- Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature by Henry Power
Henry Power’s Epic into Novel develops a fascinating argument about the role of food and metaphors of consumption in Fielding’s novels. This book celebrates Fielding’s long career as indexical of his wider eighteenth-century culture, and it treats Fielding’s novels as the triumphant end of a literary movement. Power sees Fielding as the final Scriblerian inheritor, and the successful translator of their agonized admixture of epic and topical satire.
Power’s exciting, slightly eccentric thesis is that one of the key links between the classical tradition and the eighteenth-century idea of epic and its eventual transformation into the novel form is the metaphor of literature as food. Power writes: “As literature becomes just another consumable product, a shared vocabulary is emerging, which works equally for poetry and food” (70). Power adduces a remarkable amount of clever evidence for his case in his introduction, marshaling examples from both the ancient and the eighteenth-century world. The voracious eighteenth-century reader, gluttonous for frenchified trash, is easily compared to the devourer of a newly expansive cuisine influenced by continental flavors and techniques. It is a short step from here to mock-epic. As Power observes, “[f]ood has…always enjoyed a prominent position in mock-heroic poetry—a literary genre which depends on establishing a gulf between contemptible subject matter, on the one hand, and the dignity inherent in epic poetry, on the other.” Thus “[t]he central joke of many mock-heroic works of the early eighteenth century is the casting of culinary terms into epic diction” (6).
The great strengths of Power’s book are, first, his deep knowledge of the classical literature on which Fielding and his Scriblerian predecessors draw so heavily, and second, his immensely convincing and highly entertaining chapters on Tom Jones. The weaknesses of the book emerge as the shadow-side of these strengths. Power’s argument relies very heavily on Fielding’s debt to the Scriblerians, and consequently, to their classical predecessors. Power also traces the influence of the Heliodoran novel in Fielding’s fiction. I would have expected some mention of Margaret Doody’s book The True Story of the Novel in the course of this latter argument, even if in the service of violent disagreement. Doody begins in the same place—with ancient Greek prose—but traces a very different classical lineage for the novel, through romance rather than epic. Power doesn’t mention the influence of Heliodorus on late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century fiction writers like Aphra Behn and Charles Gildon, through whom the influence of ancient prose on Henry Fielding must necessarily have been filtered. This seems to me to indicate that Fielding’s semi-ironic snobbishness has achieved [End Page 137] some purchase on Power’s analysis. I suspect that it is a mistake ever to take Fielding at his word. Isolating Fielding, just as he would have wished, from his place in the melée of hack-romancers, Power instead traces the classical origins of mock-epic in a series of Scriblerian works, including Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub, John Gay’s Trivia, and Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, some of which are rather loosely related to the overarching argument of the book.
This tour of Scriblerian high points brings me to the second weakness of the book: for the most part, the rest of the book seems to operate primarily to set up and support Power’s brilliant chapters on Tom Jones. The arguments of the chapters leading up to the two chapters on Tom Jones often strain to breaking-point, or lose altogether Power’s delightful connection between food and epic.
That said, the Tom Jones chapters are not a small contribution to Fielding criticism. It’s always astonishing and admirable to meet a really fresh perspective on a much-read work, and this is indeed one...