Monday, September 26, 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.
“THE HISTORY OF THE LIFE OF THE LATE MR. JONATHAN WILD THE GREAT” by Henry Fielding (first published in 1743)
There are times when you know something is a great piece of writing, but do regret that it sticks so relentlessly to the same tone.
This is essentially my reaction to Henry Fielding’s History of the Life of the Late Jonathan Wild the Great. Though the length of a short novel (about 180 pages in the Everyman’s edition on my shelf), and though filled with varied picaresque incident, the satirical tone of Jonathan Wild is so consistent throughout, and the same satirical targets hit so often, that one reads impatiently to the conclusion.
As I’ve noted before on this blog, I took the time some years back to read my way through all the works of Henry Fielding (1707-54) that are still part of the canon, and I have made posts on most of them – his play TheTragedy of Tragedies (or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great); his travel book Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon; his fantasy-satire A Journey From This World to the Next; and his novels Joseph Andrews (still my favourite) and Amelia. I have yet to make a posting on what is usually esteemed his greatest novel, Tom Jones, but I will get around to it someday. In reading all the above I have of course read only a fraction of everything Fielding wrote in his 47 years. His prodigious quantities of journalism would fill many large volumes and he wrote more than a dozen plays, nearly all of which are now read by specialists only.
I hesitated before doing a posting on Jonathan Wild for the reason I’ve already given, but here I go anyway. Written after he had already published his first great novel Joseph Andrews, Jonathan Wild appeared originally in Fielding’s Miscellanies, as did A Journey From This World to the Next. In essence it is a parody of “Newgate” books that had a tendency to glamourize the lives of criminals. Fielding writes a mock-heroic biography of a real criminal. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) was notorious for playing both sides of the law. He posed as a respectable businessman who industriously recovered stolen goods and returned them to their owners, while managing to turn in some of the thieves. In this guise he was known as a “thief-taker”. In fact it was he himself who ran London’s gangs of thieves and burglars. He took a generous commission for returning goods his own gangs had stolen and the only thieves he ever dobbed in were those who were expendable to him.
Fielding begins with a mock-heroic account of Jonathan Wild’s ancestors and of his seven years’ transportation in America, and of his sordid quarrels with his mistress Laetitia Snap, who is in fact sleeping with Tom Smirk. Jonathan Wild loses at cards to the cheating Count La Ruse, so he induces Bob Bagshot to rob the count on the highway. He then threatens Bagshot into allowing him to take most of the loot. Jonathan Wild sums up his youthful philosophy when he says: “I had rather stand on the summit of a dunghill than at the bottom of a hill in Paradise” (Book One, Chapter Five)
Showing no mercy for friends or relations, Jonathan Wild proceeds (in Book Two) to ruin his childhood “friend” Thomas Heartfree, a very trusting jeweller, by getting Count La Ruse to buy up much of his stock on credit with no intention of paying him. He has one of his friends captured and hanged for stealing money from Heartfree. Fielding remarks ironically: “These persons are of that pitiful order of mortals who are in contempt called good-natured; being indeed sent into the world by nature with the same design with which men put little fish into a pike-pond, in order to be devoured by that voracious water-hero.” (Book Two, Chapter One) When Heartfree is almost bankrupt, he is locked up for debt. Wild wishes to seduce Heartfree’s wife and comes to her with a plan he says will liberate her husband. It involves taking both her and Heartfree’s remaining stock over to Holland. But en route Wild attempts to rape Mrs. Heartfree. They are captured by a French privateer. Wild is set adrift in a boat, rescued by another French ship, but, once safely in England again, attempts to double-cross his rescuer.
Wild then (Book Three) concocts a scheme to have a man robbed of his wealth by the young hothead Fireblood, but the scheme miscarries, and Fireblood attempts to cheat Wild out of such loot as he has gained. Wild continues to persecute Heartfree. It is only now that Heartfree begins to realize the extent of Wild’s villainy and attempts to have him arrested. With perjured evidence from his cronies, Wild has Heartfree arrested instead. Fielding comments: “Wild, indeed, always kept as much truth as was possible in everything; and this, he said, was turning the cannon of the enemy upon themselves.” (Book Three, Chapter Five) By this time, Wild is running his regular business of trading back stolen goods for profit. Wild marries Laetitia Snap (whose sister Theodosia has been impregnated by the count). They quarrel almost immediately and the sluttish Laetitia is soon having an affair with Fireblood. One gang member, Blueskin, refuses to give over some stolen goods. Wild has him sent to Newgate. There is no honour among thieves.
But now (Book Four) Wild’s fortunes turn for the worse. A new law through parliament severely punishes receivers of stolen goods. He himself is caught out and sent to prison. His wife Laetitia visits him there in tears – but she’s actually crying because she herself has been arrested as a pickpocket. They part with mutual curses. Heartfree’s faithful friend Friendly tries to have Heartfree bailed out, but with no success. On the perjured evidence of Fireblood and others Heartfree is condemned to hang. At which point, miraculously, his wife arrives… and he is reprieved and pardoned. Fireblood had been caught red-handed at some crime and a magistrate realised how worthless his testimony against Heartfree was.
Mrs. Heartfree gives an account of her adventures since she and Wild were parted on the French privateer. These cover four chapters, and involve her at least three times having to preserve her virtue against men who wish to seduce her (including the count who had once conspired with Wild). As she is in the midst of relating these adventures, there is an uproar in the prison as Wild discovers Fireblood with his wife Laetitia (i.e. Fielding clearly and crudely contrasts the Heartfrees’ fidelity with the promiscuity of the criminals).
