Monday, May 2, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“A JOURNEY FROM THIS WORLD TO THE NEXT” by Henry Fielding (1743)
I’m sure you are aware of the publishing phenomenon whereby certain books are reprinted, not because they have much intrinsic merit, but because they were written by people who are known for better things. This is particularly true of what are known loosely as the “classics”. Matching editions of all the works of some illustrious author are produced, even if some of the volumes are quite forgettable or mere apprentice stuff.
My case for the prosecution this week is Henry Fielding’s A Journey From This World to the Next, which sits on my shelf in the form of an Everyman’s paperback - although I note that Everyman’s did not get around to including it in its “classics” series until 1973, which suggests that they knew it was really just one of the scrapings of Fielding. A Journey From This World to the Next was first published in 1743 when Fielding (1707-54) was just beginning the most illustrious part of his career. True, this was years after his burlesque farce The Tragedy of Tragedies (or Tom Thumb the Great) and a year after the publication of the delightful Joseph Andrews, which I still insist on finding Fielding’s most enjoyable novel. But all the evidence suggests that A Journey From This World to the Next was tossed off in haste well before Joseph Andrews was written; and it was certainly before Tom Jones or Amelia or the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon were thought of.
Originally this short book appeared in Fielding’s “Miscellanies”, a hodge-podge of journalism, satire and occasional pieces published periodically. It is a loose satire based on the style of the Greek Lucian, purporting to tell the adventures of a man after his death, trying to find his way into Elysium. The 140-odd pages of A Journey From This World to the Next are divided into two parts, “Book One” and “Book Nineteen” because (in a gag that was also later used in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling in 1771), the book is supposed to consist of surviving fragments from an authentic manuscript.
The first nine chapters of Book One are a very robust and lively read – the narrator journeys through the land of the dead, meets the diseased and the pretentious in the City of Diseases and the surprisingly jolly Palace of Death. The pagan Minos acts the part of Saint Peter, judging whether people can go through the gates to Elysium. In every respect these first nine chapters are the best of it. The satire is not as sharp in the following chapters (Chaps. 10 to 25) of “Book One”, which are about the various transmigrations of the soul of Julian the Apostate – he goes from life to life and is continually rejected at the gate by Minos and sent back to Earth to live again. Why was Julian the Apostate chosen to play this role? Perhaps because, as the Roman Emperor who turned his back on Christianity once it had been established as Rome’s official religion, he was for Fielding an image of fickleness and changeability. The irony of this section is that Minos is actually encouraging Julian to improve. After all, Minos could send him to Hades for his sins, but he always chooses to give him another chance to reach Elysium.
Basically, through Julian’s avatars, Fielding gives himself the excuse to satirise various “types” – the standard objects of traditional satire – boastful and destructive warriors, social climbers, religious fanatics, pretentious people, foolish society women, rakes, vain scholars, devious statesmen, violent soldiers etc. He also takes Julian through various ages and countries from the ancient world almost to the present. This allows Fielding to make typically English swipes at Roman paganism, foreigners and especially Catholics. In Chapter 17, superstitious Spanish Catholics are fooled by a faked apparition of St. James; in Chapter 19, corrupt Roman clergy parade in finery and have no money for beggars; in Chapter 20 the saintliness of Edward the Confessor is seen in a ridiculous light; and in Chapter 23, King John is forced to submit to the devious slavery of the Roman church. However, the way “Book One” breaks off abruptly suggests that the narrator is winding up to say satirical things about present-day England (and the way Anglican bishops vote), but is not allowed to do so.
The twenty pages of “Book Nineteen”, labelled “Chapter Seven”, are the self-contained story of Anne Boleyn, told by herself. They are clearly an added-on section – and in fact they were probably written by Henry’s sister Sarah Fielding (as is hinted at the end of “Book One” with the joke that what remains was written “in a woman’s hand”). Anne Boleyn’s story is of artlessness corrupted by ambition; but Minos lets her into Elysium because she has suffered much as Henry VIII’s queen.
