Thursday, December 04, 2008

Fielding, Richardson, and Dr. Johnson, or, This one's for Maggie

Last Christmas I gave my friend Maggie a gift that was at least as much a challenge as a true present: Samuel Richardson's 1,536-page epistolary novel Clarissa (1748). Her letter to me in response--for Maggie is not one to back down from a dare--is nicely summed up in her line, "I would not say I didn't enjoy the book, but there is so, so much of it."

I thus couldn't help but think of her tonight when, flipping through The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (2006), I came across this deliciously nasty account of Richardson's self-regard, from Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature (1791-1823):
The extreme delight which he felt on a review [revision] of his own works, the works themselves witness. Each is an evidence of what some will deem a violent literary vanity. To Pamela is prefixed a letter from the editor (whom we know to be the author) consisting of one of the most minutely laboured panegyrics of the work itself, that ever the blindest idlolator of some ancient classic paid to the object of his frenetic imagination. To the author's own edition of his Clarissa is appended an alphabetical arrangement of the sentiments dispersed throughout the work; and such was the fondness that dictated this voluminous arrangement, that such trivial aphorisms as "habits are not easily changed," "men are known by their companions," etc. seem alike to be the object of their author's admiration. And in Sir Charles Grandison, is not only prefixed a complete index, with as much exactness as if it were a History of England, but there is also appended a list of the similes and allusions in the volume.

Literary history does not record a more singular example of that self-delight which an author has felt on a revision of his works. It was this intense pleasure which produced his voluminous labours.
Even the staunchest partisan of Richardson have to admit that D'Israeli's vitriol has a certain fierce glory, no? It makes me think a trip to the library in search of that volume may be in order . . . what other authors suffered under his withering gaze?

In the interests of Richardson fans, such as Laura of Popscratch and Jenny Davidson of Light Reading, I feel that I ought to at least allow a defense of Richardson; since I'm not qualified, having not read him, I'll allow Samuel Johnson to enter the lists as his champion. In James Boswell's Life of Johnson we find this vigorous praise, wrapped up in a blast of denigration heaped on the wonderful Henry Fielding (with the role of Johnson's friend Erskine played, admirably, by Maggie):
Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, "he was a blockhead;" and upon my expressing my astonishment as so strange an assertion, he said, "What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren racal." BOSWELL. "Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?" JOHNSON. "Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's, than in all Tom Jones. I, indeed, never read Joseph Andrews." ERSKINE. "Surely, Sir, Richardson is very tedious." JOHNSON. "Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."
Elsewhere in the Life, Johnson says of the pair,
[T]here was as great a difference between them as between a man who knew how a watch was made, and a man who could tell the hour by looking on the dial-plate.
Boswell, characteristically, prefers the livelier Fielding. Though in conversation with his hero Johnson he seems to have only tepidly argued the point, in the Life he offers a defense that I think truly touches the heart of the charm underlying Fielding's comedy:
Johnson used to quote with approbation a saying of Richardson's, "that the virtues of Fielding's heroes were the vices of a truly good man," I will venture to add, that the moral tendency of Fielding's writings, though it does not encourage a strained and rarely possible virtue, is ever favourable to honour and honesty, and cherishes the benevolent and generous affections. He who is as good as Fielding would make him, is an amiable member of society, and may be led on by more regulated instructors, to a higher state of ethical perfection.
Clarissa is of course doomed to die for sensibility; for my part, long live Tom Jones.

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