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  • Response to Robert Alter, “Political Fiction”
  • Michael Wood (bio)

I’d like to pursue a connection that Robert Alter makes early in his lecture and use it to look at some of the implications of his argument and examples. It has to do with the kind of narrative commentary found in Stendhal and not in the David story, and that Alter thinks, surely rightly, is something that Stendhal “picked up from Fielding.” It is in one of those commentaries by Fielding, which Alter knows very well, since he wrote an excellent book on that author, that we get a remarkable comic anticipation of one of the governing ideas of his lecture: the idea that “the special purchase that fiction has on politics is through character.”

I’m thinking of Fielding’s “praise of biography” in the chapter introducing Book III of Joseph Andrews. The jokes begin right away, since by “biography,” Fielding means novels: true stories about fictional people as distinct from fantasies about real countries, the sort of thing we usually call history. The latter set includes books with titles like, in Fielding’s instances, “the History of England, the History of France, of Spain, etc.” These historians, Fielding suggests, get the time and place right but almost everything else wrong. They

widely differ in the narrative of facts; some ascribing victory to the one, and others to the other party; some representing the same man as a rogue, while others give him a great and honest character; yet all agree in the scene where the fact is supposed to have happened, and where the person, who is both a rogue and an honest man, lived.


“Now with us biographers,” Fielding says, “the case is different; the facts we deliver may be relied on, though we often mistake the age and country wherein they happened” (146). Listing a whole series of characters [End Page 315] from Don Quixote, Fielding suggests that while Cervantes may have been wrong to place them in Spain, no one can doubt their actual existence. “The most known instance” of this kind of error, he says, “where the inimitable biographer hath made a notorious blunder,” is in Gil Blas. This novel situates a lamentable doctor (who drains his patients of their blood and fills their veins with water) also in Spain, when anyone “who is the least versed in physical history” knows that “Spain was not the country in which this doctor lived” (146). Fielding evokes further examples of biographical narrative capable of such mistakes—the works of Scarron and Marivaux, the Arabian Nights—and excludes from this category the people he actually calls novelists, “the authors of immense romances, or the modern novel,” who don’t get close enough to the truth even to make mistakes. He then claims that Don Quixote is “more worthy the name of history” than its French successors, because whereas even the best of the latter are

confined to a particular period of time, and to a particular nation, the former is the history of the world in general, at least that part which is polished by laws, arts, and sciences; and of that from the time it was first polished to this day; nay, and forwards as long as it shall so remain.


There are two arguments here: one quite traditional, the other mischievous and radical. Let me recall Fielding’s key sentence: “The facts we deliver may be relied on, though we often mistake the age and country wherein they happened” (146). The first argument is about universality and probability, and is entirely faithful to Aristotle’s thinking on the distinction between history and poetry—except that Fielding is saying that poetry is better history than history. The second argument centers on his insistent, mischievous use of the concept of the “mistake.” In one sense, there is no mistake—only what might look like one. Once we relocate the characters in the right country, the truth stands out clearly. In another sense, “mistake” is still the right word, because we have to correct the author’s history, and Fielding doesn’t actually want us to think England, France, and Spain are all the same. That...


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pp. 315-318
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