Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

Excerpt

The rise and flowering of the English novel as a great work of imagination has been rapid and short-lived. The form was unknown at the beginning of the eighteenth century, yet the middle of the century saw the publication of Clarissa ( 1748), Tom Jones ( 1749)and Tristram Shand ( 1760). The art was practised with consummate brilliance during the early and middle years of the nineteenth century, and most people would agree that the period of genius was over with the death of Dickens in 1870.

What has happened is plain enough. It is the decay of imagination. Why it has happened is the subject of long and inconclusive arguments, but certain facts have an inescapable significance. The era of Fielding's life (he died in 1754) was marked by horrors in the daily life of large numbers of the population, such as we cannot read of without a shudder; Johnson computed that one thousand people starved to death in London alone every year; the state of prisons was such that whatever crime the prisoner had committed against society it could not equal the crime of which society was guilty against him; the exquisite song in The Beggar's Opera, comparing an innocent girl who becomes a whore to a flower that, cast aside, "rots, stinks and dies and is trod underfeet," was no allegory to an eighteenth-century audience, but a plain statement of fact. Nor were the fortunate classes immune; they endured operations without anæsthetics, illnesses without drugs, and so widespread was the desolation of maternal . . .

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