Fielding (Dobson)/Chapter 1

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Like his contemporary Smollett, Henry Fielding came of an ancient family, and might, in his Horatian moods, have traced his origin to Inachus. The lineage of the house of Denbigh, as given in Burke, fully justifies the splendid but sufficiently quoted eulogy of Gibbon. From that first Jeffrey of Hapsburgh, who came to England, temp. Henry III., and assumed the name of Fieldeng, or Filding, “from his father’s pretensions to the dominions of Lauffenbourg and Rinfilding,” the future novelist could boast a long line of illustrious ancestors. There was a Sir William Feilding killed at Tewkesbury, and a Sir Everard who commanded at Stoke. Another Sir William, a staunch Royalist, was created Earl of Denbigh, and died in fighting King Charles’s battles. Of his two sons, the elder, Basil, who succeeded to the title, was a Parliamentarian, and served at Edgehill under Essex. George, his second son, was raised to the peerage of Ireland as Viscount Callan, with succession to the earldom of Desmond; and from this, the younger branch of the Denbigh family, Henry Fielding directly descended. The Earl of Desmond's fifth son, John, entered the Church, becoming Canon of Salisbury and Chaplain to William III. By his wife Bridget, daughter of Scipio Cockain, Esq., of Somerset, he had three sons and three daughters. Edmund, the third son, was a soldier, who fought with distinction under Marlborough. When about the age of thirty, he married Sarah, daughter of Sir Henry Gould, Knt., of Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury, in Somerset, and one of the Judges of the King’s Bench. These last were the parents of the novelist, who was born at Sharpham Park on the 22d of April 1707. One of Dr. John Fielding’s nieces, it may here be added, married the first Duke of Kingston, becoming the mother of Lady Mary Pierrepont, afterwards Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was thus Henry Fielding’s second cousin. She had, however, been born in 1689, and was consequently some years his senior.

According to a pedigree given in Nichols (History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester), Edmund Fielding was only a lieutenant when he married; and it is even not improbable (as Mr. Keightley conjectures from the nearly secret union of Lieutenant Booth and Amelia in the later novel) that the match may have been a stolen one. At all events, the bride continued to reside at her father’s house; and the fact that Sir Henry Gould, by his will made in March 1706, left his daughter L3000, which was to be invested “in the purchase either of a Church or Colledge lease, or of lands of Inheritance,” for her sole use, her husband having “nothing to doe with it,” would seem (as Mr. Keightley suggests) to indicate a distrust of his military, and possibly impecunious, son-in-law. This money, it is also important to remember, was to come to her children at her death. Sir Henry Gould did not long survive the making of his will, and died in March 1710.[1] The Fieldings must then have removed to a small house at East Stour (now Stower), in Dorsetshire, where Sarah Fielding was born in the following November. It may be that this property was purchased with Mrs. Fielding’s money; but information is wanting upon the subject. At East Stour, according to the extracts from the parish register given in Hutchins’s History of Dorset, four children were born,—namely, Sarah, above mentioned, afterwards the authoress of David Simple, Anne, Beatrice, and another son, Edmund. Edmund, says Arthur Murphy, “was an officer in the marine service,” and (adds Mr. Lawrence) “died young.” Anne died at East Stour in August 1716. Of Beatrice nothing further is known. These would appear to have been all the children of Edmund Fielding by his first wife, although, as Sarah Fielding is styled on her monument at Bath the second daughter of General Fielding, it is not impossible that another daughter may have been born at Sharpham Park.

At East Stour the Fieldings certainly resided until April 1718, when Mrs. Fielding died, leaving her elder son a boy of not quite eleven years of age. How much longer the family remained there is unrecorded; but it is clear that a great part of Henry Fielding’s childhood must have been spent by the “pleasant Banks of sweetly-winding Stour” which passes through it, and to which he subsequently refers in Tom Jones. His education during this time was confided to a certain Mr. Oliver, whom Lawrence designates the “family chaplain.” Keightley supposes that he was the curate of East Stour; but Hutchins, a better authority than either, says that he was the clergyman of Motcombe, a neighbouring village. Of this gentleman, according to Murphy, Parson Trulliber in Joseph Andrews is a “very humorous and striking portrait.” It is certainly more humorous than complimentary.

