Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  Fielding’s enemies accuse him of being a political hireling. He was. He was quite ready to put his great gifts at the service of Sir Robert Walpole and, when he found they were not wanted, he was equally ready to put them at the service of his enemies. That demanded no particular sacrifice of principle, since at that time the only real difference between the Government and the Opposition was that the Government enjoyed the emoluments of office and the Opposition did not. Corruption was universal, and great lords were as willing to change sides when it was to their advantage as was Fielding when it was a question of bread and butter. It should be said to his credit that when Walpole discovered he was dangerous, and offered to give him his own terms if he would desert the Opposition, he refused. It was also intelligent of him, for not so long afterwards Walpole fell! Fielding had a number of friends in the higher ranks of society, and friends eminent in the arts, but from his writings it seems certain that he enjoyed the company of the low and disreputable. He was severely censured for this, but it seems to me that he could not have described with such wonderful vivacity scenes of what is called low life unless he had himself taken part in them, and enjoyed it. Common opinion in his own day decided that Fielding was licentious and profligate. The evidence that he was is too great to be ignored. If he had been the respectable, chaste, abstemious creature that the Master of Pembroke would have us believe, it is surely very unlikely that he would have written Tom Jones. I think what has misled Dr. Dudden, in his perhaps meritorious attempt to whitewash Fielding, is that it has not occurred to him that contradictory, and even mutually exclusive, qualities may exist in the same man and somehow or other form a tolerably plausible harmony. That is natural enough in one who has led a sheltered, academic life. Because Fielding was generous, good-hearted, upright, kindly, affectionate and honest, it has seemed to the Master impossible that he should have been at the same time a spendthrift who would cadge a dinner and a guinea from his rich friends, who would haunt taverns and drink to the ruin of his health, and who would engage in sexual congress whenever he had the chance. Dr. Dudden states that, as long as his first wife lived, Fielding was absolutely faithful to her. How does he know? Certainly Fielding loved her, he loved her passionately, but he would not have been the first loving husband who, when the circumstances were propitious, had a flutter on the side; and it is very probable that after such an occurrence, like his own Captain Booth in similar circumstances, he bitterly regretted it; but that did not prevent him from transgressing again when the opportunity offered.

  In one of her letters Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu wrote: ‘I am sorry for H. Fielding’s death, not only as I shall read no more of his writings, but I believe he lost more than others, as no man enjoyed life more than he did, though few had less reason to do so, the highest of his preferment being raking in the lowest sinks of vice and misery. I should think it a nobler and less nauseous employment to be one of the staff officers that conduct the nocturnal weddings. His happy constitution (even when he had, with great pains, half demolished it) made him forget everything when he was before a venison pastry, or over a flask of champagne; and I am persuaded he has known more happy moments than any prince upon earth.’

  (2)

  There are people who cannot read Tom Jones. I am not thinking of those who never read anything but the newspapers and the illustrated weeklies, or of those who never read anything but detective stories; I am thinking of those who would not demur if you classed them as members of the intelligentsia, of those who read and re-read Pride and Prejudice with delight, Middlemarch with self-complacency, and The Golden Bowl with reverence. The chances are that it has never even occurred to them to read Tom Jones; but, sometimes, they have tried and not been able to get on with it. It bores them. Now it is no good saying that they ought to like it. There is no ‘‘ought” about the matter. You read a novel for its entertainment, and, I repeat, if it does not give you that, it has nothing to give you at all. No one has the right to blame you because you don’t find it interesting, any more than anyone has the right to blame you because you don’t like oysters. I cannot but ask myself, however, what it is that puts readers off a book which Gibbon described as an exquisite picture of human manners, which Walter Scott praised as truth and human nature itself, which Dickens admired and profited by, and of which Thackeray wrote: ‘The novel of Tom Jones is indeed exquisite; as a work of construction quite a wonder; the by-play of wisdom, the power of observation, the multiplied felicitous turns and thoughts, the varied character of the great comic epic, keep the reader in a perpetual admiration and curiosity.’ Is it that they cannot interest themselves in the way of life, the manners and customs, of persons who lived two hundred years ago? Is it the style? It is easy and natural. It has been said – I forget by whom, Fielding’s friend, Lord Chesterfield, perhaps – that a good style should resemble the conversation of cultivated man. That is precisely what Fielding’s style does. He is talking to the reader and telling him the story of Tom Jones as he might tell it over the dinner-table with a bottle of wine to a number of friends. He does not mince his words. The beautiful and virtuous Sophia was apparently quite used to hearing such words as ‘whore’, ‘bastard’, ‘strumpet’, and that which, for a reason hard to guess, Fielding writes ‘b..ch’. In fact, there were moments when her father, Squire Western, applied them very freely to herself.

