Saturday, November 11, 2006

What I'm Reading

"I would, indeed, have this work - which, if I should live to finish it, a matter of no great certainty, if indeed of any great hope to me, will be probably the last I shall ever undertake - to produce some better end than the mere diversion of a reader." - Henry Fielding, Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon.

Henry Fielding was the writer of Tom Jones, a classic comic novel. He authored at least two historic spoof-novels: Jonathan Wild, a parody biography of a notorious 18th century criminal; and Shamela, a send-up of Samuel Richardson's popular novel Pamela. He was apparently a dramatist in his youth (I'd love to read some of his plays), and in his middle age he was a Justice of the Peace.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I bought his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon last week. As it turns out, it's a diary of some of the last months of his life. Written in mid-1754, it was published in early 1755 - after Fielding had died.
Fielding takes the voyage because of his health. He has, he tells us dryly, a 'complication of disorders' which necessitate an odd sort of treatment: 'By his advice I was tapped, and fourteen quarts of water drawn from my belly.' He is told to go somewhere warm during the winter, and so Lisbon becomes his destination. He has to be carried on board the ship; whenever this happens, he makes lugubrious comparisons between luggage and passengers.
On his voyage, he travels with Mrs Fielding, his daughter and her 'companion' (I'm not sure what he means by that), and some servants.

The voyage isn't a happy one. His daughter appears to be constantly suffering from seasickness; and Mrs Fielding from an aching tooth, which she repeatedly tries to have drawn:
.... such was her resolution, backed with pain, that he was obliged to make the attempt, which concluded more in honour of his judgment than of his operation: for, after having put my poor wife to inexpressible torment, he was obliged to leave her tooth in statu quo; and she had now the comfortable prospect of a long fit of pain, which might have lasted her whole voyage, without any possibility of relief.
"In these pleasing sensations," he continues, "of which I had my just share, nature ... resigned her to rest."
There are passages of interest aplenty. Fielding sees a great deal, and tells it all. There is, for instance, the following instance in his ship's cabin:
While we were at dinner this day in the cabin, on a sudden the window was beat into the room with a crash as if a twenty-pounder had been discharged among us ... the sash, which was shivered all to pieces, was pursued into the middle of the cabin by the bowsprit of a little ship called a cod-smack, the master of which made us amends for running (carelessly at best) against us, and injuring the ship, in the sea-way; that is to say, by damniong us all to hell, and uttering several pious wishes that it had done us much more mischief. All which were answered in their own kind and phrase by our men, between whom and the other crew a dialogue of oaths and scurrility was carried on as long as they continued in each other's hearing.
He follows this passage up immediately with the following reflection:
It is difficult, I think, to assign a satisfactory reason why sailors in general should, of all others, think themselves entirely discharged from the common bands of humanity, and should seem to glory in the language and behaviour of savages! They see more of the world, and have, most of them, a more erudite education than is the portion of the landmen of their degree.
There are also political and legal reflections, observations on the beneficial nature of trade, thoughts about tea and tea-drinking, encounters with a thirty-year-old soldier who greets his uncle with phrases like, 'D-n me, Dick!', and the following single-sentence diary entry:
Friday, July 12. This day our ladies went ashore at Ryde, and drank their afternoon tea at an ale-house there with great satisfaction: here they were regaled with fresh cream, to which they had been strangers since they left the Downs.
I find it hard to explain why I feel so sad knowing that this is written in Fielding's last days of life. It's essentially the diary of a an illness which carries Fielding to his grave. Perhaps it is because of the simple elegance of his writing, and his enjoyment of all the things of life, even in his infirmity: he seems to be alive to us. But that's not really a good enough explanation; Fielding is now 250 years dead; why should it seem so sorrowful when it is an established fact?

Fielding is one of the funniest and smartest bastards to have ever lived on this planet, as even a single glance into Tom Jones will show. I'd like to meet him, though that seems somewhat unlikely at this stage. In the meantime, we can all meet him halfway through his books; I'm doing it at the moment, in his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon.


Don Quixote said...

"I'd like to meet him, though that seems somewhat unlikely at this stage."

It's highly unlikely unless you've got a shovel and a vial containing some incredibly potent smelling salts!

I'll have to place Fielding on my literary "to do" list.

TimT said...

There's lots of writers I'd like to meet. Some of them are even alive! But it just seems wrong, when you dip into Tom Jones and find Fielding making jokes about sex and drinking and that sort of thing that somebody with such an obvious relish and understanding of life could *not* be alive.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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