From Mr. Oliver’s fostering care—and the result shows that, whatever may have been the pig-dealing propensities of Parson Trulliber, it was not entirely profitless—Fielding was transferred to Eton. When this took place is not known; but at that time boys entered the school much earlier than they do now, and it was probably not long after his mother’s death. The Eton boys were then, as at present, divided into collegers and oppidans. There are no registers of oppidans before the end of the last century; but the Provost of Eton has been good enough to search the college lists from 1715 to 1735, and there is no record of any Henry Fielding, nor indeed of any Fielding at all. It may therefore be concluded that he was an oppidan. No particulars of his stay at Eton have come down to us; but it is to be presumed Murphy’s statement that, “when he left the place, he was said to be uncommonly versed in the Greek authors, and an early master of the Latin classics,” is not made without foundation. [2] We have also his own authority (in Tom Jones) for supposing that he occasionally, if not frequently, sacrificed “with true Spartan devotion” at the “birchen Altar,” of which a representation is to be found in Mr. Maxwell Lyte’s history of the College. And it may fairly be inferred that he took part in the different sports and pastimes of the day, such as Conquering Lobs, Steal baggage, Chuck, Starecaps, and so forth. Nor does it need any strong effort of imagination to conclude that he bathed in “Sandy hole” or “Cuckow ware,” attended the cock-fights in Bedford’s Yard and the bull-baiting in Bachelor’s Acre, drank mild punch at the “Christopher,” and, no doubt, was occasionally brought back by Jack Cutler, “Pursuivant of Runaways,” to make his explanations to Dr. Bland the Head-Master, or Francis Goode the Usher. Among his school-fellows were some who subsequently attained to high dignities in the State, and still remained his friends. Foremost of these was George Lyttelton, later the statesman and orator, who had already commenced poet as an Eton boy with his “Soliloquy of a Beauty in the Country.” Another was the future Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, the wit and squib-writer, then known as Charles Hanbury only. A third was Thomas Winnington, for whom, in after years, Fielding fought hard with brain and pen when Tory scribblers assailed his memory. Of those who must be regarded as contemporaries merely, were William Pitt, the “Great Commoner,” and yet greater Earl of Chatham; Henry Fox, Lord Holland; and Charles Pratt, Earl Camden. Gilbert West, the translator of Pindar, may also have been at Eton in Fielding’s time, as he was only a year older, and was intimate with Lyttelton. Thomas Augustine Arne, again, famous in days to come as Dr. Arne, was doubtless also at this date practising sedulously upon that “miserable cracked common flute,” with which tradition avers he was wont to torment his school-fellows. Gray and Horace Walpole belong to a later period.

During his stay at Eton, Fielding had been rapidly developing from a boy into a young man. When he left school it is impossible to say; but he was probably seventeen or eighteen years of age, and it is at this stage of his career that must be fixed an occurrence which one of his biographers places much farther on. This is his earliest recorded love-affair. At Lyme Regis there resided a young lady, who, in addition to great personal charms, had the advantage of being the only daughter and heiress of one Solomon Andrew, deceased, a merchant of considerable local reputation. Lawrence says that she was Fielding’s cousin. This may be so; but the statement is unsupported by any authority. It is certain, however, that her father was dead, and that she was living “in maiden meditation” at Lyme with one of her guardians, Mr. Andrew Tucker. In his chance visits to that place, young Fielding appears to have become desperately enamoured of her, and to have sadly fluttered the Dorset dovecotes by his pertinacious and undesirable attentions. At one time he seems to have actually meditated the abduction of his “flame,” for an entry in the town archives, discovered by Mr. George Roberts, sometime Mayor of Lyme, who tells the story, declares that Andrew Tucker, Esq., went in fear of his life “owing to the behaviour of Henry Fielding and his attendant, or man.” Such a state of things (especially when guardians have sons of their own) is clearly not to be endured; and Miss Andrew was prudently transferred to the care of another guardian, Mr. Rhodes of Modbury, in South Devon, to whose son, a young gentleman of Oxford, she was promptly married. Burke (Landed Gentry, 1858) dates the marriage in 1726, a date which is practically confirmed by the baptism of a child at Modbury in April of the following year. Burke further describes the husband as Mr. Ambrose Rhodes of Buckland House, Buckland-Tout-Saints. His son, Mr. Rhodes of Bellair, near Exeter, was gentleman of the Privy Chamber to George III.; and one of his descendants possessed a picture which passed for the portrait of Sophia Western. The tradition of the Tucker family pointed to Miss Andrew as the original of Fielding’s heroine; but though such a supposition is intelligible, it is untenable, since he says distinctly (Book XIII. chap. i. of Tom Jones) that his model was his first wife, whose likeness he moreover draws very specifically in another place, by declaring that she resembled Margaret Cecil, Lady Ranelagh, and, more nearly, “the famous Dutchess of Mazarine.”[3]

With this early escapade is perhaps to be connected what seems to have been one of Fielding’s earliest literary efforts. This is a modernisation in burlesque octosyllabic verse of part of Juvenal’s sixth satire. In the “Preface” to the later published Miscellanies, it is said to have been “originally sketched out before he was Twenty,” and to have constituted “all the Revenge taken by an injured Lover.” But it must have been largely revised subsequent to that date, for it contains references to Mrs. Clive, Mrs. Woffington, Cibber the younger, and even to Richardson’s Pamela. It has no special merit, although some of the couplets have the true Swiftian turn. If Murphy’s statement be correct, that the author “went from Eton to Leyden,” it must have been planned at the latter place, where, he tells us in the preface to Don Quixote in England, he also began that comedy. Notwithstanding these literary distractions, he is nevertheless reported to have studied the civilians “with a remarkable application for about two years.” At the expiration of this time, remittances from home failing, he was obliged to forego the lectures of the “learned Vitriarius” (then Professor of Civil Law at Leyden University), and return to London, which he did at the beginning of 1728 or the end of 1727.

