Monday, January 30, 2012
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Reading Jane Bowron’s vivid dispatches from an earthquake puts me in mind of somebody else writing vividly about uncomfortable things. An earthquake doesn’t come into it, but that was only because of hair’s-breadth timing.
About six years ago I decided I had neglected one of the eighteenth century masters, Henry Fielding (1707-1754), so I set about reading my way methodically through all of his works that are still regularly in print – the three novels Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones and Amelia; the satire Jonathan Wild the Great; the mock-heroic play Tom Thumb or The Tragedy of Tragedies; and the travel book (really worked up from Fielding’s diary notes) Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. This travel-book was first published posthumously in 1755. Fielding died in Lisbon in 1754 and is buried there. Ironically, this was just the year before Lisbon was struck by the huge earthquake that set Voltaire and others thinking about the nature of divine providence, and whether God’s will can be read into physical events. Fiona Farrell references it in her The Broken Book.
In 1753 Fielding, a chief magistrate, was exhausted from the strenuous business of putting down criminal gangs in London. He was suffering from gout and the dropsy (for which he was often “tapped” by surgeons to relieve him of fluid) and from other ailments as well. He was advised to seek warmer climes for his health.
In mid-1754 (summer), he and his (second) wife and some servants paid passage to Lisbon on board the Queen of Portugal commanded by Captain Veal. This short travel book is exactly what its title says – the journal of a voyage TO Lisbon, for, after the slow journey down the Thames, the ship was “wind-bound” for many weeks and so confined to English waters and ports. The captain was certain he was somehow “bewitched”, but as Fielding remarks “the most absolute power of a captain of a ship is very contemptible in the wind’s eye”.
Fielding narrates what happened on this part of the voyage and what thoughts occurred to him. Only in the last few pages does the wind pick up and push the ship across the Bay of Biscay to reach Portugal. The book could more properly be called Journal of A Voyage off the South Coast of England. The whole experience was very uncomfortable for Fielding, who was a very sick man, and he notes that “some of the most amusing pages, if, indeed, there be any that deserve that name, were possibly the production of the most disagreeable hours that ever haunted the author.”
In his preface, Fielding sets out what his idea of a travel book is. It cannot be a mere description of places visited and things seen, for these are usually already known to readers and have been often described. Likewise, it cannot be a chronicle of all the things that happen to travellers, most of which are trivial and commonplace. Rather, it should concentrate on the thoughts and reflections that occur to the traveller on his journey; and it should aim to instruct while entertaining.
It is clear that, while it may have been “worked up” afterwards with publication in view, this book really did begin as daily jottings. Fielding discourses on the best means of dealing with organised crime in London, on trade, on the eating habits of city and country people, on how the poor could be fed, on the story of Circe and Ulysses as a fable of men turned swinish in pubs etc. etc. Indeed, these reflections make up the greatest part of the book and can be difficult reading –in some cases because of their topicality and in other cases because of Fielding’s circumlocutious style.
But there are the anecdotes of things that happened and, as always, these are far and away more memorable than the reflections. Mrs.Fielding suffers horribly from toothache. She is given laudanum as a palliative and they have extreme difficulty finding a surgeon to draw the tooth. By his own account, Fielding’s own humour is often sour – probably the result of his ill health. He grumbles at length about the awful landlady Mrs.Francis at Rye, and the very poor hospitality she offers, and the inflated prices she charges, at her hostelry. He takes a disliking to the captain’s youngish relative, an undistinguished military officer who makes a visit aboard. At one point he argues with the captain himself over the use of his cabin, and threatens to quit the ship. In the last pages there are complaints about the officiousness of Portuguese customs men. Clearly the dropsy and gout weren’t conducive to good humour.
Offsetting this, though, there are some delightful tales – the wonderful meal they arranged for themselves and ate with gusto when Mrs.Francis supplied them with nothing worthwhile. How sublime it was, in the Bay of Biscay, to see the sun on one side sinking into the sea and a full moon arising on the other. The story of how the captain made the ship halt, and got a sailor to swim to the rescue, when one of his pet kittens fell overboard. (Alas, the story has a sad sequel - the kitten is accidentally suffocated under cushions in the captain’s cabin, and the captain, though he is a rough and hearty fellow, is inconsolable with grief.)
In the end, the book is not particularly instructive; but it does amuse, and my pen was kept busy jotting down some of Fielding’s wittier observation in my notebook.
From Fielding’s preface there is his dismissal of the idea that travel-books should concern themselves with physical descriptions of places:- “If the customs and manners of men were everywhere the same, there would be no office so dull as that of a traveller, for the difference of hills, valleys, rivers, in short the various views in which we may see the face of the earth, would scarce afford him a pleasure worthy of his labour; and surely it would give him very little opportunity of communicating any kind of entertainment or improvement to others.”
From the entry of 26 June 1754 there is his pained reflection on being carried, sick, aboard the ship: “In this condition I ran the gauntlope (so I think I may justly call it) through rows of sailors and watermen, few of whom failed to pay their compliments to me by all manner of insults and jests on my misery. No man who knew me will think I conceived any personal resentment at this behaviour; but it was a lively picture of that cruelty and inhumanity in the nature of men which I have often contemplated with concern, and which leads the mind into a train of very uncomfortable and melancholy thoughts.”
On 3 July 1754 he gives his views on those scavengers who pick up flotsam and jetsam from the shore without considering the fate of those who have been shipwrecked or drowned: “To say the truth, whether it be that men who live on the seashore are of an amphibious kind, and do not entirely partake of human nature, or whatever else may be the reason, they are so far from taking any share in the distresses of mankind, or of being moved with any compassion for them, that they look upon them as blessings showered down upon them from above, and which the more they improve to their own use, the greater is their gratitude and piety.”
His unimpressed description of the captain’s military nephew is a serious put-down for any fool who laughs at his own lame jokes: “The character to which he had an indisputable title was that of a merry fellow; so very merry was he that he laughed at everything he said, and always before he spoke. Possibly, indeed, he often laughed at what he did not utter, for every speech began with a laugh, though it did not always end with a jest.”
Then there is a grave, almost sermonic, consideration of the matter of income:
“Men do not become rich by what they get but by what they keep. He who is worth no more than his annual wages or salary, spends the whole; he will be always a beggar let his income be what it will, and so will be his family when he dies. This we see daily to be the case of ecclesiastics, who during their lives are extremely well provided for, only because they desire to maintain the honour of the cloth by living like gentlemen, which would, perhaps, be better maintained by living unlike them.”
Fielding could be crotchety and certainly gives vent to some of his insular prejudices, particularly when dealing with funny foreigners and Catholics. But his writing rises above this and Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon is one of those books that comforts us at least a little by its account of somebody else’s discomfort. Dare I invoke Schadenfreude?