Epic deception. And arriving at the altar with a faint pulse.That was the view of Sarah Fielding, author and sister of Henry Fielding. The epic notion of the “great end” enters the comic novel as the marriage that sanctifies the culture of youth, beauty, status, and reproduction while nudging the sterile old guard-finally compliant-offstage. The movement is inclusive, and closure, emblematized in the terminal wedding, describes a frozen moment of consensus among society broadly construed that is still with us today as standard, generic form in such films as “Meet the Fochlers” .
Sarah’s last book “Volume the Last” was as discouraged and pessimistic as Henry’s “Amelia”. It concerns the destruction of the two couples and their children, primarily at the instigation of their nemesis, Mrs Orgueil ( foolish pride in French). Fielding promptly announces her intention of illustrating the pietistic and anti-novelistic dictum and radical position “That solid and lasting Happiness is not to be attained in this World”. In an inverse form of romanticism where death is almost desired but without the baggage of romantic rhetoric. More precisely, she inadvertently created the black comedy.
Several paragraphs later the new couples are defrauded of the money bestowed upon them at the time of their marriages. Old MrC–dies, then Valentine dies in the New World, to which he had in effect been exiled as part of Mrs Orgueil’s successful plan “to separate Cynthia and Camilla,” the former of whom she regards with an “inveterate, inexorable Hatred” . Four of the couples’ children perish in sixty some- odd pages, one of them after having being mistreated by Mrs Orgueil and one after having contracted an infection from Mrs Orgueil’s daughter. The Simples’ house burns down; Mrs Orgueil arrives at the rubble, only to storm off when Camilla is unwilling to pass the time verbally “abusing” the absent Cynthia . Camilla dies, and Mrs Orgueil offers to take custody of the couple’s remaining child. David declines the offer, then declines generally, then dies, too.
Henry’s “Tom Jones” had to be written rapidly , in those rare hours of leisure that Henry Fielding’s drudgery as a political hack afforded him.His elevation to the bench at Bow Street, a mere two months before the publication of “Tom Jones” , added immensely to his burdens. Fielding also toys with the comic architecture himself: the foolishness of equating money with happiness,a theme that Sarah promoted without any pretense of subtlety. It was a conscious examination of agonistic ritual of succession that was the genre’s “raison d’etre” that Sarah undermined first by intoducing the theme of abandonment of his family and second by an inability to offer a patriarch’s successors anything tangible that they have any reason to regard as worthwhile continuing the charade.
Henry Fielding was evidently eager to overlook the liberties that his sister took with the conventions of comedy, in part out of concern she wouldn’t sell. Near the end of his life, he became the chief magistrate of the most crime ridden quarter in London. He was a sick man, and contrary to what the high spirits of Tom Jones might lead one to believe, a very sad one. Children had died; so, too, had his wife, after a few years of marriage; his second wife, compassionately fond of her though he was, did not eradicate the grief he felt for the loss of the first.
A sense of tragedy had always haunted Fielding; poverty, injustice, and human misery settled like locusts on his warm and generous spirit, eating away his hopes, his love of life, and darkening his vision. He worked hard and long at questions of crime: he pressed the government for reforms; he invented the Bow Street Runners, the first rudimentary police force that London knew. He was tireless in his struggle with the terrible human conditions that his duties constantly brought to his notice. Little availed.
Fielding became ever more harrowed by a sense of life’s injustice; good men were battered by misfortune, yet bad men prospered; the innocent were violated, and the corrupters received public honors; society itself conspired to help the corrupt and the cynical. he knew few achieved that simple happiness which he felt ought to be man’s true reward- a decent competence, a loving wife, the respect of neighbors. Yet, there was always the glimmer that it could be possible, a utopian dream not lost on Sarah.
Fielding’s last novel “Amelia” , reflects the decline of his spirits. Here he lays bare the viciousness and hypocrisy of his age. The savagery of the law and the inhumanity of jailers , which he knew as well as any man, he depicts mercilessly. When he wrote this book, Fielding was exhausted and drawing near to death; he pillaged his old books for characters to save himself the labor of new invention. And at times, too, the magistrate gets the better of the novelist, and incidents are introduced in order to educate laymen in their rights and powers at law.
