If scriveners were the ancestors of our newspaper editors, the forefather of our novelists was a London printer, who in his spare time wrote love-letters for girls who, in these days of few schools, could not write them for themselves.
Anyone living in Fleet Street in 1740 must have noticed that a great many girls climbed the stairs above a printer's shop owned by Mr. Samuel Richardson. One by one they were admitted to the room where sat Mr. Richardson, a stout little man, who although still young, already wore a grave and demure expression. His table was covered with paper, a large quill pen was in his hand, and an ink-bottle was inserted into the arm of his chair. If his fair visitor was too shy to dictate, it did not matter, for Mr. Richardson was never at a loss and seemed to know by instinct what she wished to say. No wonder he was popular; he never gave away secrets and the most tongue-tied of his customers was soon ready to open her heart to him.
One day two friends of his who were publishers suggested to him that he might use the intimate knowledge he had thus gained of women's minds to write a novel. No sooner said than done, and Pamela, a novel in the form of letters, appeared.
To understand its,reception we must remember that the reading public of that day had practically no fiction. The romances and pastorals which had satisfied an earlier generation were now found artificial, and although Robinson Crusoe had thrilled the town it was not quite a novel as we understand the term. In The Tatler and The Spectator delightful people like Jenny Distaff and Sir Roger de Coverley and Will Wimble had appeared, but there was no story to bind them together. But Pamela was a story complete with plot and characters, and enough emotion for half a dozen novels. One lady wrote to Richardson that she had wept a pint of tears over its pages, and even Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, although she was not long in drying her bright eyes, and declaring that it was most sentimental stuff, shed her quota.
But there was one who laughed. Henry Fielding, a Bow Street magistrate, and a cousin of Lady Mary, as energetic a man as Richardson was indolent, as full of fun as he was full of pathos, produced a parody of Pamela called Joseph Andrews. Richardson was most indignant and, not to be outdone, was soon on the field again with Clarissa Harlowe, another novel in the form of letters. It was in seven volumes, but his admirers found it not one line too long, and thenceforward Richardson was treated by the ladies of England like a pet cat, stroked and served with the cream of flattery.
He held a little court where he sat reading aloud to his admirers extracts from his novels, and when not thus engaged he wrote reams of letters to ladies all over the country who opened their hearts to him. His daughters were kept busy copying out these letters, and so fully was he thus occupied that the only exercise he was able to take was to jog up and down for a short time each day on a chamber-horse, a leather seat on four legs.
Meantime Fielding, whose parody he never forgave, was leading a very different life. He was a most active magistrate, and was untiring in putting down gangs of street robbers who at that time were haunting the streets of London. Joseph Andrews led him farther than he intended. While writing it he discovered that in novel-writing he had found his bent, and during the next few years he produced Tom Jones, Amelia, and Jonathan Wild. The artist Hogarth was his friend, and together they watched, the tragic figures that passed before Fielding on the Bench. Together they moved about the streets with keenly observant eyes, and they have told us what they saw, Fielding in his humorous pages and Hogarth in his tragic story-pictures.
In his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon Fielding has left a book which shows us vividly the man he was. His health had become seriously undermined by gout and asthma, and the doctors recommended a voyage to a warmer climate, although he himself had little hopes of recovery. The adventures that befell himself, his wife and daughter on this journey let us see what travel meant in the eighteenth century.
After two hours' drive from his home to Ealing, they found the Queen of Portugal moored in midstream off Rotherhithe, and the sick man was carried over the slippery ground, transferred to a wherry, and finally lifted over the ship's side in a chair, while the sailors jeered at his ghastly appearance. When at last he reached his cabin, it was to be told that the captain did not mean to sail for five days. When they did sail they were becalmed for a week in the Downs, and then were forced to lie off Ryde for another week to escape a violent storm.
To one in Fielding's state these delays and the discomforts of the cramped quarters on the ship must have been hard to bear, but every page of the Journal shows cheerful courage and thought for others. Weak he might be, but not too weak to face a rough custom-house officer and insist that he show all possible respect to his wife. When at Ryde they went on shore, and there he records they enjoyed "the best, the pleasantest and the merriest meal in a barn, with more appetite, more real solid luxury, and more festivity than was ever seen at an entertainment at White's ".
The Journal is full of vivid character sketches of the men and women they came across during the seven weeks the voyage lasted, the bad-tempered landlady at Ryde, the conceited military fop who came on board to visit the captain, and, best of all, the skipper himself. Captain Richard Veal was a survival of the old buccaneering captains swaggering about in his red coat and cockade, unable to read, short in temper, rough in tongue, superstitious and full of crochets. It seemed that nothing could upset this thick-skinned old salt, and yet when a kitten fell overboard one day all work was suspended until the captain's pet had been rescued and restored to life.
So the brave, uncomplaining pages go on, written by the tremulous hand of a dying man amid hours of suffering. The voyage was of no avail, and two months after arrival in Lisbon, Fielding died there in his forty-eighth year.
Richardson and Fielding were the pioneers in a long line of English novelists. A hundred years later there came one who was in affection and sympathy a child of the eighteenth century. Thackeray learned his clear and simple prose at the feet of Steele and Addison, he built his novels on the foundation laid by Fielding, and he has left two books in which their times live again. If we wish to know Steele and Addison and Swift and Richardson as we know the men and women we meet to-day, if we wish to breathe the air they breathed, and to speak their language as our own, we shall read a great novel and its sequel, Esmond and The Virginians.
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