Wild’s career ends after a long, absurd lecture to him from one of the prison’s incompetent chaplains. It is worth quoting:
“And if you are guilty of theft, you make some atonement by suffering for it, which many others do not. Happy is it indeed for those few who are detected in their sins and brought to exemplary punishment for them in this world. So far, therefore, from repining at your fate when you come to the tree, you should exult and rejoice in it; and, to say the truth, I question whether, to a wise man, the catastrophe of many of those who die by a halter is not more to be envied than pitied. Nothing is so sinful as sin, and murder is the greatest of all sins. It follows, that whoever commits murder is happy in suffering for it. If, therefore, a man who commits murder is so happy in dying for it, how much better must it be for you, who have committed a less crime!” (Book Four, Chapter Thirteen)
On the gallows, just before he is hanged, Wild picks the chaplain’s pocket. Fielding concludes with a list of Wild’s Machiavellian “virtues” and an account of how his criminal confederates met their ends and how the Heartfrees prospered.
Clearly, then, this is a mock-heroic and heavily ironical account of a thief and murderer, only very loosely based in the life of a real criminal. As Fielding remarks shrewdly before the tale begins:
“To confess the truth, my narrative is rather of such actions which he might have performed, or would, or should have performed, than what he really did; and may, in reality, as well suit any other such great man, as the person himself whose name it bears.” (Fielding’s Preface)
There are three layers to the book – an account of the historical Jonathan Wild; Fielding’s satire on the prime minister Robert Walpole (there are many allusions to Walpole and his party in the guise of Wild and his gang); and Fielding’s determination to show that “great men” such as prime ministers and conquerors are in reality mere rogues like Wild writ large. This book was written in 1742, just after the resignation of Walpole, who was notorious for keeping control of the Commons with bribes and patronage. Says Fielding: “I think we may be excused for suspecting that the splendid palaces of the great are often no other than Newgate with the mask on.” (Fielding’s Preface)
Fielding is angered that “greatness” too often means merely the exercise of power without goodness. He writes:
“Now as to that greatness which is totally devoid of goodness, it seems to me in Nature to resemble the false sublime in poetry, whose bombast is, by the ignorant and ill-judging vulgar, often mistaken for solid wit and eloquence, whilst it is in effect the very reverse. Thus pride, ostentation, insolence, cruelty, and every kind of villainy, are often construed into true greatness of mind, in which we always include an idea of goodness.” (Fielding’s Preface)
To this extent, the intention of the satire is something similar to Tolstoy’s attacks on Napoleon in the end-piece to War and Peace. (Fielding often compares Wild to Alexander and Caesar). Both writers are saying that we are too often told to admire public people for all the wrong reasons, and in the process true virtue is ignored, or simply does not play well in heroic fiction. Men esteemed great are “the perfection of diabolism.” (Book One, Chapter One) Such satire is evident when Jonathan Wild reasons, like an ur-Nietszche:
“The art of policy is the art of multiplication, the degrees of greatness being constituted by those two little words more or less. Mankind are first properly to be considered under two grand divisions, those that use their own hands and those who employ the hands of others. The former are the base and rabble; the latter, the genteel part of the creation. The mercantile part of the world, therefore, wisely use the term employing hands, and justly prefer each other as they employ more or fewer; for thus one merchant says he is greater than another because he employs more hands… Now suppose a prig [a cant term for thief] had as many tools as any prime minister ever had, would he not be as great as any prime minister whatsoever? Undoubtedly he would What then have I to do in the pursuit of greatness but to procure a gang and to make the use of this gang centre in myself?” (Book One, Chapter Fourteen)
Wild robbing, receiving and selling stolen goods, contriving at murder and betraying members of his own gang is a version of a prime minister jockeying for parliamentary power, exercising patronage, forming and breaking alliances, using public money for his own purposes etc.
This, at any rate, is the intention. But does the book actually play this way? The effect of the mock-heroic style is to draw our attention to the sordid nature of the crimes and the private lives of criminals. The mood of the book is most like a satire on the type of “true history” broadsheet of a criminal that would be hawked about at a public execution. Wild’s relationship with his sluttish wife is one signal that there is nothing glamorous in the criminal’s life, and when scenes between them are reported in high heroic language the irony is very heavy indeed. You find it in such things as the extended metaphor describing Wild’s reaction to finding his wife in Fireblood’s arms in the prison:
“As the generous bull, who, having long depastured among a number of cows, and thence contracted an opinion that all these cows are his own property, if he beholds another bull bestride a cow within his walks, he roars aloud, and threatens instant vengeance with his horns, till the whole parish are alarmed with his bellowing; not with less noise nor less dreadful menaces did the fury of Wild burst forth and terrify the whole gate”. (Book Four, Chapter Ten)
The glaring faults of the book are obvious. There is no intelligent virtue to offset Wild’s villainy. Heartfree is so guileless, innocent and helpless that he comes close to suggesting virtue means weakness and gullibility. Is this similar to the problem Fielding later faced in making a virtuous heroine of the long-suffering Amelia? Mrs. Heartfree shows some gumption in her various escapes during her journeys, but the four chapters in which she relates these are an obvious intrusion in the narrative. There are some good moments – perhaps Wild’s picking the parson’s pocket (to get a cork-screw) on the gallows is the best – but in the end the satiric purpose is so obvious and so often repeated that reading this is like being continuously thumped over the head.