The fact was that his father, never a rich man, had married again. His second wife was a widow named Eleanor Rasa; and by this time he was fast acquiring a second family. Under the pressure of his growing cares, he found himself, however willing, as unable to maintain his eldest son in London as he had previously been to discharge his expenses at Leyden. Nominally, he made him an allowance of two hundred a year; but this, as Fielding himself explained, “any body might pay that would.” The consequence was, that not long after the arrival of the latter in the Metropolis he had given up all idea of pursuing the law, to which his mother’s legal connections had perhaps first attracted him, and had determined to adopt the more seductive occupation of living by his wits. At this date he was in the prime of youth. From the portrait by Hogarth representing him at a time when he was broken in health and had lost his teeth, it is difficult to reconstruct his likeness at twenty. But we may fairly assume the “ high-arched Roman nose” with which his enemies reproached him, the dark eyes, the prominent chin, and the humorous expression; and it is clear that he must have been tall and vigorous, for he was over six feet when he died, and had been remarkably strong and active. Add to this that he inherited a splendid constitution, with an unlimited capacity for enjoyment, and we have a fair idea of Henry Fielding at that moment of his career, when with passions “tremblingly alive all o’er”—as Murphy says—he stood,

“This way and that dividing the swift mind,”

between the professions of hackney-writer and hackney-coachman. His natural bias was towards literature, and his opportunities, if not his inclinations, directed him to dramatic writing.

It is not necessary to attempt any detailed account of the state of the stage at this epoch. Nevertheless, if only to avoid confusion in the future, it will be well to enumerate the several London theatres in 1728, the more especially as the list is by no means lengthy. First and foremost there was the old Opera House in the Haymarket, built by Vanbrugh, as far back as 1705, upon the site now occupied by Her Majesty’s Theatre. This was the home of that popular Italian song which so excited the anger of thorough-going Britons; and here, at the beginning of 1728, they were performing Handel’s opera of Siroe, and delighting the cognoscenti by Dite che fà, the echo-air in the same composer’s Tolomeo. Opposite the Opera House, and, in position, only “a few feet distant” from the existing Haymarket Theatre, was the New, or Little Theatre in the Haymarket, which, from the fact that it had been opened eight years before by “the French Comedians,” was also sometimes styled the French House. Next comes the no-longer-existent theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which Christopher Rich had rebuilt in 1714, and which his son John had made notorious for pantomimes. Here the Beggar’s Opera, precursor of a long line of similar productions, had just been successfully produced. Finally, most ancient of them all, there was the Theatre-Royal in Drury Lane, otherwise the King’s Play House, or Old House. The virtual patentees at this time were the actors Colley Cibber, Robert Wilks, and Barton Booth. The two former were just playing the Provok’d Husband, in which the famous Mrs. Oldfield (Pope’s “Narcissa”) had created a furore by her assumption of Lady Townley. These, in February 1728, were the four principal London theatres. Goodman’s Fields, where Garrick made his début, was not opened until the following year, and Covent Garden belongs to a still later date.

Fielding’s first dramatic essay—or, to speak more precisely, the first of his dramatic essays that was produced upon the stage—was a five-act comedy entitled Love in Several Masques. It was played at Drury Lane in February 1728, succeeding the Provok’d Husband. In his “Preface” the young author refers to the disadvantage under which he laboured in following close upon that comedy, and also in being “contemporary with an Entertainment which engrosses the whole Talk and Admiration of the Town,”—i.e. the Beggar’s Opera. He also acknowledges the kindness of Wilks and Cibber “previous to its Representation,” and the fact that he had thus acquired their suffrages makes it doubtful whether his stay at Leyden was not really briefer than is generally supposed, or that he left Eton much earlier. In either case he must have been in London some months before Love in Several Masques appeared, for a first play by an untried youth of twenty, however promising, is not easily brought upon the boards in any era; and from his own utterances in Pasquin, ten years later, it is clear that it was no easier then than now. The sentiments of the Fustian of that piece in the following protest probably give an accurate picture of the average dramatic experiences of Henry Fielding:—