Lacking the animal zest and high spirits of his earlier books, “Amelia” is the least read of all Fielding’s novels, yet it contains what is perhaps the most accurate account of low life in eighteenth-century London. In many ways it is one of the most honest social documents produced in the age of Samuel Johnson.
“…recalls an indisputably reminiscent observation in Amelia , to the effect that although the kindness of a faithful and beloved wife compensates most of the evils of life, it ”rather serves to aggravate the misfortune of distressed circumstances, from the consideration of the share which she is to bear in them.” We all know how bravely Amelia bore that share; how cheerfully she would cook the supper; how firmly she confronted disaster. To realise how deeply Fielding felt the pain of such struggles when falling upon ”the best, the worthiest and the noblest of women” we need but turn again to his own pages. If, cries Amelia’s husband, when his distresses overwhelm him, ”if I was to suffer alone, I think I could bear them with some philosophy”; and again”this was the first time I had ever felt that distress which arises from the want of money; a distress very dreadful indeed in the married state for what can be more miserable than to see anything necessary to the preservation of the beloved creature and not be able to supply it?” ( Godden )
In less than three years, Fielding was dead. By the spring of 1754 a combination of jaundice, asthma, and dropsy had so wrecked his health that he was advised to try the blander air of Portugal. Within a few weeks of his arrival in Lisbon he collapsed. he died as he lived-writing. The novels upon which his immortality rests are but a tiny fraction of his work. He wrote millions of words: journals, newspapers, pamphlets. His restless imagination needed constant outlets, and he produced a torrent of allegories, parables, incidents, and stories to plead for that simple morality which runs like a golden thread through his work- charity, compassion, gentleness.
… Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple (1744) and its sequel, Volume the Last (1753) pushed the envelope by refusing to regard plot as a series of enactments of, or responses to, masculine erotic desire, Sarah Fielding argues against the rote phallocentrism intrinsic to comedy and the novel generally and to comic closure in the novel specifically. In this way, Fielding complicates the durable comic convention in which terminal marriage validates materially the protagonist’s moral progress and signals his worthiness for a life of bourgeois domesticity by declaring him free of the love-seeking complications that have constituted plot.
David Simple, as Fielding announces on her title-page, is looking for a “real friend” rather than a wife. And although Fielding declares in “Volume the Last” that her character’s “Search in that respect was happily ended,”the sequel finds Simple struggling to make sense of a fund of incoherent data about friendship-about life, really in a way that distinguishes him from comedy’s confident initiates into the social mainstream.
But Sarah’s putatively “comic” experiment in fact ends in the capitulation of the counter-generic family to the cultural practices celebrated in comedy: seeking, finding, belonging, and getting and spending. The credulous and pathologically sexless Simple cannot bring the novel’s plot to its conclusion, but the rabid Mrs Orgueil can, and does. The exempla of the corruption that David Simple, like most neoclassical satire, regards as intrinsic to mainstream culture, she and her husband use their money and their cunning to destroy those who lack cash and craft. Their desire for closure is efficient and propulsive, and mimics a set of values fundamental to comedy, the genre that promotes social cohesion through the elevation of the right sort of people and the expulsion of the dissidents
or the maladroit. The tainted comic rhythm of quest and achievement dominates David Simple, but parodically. David’s unsexed and un-monied clique is morally impeccable but nonetheless at odds with the norms of the mid-century novel.
If Sarah held a confident femininity, Henry possessed a confident masculinity; a virility that was not in the false , hair on my chest manner of Hemingway or the persuasive neuroticism of a D.H. Lawrence. His natural toughness of character led him to display his characters through action sand incident rather than in emotional conflict with each other. Fielding painted character through events and not through analysis of feelings and in so doing strengthened the structure of the novel; Like a Watteau painting the characters are left intentionally sketchy to indicate a certain ambiguity, fluidity and unexplored potential that would pierce the the eighteenth-century social norm where man was nothing but a manifestation of style- a world penetrated by the imperatives of style. But, as sarah pointed out, the phallio-centrism and women’s complicity with it could only finish in tragedy; the tightly scripted scenario of militarism/consumerism/racism that infects the human drama today.
