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  • Tropes of Nationhood: Body, Body Politic, and Nation-State in Fielding’s Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon
  • Terence N. Bowers

I. Imaging the Nation

A society is possible in the last analysis because the individuals in it carry around in their heads some sort of picture of that society.

— Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia 1

Many readers are familiar with the energetic odyssey Fielding narrates in Tom Jones (1749), and admire the rich, vibrant picture it presents of England. Few readers are acquainted with the rather different odyssey Fielding himself undertook at the end of his life, when he left his native country for a warmer climate in a desperate attempt to restore his failing health and save his life. Yet it is his account of that odyssey in Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755) — a book that says little about Portugal and mainly narrates a journey along England’s southern coast — where one may find Fielding’s last and, in many respects, most interesting and far-reaching thoughts on England’s health and status as a nation. 2 Indeed, in this neglected work, I shall argue, Fielding employs his immense literary talents to reflect on how one should conceptualize England as a nation at a time of fundamental transformation when having a proper concept of England was, in Fielding’s mind, a matter of life and death for the country.

Yet to speak of the Voyage as a book that investigates the issue of nationhood may seem a rather large, even far-fetched claim for a work that has sparked little interest or admiration. In fact, the Voyage has generally been considered a disappointment both as an end to an otherwise brilliant literary career and as a travel book. In contrast to the panoramic, perspicacious, and humane view of English society that Tom Jones provides, the Voyage offers a cramped, myopic view. Preoccupied with ailments and personal comforts, and obsessed with such mundane matters as eating, lodging and prices, the Voyage often seems self-centered, uninformative, and downright petty. Fielding’s self-absorption undermines his credibility and violates [End Page 575] eighteenth-century dictates of good travel writing, as they have been explained by Charles L. Batten Jr. 3 And even according to Fielding’s own criteria the Voyage seems to fail: despite his awareness that many travel books bog themselves down in trivial observations, and despite his promise not to burden his readers with information that “they could not possibly have attained of themselves” (V, 24), the Voyage dwells on seemingly insignificant quotidian matters and digresses repeatedly from its announced serious topic of maritime reform. 4 Like the journey it narrates, which is full of false starts, delays, and backtracking, the Voyage seems to go nowhere and to be mired in a world of trivia and narrow horizons.

Such a view, however, fails to take adequate account of the haunting image that occupies the imaginative center of the Voyage — the image of Fielding’s misshapen, grotesque, and dying body. 5 It is this image — at once repellent and fascinating, eliciting both disgust and sympathy — that, on the one hand, gives coherence and meaning to the scattered and seemingly trivial concerns of the text, and that, on the other, illuminates the anxieties and contradictions of a perplexing socio-cultural problem in eighteenth-century Britain, one that has not yet received adequate attention: the problem of how Britain should imagine itself as a nation and how it should be imaged as a social entity. 6 The literary and cultural significance of the Voyage comes into focus when we recall Benedict Anderson’s definition of nations as “imagined communities,” in the minds of whose members “lives the image of their communion”: the Voyage wrestles with precisely this issue, asking what England’s “image of... [national] communion” should be and whether any adequate image is even available. 7 If, as Mannheim claims, “society is possible... because the individuals in it carry around in their heads some... picture of that society,” then the question of finding an agreed upon picture or image is not a peripheral matter, secondary to issues of political organization, the law, or modes of production, but a...

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pp. 575-602
Launched on MUSE
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