The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 10. Jonathan Wild
In the third volume of the Miscellanies, Fielding printed the most brilliant piece of work that he had yet achieved, The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. Hitherto, his irony had but flashed. In Jonathan Wild, it burns through the book with a steady light. The point of view is a familiar one with Fielding, who was a sworn foe of pretentious appearances. The confusion of greatness with goodness is common. “Bombast greatness,” therefore, is to be exposed by dealing with its qualities as if, indeed, they were the qualities of goodness; and, since “all these ingredients glossed over with wealth and a title have been treated with the highest respect and veneration” in “the splendid palaces of the great,” while, in Newgate, “one or two of them have been condemned to the gallows,” this kind of greatness shall be taken as it is seen in Newgate, glossed over with no wealth or title, and written of as if it were the greatness of Alexander, Cœsar or—as we of a later time might add—Napoleon. So we have Jonathan Wild, thief, “fence” and gallows-bird, steadily held up before us throughout fifty-six chapters as a hero, a great man; while Heartfree, the simple, affectionate, open nature—the good man—is treated as “silly,” “low” and “pitiful.” The book has distressed many, including Scott, whose recollection of it was not very exact; but not even Swift has produced so remarkable a piece of sustained irony, so full of movement, so various, so finely worked in its minutest particulars, or so vivid in its pictures of “low” life. Its humour is often broad—especially in the passages relating to Miss Laetitia Snap, afterwards Mrs. Jonathan Wild; but its merciless exposure of hypocrisy, meanness and cruelty, even more than the difference between the rewards ultimately meted out to greatness and to goodness, makes it a work of excellent morality. The way to true honour, the book claims, lies open and plain, the way of the transgressor is hard.
About this time, Fielding’s own way became hard; and, if the gout which was taking an ever firmer hold on him was partly due to his own transgressions in youth, fate had in store for him a blow which he had not done anything to bring upon himself. After the publication of the Miscellanies, he devoted himself to the law as closely as his gout would permit. Literature, he forswore; partly, perhaps, by reason of the precarious nature of its rewards, partly because, as we learn from his preface to his sister Sarah’s novel, David Simple (1744), he was disgusted at being “reputed and reported the author of half the scurrility, bawdry, treason, and blasphemy, which these few last years have produced”—especially “that infamous, paltry libel,” The Causidicade. Six months later, in November, 1744, his wife died at Bath, after a long illness. Fielding had loved her passionately. Sophia Western is one portrait of her; Amelia is another—even to the broken, or scarred, nose. The passage describing Allworthy’s feelings about his dead wife has, no doubt with justice, been described as autobiographical. No disproof of his affection for his Charlotte is to be found in the fact that, in November, 1747, he married her maid, Mary Daniel, a good soul, who made him a good wife. Their son, William, was born in February, 1748.