- The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney, and: The Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding
The recent publication of Cambridge Companions devoted to Henry Fielding and Frances Burney affords a singular opportunity not only to evaluate the individual literary achievements of two authors with a significant place in eighteenth-century studies, but also to reflect on key developments—in terms of both gender and genre—within the field. From his own time to the present day, Fielding is acknowledged [End Page 316] as a leading player in the history of the eighteenth-century English novel, his novelistic influence—ably documented in Charles Knight's Companion essay on "Fielding's Afterlife"—both widespread and long-lasting. Yet by placing essays that emphasize Fielding's "achievements as dramatist, journalist, political writer, and socio-legal thinker" in conjunction with analyses of his more "celebrated" works of fiction (2), Claude Rawson's volume, by fruitfully reflecting the generic breadth of current Fielding scholarship, successfully rights—without in turn overwriting—past biases.
Burney, too, experienced great fame as a novelist, yet her own entrance into the canon has been, by contrast, significantly delayed. Facilitated by the broader re-evaluative focus of feminist literary criticism and by specific trends within eighteenth-century studies, recent decades have seen an efflorescence of Burney scholarship, including critical and classroom editions of her extensive oeuvre. Simultaneously reflecting and itself contributing to this new scholarship, Peter Sabor's well-crafted volume bears witness to the critical "coming of age" of an author whose long life and multifaceted writings embody the kind of aesthetic, social, political, and historical engagement long valued in Fielding himself.
While both volumes are constructed along similar lines—containing biographical, text-centred, and thematic approaches as well as bibliographic materials—the twelve essays devoted to Fielding provide, in general, relatively little engagement with a broader critical tradition. Instead, leading Fielding scholars focus primarily on specific reevaluations of crucial elements within the works themselves. While Fielding's novels retain, as might be expected, a primary place in the volume—with Shamela, Joseph Andrews, Jonathan Wild, Tom Jones, and Amelia each granted a separate chapter—Fielding's extensive theatrical career, his periodical publications, and his legal writings also receive substantial attention and, in the case of Fielding's drama, compelling reassessment. Prefaced by Linda Bree's skilful depiction of the complex and contradictory nature of Fielding's relatively short life (he died at 54), Thomas Keymer's essay on "Fielding's Theatrical Career" seeks to counter the "teleological fallacy" (17) of viewing Fielding's drama through the lens of his subsequent fiction, persuasively analyzing a variety of plays to demonstrate the extent of Fielding's innovation and potential influence. Readings of individual novels, while less broad in their claims, deftly employ literary biography, close reading, and historical context to present engrossing and thought-provoking re-examinations of such issues as narrative voice, the classical inheritance, and social mobility. What emerges from these and subsequent chapters—on Fielding's style, on his relations with key [End Page 317] figures of "female authority," and on his engagement with crime and the law—is a Fielding bigger and messier, more consciously experimental and more psychically conflicted, than the carefully controlled authorial voice of his two most famous novels would imply.
The ten essays devoted to Burney, by contrast, are less re-evaluative than they are themselves constitutive of a broader critical tradition. Answering the challenge put forth by Margaret Doody in this journal's own 1991 special issue on Evelina, these scholars, among them Doody herself, move successfully beyond Burney's first, and possibly still most favoured, novel to elucidate the author's engagement with the "broader sweep of history and literature" (173). Situating Burney's own remarkable literary achievements within the artistic milieu of her large extended family, Kate Chisholm's biographical essay sheds light on...