The Novel of Suffering: Richardson,
Fielding, and Goldsmith
IN his History of England from the Revolution to the Death of George the Second, Tobias Smollett digressed from the royal, political and diplomatic events of the year 1753 to give a surprisingly circumstantial report of an episode which, he says, 'could not deserve a place in a general history, if it did not serve to convey a characteristick idea of the English nation'.1 The story he tells bears a close parallel to one of the greatest of eighteenth-century novels, Richardson's Clarissa published four year earlier; and it also bears all the hallmarks of tabloid journalism.
Elizabeth Canning, an 'obscure damsel of low degree', claimed to have been abducted by two men outside Bedlam hospital and taken to the house of a Mrs Wells at Enfield Wash, where she was robbed of her stays and kept on bread and water in a small cell because she refused to turn prostitute. After a month's imprisonment she escaped and 'ran home to her mother's house, almost naked' (iii. 357). Later she testified before the novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding, who was strongly convinced by her story and wrote a pamphlet in her defence. But her allegations were not sustained in court. Mrs Wells's maidservant, Virtue Hall, retracted evidence she had earlier given on Canning's behalf, while other witnesses were shown to have been intimidated by Canning's supporters. Mrs Squires, the 'old gipsey-woman' charged with removing Canning's stays, produced an alibi and eventually secured a royal pardon. Despite intense popular agitation on her behalf, Canning was eventually found guilty of perjury and transported.
Could Elizabeth Canning have been a reader of Clarissa? Her story was either a true deposition or, more likely, a fabricated or semi-fabricated account of an absence from home that she felt otherwise unable to explain. Its most intimate moment, the removal of her stays by the old gipsy woman, is either a criminal violation of her bodily integrity or the symbol of some kind of release of imprisoned libido. Canning is either a