Fresh Facts About Fielding by Austin Dobson

Story type: Essay

The general reader, as a rule, is but moderately interested in minor rectifications. Secure in a conventional preference of the spirit to the letter, he professes to be indifferent whether the grandmother of an exalted personage was a “Hugginson” or a “Blenkinsop”; and he is equally careless as to the correct Christian names of his cousins and his aunts. In the main, the general reader is wise in his generation. But with the painful biographer, toiling in the immeasurable sand of thankless research, often foot-sore and dry of throat, these trivialities assume exaggerated proportions; and to those who remind him–as in a cynical age he is sure to be reminded–of the infinitesimal value of his hard-gotten grains of information, he can only reply mournfully, if unconvincingly, that fact is fact–even in matters of mustard-seed. With this prelude, I propose to set down one or two minute points concerning Henry Fielding, not yet comprised in any existing records of his career.[1]


1: Since this was published in April 1907, they have been embodied in an Appendix to my “Men of Letters” Fielding; and used, to some extent, for a fresh edition of the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (“World’s Classics”).]

The first relates to the exact period of his residence at Leyden University. His earliest biographer, Arthur Murphy, writing in 1762, is more explicit than usual on this topic. “He [Fielding],” says Murphy, “went from Eton to Leyden, and there continued to show an eager thirst for knowledge, and to study the civilians with a remarkable application for about two years, when, remittances failing, he was obliged to return to London, not then quite twenty years old” [ i.e. before 22nd April, 1727]. In 1883, like my predecessors, I adopted this statement, for the sufficient reason that I had nothing better to put in its place. And Murphy should have been well-informed. He had known Fielding personally; he was employed by Fielding’s publisher; and he could, one would imagine, have readily obtained accurate data from Fielding’s surviving sister, Sarah, who was only three years younger than her brother, of whose short life (he died at forty-eight) she could scarcely have forgotten the particulars. Murphy’s story, moreover, exactly fitted in with the fact, only definitely made known in June 1883, that Fielding, as a youth of eighteen, had endeavoured, in November 1725, to abduct or carry off his first love, Miss Sarah Andrew of Lyme Regis. Although the lady was promptly married to a son of one of her fluttered guardians, nothing seemed more reasonable than to assume that the disappointed lover (one is sure he was never an heiress-hunter!) was despatched to the Dutch University to keep him out of mischief.[2] But in once more examining Mr. Keightley’s posthumous papers, kindly placed at my disposal by his nephew, Mr. Alfred C. Lyster, I found a reference to an un-noted article in the Cornhill Magazine for November, 1863 (from internal evidence I believe it to have been written by James Hannay), entitled “A Scotchman in Holland.” Visiting Leyden, the writer was permitted to inspect the University Album; and he found, under 1728, the following:–” Henricus Fielding, Anglus, Ann. 20. Stud. Lit. “, coupled with the further detail that he “was living at the ‘Hotel of Antwerp.’” Except in the item of ” Stud. Lit. “, this did not seem to conflict materially with Murphy’s account, as Fielding was nominally twenty from 1727 to 1728, and small discrepancies must be allowed for.

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2: “Men of Letters” Fielding, 1907, Appendix I.]

Twenty years later, a fresh version of the record came to light. At their tercentenary festival in 1875, tne Leyden University printed a list of their students from their foundation to that year. From this Mr. Edward Peacock, F.S.A., compiled in 1883, for the Index Society, an Index to English-Speaking Students who have graduated at Leyden University; and at p. 35 appears Fielding, Henricus, Anglus, 16 Mart. 1728, 915 (the last being the column number of the list). This added a month-date, and made Fielding a graduate. Then, two years ago, came yet a third rendering. Mr. A.E.H. Swaen, writing in The Modern Language Review for July 1906, printed the inscription in the Album as follows; “Febr. 16. 1728: Rectore Johanne Wesselio, Henricus Fielding, Anglus. 20, L.” Mr. Swaen construed this to mean that, on the date named (which, it may be observed, is not Mr. Peacock’s date), Fielding, “aged twenty, was entered as litterarum studiosus at Leyden.” In this case it would follow that his residence in Holland should have come after February 16th, 1728; and Mr. Swaen went on to conjecture that, “as his [Fielding’s] first play, Love in Several Masques, was staged at Drury Lane in February, 1728, and his next play, The Temple Beau, was produced in January, 1730, it is not improbable that his residence in Holland filled up the interval or part of it. Did the profits of the play [he proceeded] perhaps cover part of his travelling expenses?”

The new complications imported into the question by this fresh aspect of it, will be at once apparent. Up to 1875 there had been but one Fielding on the Leyden books; so that all these differing accounts were variations from a single source. In this difficulty, I was fortunate enough to enlist the sympathy of Mr. Frederic Harrison, who most kindly undertook to make inquiries on my behalf at Leyden University itself. In reply to certain definite queries drawn up by me, he obtained from the distinguished scholar and Professor of History, Dr. Pieter Blok, the following authoritative particulars. The exact words in the original Album Academicum are:–“16 Martii 1728 Henricus Fielding, Anglus, annor. 20 Litt. Stud.” He was then staying at the “Casteel van Antwerpen”–as related by “A Scotchman in Holland.” His name only occurs again in the yearly recensiones under February 22nd, 1729, as “Henricus Fieldingh,” when he was domiciled with one Jan Oson. He must consequently have left Leyden before February 8th, 1730, February 8th being the birthday of the University, after which all students have to be annually registered. The entry in the Album (as Mr. Swaen affirmed) is an admission entry; there are no leaving entries. As regards “studying the civilians,” Fielding might, in those days, Dr. Blok explains, have had private lessons from the professors; but he could not have studied in the University without being on the books. To sum up: After producing Love in Several Masques at Drury Lane, probably on February 12th, I728,[3] Fielding was admitted a “Litt. Stud.” at Leyden University on March 16th; was still there in February 1729; and left before February 8th, 1730. Murphy is therefore at fault in almost every particular. Fielding did not go from Eton to Leyden; he did not make any recognised study of the civilians, “with remarkable application” or otherwise; and he did not return to London before he was twenty. But it is by no means improbable that the causa causans or main reason for his coming home was the failure of remittances.

