Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

HENRY FIELDING, the greatest novelist of the group, owed his first success to a desire to satirize Richardson,

1707-1754 His first novel, Joseph Andrews, was written to ridicule Richardson's Pamela ; but it was so interesting and witty that readers forgot it was intended for a burlesque, and read the story for its own sake.

Fielding is as hearty and vigorous as Richardson is sentimental. The two authors evidently did not like each other, and the reason was grounded in nature, and not in any rivalry as authors. Fielding's novels are the first novels in literature at once powerful, dramatic, and realistic. Yet it is difficult for any one bred in an age more refined, and especially for a woman, to enjoy heartily a story which depicts characters so immoral, or scenes so repulsive as are found in Tom Jones, Fielding's greatest novel. It hardly lessens our distaste to know that it is true to the life of the eighteenth century, when we like so little the kind of life it depicts. Yet their overflowing humor, their keen insight into human nature, and their fresh, wholesome style, have kept the novels of Fielding at the very top of English fiction; and the debt our modern novelists, Thackeray, Dickens, and many of lesser note, owe to him, is never to be reckoned. I cannot do better justice to Fielding than by quoting a paragraph from what Thackeray says of him : 1

a

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

What a genius! what a vigor! what a bright-eyed intelligence and observation ! what a wholesome hatred for meanness and knavery! what a vast sympathy! what a cheerfulness ! what a manly relish of life! what a love of human kind! what a Poet is here! watching, meditating, brooding, creating! what multitudes of truths' has that man left behind him! what generations he has taught to laugh wisely and fairly! what scholars he has formed and accustomed to the exercise of thoughtful humor and the manly play of wit! what a courage he had ! what a dauntless and constant cheerfulness of intellect, that burned bright and steady through all the storms of his life and never deserted its last wreck. It is wonderful to think of the pains and misery which the man suffered, the pressure of want, illness, remorse, which he endured, and that the writer was

1 Lectures on the English Humorists.

neither malignant nor melancholy, his view of truth never warped, and his generous human kindness never surrendered.”

On such a tribute, from such a man, I think we may fairly let Fielding's merits rest.

XLV.

THE NOVELISTS SMOLLETT AND STERNE.

[ocr errors]

TOBIAS SMOLLETT is another of the great novelists of the period. Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle,

and Humphrey Clinker are the titles of his most 1721-1771

famous fictions. But his pages are disfigured by the same coarseness that repels us in Fielding, and he has not nearly as much genius. Thackeray, whose opinion of Fielding we have just quoted, says he thinks Humphrey Clinker the most laughable story ever written since the goodly art of novel-writing began; and Dickens has borne testimony to Smollett's power in his own novel of David Copperfield, where he relates how David kept Steerforth and the other boys awake in the dormitory while he narrated the adventures of Roderick or Peregrine or Humphrey.

LAURENCE STERNE, author of Tristram Shandy, was only second to Richardson in sentimentality, and to

1713-1768 Fielding in wit. He has the same faults of grossness that we complain of in the others, and he is, on the whole, less wholesome than any of them.' But some of the characters in Tristram Shandy will always live in literature, particularly that of good Uncle Toby, who is one of the most delightful personages of fiction. You all have heard of Uncle Toby, — of his goodness to Le Fevre ; his embarrassments with the Widow Wadman ; his humane little speech when he takes out the fly from the milk-jug and sets it to dry in the sun, “There is room enough in the world for thee and for me." All these characteristics make him an immortal figure in literature, one to set beside Addison's Sir Roger de Coverley, or our own dear Mr. Pickwick.

The Sentimental Journey is the record of a tour which Sterne made on the Continent; and here is an extract from it, which is a good illustration of Sterne's style. He has been to visit the Bastile, and is seized with these reflections :

a

a

6

66 And as for the Bastile,' said I to myself, the terror is in the word. Make the most of it you can, the Bastile is but another word for a tower; and a tower is but another word for a house you can't get out of. Mercy on the gouty, they are in it twice a year; but with nine livres a day, and pen and ink and paper, and patience, albeit a man can't get out, he may

do
very

well within, at least for a month or six weeks; at the end of which, if he is a harmless fellow, his innocence appears, and he comes out a better and wiser man than when he went in.'

