Escape from GrubnStreetnby Russell KirknHenry Fielding: A Lifenby Martin C. Battestin withnRuthe R. BattestinnLondon and New York: Routledge;n738 pp., $45.00nWalter Scott, in 1820, wrote thatnFielding is “father of the EnglishnNovel.” Yet James Russell Lowell,nin 1881, remarked to an English audiencenthat “We really know almost asnlittle of Fielding’s life as of Shakespeare’s.”nLives of Fielding, or importantnessays about him, have been writtennby distinguished men of letters —nArthur Murphy, Walter Scott, JamesnRussell Lowell, Austin Dobson, LeslienStephen, Wilbur Cross, and others —nbut no thorough biography had existednbefore this big new book came from thenpress.nProfessor Battestin and his wife havendiscovered a good many Fielding lettersnpreviously unknown, 41 political satiresnpreviously unattributed to him, andnabundant materials in the Old BaileynSessions Papers and various Londonnarchives. We still do not know everythingnabout Fielding; but it seems probablenthat this Battestin Life, so carefullynprepared, will remain the principalnstudy of one of the most lively writersnin the English language. Battestin publishedn15 years ago The Moral Basis ofnFielding’s Art, a major study; he is thenundisputed chief authority on Fielding’snwritings and his life.nIt will not do to judge this book bynthe publicity hand-out sent to reviewersnand booksellers by the publisher.nThis blurb instructs us that Tom Jonesn”shocked the delicate minded membersnof English society when it was firstnpublished in 1749. In fact many believednthat the book, with its lusty hero,nwas responsible for the two earthquakesnwhich rocked London shortlynafter its publication.” This is rubbish.nThere were no London earthquakesn(!); and as for shocking the Englishnpublic at the middle of the 18th century,na sentence from Lowell will sufficenhere: “We must guard against fallingninto the anachronism of forgetting thencoarseness of the age into which hen[Fielding] was born, and whose atmos­nphere he breathed.” Fielding andnSmollett shocked nobody much.nWorse follows. The writer for Routledge’sn”book news” endeavors tonmake much of alleged possible incest.n”There is also evidence to hint atnpossible unorthodox behavior with hisnsister Sarah, who in fact moved in withnFielding after the death of his firstnwife.” How shocking, that a sister (alsona novelist, incidentally) should keepnhouse for her brother! Actually, Battestinntouches only briefly on such conjectures,nalthough he appears to havenbeen tempted to turn psycho-biographernat two or three other points.nFor antidote to such nasty speculations,none may turn to the pages of SirnLeslie Stephen, in 1899:nFielding’s critics and biographersnhave dwelt far too exclusivelynupon the uglier side of hisnBohemian life. They havenpresented him as yielding to allnthe temptations which cannmislead keen powers ofnenjoyment, when the purse isnone day at the lowest ebb, andnthe next overflowing with thenprofits of some lucky hit at thentheatre. . . . But it is essential tonremember that the history ofnthe Fielding of later years, ofnthe Fielding to whom we owenthe novels, is the record of anmanful and persistent struggle tonescape from the mire of GrubnStreet. . . . He was manly to thenlast, not in the sense in whichnman means animal; but with thenmanliness of one who strugglesnbravely to redeem eady errors,nand who knows the value ofnindependence, purity, andndomestic affection.nAnd it is thus, indeed, that Battestinnperceives Fielding. This new life givesnthe quietus to diverse silly anecdotesnand legends about Fielding — amongnthem Horace Walpole’s picturesque butnmalicious report that when justice of thenpeace for Westminster and Middlesex,nFielding was found dining at his housenwith “a blind man, a whore, and threenIrishmen.” In truth, the blind man wasnSir John Fielding, Henry Fielding’snhalf-brother and his successor as “courtnjustice” in Westminster; and the allegedn”whore” was the second Mrs. HenrynnnFielding.nPart IV of this book, “Magistrate andnreformer,” I find particulady interesting.nFielding’s campaign against robbersnand thieves, which effort brought aboutnthe final ruin of his health, may remindnreaders of the streets of New York,nWashington, or Detroit nowadays.nFielding succeeded in catching “a gangnof twenty armed pickpockets,” all ofnthem Irish and all discharged sailors,nwho called themselves “The RoyalnFamily”; and also in convicting “TerriblenNick” or “Nick the King of Glory”nand his band.nThe publisher’s blurb calls Fielding an”public defender” — as if he had headednsome 18th-century Legal Aid bureau.nIn truth, his vigorous puttingndown of riotous mobs became highlynunpopular. Battestin makes this clear:nThe century in which he livednwas moving toward revolutionsnin both the Old and NewnWorids that ushered innrepublican and democraticnforms of government; butnFielding, like the vast majoritynof his contemporaries, distrustednsuch systems. He scorned ‘thenMob’ — ‘the fourth Estate,’ asnhe called them sarcastically. Henwould have regarded thosenepoch-making events withnhorror, as cataclysms very likenthe triumph of Anarchy thatnPope envisaged in thenDunciad. . . . Far from beingnthe forward-looking prophet ofnlibertarianism he sometimes isnsaid to be. Fielding wasnprofoundly conservative as ansocial thinker.nTom Jones, said Edward Gibbon,n”will outlast the palace of the Escurial,nand the imperial eagle of the house ofnAustria.” The Escurial was not tumbledown,nwhen last I saw it, and thengreat family of Habsburg is vigorousnstill, though dethroned. Moreover, thisnreviewer adheres more to the Scottnschool of the novel than to the Fieldingnschool. Nevertheless, Tom Jones willnnot fall into the obscurity that long agonovertook Fielding’s plays; nor willnFielding the man be forgotten, rantnthough Deconstructionists may.nRussell Kirk writes from Mecosta,nMichigan.nOCTOBER 1990/45n