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3: Genest, iii. 209.]

Another recently established fact is also more or less connected with “Mur.–” as Johnson called him. In his “Essay” of 1762, he gave a highly-coloured account of Fielding’s first marriage, and of the promptitude with which, assisted by yellow liveries and a pack of hounds, he managed to make duck and drake of his wife’s little fortune. This account has now been “simply riddled in its details” (as Mr. Saintsbury puts it) by successive biographers, the last destructive critic being the late Sir Leslie Stephen, who plausibly suggested that the “yellow liveries” (not the family liveries, be it noted!) were simply a confused recollection of the fantastic pranks of that other and earlier Beau Fielding (Steele’s “Orlando the Fair”), who married the Duchess of Cleveland in 1705, and was also a Justice of the Peace for Westminster. One thing was wanting to the readjustment of the narrative, and that was the precise date of Fielding’s marriage to the beautiful Miss Cradock of Salisbury, the original both of Sophia Western and Amelia Booth. By good fortune this has now been ascertained. Lawrence gave the date as 1735; and Keightley suggested the spring of that year. This, as Swift would say, was near the mark, although confirmation has been slow in coming. In June 1906, Mr. Thomas S. Bush, of Bath, announced in The Bath Chronicle that the desired information was to be found (not in the Salisbury registers which had been fruitlessly consulted, but) at the tiny church of St. Mary, Charlcombe, a secluded parish about one and a half miles north of Bath. Here is the record:–“November y’e 28, 1734. Henry Fielding of y’e Parish of St. James in Bath, Esq., and Charlotte Cradock, of y’e same Parish, spinster, were married by virtue of a licence from y’e Court of Wells.” All lovers of Fielding owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Bush, whose researches, in addition, disclosed the fact that Sarah Fielding, the novelist’s third sister (as we shall see presently), was buried, not in Bath Abbey, where Dr. John Hoadly raised a memorial to her, but “in y’e entrance of the Chancel [of Charlcombe Church] close to y’e Rector’s seat,” April 14th, 1768.[4] Mr. Bush’s revelation, it may be added, was made in connection with another record of the visits of the novelist to the old Queen of the West, a tablet erected in June 1906 to Fielding and his sister on the wall of Yew Cottage, now renovated as Widcombe Lodge, Widcombe, Bath, where they once resided.

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4: Sarah Fielding’s epitaph in Bath Abbey is often said to have been written by Bishop Benjamin Hoadly. In this case, it must have been anticipatory (like Dr. Primrose’s on his Deborah), for the Bishop died in 1761.]

In the last case I have to mention, it is but fair to Murphy to admit that he seems to have been better informed than those who have succeeded him. Richardson writes of being “well acquainted” with four of Fielding’s sisters, and both Lawrence and Keightley refer to a Catherine and an Ursula, of whom Keightley, after prolonged enquiries, could obtain no tidings. With the help of Colonel W.F. Prideaux, and the kind offices of Mr. Samuel Martin of the Hammersmith Free Library, this matter has now been set at rest. In 1887 Sir Leslie Stephen had suggested to me that Catherine and Ursula were most probably born at Sharpham Park, before the Fieldings moved to East Stour. This must have been the case, though Keightley had failed to establish it. At all events, Catherine and Ursula must have existed, for they both died in 1750, The Hammersmith Registers at Fulham record the following burials:–

1750 July 9th, Mrs. Catherine Feilding ( sic )
1750 Nov. 12th, Mrs. Ursula Fielding
1750 [–1] Feb’y. 24th, Mrs. Beatrice Fielding
1753 May 10th, Louisa, d. of Henry Fielding, Esq.

The first three, with Sarah, make up the “Four Worthy Sisters” of the reprehensible author of that “truly coarse-titled Tom Jones ” concerning which Richardson wrote shudderingly in August 1749 to his young friends, Astraea and Minerva Hill. The final entry relating to Fielding’s little daughter, Louisa, born December 3rd, 1752, makes it probable that, in May, 1753, he was staying in the house at Hammersmith, then occupied by his sole surviving sister, Sarah. In the following year (October 8th) he himself died at Lisbon. There is no better short appreciation of his work than Lowell’s lapidary lines for the Shire Hall at Taunton,–the epigraph to the bust by Miss Margaret Thomas:

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He looked on naked nature unashamed,
And saw the Sphinx, now bestial, now divine,
In change and re-change; he nor praised nor blamed,
But drew her as he saw with fearless line.
Did he good service? God must judge, not we!
Manly he was, and generous and sincere;
English in all, of genius blithely free:
Who loves a Man may see his image here.

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