The 'Champion' and the Chapter on Hats in 'Jonathan Wild.' (Henry Fielding)

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Coleridge once exclaimed that Fielding's little chapter "Of Hats" in Jonathan Wild (2.6), "brief as it is, exceeds any thing even in Swift's Lilliput, or Tale of the Tub. How forcibly it applies to the Whigs, Tories, and Radicals of our own times."(1) Despite such extravagant praise, this portion of the novel (which Fielding changed only slightly in his revision in 1754) has received little comment from scholars, with not even the recent books on Fielding's politics providing a context against which the chapter might be read.(2) To be sure, its complexities are by no means comparable to those of any part of Swift's Tale, but it does present the reader with a few problems which can, I think, now be solved and which may have some relevance to the manner, though not the time, of the novel's composition.

Its action is straightforward enough. Wild's newly formed gang is described as wearing different "Principles, i. e. Hats" and thus forming different parties between which "Jars and Animosities almost perpetually arose."(3) Wild puts an end to the disputes with a sardonic speech demonstrating that hats are only meaningless outward signs of qualities which need not exist in reality and which are of use only in deceiving the public so that "Great Men" may rob them more easily: "If the Public should be weak enough to interest themselves in your Quarrels, and to prefer one Pack to the other, while both are aiming at their Purses; it is your Business to laugh at, not imitate their Folly."

The political cynicism is obvious, though it is less clear whether it is meant to be applied to any particular set of politicians. J. E. Wells long ago saw Wild's speech as a representation of Walpole's exhortations to his followers, citing as parallel the "Speech of Bob Booty to his Gang," a typical anti-Walpole satire in Common Sense in 1739.(4) And Wilbur Cross too, while finding no "specific reference" in the chapter, explains it as a burlesque of Walpole's speeches.(5) Moreover, in his essay Wells cites a long series of parallels between the chapter in Jonathan Wild and passages on hats in the Champion dating from the period of Fielding's active contributions to the Opposition. But the meaning of the Champion references seems to have eluded Wells; and he concludes, somewhat vaguely, only that the chapter on hats "is political and Walpole is concerned in it."(6)

A closer look at the Champion in 1740 will solve most of the puzzles the chapter contains. Two matters in particular need comment: first, Fielding's reasons for choosing hats as the focal image of his political clothes-philosophy, and, second, his intentions in an extraordinary footnote which occupies a sizable portion of the chapter. Both matters, interestingly enough, tie the chapter firmly to the Champion of the spring of 1740.

As an example of foolish "party-differences," disputes over hats had been cited in The Spectator (No. 432, 16 July 1712), along with "party patches" and other satiric symbols for a narrow party-spirit. But Fielding clearly had in mind more particular allusions to hats in recent politics. He doubtless knew that the two chief political factions in Sweden were called the "Hats" and the "Night-Caps," as reported in the Champion for 24 May 1740 and in the Gentleman's Magazine in the same year;(7) indeed a later passage in the Gentleman's Magazine makes the moral explicit: "As the distinctions of parties are generally ridiculous enough, those in Sweden have names not more significant than our whig and tory."(8) Moreover, as Wells noted but failed to explain, there is clearly some connection between the image in Jonathan Wild and the series of political jokes about hats in the Champion in the spring of 1740. In "Advices" of the "Home News" column of Champion No. 85 (29 May), for example, we find a mock-notice for a book of anecdotes about "the Four great Roberts of England" with an appendix called "The History of the Great Hat," with "memorable Transactions both in Peace and War" and bearing the motto, "He roar'd so loud, and look'd so wondrous grim, / His very Shadow durst not follow him. …