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Fielding's third great novel has been the subject of much more discordant
judgments than either of its forerunners. If we take the period since its
appearance as covering four generations, we find the greatest authority in the
earliest, Johnson, speaking of it with something more nearly approaching to
enthusiasm than he allowed himself in reference to any other work of an author,
to whom he was on the whole so unjust. The greatest man of letters of the next
generation, Scott (whose attitude to Fielding was rather undecided, and seems to
speak a mixture of intellectual admiration and moral dislike, or at least failure in
sympathy), pronounces it "on the whole unpleasing," and regards it chiefly as a
sequel to Tom Jones, showing what is to be expected of a libertine and
thoughtless husband. But he too is enthusiastic over the heroine. Thackeray
(whom in this special connection at any rate it is scarcely too much to call the
greatest man of the third generation) overflows with predilection for it, but chiefly,
as it would seem, because of his affection for Amelia herself, in which he
practically agrees with Scott and Johnson. It would be invidious, and is noways
needful, to single out any critic of our own time to place beside these great men.
But it cannot be denied that the book, now as always, has incurred a
considerable amount of hinted fault and hesitated dislike. Even Mr. Dobson notes
some things in it as "unsatisfactory;" Mr. Gosse, with evident consciousness of
temerity, ventures to ask whether it is not "a little dull." The very absence of
episodes (on the ground that Miss Matthews's story is too closely connected with
the main action to be fairly called an episode) and of introductory dissertations
has been brought against it, as the presence of these things was brought against
its forerunners.
I have sometimes wondered whether Amelia pays the penalty of an audacity
which, a priori, its most unfavourable critics would indignantly deny to be a fault.
It begins instead of ending with the marriage-bells; and though critic after critic of
novels has exhausted his indignation and his satire over the folly of insisting on
these as a finale, I doubt whether the demand is not too deeply rooted in the
English, nay, in the human mind, to be safely neglected. The essence of all
romance is a quest; the quest most perennially and universally interesting to man
is the quest of a wife or a mistress; and the chapters dealing with what comes
later have an inevitable flavour of tameness, and of the day after the feast. It is
not common now-a-days to meet anybody who thinks Tommy Moore a great
poet; one has to encounter either a suspicion of Philistinism or a suspicion of
paradox if one tries to vindicate for him even his due place in the poetical
hierarchy. Yet I suspect that no poet ever put into words a more universal
criticism of life than he did when he wrote "I saw from the beach," with its moral