir; don't you hear him?" And during the whole speech of the ghost, he sat with his eyes fixed partly on the ghost, and partly on Hamlet, and with his mouth open; the same passions, wbich succeeded each other in Hamlet, succeeding likewise in him.

« PreviousContinue »