The Harbottle Review

Mr Justice Harbottle is an ageing gout-charged voluptuary and a judge at the Court of Common Pleas

TOM JONES by Henry Fielding

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As regular patrons of the Globe, Fleet-street will attest, Henry Fielding likes the sound of his own voice and the thrust of his own wit; and we like him none the worse for that. So, it seems only in course that this new offering, Tom Jones, a prosai-comic-epic in four volumes, withal it concerns the folly of judgement, is firstly and mainly about Henry Fielding.

Fielding, not Jones, is the principal character here, and he regales us with a deal more commentary than plot. There are few incidents related that are not then sifted through, either for gold or grit, which may or may not be there. Further, he offers salutary views on his own trade, viz.: writers must be possessed of 1.natural genius; 2.formal learning; 3.worldly experience; and their remit is to invent good stories and tell them well. This list of perfections, though simple, is commanded by very few; and here we come to Fielding’s grievance, which he iterates hard and often, and which is that those rightful lords of literature, the authors, have lately been usurped by started-up critics; or, as Fielding terms it, the clerks have become the legislators. He misses no opportunity in assaulting the imagined critics of his book, damning them for reptiles here and frustrated hanging judges there; which is exactly the kind of venting that got him barred from the Bedford Arms.

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A critic, yesterday

Busy readers might ask why Fielding is picking fights when he could be getting on with the story; but he has a larger point to make, which, as before-mentioned, concerns judgement, or rather the folly of it. In case of Tom Jones, he claims to have formulated “a new province of writing” in which he is sole practitioner and arbiter, and which thus stands outside the reach of criticism. Tom Jones, in fine, can not be judged by anyone other than Henry Fielding, because only he understands it. I make no doubt that this particular logical fortress can be stormed; but the general notion bears entertaining, and is stoutly supported by elements of the novel.

Case in point: Mr Allworthy, the noblest and wisest of the diverse cast, though he is a Justice of Peace and a beacon of moderation, is yet shown unfit to judge men. His failing is that he does not not know all; thus he can not command justice, and he condemns Tom Jones for a wrong he has not done. Even if sin could be proven, Fielding protests that judgement is not our office, since a man may commit a bad act without being a bad man.

This is all very worthy and Christ-like, though I doubt Fielding’s heart is in it; this in view of him, in his own capacity as Justice, lately hanging a peruke maker for being drunk within spitting distance of a riot. He knows as well as I that judgement is not chiefly about justice, or getting it right, and that in the words of the ancient law: foolish pity ruins a city.

Where Tom Jones triumphs is as a portrait of the English in our times. Detail is packed upon detail, miniature upon miniature, to a point at which the reader feels the whole nation has been laid before him on a trencher. If you care to know what the “well-loved” squire’s tenants say about him in the village, or what etiquette to take at a masked ball in Grosvenor Square, read Tom Jones. If you wish to understand why town and country folk differ so much as to form parties, and why the common man sees party rage as secondary to his own livelihood, read Tom Jones. If you would feel better for knowing that doctors understand nothing but how to prevaricate, and that parsons are only in it for the money, then read this book, and thank Henry Fielding.

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Henry Fielding

In point of the story itself, we simply follow Tom Jones, a bastardly foundling, through his genteel upbringing, his fall from Eden, his travels and vicissitudes, then his coming into a fortune. Tom is a holy innocent, barely a character at all, who bobs heedless as a cork on the waves of a scheming world, until the clockwork plot lands him back where he began, though more elevated and with a wife. This romance is the engine of the story, and is so treacle-sweet as to make a chamber-maid grimace. Not what might be expected from Captain Hercules Vinegar, the two-handed regulator of Gin Lane; but we all have to earn a crust.

Tom Jones is printed in four volumes by A. Millar, over-against Catharine-street in the Strand, and it cost me about five weeks, off and on.

MOLL FLANDERS by Daniel Defoe

best-moll-flanders-titleDaniel Defoe’s satire is drier than Canary sack, and credulous readers have ere been known to swallow it whole. His pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, called for the crucifixion of Presbyterians, a suit so glaringly ironic that it could have been taken in earnest only by High Churchers; and so it was. These gullible Tories, to redress their embarrassment, felt justified in committing Mr Defoe to Newgate, standing him three times in the pillory, and bankrupting his brick-&-tile-works. I wonder how they will wear Moll Flanders, a true account concerning the decency of sinners and the doubtful purpose of the church in a mercantile society.