“These little things, Mr. Sneerwell, will sometimes happen. Indeed a Poet undergoes a great deal before he comes to his Third Night; first with the Muses, who are humorous Ladies, and must be attended; for if they take it into their Head at any time to go abroad and leave you, you will pump your Brain in vain: Then, Sir, with the Master of a Playhouse to get it acted, whom you generally follow a quarter of a Year before you know whether he will receive it or no; and then perhaps he tells you it won’t do, and returns it you again, reserving the Subject, and perhaps the Name, which he brings out in his next Pantomime; but if he should receive the Play, then you must attend again to get it writ out into Parts, and Rehears’d. Well, Sir, at last the Rehearsals begin; then, Sir, begins another Scene of Trouble with the Actors, some of whom don’t like their Parts, and all are continually plaguing you with Alterations: At length, after having waded thro’ all these Difficulties, his [the?] Play appears on the Stage, where one Man Hisses out of Resentment to the Author; a Second out of Dislike to the House; a Third out of Dislike to the Actor; a Fourth out of Dislike to the Play; a Fifth for the Joke sake; a Sixth to keep all the rest in Company. Enemies abuse him, Friends give him up, the Play is damn’d, and the Author goes to the Devil, so ends the Farce.”

To which Sneerwell replies, with much promptitude: “The Tragedy rather, I think, Mr. Fustian.” But whatever may have been its preliminary difficulties, Fielding’s first play was not exposed to so untoward a fate. It was well received. As might be expected in a beginner, and as indeed the references in the Preface to Wycherley and Congreve would lead us to expect, it was an obvious attempt in the manner of those then all-popular writers. The dialogue is ready and witty. But the characters have that obvious defect which Lord Beaconsfield recognised when he spoke in later life of his own earliest efforts. “Books written by boys,” he says, “which pretend to give a picture of manners and to deal in knowledge of human nature must necessarily be founded on affectation.” To this rule the personages of Love in Several Masques are no exception. They are drawn rather from the stage than from life, and there is little constructive skill in the plot. A certain booby squire, Sir Positive Trap, seems like a first indication of some of the later successes in the novels; but the rest of the dramatis personæ are puppets. The success of the piece was probably owing to the acting of Mrs. Oldfield, who took the part of Lady Matchless, a character closely related to the Lady Townleys and Lady Betty Modishes, in which she won her triumphs. She seems, indeed, to have been unusually interested in this comedy, for she consented to play in it notwithstanding a “slight Indisposition” contracted “by her violent Fatigue in the Part of Lady Townly,” and she assisted the author with her corrections and advice—perhaps with her influence as an actress. Fielding’s distinguished kinswoman Lady Mary Wortley Montagu also read the MS. Looking to certain scenes in it, the protestation in the Prologue—

"Nought shall offend the Fair Ones Ears to-day,
 Which they might blush to hear, or blush to say”—

has an air of insincerity, although, contrasted with some of the writer’s later productions, Love in Several Masques is comparatively pure. But he might honestly think that the work which had received the imprimatur of a stage-queen and a lady of quality should fairly be regarded as morally blameless, and it is not necessary to bring any bulk of evidence to prove that the morality of 1728 differed from the morality of to-day.

To the last-mentioned year is ascribed a poem entitled the “Masquerade. Inscribed to C——t H——d——g——r. By Lemuel Gulliver, Poet Laureate to the King of Lilliput.” In this Fielding made his satirical contribution to the attacks on those impure gatherings organised by the notorious Heidegger, which Hogarth had not long before stigmatised pictorially in the plate known to collectors as the “large Masquerade Ticket.” As verse this performance is worthless, and it is not very forcibly on the side of good manners; but the ironic dedication has a certain touch of Fielding’s later fashion. Two other poetical pieces, afterwards included in the Miscellanies of 1743, also bear the date of 1728. One is A Description of U——n G—— (alias New Hog’s Norton) in Com. Hants, which Mr. Keightley has identified with Upton Grey, near Odiham, in Hampshire. It is a burlesque description of a tumbledown country-house in which the writer was staying, and is addressed to Rosalinda. The other is entitled To Euthalia, from which it must be concluded that, in 1728, Sarah Andrew had found more than one successor. But in spite of some biographers, and of the apparent encouragement given to his first comedy, Fielding does not seem to have followed up dramatic authorship with equal vigour, or at all events with equal success. His real connection with the stage does not begin until January 1730, when the Temple Beau was produced by Giffard the actor at the theatre in Goodman’s Fields, which had then just been opened by Thomas Odell; and it may be presumed that his incentive was rather want of funds than desire of fame. The Temple Beau certainly shows an advance upon its predecessor; but it is an advance in the same direction, imitation of Congreve; and although Geneste ranks it among the best of Fielding’s plays, it is doubtful whether modern criticism would sustain his verdict. It ran for a short time, and was then withdrawn. The Prologue was the work of James Ralph, afterwards Fielding’s colleague in the Champion, and it thus refers to the prevailing taste. The Beggar’s Opera had killed Italian song, but now a new danger had arisen,—

“Humour and Wit, in each politer Age,
 Triumphant, rear’d the Trophies of the Stage:
 But only Farce, and Shew, will now go down,
 And Harlequin’s the Darling of the Town.”

