Imágenes de páginas

been his happiness! "The behaviour of Amelia,” we are told, "would have made him completely happy, in defiance of all adverse circumstances, had it not been for those bitter ingredients which he himself had thrown into his cup; and which prevented him from truly relishing his Amelia's sweetness, by reminding him how unworthy he was of this excellent creature." True, indeed, is the observation of Tom Jones to Sophia :-"The delicacy of your sex cannot comprehend the grossness of ours." But there are moments when that gross nature is made to feel, and to feel deeply, its own unworthiness-when affectionate tenderness recalls the wanderer to the path of duty; and past irregularities are bitterly repented of, without a glance of complaint or word of reproach from the injured object.

Whilst in the composition of his last novel Fielding was principally actuated by a desire to do honour to the memory of a being he had so fondly loved, he had also another object in view-namely, that referred to in the dedication to Mr. Allen-the exposure of many public and private evils which then infested the country. Among those evils, the worst and most deadly were those connected with the administration of the criminal law, and the punishment of crime. The prisons were hotbeds of moral and physical pestilence, nurseries of immorality, and hideous temples of disease. No Howard, it will be remembered, had yet set out on his "voyage of Christian benevolence;" nor had any Romilly laboured with unselfish devotion and unshrinking courage to remove the cruelties and inconsistencies which sullied the penal code of England. The captive was yet unvisited; the horrors of the prison-house not yet exposed. No apostle of humanity had selected "the lot in which was to be found the least of that which selfish human nature covets, the most of what it shrinks from;" nor had any Christian legislator raised his voice against the odious practices of whipping women in the public streets, hanging

(1) Burke.


(2) Jeremy Bentham.

them for shoplifting, or burning them for coining. Within the walls of a prison wealth could purchase luxurious indulgence, whilst innocent poverty incurred the perils of starvation. The condemned highwayman merrily caroused up to the last moment of his existence, and was accommodated with the lightest irons, and enabled to "die like a gentleman;" whilst the poor rogue, without friends or money, was left to perish with cold or fever-saving the jailer, the judge, and the hangman, a world of trouble by dying out of the way. Instead of the decency, order, and discipline, which ought to be the characteristics of a place of punishment, the jails of those days exhibited every form of rampant vice and squalid wretchedness. The loud laugh of hardened villany, the song of the reveller, the wicked oath and obscene jest, mingled with the groans of the suffering and the supplicating cries of the distressed. In such a pandemonium every virtuous impulse withered and perished; penitence was a thing unknown,-for, instead of feeling remorse, the criminal boasted of his misdeeds, and was respected in proportion to their atrocity.

The evils which were thus permitted to disgrace the administration of the law, reacted upon society at large with a retributive justice as natural as it was terrible. The pestilence which was nurtured in the jail, as well as the immorality and crime generated there, extended beyond its gloomy precincts. The educated jail-bird was a terror to the community, whilst the jail-fever was recognised as one of the most fearful scourges in the catalogue of disease. In the year 1750 it raged in Newgate to such an extent, that, at the Old Bailey Sessions, one of the judges (Mr. Justice Abney), an alderman, and many jurymen and witnesses, were numbered amongst its victims; and from that time up to this day it has been usual to place sweet-smelling herbs in the prisoner's dock, to prevent infection. Some personal peril was, in truth, formerly incurred in the administration of the law. In 1730, Chief Baron Pengelly

and Serjeant Shippen were killed by the jail-fever, whilst attending the Dorsetshire Assizes, held at Blandford; and the High-Sheriff for Somersetshire perished during the same circuit from the same cause.

The jail scenes depicted in "Amelia" may be referred to as valuable and faithful sketches of prison-life in these dark days of criminal jurisprudence. The spectacles which are stated to have met the eye of Booth, during his incarceration, were then common enough: the street robbers, who were certain of being hanged the next session, "enjoying themselves very merrily over a bottle of wine and a pipe of tobacco;" the daughter supporting the head of a dying father, who had been committed for stealing a loaf; the wounded soldier, who had been tried for stealing three herrings, and acquitted, but was still detained for his fees.1 Such scenes as these, though they occur in a work of fiction, were matters of everyday occurrence in Fielding's time. His experience as a magistrate had familiarised him with the secrets of the prison-house, and it was with a sincere desire of being useful to his country that he exposed them in their proper colours.