The frontispiece proclaims that the heroine of this biography was born in Newgate Prison, was twelve year a whore, five times a wife, and twelve year a thief, after all of which she repented. Throughout these travails she is used with great kindness by all she consorts with, whether bankers or low criminals, gentlemen or debauchers, sea-captains or prostitutes. It is the world that is wicked, not these that dwell in it, and their goodness derives from fellow-feeling, not the pulpit.

mollflandersIn the case of marriage, Moll finds that she is but a commodity in a market place, and an under-valued one at that; yet the world says she can not live without a husband, or money, and if she lacks one, she must get the other. Moll seeks out men in order to live; yet she cares for them all, though rarely so far as to grieve for them after. These good-hearted souls, her husbands, variously dying, deserting, or turning out to be her brother, leave Moll alone at the age of fifty, upon which she utters a feeble prayer: ‘Give me not poverty, lest I steal,’ before becoming the most accomplished thief in all London.

It is a sure walk, though not a short one, nor a straight one, from there back to Newgate, where she was born, and now lies under sentence of death. At this low ebb she finds God, and begins to look back at her life with abhorrence, and finally repents of it. This, at least, until she is reprieved and meets up again with an old husband, upon which she charms and dissembles her way to Virginia, where she and the husband become rich without ever setting foot in church nor opening a Bible. Defoe revisits the notion of penitence, for an ironical sting in the tail, while being content meerly to have left Moll well set up at home, which is all she had long strived for.

Moll Flanders is printed by Mr W. Chetwood, at Cato’s-Head in Russel-street, Covent-Garden, and costs ten Our Fathers at any High Anglican confessional.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO by Horace Walpole

otranto 2Although penned in 1764, Horace Walpole presents this story as derived from a mediaeval manuscript, and thus employs a studiedly antiquated idiom in its realization. I have scant regard for such conceits, preferring instead the forthright modernity of a Defoe or a Fielding; yet The Castle of Otranto remains notable, chiefly for its treatment of Ghosts and the Law.

Walpole, one of our foremost political intriguers, has oft, with a rum in him, repined to my self of the myriad anxieties that attend the modern parliamentarian; and he has written this tale in part, he says, to “have a day off.” His further purpose is to restore the fantastical and terrorific to our literary tradition, these having fallen out of fashion in our current Age of Reason. Here then is a tale of the supernormal, of spectres haunting the castle of Manfred, prince of Otranto, manifesting as ghastly groans, rattlings of armour, and cowl-clad skeletons, oft attended without by deafening thunder-claps. The effect is horrible indeed, and such devices, which I believe the critics term “claptrap”, may gain currency with a public hungry for sensation.

They are not, however, representative of reality. It is my experience that ghosts do not groan and stalk cobweb-ridden galleries, but are liker to abduct you in your own carriage from Drury Lane, dressed as Bow Street officers, then convey you to a mock trial in the shadow of an immense gallows, from which the hangman crows: “A rope for Judge Harbottle!” while Chief Justice Twofold, a withering phantasm unknown at the four Inns, pronounces sentence of death. Or perhaps that’s that just me.

otranto-01As to Law, it is the laws of property and inheritance that pertain here, the central conflict being the seizure of an aristocratic estate by an usurping family. Ancestral ghosts design towards a just restoration; though when the great-grandson of the original usurper is crushed beneath a giant knight’s enormous helmet, the judgement seems too harsh.

The Castle of Otranto is printed by Mr Thomas Lownds of Fleet-Street and costs a night’s sleep.

ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe

crusoeIn his sixtieth year, and after having pursued chequered careers in trade, spying, pamphleteering &c., Daniel Defoe now presents us with this long fable. Withal it takes the form of a popular adventure story, it is chiefly concerned with Religion, Commerce, and Law.