As if to confirm his friend’s opinion, Fielding’s next piece combined the popular ingredients above referred to. In March following he produced at the Haymarket, under the pseudonym of Scriblerus Secundus, The Author’s Farce, with a “Puppet Show” called The Pleasures of the Town. In the Puppet Show, Henley, the Clare-Market Orator, and Samuel Johnson, the quack author of the popular Hurlothrumbo, were smartly satirised, as also was the fashionable craze for Opera and Pantomime. But the most enduring part of this odd medley is the farce which occupies the two first acts, and under thin disguises no doubt depicts much which was within the writer’s experience. At all events, Luckless, the author in the play, has more than one of the characteristics which distinguish the traditional portrait of Fielding himself in his early years. He wears a laced coat, is in love, writes plays, and cannot pay his landlady, who declares, with some show of justice, that she “would no more depend on a Benefit-Night of an un-acted Play, than she wou’d on a Benefit-Ticket in an un-drawn Lottery.” “Her Floor (she laments) is all spoil’d with Ink—her Windows with Verses, and her Door has been almost beat down with Duns.” But the most humorous scenes in the play— scenes really admirable in their ironic delineation of the seamy side of authorship in 1730—are those in which Mr. Bookweight, the publisher— the Curll or Osborne of the period—is shown surrounded by the obedient hacks, who feed at his table on “good Milk-porridge, very often twice a Day,” and manufacture the murders, ghost-stories, political pamphlets, and translations from Virgil (out of Dryden) with which he supplies his customers. Here is one of them as good as any:—

Bookweight. So, Mr. Index, what News with you?

Index. I have brought my Bill, Sir.

Book. What’s here?—for fitting the Motto of Risum teneatis Amici to a dozen Pamphlets at Sixpence per each, Six Shillings—For Omnia vincit Amor, & nos cedamus Amori, Sixpence—For Difficile est Satyram non scribere, Sixpence—Hum! hum! hum! Sum total, for Thirty-six Latin Motto’s, Eighteen Shillings; ditto English, One Shilling and Nine-pence; ditto Greek, Four, Four Shillings. These Greek Motto’s are excessively dear.

Ind. If you have them cheaper at either of the Universities, I will give you mine for nothing.

Book. You shall have your Money immediately, and pray remember that I must have two Latin Seditious Motto’s and one Greek Moral Motto for Pamphlets by to-morrow Morning....

Ind. Sir, I shall provide them. Be pleas’d to look on that, Sir, and print me Five hundred Proposals, and as many Receipts.

Book. Proposals for printing by Subscription a new Translation of Cicero, Of the Nature of the Gods and his Tusculan Questions, by Jeremy Index, Esq.; I am sorry you have undertaken this, for it prevents a Design of mine.

Ind. Indeed, Sir, it does not, for you see all of the Book that I ever intend to publish. It is only a handsome Way of asking one’s Friends for a Guinea.

Book. Then you have not translated a Word of it, perhaps.

Ind. Not a single Syllable.

Book. Well, you shall have your Proposals forthwith; but I desire you wou’d be a little more reasonable in your Bills for the future, or I shall deal with you no longer; for I have a certain Fellow of a College, who offers to furnish me with Second-hand Motto’s out of the Spectator for Two-pence each.

Ind. Sir, I only desire to live by my Goods, and I hope you will be pleas’d to allow some difference between a neat fresh Piece, piping hot out of the Classicks, and old thread-bare worn-out Stuff that has past thro’ ev’ry Pedant’s Mouth. …”

The latter part of this amusing dialogue, referring to Mr. Index’s translation from Cicero, was added in an amended version of the Author’s Farce, which appeared some years later, and in which Fielding depicts the portrait of another all-powerful personage in the literary life,—the actor-manager. This, however, will be more conveniently treated under its proper date, and it is only necessary to say here that the slight sketches of Marplay and Sparkish given in the first edition, were presumably intended for Cibber and Wilks, with whom, notwithstanding the “civil and kind Behaviour” for which he had thanked them in the “Preface” to Love in Several Masques, the young dramatist was now, it seems, at war. In the introduction to the Miscellanies, he refers to “a slight Pique” with Wilks; and it is not impossible that the key to the difference may be found in the following passage:—

Sparkish. What dost think of the Play?

Marplay. It may be a very good one, for ought I know; but I know the Author has no Interest.

Spark. Give me Interest, and rat the Play.

Mar. Rather rat the Play which has no Interest. Interest sways as much in the Theatre as at Court.—And you know it is not always the Companion of Merit in either.”

