Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

6
The Benevolent Robber: From
Fielding to the 1790s

AT the beginning of Tom Jones Fielding presents Squire Allworthy in his glory, 'a human being replete with benevolence, meditating in what manner he might render himself most acceptable to his Creator, by doing most good to his creatures'.1 The eighteenth century saw submission as the duty of the weak, and benevolence as the duty of the powerful and wealthy. Lord Shaftesbury in his Characteristics (1711) argued that human virtue was derived from the 'natural and good affections', following the example set by a loving and benevolent deity.2 But benevolence has its dark side, as Bernard Mandeville pointed out in The Fable of the Bees (1714). For Mandeville, the 'disinterested' virtue that Shaftesbury idealized was an invitation to hypocrisy and a mask for pride. The dispute between Shaftesbury and Mandeville forms a background to the comedy of Tom Jones, since Allworthy's firm belief in Christian benevolence is contested on theological grounds by his brother-in-law Captain Blifil, the father of Tom's rival as Allworthy's heir. Blifil finds little to praise in acts of charity, even when they give pleasure to the benefactor, since we are 'liable to be imposed upon, and to confer our choicest favours often on the undeserving' (101). Whether or not Allworthy's benevolence is a mask for pride, it certainly proves an open invitation to the hypocrisy of the Blifils, father and son.

Shaftesbury's Characteristics represents a crucial moment in the emergence of the idea of the English gentleman, or, as he put it, the 'man of thorough good breeding' who is 'incapable of doing a rude or brutal action' (86). Shaftesbury was both a Whig and the grandson of a leading Royalist statesman, and his doctrine of natural goodness is arguably the old Cavalier ideal, sublimated and sanitized. He believed that 'Gravity is of the very essence of imposture' and that the weapons of the gentleman are wit and raillery rather than the old Puritanical 'mill-stones' of pedantry and bigotry (10, 48). Social privilege, or what he calls the 'liberty of the club', should lead to freedom from prejudice and liberality of outlook: 'It

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