  The conversational method of writing a novel, the method in which the author takes you into his confidence, telling you what he feels about the creatures of his invention and the situations in which he had placed them, has its dangers. The author is always at your elbow, and so hinders your immediate communication with the persons of his story. He is apt to irritate you sometimes by moralizing and once he starts to digress, is apt to be tedious. You do not want to hear what he has to say on some moral or social point; you want him to get on with his story. Fielding’s digressions are nearly always sensible or amusing; they are brief, and he has the grace to apologise for them. His good nature shines through them. When Thackeray unwisely imitated him in this, he was priggish, sanctimonious and, you cannot but suspect, insincere.

  Fielding prefaced each of the books into which Tom Jones is divided with an essay. Some critics have greatly admired them, and have looked upon them as adding to the excellence of the novel. I can only suppose that is because they were not interested in it as a novel. An essayist takes a subject and discusses it. If his subject is new to you, he may tell you something that you didn’t know before, but new subjects are hard to find and, in general, he expects to interest you by his own attitude and the characteristic way in which he regards things. That is to say, he expects to interest you in himself. But that is not what you want to do when you read a novel. You don’t care about the author; he is there to tell you a story and introduce you to a group of characters. The reader of a novel should want to know what happens next to the persons in whom the author has interested him and, if he doesn’t, there is no reason for him to read the novel at all. For the novel, I can never repeat too often, is not to be looked upon as a medium of instruction or edification, but as a source of intelligent diversion. It appears that Fielding wrote the essays with which he introduced the successive books of Tom Jones after he had finished the novel. They have hardly anything to do with the books they introduce; they gave him, he admits, a lot of trouble, and one wonders why he wrote them at all. He cannot have been unaware that many readers would look upon his novel as low, none too moral, and possibly even bawdy; and it may be that by them he thought to give it a certain elevation. These essays are sensible, and sometimes uncommonly shrewd; and when you know the novel well, you can read them with a certain amount of pleasure; but anyone who is reading Tom Jones for the first time is well advised to skip them. The plot of Tom Jones has been much admired. I learn from Dr. Dudden that Coleridge exclaimed: ‘What a master of composition Fielding was!’ Scott and Thackeray were equally enthusiastic. Dr. Dudden quotes the latter as follows: ‘Moral or immoral, let any man ex
amine this romance as a work of art merely, and it must strike him as the most astonishing production of human ingenuity. There is not an incident ever so trifling but advances the story, grows out of former incidents, and is connected with the whole. Such a literary providence, if we may use such a word, is not to be seen in any other work of fiction. You might cut out half of Don Quixote, or add, transpose, or alter any given romance of Walter Scott, and neither would suffer. Roderick Random and heroes of that sort run through a series of adventures, at the end of which the fiddles are brought, and there is a marriage. But the history of Tom Jones connected the very first page with the very last, and it is marvellous to think how the author could have built and carried all the structure in his brain, as he must have done, before he put it on paper.’