The handsome student from Leyden—the potential Congreve who wrote Love in Several Masques, and had Lady Mary Wortley Montagu for patroness, might fairly be supposed to have expectations which warranted the civilities of Messrs. Wilks and Cibber; but the “Luckless” of two years later had probably convinced them that his dramatic performances did not involve their sine qua non of success. Under these circumstances nothing perhaps could be more natural than that they should play their parts in his little satire.

We have dwelt at some length upon the Author’s Farce, because it is the first of Fielding’s plays in which, leaving the “wit-traps” of Wycherley and Congreve, he deals with the direct censure of contemporary folly, and because, apart from translation and adaptation, it is in this field that his most brilliant theatrical successes were won. For the next few years he continued to produce comedies and farces with great rapidity, both under his own name, and under the pseudonym of Scriblerus Secundus. Most of these show manifest signs of haste, and some are recklessly immodest. We shall confine ourselves to one or two of the best, and do little more than enumerate the others. Of these latter, the Coffee-House Politician; or, The Justice caught in his own Trap, 1730, succeeded the Author’s Farce. The leading idea, that of a tradesman who neglects his shop for “foreign affairs,” appears to be derived from Addison’s excellent character-sketch in the Tatler of the “Political Upholsterer.” This is the more likely, in that Arne the musician, whose father is generally supposed to have been Addison’s original, was Fielding’s contemporary at Eton. Justice Squeezum, another character contained in this play, is a kind of first draft of the later Justice Thrasher in Amelia. The representation of the trading justice on the stage, however, was by no means new, since Justice Quorum in Coffey’s Beggar’s Wedding (with whom, as will appear presently, Fielding’s name has been erroneously associated) exhibits similar characteristics. Omitting for the moment the burlesque of Tom Thumb, the Coffee-House Politician was followed by the Letter Writers; or, A new Way to Keep a Wife at Home, 1731, a brisk little farce, with one vigorously drawn character, that of Jack Commons, a young university rake; the Grub-Street Opera, 1731; the farce of the Lottery, 1731, in which the famous Mrs. Clive, then Miss Raftor, appeared; the Modern Husband, 1732; the Covent Garden Tragedy, 1732, a broad and rather riotous burlesque of Ambrose Philips’ Distrest Mother; and the Debauchees; or, The Jesuit Caught, 1732—which was based upon the then debated story of Father Girard and Catherine Cadiere.

Neither of the two last-named pieces is worthy of the author, and their strongest condemnation in our day is that they were condemned in their own for their unbridled license, the Grub Street Journal going so far as to say that they had “met with the universal detestation of the Town.” The Modern Husband, which turns on that most loathsome of all commercial pursuits, the traffic of a husband in his wife’s dishonour, appears, oddly enough, to have been regarded by its author with especial complacency. Its prologue lays stress upon the moral purpose; it was dedicated to Sir Robert Walpole; and from a couple of letters printed in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Correspondence, it is clear that it had been submitted to her perusal. It had, however, no great success upon the stage, and the chief thing worth remembering about it is that it afforded his last character to Wilks, who played the part of Bellamant. That “slight Pique,” of which mention has been made, was no doubt by this time a thing of the past.

But if most of the works in the foregoing list can hardly be regarded as creditable to Fielding’s artistic or moral sense, one of them at least deserves to be excepted, and that is the burlesque of Tom Thumb. This was first brought out in 1730 at the little theatre in the Hay-market, where it met with a favourable reception. In the following year it was enlarged to three acts (in the first version there had been but two), and reproduced at the same theatre as the Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, “with the Annotations of H. Scriblerus Secundus.” It is certainly one of the best burlesques ever written. As Baker observes in his Biographia Dramatica, it may fairly be ranked as a sequel to Buckingham’s Rehearsal, since it includes the absurdities of nearly all the writers of tragedies from the period when that piece stops to 1730. Among the authors satirised are Nat. Lee, Thomson (whose famous

“O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O!”

is parodied by

“O Huncamunca, Huncamunca, O!”),

Banks’s Earl of Essex, a favourite play at Bartholomew Fair, the Busiris of Young, and the Aurengzebe of Dryden, etc. The annotations, which abound in transparent references to Dr. B[entle]y, Mr. T[heobal]d, Mr. D[enni]s, are excellent imitations of contemporary pedantry. One example, elicited in Act 1 by a reference to “giants,” must stand for many:—

“That learned Historian Mr. S——n in the third Number of his Criticism on our Author, takes great Pains to explode this Passage. It is, says he, difficult to guess what Giants are here meant, unless the Giant Despair in the Pilgrim’s Progress, or the giant Greatness in the Royal Villain; for I have heard of no other sort of Giants in the Reign of King Arthur. Petrus Burmanus makes three Tom Thumbs, one whereof he supposes to have been the same Person whom the Greeks called Hercules, and that by these Giants are to be understood the Centaurs slain by that Heroe. Another Tom Thumb he contends to have been no other than the Hermes Trismegistus of the Antients. The third Tom Thumb he places under the Reign of King Arthur; to which third Tom Thumb, says he, the Actions of the other two were attributed. Now, tho’ I know that this Opinion is supported by an Assertion of Justus Lipsius, Thomam ilium Thumbum non alium quam satis constat; yet shall I venture to oppose one Line of Mr. Midwinter, against them all,

In Arthurs’ Court Tom Thumb did live.

