Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Air of Tom Jones; or, What Rose from the Novel

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Air of Tom Jones; or, What Rose from the Novel

Article excerpt

"There was an Air of Grandeur in it, that struck you with Awe."

- Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)

"There is a cheerful, sun-shiny, breezy spirit, that prevails everywhere, strongly contrasted with the close, hot, day-dreamy continuity of Richardson."

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Literary Remains (1813)

Even a lover of Tom Jones's indoorsy rival, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748), will know what Samuel Taylor Coleridge meant when he spoke of the "cheerful, sun-shiny, breezy spirit, that prevails everywhere" in Henry Fielding's novel.' Or is it strictly possible to know such a thing? Just where is the "everywhere" that the romantic poet invoked? For that matter, where is the "there"? One imagines that "there" might lie round about the same place as the semideictic "there" with which Fielding apparently locates Paradise Hall's "Air of Grandeur" in the fourth chapter of the first book of Tom Jones. But where, in fact, is that? In pursuit of some answer to this questiOn', one naturally seeks refuge in Fielding's plot, or in his habits of characterization, in his stated themes and topics, or even in his theoretical pronouncements. All of these narrative features share a certain convinced skepticism about the possibility of gaining access to interiors of any kind, and all were surely in the back of Coleridge's mind when he so accurately gauged the "prevailing]" conditions of Tom Jones. But if pressed, we would probably have to concede that Coleridge's "breezy" estimation of Fielding's art draws less upon any of that author's overt propositions, or upon any of his famously superficial habits of representation, than it does upon a cluster of assumptions that we still make about what it is like to be in the world of a novel. Without ever directly acknowledging them, we nonetheless reveal the presence of these assumptions whenever we speak of a novel's "atmosphere."

Although "atmosphere" in this sense would seem to have needed the gothic turn of the 1790s - and perhaps also the responsive energy of romantic readers like Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott - to make it a historically legitimate aspect of English narrative fiction, the explicit representations of atmosphere in the form of weather or mood that we begin to find in, say, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries ofUdolpho (1794) may also be seen merely to have codified certain literary conditions that rose with - and quite possibly from - the earlier eighteenthcentury English novel. Today's standard accounts of the novel's own rise have almost systematically avoided a consideration of what seems to rise from certain works of fiction - that tangibly intangible, determinedly non-propositional dimension that is perhaps less captured than evoked in words like "air" and "spirit." This oversight is all the more mystifying given that the English novel did after all "rise" in tandem with English natural philosophy's increasingly obsessive inquiry into the nature and effects of air. The turn to gothic that made novelistic atmospheres visible in a manner they had not been before coincides historically with Joseph Priestley's experimental distinction between what he termed the "factitious airs" and the "common or atmospherical air" that we now call oxygen.2 Up until the 1770s, we are left to suppose, factitious airs were indistinguishable from real ones. But what more favorable conditions could there be for narrative fiction's emergence as a principal and legitimate investigator of "the" atmosphere?

This essay will presume an array of transactions that took place between eighteenth-century atmospherists and their novel-writing counterparts. Fielding's own wind-bound account of his all but posthumous voyage to Lisbon would show how conversible he was with what his contemporary John Arbuthnot called "the Effects of Air on Human Bodies."3 Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is as rooted in the homegrown genre of the weather journal as it is in Puritan spiritual autobiography;1 and the earthquakes that John Cleland's Fanny Hill (1749), if not Tom iones itself, allegedly triggered were at the time considered no less or more plausible a phenomenon than "airquakes. …

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