Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property

By Wolfram Schmidgen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Henry Fielding and the common law of plenitude

In the third book of Joseph Andrews (1742), Henry Fieldingengages in a characteristic act of generic differentiation. He criticizes “those romancewriters, who intitle their books, the History of England, the History of France, of Spain, &c. ” because they only succeed in “describ[ing] countries and cities. ” Though such histories attempt to give an account of the “actions and characters of men, ” they are largely unsuccessful in this regard, producing “eternal contradictions. ” Fieldingproposes that these writers should be given a name that better accords with their area of greatest accomplishment: he suggests calling them “topographers or chorographers. ” By distinction Fielding aligns his own writing practice with biography. His interest, he claims, lies in “actions and characters, ” not “countries and cities. ” Unlike the topographies of romance (which for Fieldingincluded texts such as Robinson Crusoe1), biography delivers a “narrative of facts” that “may be relied on, tho we often mistake the age and country wherein they happened. ” 2

But while The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews focuses our attention on a person and not a place, it also indicates the instability of the generic distinctions Fielding invokes. It is, after all, a “history of adventures” and not a “biography” that Fielding's title announces. Nor does Fielding, as the term “adventures” already suggests, reject the genre of romance entirely. In the preface to his book, he recommends the category of “comic romance” to characterize his “kind of writing. ” 3 Far from beingdisturbed by such instabilities, Fielding's novelistic practice promotes them. The generic turbulence thus generated sponsors, as Michael McKeon has shown, a “complicated dance of double negation” whereby simple romance and its opposites (history/biography) are criticized and transformed, yieldinga self-conscious compound in which “comic romance” merges with “true history. ” 4 Such a complex merger, it follows from Fielding's generic maneuverings, must also characterize the relationship between description (aligned with romance, topography,

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