  There is some exaggeration here. Tom Jones is fashioned on the model of the Spanish picaresque novels and of Gil Blas, and the simple structure depends on the nature of the genre: the hero for one reason or another leaves his home, has a variety of adventures on his travels, mixes with all sorts and conditions of men, has his ups and downs of fortune, and in the end achieves prosperity and marries a charming wife. Fielding, following his models, interrupted his narrative with stories that had nothing to do with it. This was an unhappy device that authors adopted not only, I think, for the reason I give in my first chapter, because they had to furnish a certain amount of matter to the bookseller and a story or two served to fill up; but partly, also, because they feared that a long string of adventures would prove tedious, and felt it would give the reader a fillip if they provided him here and there with a tale; and partly because if they were minded to write a short story, there was no other way to put it before the public. The critics chid, but the practice died hard, and, as we know, Dickens resorted to it in The Pickwick Papers. The reader of Tom Jones can without loss skip the story of “The Man of the Hill” and Mrs. Fitzherbert’s narrative. Nor is Thackeray quite accurate in saying that there is not an incident that does not advance the story and grow out of former incidents. Tom Jones’s encounter with the gipsies leads to nothing; and the introduction of Mrs. Hunt, and her proposal of marriage to Tom, is very unnecessary. The incident of the hundred-pound bill has no use and is, besides, grossly, fantastically improbable. Thackeray marvelled that Fielding could have carried all the structure in his brain before he began to put it on paper. I don’t believe that he did anything of the sort, any more than Thackeray did before he began to write Vanity Fair. I think it much more probable that, with the main lines of his novel in his mind, Fielding invented the incidents as he went along. For the most part they are happily devised. Fielding was as little concerned with probability as the picaresque novelists who wrote before him, and the most unlikely events occur, the most outrageous coincidences bring people together; yet he bustles you along with such gusto that you have hardly time, and in any case little inclination, to protest. The characters are painted in primary colours with a slap-dash bravura, and if they somewhat lack subtlety, they make up for it by animation. They are sharply individualized, and if they are drawn with some exaggeration, that was the fashion of the day, and perhaps their exaggeration is no greater than comedy allows. I am afraid Mr. Allworthy is a little too good to be true, but here Fielding failed, as every novelist since has failed who has attempted to depict a perfectly virtuous man. Experience seems to show that it is impossible not to make him a trifle stupid. One is impatient with a character who is so good that he lets himself be imposed upon by all and sundry. Mr. Allworthy is said to have been a portrait of Ralph Allen of Prior Park. If this is so, and the portrait is accurate, it only shows that a character taken straight from life is never quite convincing in a piece of fiction.

  Blifil, on the other hand, has been thought too bad to be true. Fielding hated deceit and hypocrisy, and his detestation of Blifil was such that it may be he laid on his colours with too heavy a hand; but. Blifil, a mean, sneaking, self-seeking, cold-blooded fish, is not an uncommon type. The fear of being found out is the only thing that keeps him from being an utter scoundrel. But I think we should have believed more in Blifil if he had not been so transparent. He is repellent. He is not alive, as Uriah Heep is alive, and I have asked myself whether Fielding did not deliberately under-write him from an instinctive feeling that if he gave him a more active and prominent role, he would make him so powerful and sinister a figure as to overshadow his hero.