The whole of this little book has the air of being thrown together hastily and of course one wonders if it would ever have been reprinted if the author(-s) hadn’t later gone on to greater things. Not that this stops Claude Rawson, in the 1973 reprint, from giving an erudite 24-page introduction relating the book to the whole tradition of classical and Augustan satire – to Lucian and Juvenal and Pope and Swift and company.
As for me, I amused myself as I read it by taking down passages that seemed to strike the right tone of silliness or satire.
There is, for example, the deliberately camp description of the god Mercury as encountered the other world:
“I had not hopped far before I perceived a tall young gentleman in a silk waistcoat, with a wing on his left heel, a garland on his head, and a caduceus in his right hand.” (Book One, Chapter One).
There is an example of how monstrous personification can become:
“We had not been long arrived in our inn, where it seems we were to spend the remainder of the day, before our host acquainted us that it was customary for all spirits, in their passage through that city, to pay their respects to the lady Disease, to whose assistance they owed their delivery from the lower world.” (Book One, Chapter Three).
This is even more evident when “Maladie Alamode” – sexually-transmitted disease – speaks: “She spoke likewise greatly in approbation of the method, so generally used by parents, of marrying children very young, and without the least affection between the parties; and concluded by saying that, if these fashions continued to spread, she doubted not but she would shortly be the only disease that would ever receive a visit from any person of considerable rank.” (Book One, Chapter Three)
The difference between the straight-and-narrow path of virtue, and the broad highway that leads to the everlasting bonfire is referenced ironically thus:
“On enquiry, we were acquainted that the bad road was the way to greatness, and the other to goodness. When we expressed our surprize at the preference given to the former, we were acquainted that it was chosen for the sake of the music of drums and trumpets, and the perpetual acclamations of the mob, with which those who travelled this way were constantly saluted” (Book One, Chapter Five)
Being asked about the way obscure lines in his plays have been interpreted by editors, the ghost of Shakespeare says what is even more relevant in the age of Harold Bloom and too-clever academic editors:
“I marvel nothing so much as that men should gird themselves at discovering obscure beauties in an author. Certes the greatest and most pregnant beauties are ever the plainest and most evidently striking; and when two meanings of a passage are in the least balance our judgments which to prefer, I hold it a matter of unquestionable certainty that neither of them is worth a farthing.” (Book One, Chapter Eight).
When Julian the Apostate is in his avatar as a wise man, he utters words which have a universal truth in the way they show that gravity and solemnity are often mistaken for wisdom:
“I had ever in my infancy a grave disposition, nor was I ever seen to smile, which infused an opinion into all about me that I was a child of great solidity; some foreseeing that I should be a judge, and others a bishop. At two years old my father presented me with a rattle, which I broke to pieces with great indignation. This the good parent, being extremely wise, regarded as an eminent symptom of my wisdom, and cried out in a kind of extasy ‘Well said, boy! I warrant thou makest a great man’…. I had now obtained universally the character of a very wise young man, which I did not altogether purchase without pains; for the restraint I laid on myself in abstaining from the several diversions adapted to my years cost me many a yearning; but the pride which I inwardly enjoyed in the fancied dignity of my character made me some amends.” (Book One, Chapter Sixteen)
Of course Fielding can’t forego some fairly commonplace moralising when he has Julian, in his avatar as a tailor, speak thus:
“ For, in reality, who constitutes the different degrees between men but the tailor? The prince indeed gives the title, but it is the tailor who makes the man. To his labours are owing the respect of crowds, and the awe which great men inspire into their beholders, though these are too often unjustly attributed to other motives. Lastly, the admiration of the fair is most commonly to be placed to his account.” (Book One, Chapter Twenty-Two)
So I did find some things to amuse me as commonplace-book fillers in A Journey From This World to the Next. But they were not such as to make me think this was wonderful satire, nor such as would lead me to believe that this was the acme of Henry Fielding’s achievement. Read it as an oddity if you will. Or read it if you are a “complete-ist” seeking to cover all the works of Henry Fielding.