Jonathan Wild, born about 1682 and executed at Tyburn in 1725, was one of the most notorious criminals of his age. His resemblance to the hero in Fielding’s satire of the same name is general rather than particular. The real Jonathan (whose legitimate business was that of a buckle-maker) like Fielding’s, won his fame, not as a robber himself, but as an informer, and a receiver of stolen goods. His method was to restore these to the owners on receipt of a commission, which was generally pretty large, pretending that he had paid the whole of it to the thieves, whom for disinterested motives he had traced. He was a great organiser, and he controlled various bands of robbers whose lives he did not hesitate to sacrifice, when his own was in danger. Naturally he was so hated by many of his underlings that it is a wonder he was able to maintain his authority over them as many years as he did. His rascality had been notorious a long time before his crimes could actually be proved. He was executed at last according to the statute which made receivers of stolen goods equally guilty with the stealers.
Beyond this general resemblance, the adventures of the real Jonathan, so far as we know them, are not much like those of the fictitious. True, the real Jonathan’s married life was unhappy, though his quarrel with his wife did not follow so hard upon his wedding as the quarrel of Fielding’s hero and the chaste Laetitia. Not until a year from his marriage did the real Jonathan separate from his spouse, after which time he lived, like Fielding’s, not always mindful of his vows of faithfulness. Like Fielding’s, too, he was called upon to suppress rebellions in his gangs, and once he came very near being killed in a court of justice by one Blake, alias Blueskin. Apart from these misadventures, the experiences of Fielding’s Wild seem to be purely imaginary. “My narrative is rather of such actions which he might have performed,” the author himself says, “or would, or should have performed, than what he really did.… The Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild, got out with characteristic commercial energy by Defoe, soon after the criminal’s execution, is very different from Fielding’s satirical narrative, and probably a good deal nearer the truth.”
Jonathan Wild was published as the third volume of the Miscellanies “by Henry Fielding, Esq.” which came out in the spring of 1743. From the reference to Lady Booby’s steward, Peter Pounce, in Book II., it seems to have been, as Mr. Austin Dobson has observed, and as the date of publication would imply, composed in part at least subsequently to Joseph Andrews, which appeared early in 1742. But the same critic goes on to say that whenever completed, Jonathan Wild was probably “planned and begun before Joseph Andrews was published, as it is in the highest degree improbable that Fielding, always carefully watching the public taste, would have followed up that fortunate adventure in a new direction by a work so entirely different from it as Jonathan Wild.” Mr. Dobson’s surmise is undoubtedly correct. The “strange, surprising adventures” of Mrs. Heartfree belong to a different school of fiction from that with which we commonly associate Fielding. They are such as we should expect one of Defoe’s characters to go through, rather than a woman whose creator had been gratified only a year before at the favourable reception accorded to Fanny and Lady Booby and Mrs. Slipslop.
That Jonathan Wild is for the most part a magnificent example of sustained irony, one of the best in our literature, critics have generally agreed. The comparison steadfastly insisted upon between Jonathan Wild’s greatness and the greatness which the world looks up to, but which without being called criminal is yet devoid of humanity, is admirable. Admirable, too, is the ironical humour, in which Fielding so excelled, and which in Jonathan Wild he seldom drops. It would take too long to mention all the particularly good ironical passages, but among them are the conversation between Wild and Count La Ruse, and the description of Miss Tishy Snap in the first book; the adventures of Wild in the boat at the end of the second book; and, in the last, the dialogue between the ordinary of Newgate and the hero, the death of Wild, and the chapter which sets forth his character and his maxims for attaining greatness. And yet as a satire Jonathan Wild is not perfect. Fielding himself hits upon its one fault, when, in the last book, after the long narrative of Mrs. Heartfree’s adventures by sea and by land, he says, “we have already perhaps detained our reader too long … from the consideration of our hero.” He has detained us far too long. A story containing so much irony as Jonathan Wild should be an undeviating satire like A Tale of a Tub. The introduction of characters like the Heartfrees, who are meant to enlist a reader’s sympathy, spoils the unity. True, the way they appear at first is all very well. Heartfree is “a silly fellow,” possessed of several great weaknesses of mind, being “good-natured, friendly, and generous to a great excess,” and devoted to the “silly woman,” his wife. But later Fielding becomes so much interested in the pair that he drops his ironical tone. Unfortunately, however, in depicting them, he has not met with his usual success in depicting amiable characters. The exemplary couple, together with their children and Friendly, are much less real than the villain and his fellows. And so the importance of the Heartfrees in Jonathan Wild seems to me a double blemish. A satire is not truth, and yet in Mr. and Mrs. Heartfree Fielding has tried — though not with success — to give us virtuous characters who are truly human. The consequence is that Jonathan Wild just fails of being a consistently brilliant satire.