The enlightened views of Fielding upon political matters are fully displayed in his last novel. Some of the "administrative reformers" of our own eventful times will be surprised to see how completely he has anticipated many of the views which are at length becoming fashionable. In Dr. Harrison's interview with the nobleman whom he solicits to use his interest with a minister for obtaining Booth's promotion, most of the sentiments enunciated by the doctor would be loudly cheered at any public meeting in these days. The peer having observed that "the conduct of politicians is not formed upon the principles of religion," his suitor makes these observations:

"I am sorry for it; but I will talk to them then of honour and honesty.. Now to deny a man the preferment which he merits,


(1) Amelia, book i. chap. 4.

and to give it to another man who doth not merit it, is a manifest act of injustice; and is consequently both inconsistent with honour and honesty. Nor is it only an act of injustice to the man himself, but to the public, for whose good principally all public offices are, or ought to be, instituted. Now this good can never be completed nor obtained but by employing all persons according to their capacities. Wherever true merit is liable to be superseded by favour and partiality, and men are intrusted with offices, without any regard to capacity or integrity, the affairs of that state will always be in a deplorable situation. Such, as Livy tells us, was the state of Capua, a little before its final destruction..... But, my lord, there is another mischief which attends this kind of injustice-and that is, it hath a manifest tendency to destroy all virtue and all ability among the people, by taking away all that encouragement and incentive which should promote emulation, and cause men to aim at excelling in any art, science, or profession. Nor can anything, my lord, contribute more to render a nation contemptible among its neighbours; for what opinion can other countries have of the councils, or what terror can they conceive of the arms, of such people? And it was chiefly owing to the avoiding of this error that Oliver Cromwell carried the reputation of England higher than it ever was in any other time.'

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

"And do you really think, doctor,' cries the nobleman, 'that any minister could support himself in this country upon such principles as you recommend? Do you think he would be able to baffle an opposition, unless he should oblige his friends by conferring places, often contrary to his own inclination and his own opinions?'

66 6


Yes, really do I,' cries the doctor. Indeed, if a minister is resolved to make good his confession in the Liturgy, by leaving undone all those things which he ought to have done, and by doing all those things which he ought not to have done, such a minister, I grant, will be obliged to baffle opposition, as you are pleased to term it, by these arts; for as Shakspere somewhere says

Things ill begun, strengthen themselves by ill.

But if, on the contrary, he will please to consider the true interest of his country, and that only in great and national points; if he will engage his country in neither alliances or quarrels, but where it is really interested; if he will raise no money but what is wanted, nor employ any civil or military officers but what are useful, and place in these employments men of the highest integrity, and of the greatest abilities; if he will employ some few of his hours to advance our trade, and some few more to regulate our domestic government; if he would do this, my lord, I will answer for it he shall either have no opposition to baffle, or he shall baffle it by a fair appeal to his

conduct. Such a minister may, in the language of the law, put himself on his country when he pleases, and he shall come off with honour and applause."" 1

"Amelia” was but coldly received. Regular novelreaders were displeased with its didactic tone, and complained of the want of entertaining incidents. As a work of art, it is certainly manifestly inferior to "Tom Jones," and it has none of the rich humour of " Joseph Andrews." On the whole, the criticism of Arthur Murphy is exceedingly just and accurate :-" Amelia," he says, "which succeeded 'Tom Jones' in about four years, has indeed the marks of genius, but of a genius beginning to fall into decay. The author's invention in this performance does not appear to have lost its fertility; his judgment, too, seems as strong as ever; but the warmth of imagination is abated; and in his landscapes, or his scenes of life, Mr. Fielding is no longer the colourist he was before. . . . . And yet 'Amelia' holds the same proportion to 'Tom Jones' that "The Odyssey' of Homer bears, in the estimation of Longinus, to 'The Iliad.' A fine vein of morality runs through the whole; many of the situations are affecting and tender; the sentiments are delicate; and, upon the whole, it is "The Odyssey,' the moral and pathetic work, of Henry Fielding."3

Some of the readers of "Amelia," it is true, formed a different estimate of its merits. Dr. Johnson spoke of it as the only book, within human recollection, of which, being published in the morning, a new edition was called for before night. This sudden, or apparently sudden sale, was owing, however, in all probability, to the ruse of the publisher, which has been already described. The great moralist, in spite of his antipathy to Fielding, was charmed with "Amelia." So delighted was he with it, that he read (1) Amelia, book xi. chap. 2.

(2) This is of course a mistake. The interval between the publication of the two novels was about two years and nine months.

(3) Essay on the Life and Genius of Fielding.

« AnteriorContinuar »