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A Political Biography of Henry Fielding by J. A. Downie (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 37-39 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0052

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Fielding’s background was notably patrician, and throughout his career and across the genres in which he wrote, he was very much a gentleman of his time. He unexceptionally supported a hierarchical society governed by the sort of paternalism personified by Mr. Allworthy, but also engaged in fierce and often acrimonious debate about the best way to secure a stable state and society in the face of significant political changes. If his family background helps explain his broad political principles, his own experiences as a writer almost constantly short of cash in the hardscrabble world of London’s print culture help explain his political activities. Mr. Downie’s thorough study addresses the interplay of these two aspects of Fielding’s political life.

Two important questions run through Mr. Downie’s account: what kind of Whig was Fielding and what was Fielding’s relationship with Walpole? In his answers, Mr. Downie emphasizes the consistency of Fielding’s political principles and the practicalities of his political activities. In doing so, he challenges recent accounts, in particular Brian McCrea’s claim that Fielding evolved from early political uncertainty to mature commitment and T. R. Cleary’s that Fielding supported the “Broad-bottom” faction of the Opposition from 1735 on. Fielding, in Mr. Downie’s reading, was a staunch Whig throughout his life, supporting the principles of the Revolution of 1688, but he was a “radical” or “Old Whig,” like Sidney or Trenchard, who believed in parliament’s right to check the crown’s power and who critiqued the social and political corruption unleashed by the Financial Revolution. In emphasizing Fielding’s conservative commitments to a society based on land and trade, Mr. Downie joins post-Namierite historians who stress the significance of principles, not just power, and with them, he emphasizes the importance of party in the early eighteenth century, not just personal connections.

Addressing Fielding’s early career as playwright, Mr. Downie takes on critical and biographical cruces. The discussion of an early unpublished imitation of the Dunciad is especially interesting, as its satire on the Opposition and the Scriblerians themselves, along with its praise for the royal family and the prime minister, challenges the claim that Fielding’s early politics were consistently anti-Walpole. The piece sounds like a job application. And likewise The Grub-Street Opera (1731), which ridicules the royal family and Walpole, suggests a more successful plea for cash, or extortion. It ran only one night; did Fielding suppress it for money? Reviewing the evidence, Mr. Downie leaves the question hanging. Without evidence, the issue is irresolvable, and interpretation depends on whether one accepts Fielding as a mercenary hack who sold his craft for money. Those early chapters on Fielding’s plays are filled with interesting readings of their political contexts and satiric targets. Following the documentary evidence, Mr. Downie questions Fielding’s steady commitment to the Opposition. Fielding dedicated The Modern Husband (1732) to Walpole but Don Quixote in England (1734) to Chesterfield; between them, he was silent—and silent during a year of furious Opposition activity around the Excise Bill Crisis. With no firm evidence (Fielding contributed no anti-ministerial satire in 1733–1734, and contemporaries considered him a pro-Walpole writer right through 1735), there is at best a blank in the record. In Mr. Downie’s reading, “The Election,” the play-within-the play of Pasquin (1736), is not equal opportunity satire on Court and Country, but weighted in its anti-ministerial thrust—Oppositional, though not “Broad-Bottom” (a term Mr. Downie considers anachronistic when applied to political activity in the 1730s). He finds no evidence that Fielding contributed to The Craftsman or worked for the Opposition in 1736–1737, and endorses Thomas Lockwood’s argument that it is likely Walpole bought off Fielding prior to the Licensing Act.

In his detailed account of Fielding’s contributions to The Champion (1741), Mr. Downie explicates Fielding’s ideological commitments as a “radical” or “Old Whig.” In these essays, Fielding does not appeal to the ancient constitution but accepts its legitimate alteration by the Revolution of 1688. And his attacks on ministerial corruption and the influence of the moneyed interest participate in the tradition of Trenchard...

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