  On its appearance, Tom Jones was an immediate success with the public, but the critics were on the whole severe. Some of the objections were rather touchingly absurd: Lady Luxborough, for instance, complained that the characters were too like the persons ‘one meets with in the world’. It was on its supposed immorality, however, that the novel was generally condemned. Hannah More in her memoirs relates that she never saw Dr. Johnson angry with her but once, and that was when she alluded to some witty passage in Tom Jones. ‘I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book,’ he said. ‘I am sorry to hear you have read it: a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work.’ Now, I should say that a modest lady would do very well to read the book before marriage. It will tell her pretty well all she needs to know about the facts of life, and a lot about men which cannot fail to be useful to her before entering upon that difficult state. But no one has ever looked upon Dr. Johnson as devoid of prejudice. He would allow no literary merit to Fielding, and once described him as a blockhead. When Boswell demurred, he said: ‘What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren rascal.’ ‘Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?’ answered Boswell. ‘Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say that had he not known who Fielding was he should have believed that he was an ostler.’ We are used to low life in fiction now, and there is nothing in Tom Jones that the novelists of our own day have not made us familiar with. Dr. Johnson might have remembered that in Sophia Western Fielding drew a charming and tender portrait of as delightful a young woman as ever enchanted a reader of fiction. She is simple but not silly, virtuous but no prude; she has character, determination and courage; she has a loving heart, and she is beautiful. Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, who very properly thought that Tom Jones was Fielding’s masterpiece, regretted that he did not perceive that he had made his hero a scoundrel. I suppose that she referred to the incident that has been looked upon as the most reprehensible in the career of Mr. Jones. Lady Bellaston took a fancy to him, and found him not unprepared to gratify her desires, for he regarded it as a part of good breeding to behave with ‘gallantry’ with a woman who showed an inclination for sexual commerce; he hadn’t a penny in his pocket, not even a shilling in his pocket to pay for a chair to convey him to her abode, and Lady Bellaston was rich. With a generosity unusual with women, who are apt to be lavish with the money of others but careful with their own, she handsomely relieved his necessities. Well, it is doubtless not a pretty thing for a man to accept money from a woman; it is also an unprofitable one, because rich ladies in these circumstances demand much more than their money’s worth; but morally it is no more shocking than for a woman to accept money from a man, and it is only foolishness on the part of common opinion to regard it as such. Our own day has found it necessary to invent a term, gigolo, to describe the male who turns his personal attractiveness into a source of profit; so Tom’s lack of delicacy, however reprehensible, can hardly be regarded as unique. I have no doubt that the gigolo flourished as hardily under the reign of George the Second as he did under that of George the Fifth. It was characteristic, and to Tom Jones’s credit, that on the very day on which Lady Bellaston had given him fifty pounds for passing the night with her, he was so moved by a hard-luck story which his landlady told him about some relations of hers that he handed her his purse and told her to take what she thought needful to relieve their distress. Tom Jones was honestly, sincerely and deeply in love with the charming Sophia, and yet felt no qualms about indulging in the pleasures of the flesh with any
woman who was attractive and facile. He loved Sophia none the less for these episodes. Fielding was much too sensible to make his hero more continent than the normal man. He knew we should all be more virtuous if we were as prudent at night as we are in the morning. Nor was Sophia unreasonably vexed when she heard of these adventures. That in this particular she showed common sense unusual to her sex is surely one of the most engaging of her traits. It was well said by Austin Dobson, though with no elegance of style, that Fielding ‘made no pretence to produce models of perfection, but pictures of ordinary humanity, rather perhaps in the rough than in the polished, the natural than the artificial, his desire is to do this with absolute truthfulness, neither extenuating nor disguising defects and shortcomings.’ That is what the realist strives to do and, throughout history, he has always been more or less violently attacked for it. For this the two main reasons, so far as I know, are as follows: there is a vast number of people, especially among the elderly, the well-to-do, the privileged, who take up the attitude: ‘Of course we know that there is a lot of crime and immorality in the world, poverty and unhappiness, but we don’t want to read about it. Why should we make ourselves uncomfortable? It is not as though we could do anything about it. After all, there always have been rich and poor in the world.’ Another sort of people have other reasons for condemning the realist. They admit that there are vice and wickedness in the world, cruelty and oppression; but, they ask, is this proper matter for fiction? Is it well that the young should read about things which their elders know, but deplore, and may they not be corrupted by reading stories which are suggestive if not actually obscene? Surely fiction is better employed in showing how much beauty, kindness, self-sacrifice, generosity and heroism there is in the world. The answer the realist makes is that he is interested in telling the truth, as he sees it, about the world he has come in contact with. He does not believe in the unalloyed goodness of human beings; he thinks them a mixture of good and bad; and he is tolerant to idiosyncrasies of human nature which conventional morality reprobates, but which he accepts as human, natural, and therefore to be palliated. He hopes that he depicts the good in his characters as faithfully as the bad in them, and it is not his fault if his readers are more interested in their vices than in their virtues. That is a curious trait in the human animal for which he cannot be held responsible. If, however, he is honest with himself, he will admit that vice can be painted in colours that glow, whereas virtue seems to bear a hue that is somewhat dun. If you asked him how he could defend himself against the charge of corrupting the young, he would answer that it is very well for the young to learn what sort of a world it is that they will have to cope with. The result may be disastrous if they expect too much. If the realist can teach them to expect little from others; to realise from the beginning that each one’s main interest is in himself; if he can teach them that, in some way or other, they will have to pay for everything they get, be it place, fortune, honour, love, reputation; and that a great part of wisdom is not to pay for anything more than it is worth, he will have done more than all the pedagogues and preachers to enable them to make the best of this difficult business of living. He will add, however, that he is not a pedagogue or a preacher, but, he hopes, an artist.

 
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