- The History of Ophelia
Peter Sabor concludes his critical introduction to Sarah Fielding's The History of Ophelia (1760) with the observation that 'In the mid-eighteenth century, Sarah Fielding was the second most popular English woman novelist, behind only Eliza Haywood. And just as Haywood, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, has become a canonical author, more intensively studied than almost all of her contemporaries, male or female, Sarah Fielding's writings seem set to become widely read and vigorously debated once again.' That Sabor's prediction, supported by the very recent scholarship informing his introduction, convinces is in large part due to his [End Page 272] own leading role in bringing the work of this very accomplished Fielding out from the shadow of her brother Henry's reputation. Having previously edited two of Sarah Fielding's most important works - The Adventures of David Simple, her debut novel, together with its 1753 sequel Volume the Last (Kentucky 1998), and Remarks on Clarissa, Addressed to the Author, the first critical analysis of Richardson's novel to appear in print (Augustan Reprint Society 1985) - Sabor here continues to broaden the range of Fielding's publications accessible for wide reading and vigorous debate.
Fielding's final novel, Ophelia is the engaging first-person account of a female noble savage, raised in Welsh isolation, who is kidnapped and introduced to an insincere and dissipated London society by Lord Dorchester, a rakish nobleman who has fallen in love with her after stumbling upon the rural cottage she shares with her aunt. Dorchester is no Lovelace, however (a deliberate rewriting of Richardson, Sabor argues), treating Ophelia with generosity and affection while, it ultimately appears, awaiting a propitious moment to assault her virtue. And so the reader is at leisure to enjoy not only the exposure of high-society follies, but also two further abductions within the principal narrative, the first farcical in the manner of Henry Fielding, and the second a kind of early Gothic rewriting of Pamela's Lincolnshire captivity. Ophelia was in the long term one of Fielding's most popular novels; in the established pattern of Broadview editions, Sabor demonstrates the novel's reception through appendices of material added to the second Dublin edition, illustrations from the 1785 Novelist's Magazine reprinting, and, most intriguingly, an 1888 appraisal by the critic Clementina Black.
Sabor also presents considerable evidence for the novel's being woven into a complex tissue of influences or at least shared plot patterns, ranging from tales of the innocent traveller as social critic, to the use of Wales as primitive hinterland to England, to scenes of an ingénue's social faux pas and their comic, yet potentially tragic, repercussions (like those of Burney's Evelina). Such material, presented in a learned, but highly readable, introduction as well as through the appendices, should prove very useful to undergraduate readers in situating this novel in the landscape of eighteenth-century prose fiction. Notes identifying quotations and explaining eighteenth-century English places and manners are judicious and succinct.
I am left with one question: why Ophelia rather than the 1759 The Countess of Dellwyn, a novel which traces with considerable sympathy the descent of a not-unworthy heroine through an unfortunate marriage, adultery, and divorce? Like so much of Fielding's writing, this earlier work seems courageously experimental and probing in its anatomy of human foibles and their potentially disastrous consequences. This may be simply a matter of individual taste, but the novel's first reviewers imply a similar [End Page 273] assessment in their rather cursory dismissals of Ophelia as genre work, unlike their relatively respectful response to the Countess's story. Perhaps my either-or formulation is a false one: certainly, in these post-recovery times, theoretically sophisticated arguments can be marshalled for attending to the formerly popular just as effectively as for privileging the original or innovative. Sabor's detailed account of Ophelia editions and translations implies such an argument. Ideally, both of these novels - indeed, all of Fielding's accomplished and widely varied fiction...