The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 16. Amelia: its distinctive charm
Fielding was at work, meanwhile, upon his last novel, Amelia, which was published in December, 1751, and dedicated to his benefactor, Ralph Allen. Fielding was now nearly fortyfive; he was a very busy man, and his health was breaking up. It is not surprising that Amelia lacks some of the ebullience, the strength and the solidity of the novel into which Fielding had packed all his youth and prime of life. In form, the story is distinctly inferior to Tom Jones. The writer had given further attention and thought to the social evils with which his official position brought him into daily touch. He had more to say about the evils of the sponging-houses, about the injustice of the laws of debt, the insolence and cruelty of the servants of justice, the blind cruelty of punishments and similar topics. Instead of putting these thoughts into such incidental essays as had enriched Tom Jones, he attempted to incorporate them with the story, and thereby at once dislocated his tale and roused the reader’s impatience. The course of the narrative, again, harks backward and forward more often than that of Tom Jones. Miss Matthews, Booth, Mrs. Bennet must each have a separate narrative, and nearly a chapter must be devoted to the previous history of Trent. There are signs, also, of interruption, or of carelessness, in the work.
In spite of these blemishes, Amelia has merits which Fielding’s other novels lack. In place of the huge and turbulent world of Tom Jones, we have a much smaller canvas, and a more intimate revelation of shadows and depths in character. In losing some of his ebullience, Fielding has gained insight into things unknown to him before. The character of Amelia, Fielding’s “favourite child,” has been so fervently admired that, perhaps, it is rash to miss in her the courage and the strength of the ever dear Sophia. Booth who lacked the excuse of Tom Jones’s youth and vitality, seems a weakling and a fool rather than a man of generous impulse; and, while the reader is touched—as no sensitive reader can fail to be touched—by the pathos of which Fielding here, for the first time, shows himself a master, the doubt may arise whether Sophia would have endured so much from her husband without a hearty trouncing. There is, in fact, just a dash in Amelia Booth of that other Amelia who married George Osborne; and such women help to bring their troubles on themselves. For all that, there is no resisting the beauty of Amelia’s character, which is drawn with a depth of understanding far in advance of Fielding’s time. There are novelty and daring, too, in the study of Miss Matthews; and colonel Bath, with his notions of honour, is an admirable piece of comedy. The story, as a whole, is the work of a mellower, soberer Fielding than the author of Tom Jones—a Fielding touched with tears, yet as much in love as ever with nobility and generosity of character, and equally full of interest in men and women. The novel rouses a wonder as to what he would have gone on to achieve, had time and health been granted him.