“But then, says Dr. B——-y, if we place Tom Thumb in the Court of King Arthur, it will he proper to place that Court out of Britain, where no Giants were ever heard of. Spencer, in his Fairy Queen, is of another Opinion, where describing Albion, he says,

Far within, a salvage Nation dwelt Of hideous Giants.

And in the same canto:

Then Elfar with two Brethren Giants had The one of which had two Heads,— The other three. Risum teneatis, Amici.”

Of the play itself it is difficult to give an idea by extract, as nearly every line travesties some tragic passage once familiar to play-goers, and now utterly forgotten. But the following lines from one of the speeches of Lord Grizzle—a part admirably acted by Liston in later years [Footnote: Compare Hazlitt, On the Comic Writers of the Last Century.]—are a fair specimen of its ludicrous use (or rather abuse) of simile:—

“Yet think not long, I will my Rival bear, Or unreveng’d the slighted Willow wear; The gloomy, brooding Tempest now confin’d, Within the hollow Caverns of my Mind, In dreadful Whirl, shall rowl along the Coasts, Shall thin the Land of all the Men it boasts, And cram up ev’ry Chink of Hell with Ghosts. So have I seen, in some dark Winter’s Day, A sudden Storm rush down the Sky’s High-Way, Sweep thro’ the Streets with terrible ding-dong, Gush thro’ the Spouts, and wash whole Crowds along. The crowded Shops, the thronging Vermin skreen, Together cram the Dirty and the Clean, And not one Shoe-Boy in the Street is seen.”

In the modern version of Kane O’Hara, to which songs were added, the Tragedy of Tragedies still keeps, or kept the stage. But its crowning glory is its traditional connection with Swift, who told Mrs. Pilkington that he “had not laugh’d above twice” in his life, once at the tricks of a merry-andrew, and again when (in Fielding’s burlesque) Tom Thumb killed the ghost. This is an incident of the earlier versions, omitted in deference to the critics, for which the reader will seek vainly in the play as now printed; and he will, moreover, discover that Mrs. Pilkington’s memory served her imperfectly, since it is not Tom Thumb who kills the ghost, but the ghost of Tom Thumb which is killed by his jealous rival, Lord Grizzle. A trifling inaccuracy of this sort, however, is rather in favour of the truth of the story than against it, for a pure fiction would in all probability have been more precise. Another point of interest in connection with this burlesque is the frontispiece which Hogarth supplied to the edition of 1731. It has no special value as a design, but it constitutes the earliest reference to that friendship with the painter, of which so many traces are to be found in Fielding’s works.

Hitherto Fielding had succeeded best in burlesque. But, in 1732, the same year in which he produced the Modern Husband, the Debauchees, and the Covent Garden Tragedy, he made an adaptation of Moliere’s Medecin malgre lui, which had already been imitated in English by Mrs. Centlivre and others. This little piece, to which he gave the title of the Mock-Doctor; or, The Dumb Lady cur’d, was well received. The French original was rendered with tolerable closeness; but here and there Fielding has introduced little touches of his own, as, for instance, where Gregory (Sganarelle) tells his wife Dorcas (Martino), whom he has just been beating, that as they are but one, whenever he beats her he beats half of himself. To this she replies by requesting that for the future he will beat the other half. An entire scene (the thirteenth) was also added at the desire of Miss Raftor, who played Dorcas, and thought her part too short. This is apparently intended as a burlesque of the notorious quack Misaubin, to whom the Mock-Doctor was ironically dedicated. He was the proprietor of a famous pill, and was introduced by Hogarth into the Harlot’s Progress. Gregory was played by Theophilus Cibber, and the preface contains a complimentary reference to his acting, and the expected retirement of his father from the stage. Neither Genest nor Lawrence gives the date when the piece was first produced, but if the “April” on the dubious author’s benefit ticket attributed to Hogarth be correct, it must have been in the first months of 1732.

The cordial reception of the Mock-Doctor seems to have encouraged Fielding to make further levies upon Moliere, and he speaks of his hope to do so in the “Preface.” As a matter of fact, he produced a version of L’Avare at Drury Lane in the following year, which entirely outshone the older versions of Shadwell and Ozell, and gained from Voltaire the praise of having added to the original “quelques beautes de dialogue particulieres a sa (Fielding’s) nation.” Lovegold, its leading role, became a stock part. It was well played by its first actor Griffin, and was a favourite exercise with Macklin, Shuter, and (in our own days) Phelps.