As to the first, Religion, here is a tale of sin and retribution, Crusoe’s eight-and-twenty-year sojourn on an island being not an accident, but a punishment. In following the sea, he has defied the wishes of his father and bucked the natural order that would have had him a merchant or clerk in the middling station of society. In short, he did not know his place. His first voyages are beset by storms, to the degree in which his captain marks him as a Jonah; and on a subsequent voyage he is enslaved by Moors. He was given fair warning then, and he persisted in his error; yet the judgement is too harsh. If his vicissitudes were warnings from God, he did not know it; indeed he knew nothing of God, and did not discover Him until his second year on the island.

Here, having suffered the terror of an earthquake, and then a hurricane, Crusoe falls to an ague that lasts for many days, and during which he has a nightmare of a giant flaming angel that would kill him for his failure to repent. At this low ebb, Crusoe finds God, and acknowledges his own guilt, which consists in having gone out into the world to find adventure and fortune, while not caring for anyone’s blessing about it.

My judgement on this, per contra, is that Crusoe is guilty of nothing but youthful dash; and that this ought to be admired as a virtue, and not condemned as a sin; and I further query what kind of timid tepid piety is being peddled here, that approves only bloodless stay-at-homes, and whether any person of character and enterprise ought to credit it, and how long England would remain England if they did. And there I let the matter of Religion rest.

firstfrontisAnd so, to the second, which is Commerce, or more particularly, the nature of Value. Crusoe, being removed from the spheres of exchange, finds that the Value of things is altered. Money is worth nothing: when he finds a great sum of it aboard a wreck, he would trade it all for a few pairs of shoes and stockings, these things being of great use. Value, now, bears no relation to exchange, but only to use. Similarly, he is unable to exchange his labour, which is of such small worth that he spends it very freely, devising himself a great many contraptions and comforts, all of which require a prodigious time; time being in no way scarce.

Commerce can be done now only with God, who pointedly reveals scripture to Crusoe: “Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.” The bargain is duly struck. Being acquainted with Mr Defoe, I have it from his own mouth that he believes Commerce to be an expression of the divine order of human affairs; this despite the Gospels’ enjoining us to renounce all our wealth. My judgement is that Mr Defoe, and not the Gospels, is in the right on this point, and I doubt of any respectable Christian who would dispute me. And there I let the matter of Commerce rest.

1354678789_Cannibal-Stories-Human-Cannibalism-CaribsAnd so, to the third, which is Law. The fount of the Law is natural Law, which has two pillars, as set forth by Hugo Grotius, and later Thomas Hobbes, viz.: 1. all have the right to gather the necessaries of life about them; 2. none has the right to injure another but in self-defence. Crusoe, though ill-educated, and in the state of nature, recognizes this Law. When he witnesses a party of cannibals at feast, he first designs to destroy them by ambush; but reflection informs him that he has no competence to judge these savages, and that since they are not about his business, he ought not be about theirs.

Later, when his island becomes populated by Christians, social compacts are formed, and Crusoe is recognised by all as governour of his island, now an English colony; and powers are transferred to him that he might judge men, and hang them. Thus we see the world he has inhabited pass from the state of nature to one of civilisation. And there I let the matter of Law rest.

Robinson Crusoe costs five shillings and is published by Mr William Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, London. A faithful pirate edition may be had from Mr George Grierson of Dublin. Avoid the Amsterdam Coffee-House piracy: it is an Abridgement.

Mr Justice Harbottle Reviews Notable Works of Literature

The bizarre events leading to the demise of Mr Justice Harbottle have been fitly recounted in a short piece by Mr J. Sheridan Le Fanu of Dublin, which may be familiar to readers. Mr Le Fanu, drawing upon irreproachable sources, variously describes the late Judge Harbottle as, ‘dangerous and unscrupulous,’  ‘a savage old epicurean,’ and, ‘the wickedest man in England’. Death by hanging did not however prove itself a fatal setback for a man of such parts and mettle as the judge. He continues to keep late nights and to consort with whores and rake-hells, though he is reported to be laid up with the gout somewhat worse and more frequently than before. In his bedridden hours he has taken to reviewing literature and offers his assessments here for the benefit of scholars and laypersons.

The judge tweets irascibly @mr_harbottle.