Archive for February, 2011

Young Henry Fielding, or Confessions of a Secret Nerd

Over a year ago I was invited to speak to the Barnes Literary Society on Heroes We Love.  A couple of days ago, the date came round. Unfortunately Chairman Fiona Smith, who had chosen the title, was ahead of the zeitgeist curve.  In the ten days before my scheduled talk there was Sebastian Faulks all over the BBC like a badly made suit talking about 1) The Hero and 2) the Lover.

I tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter.  I could just go ahead and talk about gorgeous heroes of romantic fiction, as I had prepared. Couldn’t I?

Well, no. This was the sort of audience that would have watched the Faulks programme. I had to deal with his arguments, unless I was prepared to let the Faulksian view of Heroes and Lovers go unchalllenged.  I wasn’t.

Besides there was also an excellent programme on BBC 4 by Henry Hutchings about the 18th Century novel and that was the start of the English romantic novel as we know it today, so I needed to cover that, too.  So I spat on my hands and prepared a new talk.

It went fine.  I think.

Until the Questions. Would I accept that the Odyssey was the first romantic novel? Um– Circe? Nausicaa? No, my interlocutor was thinking about the  reunion of Penelope and Odysseus. I had a vague memory but it wasn’t enough for a decent answer. And then, someone else asked why did I say Henry Fielding ‘only’ went to Leiden University? Well, he didn’t take a degree and was only there a year or so, I said blithely. It hadn’t been part of my immediate research but I remembered that, didn’t I? 

Or did I?

It niggled away, all that evening. Returned in my dreams. The next morning, I couldn’t resist. I had to know if, off the top of my head, I’d been talking twaddle.  If I had, I needed to apologise and put it right.  So I ferreted about my bookshelves, Google searched books I didn’t have, and discovered a fascinating story.

Yes, Fielding went to Leiden, to read law. He arrived late in the term, on March 16 1728.  His play Love in Several Masques had a delayed first night at Drury Lane and he had stayed in London to see it.  Well, who wouldn’t? He came back to England in the summer, when he wrote a couple of pieces for journals. Then he returned to Leiden in February 1729, renting a room in the house of one Jan Oson.  By April 1729 Fielding had left Leiden for good, and his Italian tutor had seized his possessions at Oson’s house in settlement of his debts.

Of course, the sensible person would have stopped there. I hadn’t got it wrong. I was off the hook.

But now I had started, I wanted to know why? Why Leiden? Why the Law, instead of Classics? Why the debts?

It”s a very modern story in one way. Henry Fielding’s  mother died when he was a boy. In 1720 his father, Edmund, sold part of his wife’s property and invested in South Sea Stocks. That bubble, of course, burst.  It looks as if Edmund was a gambler at games of chance, too. In 1721 Henry’s maternal grandmother, Lady Gould, sued Edmund, charging him with dissipating the children’s inheritance and with trying to convert them to Catholicism, the faith of Edmund’s second wife, Anna Rapha. In 1722, the case was heard in Chancery, and it was decided that Henry would continue at Eton and spend holidays with Lady Gould. His three sisters and younger brother also went to live with her, as far as I can see.

In 1724, aged 18, Henry leaves Eton.  In theory he has an allowance but it doesn’t look as if much money materialises. He tells his friends that ‘any body might pay it if they would’.  In 1725 he tries to elope with a rich merchant’s daughter in Lyme Regis (for love? for money?) but her family get her back . He then goes to London permanently where he tries to earn a living by writing plays and occasional journalism. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, 18 years older than he is, takes an interest in him at this stage and records that he told her that he was so poor he had to choose between being a hackney coachman or a hackney writer. 

(So does that mean Henry Fielding was the first person to call a writer a hack? No, be strong, Haddon. You have no time to go ferreting round after that as well!)

He’s living hand to mouth, then. Clearly he ought to finish his education and find a way to earn a more reliable living. One of his best friends from Eton, George Lyttleton, has gone up to Oxford (Christ Church) to read law and may have given him the idea. Tom Jones, published in 1749 was to be dedicated to George, who had a very decent career as Secretary to the Prince of Wales and Commissioner to the Treasury; he even became Lord Chancellor in 1755. But I do hope the dedication was based on that old friendship as well as hope of patronage. 

So why Leiden?  There is some suggestion that Leiden was then cheaper than Oxford or Cambridge but it was also a great centre of classical scholarship and had a reputation as a centre for free thinking. I can imagine both of those attracting Fielding, liberal in sympathy and a reformer by temperament, as we see both in his novels and  his work as a magistrate. 

But the truth is that Fielding was a born writer. Horace Walpole has a story that, once, Fielding went back to school after the holidays, with his lesson assignments untouched but having written a comedy instead ‘in which he had drawn the character of his father and family’.  Even if he could have afforded to stay at Leiden, would he have done so?  When his second comedy, The Temple Beau, was produced at the theatre in Goodman’s Fields in January 1730?  Can’t see it myself. 

But when Fielding writes of Tom Jones’s scrabbing for a foothold when he reaches London, I now suddenly see the twenty year old Henry, not knowing where his next penny is coming from.  

So was it wasted, that day’s nerdish digging?

Now for The Odyssey . . .