In February 1733, when the Miser was first acted, Fielding was five and twenty. His means at this time were, in all probability, exceedingly uncertain. The small proportion of money due to him at his mother’s death had doubtless been long since exhausted, and he must have been almost wholly dependent upon the precarious profits of his pen. That he was assisted by rich and noble friends to any material extent appears, in spite of Murphy, to be unlikely. At all events, an occasional dedication to the Duke of Richmond or the Earl of Chesterfield cannot be regarded as proof positive. Lyttelton, who certainly befriended him in later life, was for a great part of this period absent on the Grand Tour, and Ralph Allen had not yet come forward. In default of the always deferred allowance, his father’s house at Salisbury (?) was no doubt open to him; and it is plain, from indications in his minor poems, that he occasionally escaped into the country. But in London he lived for the most part, and probably not very worshipfully. What, even now, would be the life of a young man of Fielding’s age, fond of pleasure, careless of the future, very liberally equipped with high spirits, and straightway exposed to the perilous seductions of the stage? Fielding had the defects of his qualities, and was no better than the rest of those about him. He was manly, and frank, and generous; but these characteristics could scarcely protect him from the terrors of the tip-staff, and the sequels of “t’other bottle.” Indeed, he very honestly and unfeignedly confesses to the lapses of his youth in the Journey from this World to the Next, adding that he pretended “to very little Virtue more than general Philanthropy and private Friendship.” It is therefore but reasonable to infer that his daily life must have been more than usually characterised by the vicissitudes of the eighteenth-century prodigal,— alternations from the “Rose” to a Clare-Market ordinary, from gold-lace to fustian, from champagne to “British Burgundy.” In a rhymed petition to Walpole, dated 1730, he makes pleasant mirth of what no doubt was sometimes sober truth—his debts, his duns, and his dinnerless condition. He (the verses tell us)

“—from his Garret can look down On the whole Street of Arlington.” [Footnote: Where Sir Robert lived]


“The Family that dines the latest Is in our Street esteem’d the greatest; But latest Hours must surely fall Before him who ne’er dines at all;”


“This too doth in my Favour speak, Your Levee is but twice a Week; From mine I can exclude but one Day, My Door is quiet on a Sunday.”

When he can admit so much even jestingly of himself, it is but legitimate to presume that there is no great exaggeration in the portrait of him in 1735, by the anonymous satirist of Seasonable Reproof:—

“F———g, who yesterday appear’d so rough, Clad in coarse Frize, and plaister’d down with Snuff, See how his Instant gaudy Trappings shine; What Play-house Bard was ever seen so fine! But this, not from his Humour flows, you’ll say, But mere Necessity;—for last Night lay In Pawn, the Velvet which he wears to Day.”

His work bears traces of the inequalities and irregularities of his mode of living. Although in certain cases (e.g. the revised edition of Tom Thumb) the artist and scholar seems to have spasmodically asserted himself, the majority of his plays were hasty and ill-considered performances, most of which (as Lady Mary said) he would have thrown into the fire “if meat could have been got without money, and money without scribbling.” “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.” It is not easy to conceive, unless Fielding’s capacities as a smoker were unusual, that any large contribution to dramatic literature could have been made upon the wrappings of Virginia or Freeman’s Best; but that his reputation for careless production was established among his contemporaries is manifest from the following passage in a burlesque Author’s Will published in the Universal Spectator of Oldys:—

“Item, I give and bequeath to my very negligent Friend Henry Drama, Esq., all my INDUSTRY. And whereas the World may think this an unnecessary Legacy, forasmuch as the said Henry Drama, Esq., brings on the Stage four Pieces every Season; yet as such Pieces are always wrote with uncommon Rapidity, and during such fatal Intervals only as the Stocks have been on the Fall, this Legacy will be of use to him to revise and correct his Works. Furthermore, for fear the said Henry Drama should make an ill Use of the said Industry, and expend it all on a Ballad Farce, it’s my Will the said Legacy should be paid him by equal Portions, and as his Necessities may require.”

There can be little doubt that the above quotation, which is reprinted in the Gentleman’s for July 1734, and seems to have hitherto escaped inquiry, refers to none other than the “very negligent” Author of the Modern Husband and the Old Debauchees—in other words, to Henry Fielding

  1. Mr. Keightley, who seems to have seen the will, dates it—doubtless by a slip of the pen—May 1708. Reference to the original, however, now at Somerset House, shows the correct date to be March 8, 1706, before which time the marriage of Fielding’s parents must therefore be placed.
  2. Fielding’s own words in the verses to Walpole some years later scarcely go so far:—

    Tuscan and French are in my Head;
    Latin I write, and Greek I— read.”

  3. See Appendix No. I.: Fielding and Sarah Andrew.