I had some occasion (I forget what) to step into the courtyard as I settled this account; and remember I walked downstairs in no small triumph with the conceit of my reasoning. “Beshrew the sombre pencil,' said I, vauntingly ; ‘for I envy not its powers, which paints the evils of life with so hard and deadly a coloring. The mind sits terrified at the objects she has magnified herself and blackened ; reduce them to the proper size and hue, and she overlooks them. 'Tis true,' I said, correcting the proposition, “the Bastile is not an evil to be despised; but strip it of its towers, fill up the fosse, unbarricade the doors, call it simply a confined place, and suppose it is some tyrant of a distemper, and not of a man, which holds you in it, half the evil vanishes, and you bear the other half without complaint.' I was interrupted in the heyday of this soliloquy with a voice which I took to be that of a child, which complained it could not get out. I looked up and down the passage, and seeing neither man, woman, nor child, I went out without further attention. In my return back through the passage, I heard the same words repeated twice over and looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage. 'I can't get out; I can't get out,' said the starling. I stood looking at the bird, and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approached it with the same lamentation of its captivity.

"I can't get out,' said the starling. “God help thee,' said I; "but I 'll let thee out, cost what it will;' so I turned about the cage to get the door. It was twisted and double-twisted so fast with wire that there was no getting it open without pulling the

6

306

[ocr errors]

6

cage to pieces. I took both hands to it. The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis, pressed his breast against it as if impatient. “I fear, poor creature,' said I, “I cannot set thee at liberty.' 'I can't get out; I can't get out,' said the starling. I vow, I never had my affections more tenderly awakened, nor do I remember an incident in my life where the dissipated spirits, to which my reason had been a bubble, were so suddenly called home. Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to Nature were they chanted that in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the Bastile; and I walked heavily upstairs, unsaying every word I had said in going down them.

Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still, Slavery,' said I, “thou art a bitter draught; and though thousands in all ages have been made to drink of thee, thou art no less bitter on that account. 'Tis thou, thrice sweet and gracious goddess, addressing myself to Liberty, “whom all, in public or in private, worship, whose taste is grateful, and ever will be so till Nature herself shall change; no tint of words can spot thy snowy mantle, or chemic power turn thy sceptre into iron ; with thee to smile upon him as he eats his crust, the swain is happier than the monarch, from whose court thou art exiled. “Gracious Heaven !' cried I, kneeling down on the last step but one in my ascent, 'grant me but health, thou great bestower of it, and give me but this fair goddess as my companion, and shower down thy mitres, if it seem good unto thy divine providence, upon those heads that are aching for them.'

The bird in his cage pursued me into my room. I sat down close to my table, and leaning my head upon my hand, I began to figure to myself the miseries of confinement. I was in a right frame for it, and so I gave full scope to my imagination; I was going to begin with the millions of my fellow-creatures born to no inheritance but slavery; but finding, however affecting that picture was, that I could not bring it near me, and that the multitude of sad groups in it did but distract me, I took a single captive, and having first shut him up in his dungeon, I then looked through the twilight of his grated door to take his picture. I beheld his body half wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of the heart it was that arises from hope deferred. Upon looking nearer I saw him pale and feverish; in thirty years the western breeze had not once fanned his blood; he had seen no sun, no moon, in all that time, nor had the voice of friend or kinsman breathed

[ocr errors]

through his lattice; his children But here my heart began to bleed, and I was forced to go on with another part of the portrait. He was sitting upon the ground upon a little straw in the furthest corner of his dungeon, which was alternately his chair and his bed; a little calendar of small sticks lay at the head, notched all over with the dismal nights and days he had passed there; he had one of these little sticks in his hand, and with a rusty nail he was etching another day of misery to add to the heap. As I darkened the little light he had, he lifted up a hopeless eye towards the door, then cast it down, shook his head, and went on with his work of affliction. I heard his chains upon his legs as he turned his body to lay his little stick upon the bundle. He gave a deep sigh; I saw the iron enter into his soul. I burst into tears. I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn.”

It seems a pity to end by saying that the man who could write thus feelingly seems to have had very little real feeling in his nature, and that by all accounts he was selfish and cold-hearted.

XLVI.

ON DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.

[ocr errors]

N several of the notable periods in literature you will

character, exercises a sort of royal rule over his fellows. In the Elizabethan age Ben Jonson held such a sway over his literary circle, partly because he had great ability, and partly because his good opinion of himself was so strong that he was able to impress it upon other men. In the last quarter of the seventeenth century Dryden exercised an almost unlimited power. Sitting in his chair at Will's Coffee-house, he appears as much of an autocrat as if he had been a crowned king of letters. Something of the same sway over men and affairs Dean Swift held in the Augustan age. But none of these wielded a power so absolute or of

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »