Jun
30

Henry Fielding’s Politics: An Enigma

Since I arrived in Williamsburg on June 12th, I spend most of my days the same way. I find a bench around campus and start sifting through the immense body of work concerning the development of the novel in the English language. While these studies are indeed very helpful for broadening my background knowledge, they lack a certain relevancy to my specific research, i.e. the political motivations behind Henry Fielding’s novels.

Henry Fielding, though he served as a Justice of the Peace for Westminster and Middlesex, provides very little of his own writing to help the modern scholar understand his true political readings. I’ve made a little progress when studying works such as Proposal for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor or An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, but Fielding’s international politics remain a mystery.

This dilemma makes my research particularly difficult, for I am trying to understand Fielding’s impetus for depending on the Classical tradition of literature in the formation of his novels, specifically the connections to continental Europe that accompany this relationship. Fielding was writing at a time of intense nationalism in Britain, with the Jacobite Rising of 1745 serving as the setting for his novel Tom Jones. Throughout England, even after the government defeated the rebels, people worried that another insurrection could follow, and this fear inflamed a fierce dedication to the Crown and to England amongst the people. The majority in Parliament labeled the Opposition as the party of Catholic sympathizers, and English patriotism and nationalism heightened to remarkable levels. Fielding himself became an avid supporter of the English cause and rejected the attempts to restore the Stuarts to the throne.

Fielding’s novels, however, suggest an anticipation of what Goethe Weltliteratur, or world literature. By relying on the Classical tradition, the tradition of ancient epic, medieval romances, Spanish and French prose fiction, to create what Fielding deemed a new genre of writing, the “comic Epic-Poem in Prose,” Fielding creates a specifically European, rather than English or British novel. This is significant because of the contemporary status of prose fiction in England at the time of Fielding’s writing; novelists such as Richardson and Defoe consciously rejected the epic tradition in favor of stories based on the realism of their experiences in English society.

This is the crux of my research. Was Fielding indeed making a statement of European cultural unity with his novels, or was he simply a classically educated gentleman who valued Latin and Greek over Shakespeare and Milton? This is the question I hope to further understand over the next two months.

Until then, you can find me on a bench around campus, reading and taking notes, waiting for a breakthrough.

 

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