As to its place among Fielding’s works, critics have differed considerably. The opinion of Scott found little in Jonathan Wild to praise, but then it is evident from what he says, that Scott missed the point of the satire. Some other critics have been neither more friendly than Sir Walter, nor more discriminating, in speaking of Jonathan Wild and Smollett’s Count Fathom in the same breath, as if they were similar either in purpose or in merit. Fathom is a romantic picaresque novel, with a possibly edifying, but most unnatural reformation of the villainous hero at the last; Jonathan Wild is a pretty consistent picaresque satire, in which the hero ends where Fathom by all rights should have ended, — on the gallows. Fathom is the weakest of all its author’s novels; Jonathan Wild is not properly one of Fielding’s novels at all, but a work only a little below them. For below them I cannot help thinking it, in spite of the opinion of a critic of taste and judgment so excellent as Professor Saintsbury’s. When this gentleman, in his introduction to Jonathan Wild, in a recent English edition of Fielding’s works, says that: “Fielding has written no greater book,” he seems to me to give excessive praise to a work of such great merit that only its deserved praise is ample.
A great satire, I should say, is never the equal of a great novel. In the introductions which I have already written, in trying to show what a great novel is, I have said that an essential part of such a book is the reality of its scenes and characters. Now scenes and characters will not seem real, unless there is in them the right blend of pleasure and pain, of good and bad; for life is not all either one thing or the other, nor has it ever been so. Such reality is not found in a satire, for a satire, as distinguished from a novel, both conceals and exaggerates: it gives half-truths instead of whole truths; it shows not all of life but only a part; and even this it cannot show quite truly, for its avowed object is to magnify some vice or foible. In doing so, a satire finds no means so effective as irony, which makes its appeal wholly to the intellect. A good novel, on the contrary, touches the head and the heart both; along with passages which give keen intellectual enjoyment, it offers passages which move its reader’s tears. Still, a good novelist without appreciation of irony cannot be imagined, for without the sense of humour which makes irony appreciated, it is impossible to see the objects of this world in their right proportions. Irony, then, which is the main part of a satire, is essential to a good novel, though not necessarily more than a small part of it. Intellectually there is nothing in English literature of the eighteenth century greater than A Tale of a Tub or the larger part of Gullivers Travels; intellectually there is nothing in Fielding’s works greater than most of Jonathan Wild; but taken all in all, is not a novel like Tom Jones, with its eternal appeal to the emotions as well as the intellect, greater than a perfect satire? Even if this be not admitted, Jonathan Wild, we have already seen, is not a perfect satire. For a work of its kind, it is too sympathetically human, and so suffers in exactly the opposite way from Vanity Fair, which many people think is kept from being the greatest English novel of the nineteenth century because it is too satirical.
No, I cannot agree with Professor Saintsbury that “Fielding has written no greater book” than Jonathan Wild. It was unquestionably the most important part of the Miscellanies of 1743. Its brilliancy may make it outrank even that delightful Journal of the Voyage to Lisbon. A higher place should not be claimed for it. Mr. Dobson, in his Henry Fielding, has assigned the right position to Jonathan Wild when he says that its place “in Fielding’s works is immediately after his three great novels, and this is more by reason of its subject than its workmanship,” which if not perfect, is yet for the most part excellent.
As it is necessary that all great and surprising events, the designs of which are laid, conducted, and brought to perfection by the utmost force of human invention and art, should be produced by great and eminent men, so the lives of such may be justly and properly styled the quintessence of history. In these, when delivered to us by sensible writers, we are not only most agreeably entertained, but most usefully instructed; for, besides the attaining hence a consummate knowledge of human nature in general; of its secret springs, various windings, and perplexed mazes; we have here before our eyes lively examples of whatever is amiable or detestable, worthy of admiration or abhorrence, and are consequently taught, in a manner infinitely more effectual than by precept, what we are eagerly to imitate or carefully to avoid.
But besides the two obvious advantages of surveying, as it were in a picture, the true beauty of virtue and deformity of vice, we may moreover learn from Plutarch, Nepos, Suetonius, and other biographers, this useful lesson, not too hastily, nor in the gross, to bestow either our praise or censure; since we shall often find such a mixture of good and evil in the same character that it may require a very accurate judgment and a very elaborate inquiry to determine on which side the balance turns, for though we sometimes meet with an Aristides or a Brutus, a Lysander or a Nero, yet far the greater number are of the mixt kind, neither totally good nor bad; their greatest virtues being obscured and allayed by their vices, and those again softened and coloured over by their virtues.
Of this kind was the illustrious person whose history we now undertake; to whom, though nature had given the greatest and most shining endowments, she had not given them absolutely pure and without allay. Though he had much of the admirable in his character, as much perhaps as is usually to be found in a hero, I will not yet venture to affirm that he was entirely free from all defects, or that the sharp eyes of censure could not spy out some little blemishes lurking amongst his many great perfections.
We would not therefore be understood to affect giving the reader a perfect or consummate pattern of human excellence, but rather, by faithfully recording some little imperfections which shadowed over the lustre of those great qualities which we shall here record, to teach the lesson we have above mentioned, to induce our reader with us to lament the frailty of human nature, and to convince him that no mortal, after a thorough scrutiny, can be a proper object of our adoration.