Crisis in “David Simple” and “Volume the Last” consistently registers as domestic disruption, from Daniel Simple’s and Livia’s usurpations to the dismantling of the families of David and Camilla Simple and Valentine and Cynthia C–. “Volume the Last” finds David active in family life in a way that would have been unthinkable in earlier fiction, for example sitting with his wife and their children after “a hard Day’s Labor”, and embracing the youngsters much as he embraces Camilla . The malignant forces of Mr. Ratcliff and Mrs Orgueil work by chipping away at this cohesive unit. Again, it is incident that informs the emotional conflict, or rather fear that is the catalyst of events.
Under Samuel Richardson’s influence there had been more than a danger that the new realistic novel might lose itself in an analytic morass, as intuition after intuition was explored with feminine delicacy, but still ended up like a ferris wheel. Henry Fielding, however, introduced into the modern novel the narrative of action, which had been one of the most powerful attractions of the epic. And this, apart from the purely technical device of using journey as a theme, is almost all that he did take from traditional romance or epic.
For Sarah, The “legitimate” families of David Simple and Volume the Last are enactments of the correct ideologies of comic closure, in so far as they represent the decency and fecundity that we know awaits couples such as Joseph Andrews and Fanny Goodwill and Tom Jones and Sophia Western. But the families retain the subversive force of overtly anti-social clusters such as those formed by the myriad of furtive lovers in Haywood’s fiction and by the subterranean and variously gendered presexual and postsexual
groupings scattered throughout Delarivier Manley’s “The New Atlantis” (1709).
The fugitive counter-communities of the feminocentric romance are peopled either by participants in illicit sexual coupling, or (as often in the poetry, among others, of Lady Mary Chudleigh and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu) solitary women fearful of male sexual aggression. But counter-community in David Simple appears as the cohesive companionate family, the very emblem of dominant socio-sexual culture. The extra-textual terminus of the bourgeois comic novel and the achingly distant goal of the romance-happy reproductive marriage-is manifest in David Simple as a threat to the dominant social and narrative order. The equation of dominance and desirability is broken, as it often is in modem fiction but as it usually is not in the eighteenth-century novel.
…How can one summarize Henry Fielding? He is the first great novelist of social criticism , the precursor of Dickens , and the maker of a tradition that has only grown feeble in modern times. Active in society, he had and used the right to condemn it. Un-preoccupied with his own nature, he kept his pity for others. Sarah was not that different, perhaps more daring, and perhaps even sadder at what her brilliant intelligence conveyed to her.
Pettit: Disconcertingly, closure in (Sarah ) Fielding’s novel declares companionate marriage inadequate to the demands of genre-twice. By the end of the 1744 work, Simple has found a wife (and two other friends), but not a solution to the problems of venality and so forth adumbrated in the novel’s opening sections. The novel ends as comic novels end, in marriage. But closure here does not do what comic closure generally does: reassert communal order along familiar and desirable erotic and economic lines. For nine years,
that is, Fielding invited her readers to regard David Simple as a troubling para-comedy, not, as her brother Henry would have it, as a “comic Epic Poem” confidently rendered in prose.
Volume the Last completes the process of generic dismantling when it closes with the two central families quashed by their enemies. In neither work is Simple’s problem sexual, metonymically or ontologically, as, say, Tom Jones’s is. So it cannot be resolved by the generic conventions most basic to eighteenth-century fiction. Rather, the uniformitarian tendencies of comedy rout those characters who have been willing but unable to effect comedy’s goals. The effect is a “novel” in which the traditional novelistic vehicle of sexual aggression, and the domestic and financial stability that it engenders, is retained by obstructive characters of a sort traditionally overcome by the phallic force of young love. David’s anaemic goodness is justified throughout the novel, but it is also dismissed as inadequate protection against the conformist and essentializing habits of comedy. The parodic movement towards comic closure destroys David and perhaps reminds the reader of ideological errors about gender and sexuality embedded in the genre that was claiming for itself a large share of the literary marketplace.