BMCR 2016.04.27

Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature

, Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xiv, 232. ISBN 9780198723875. $95.00.


Henry Power’s book, Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature, is a highly readable contribution to the field of classical reception studies in English literature, while also being an important contribution to the field of eighteenth-century studies in its own right. The book centers on the reception of ancient epic and the theme of consumption, both as manifested in the widespread popularity of scenes of eating in literature of this time, and also in its guise as a fashionable metaphor for the reading and the writing of literature. By means of this dual thread the book touches on some of the most important literary debates of the eighteenth century, such as the status of the classical tradition in contemporary society and the commercialization of literary culture.

The book is divided into an introduction and seven chapters: the first three deal with Jonathan Swift, John Gay and Alexander Pope respectively, with the subsequent four chapters on Henry Fielding, including two on his 1749 novel Tom Jones. This two-part organization makes the novels of Fielding the central focus of the book’s argument, an emphasis that reflects the book’s origins in Power’s 2006 doctoral thesis ‘Tom Jones, appetite and the epic tradition’. The earlier chapters serve to shape Power’s intervention in the debate about the relationship between Fielding and his Scriblerian forebears in which he argues that while Swift, Gay and Pope responded to the consumer culture of the literary marketplace with satirical pessimism, Fielding sought a more hopeful reconciliation between the appetites of a contemporary readership and his own ambition for his work to remain resonant through the ages.

The introduction is informative and wide-ranging in its discussion of the context for consumption in this period, including discussions of ritual and food in ancient literature, the contemporary discourse around cooking and eating, and the culture of the Scriblerus Club. This club was made up primarily of Swift, Pope, Gay, John Arbuthnot and Thomas Parnell who began collaborating in 1714 and developed the figure of Martin Scriblerus, ‘a pedantic and incompetent polymath and critic’ (35) to whom they attributed a number of works including Peri Bathous (1727) and The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741). Against this context, Power goes on to set out the foundational paradox of the book: the idea that, for an eighteenth-century audience, ‘eating and epic were not supposed to mix’ (2) and he explains how this tension plays out as authors sought to ‘reconcile epic spirit with consumable form’ (3). This tension is the substance of Power’s argument and is evidence of the way in which the book does not systematically chart the use of classical sources in Fielding, or the earlier authors it discusses, but rather understands the relationship to the classical tradition in terms of contemporary debates: an approach that is both effective and rewarding.

Power’s discussion of Pope, Gay and Swift is intended to provide the context for the later argument about Fielding, but his analysis of their writing highlights many interesting facets of their own relationships with epic and contemporary culture. The first chapter focuses on Swift and outlines his responses to debates about the status of ancient literature. In particular, Swift disagreed with the famous classical scholar Richard Bentley, who argued that Homer’s poetry was of a specific time and place and not a timeless work with universal meaning. Swift, along with the other Scriblerians, regarded Bentley’s position as a product of philological pedantry and connected its poverty of imagination with a corresponding failure of modern authors to create original or lasting works. Chapter Two focuses on John Gay’s Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, and discusses his use of prostitution as a metaphor for expressing his anxieties about the dependence of literature on the market. Power sees Gay among all the precursors to Fielding, as the most interested in the author-reader relationship but one who could ultimately only ‘develop a poetic persona who is so awkwardly and utterly implicated in this world of commerce’ (92). Chapter Three deals with Pope’s translation of the Iliad and the inherently paradoxical fact that this was an extremely lucrative project for Pope despite his avowed snobbery about the literary market. His satirical epic, the Dunciad, is the focus of much of the discussion and Power ultimately concludes that in this immensely vituperative work, ‘Pope displays a degree of contempt for his readership, bombarding them with offputting accretions of notes, allusions so ephemeral that their meaning evaporates upon transcription, and a ferocity difficult to stomach’ (119).

Chapter Four begins the sustained focus on Henry Fielding and discusses his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742). In one of his characteristically elegant and inherently clear programmatic statements that run throughout the book, Power writes: ‘Fielding embraces the emerging literary milieu rejected by the previous generation of satirists, and corrects their fundamental pessimism. Pope had presented readers with a debased epic – the Dunciad – which foretells the death of classical civilization in the face of growing consumerism; Fielding, in his novels, offers a species of epic perfectly tailored for a consumerist age.’ (4) In tailoring Joseph Andrews to this consumerist age, Power argues, Fielding was able to incorporate certain features of epic that might help to structure his novel, while freeing himself from the conventions of verse. By working with mock-heroic traditions that have their roots in the ancient novel, Fielding draws attention to the difficulties of using an epic register, and works to turn a difficulty into an animating feature of his writing.

Chapters Five opens the discussion of Tom Jones and Power explains how conceptualising the novel ‘as a meal and an epic’ (164), as Fielding does in titling the first chapter ‘The Introduction to the Work, or Bill of Fare to the Feast’, allows the author a space in which he can cater to the tastes of the market in a self-aware manner that offers long lasting appeal to readers of the future. In Chapter Six, the discussion moves to focus on comments that Fielding addresses to the reader in the guise of commentator on his own story. As part of an original and interesting argument, Power explains how Fielding is less interested in satirizing particular figures, like the earlier Scriblerians, and ‘more interested in the imaginative and broadly satirical possibilities of the commentary itself’ (174). Fielding treats his readers as assiduous critics while simultaneously jumping in to control their response, so as to develop his own complex commentary on the novel. This innovative commentary voice can ward off critical readers by anticipating their viewpoint, and offers an answer to the dilemma of having to appeal to the public while simultaneously making some attempt to cater to more developed literary tastes. In this way, Fielding is able to negotiate the tensions inherent in such a project and make use of metaphors, like those of consumption, to acknowledge these challenges. Power’s close analysis and lucid discussion offers an important intervention into this area of Fielding scholarship and helps in understanding the dynamics that are at play beneath the intriguing voice that Fielding developed.

Chapter Seven focuses on Fielding’s Amelia (published in 1751 as his fourth and final novel) and also functions as the conclusion to the book. Power discusses the ways in which Fielding uses Virgil’s Aeneid to model a more domestic epic and explains that, rather than a metaphor for reading or writing, ‘in Amelia the language of consumption reinforces the reality of the narrative’ (213). Power ultimately sees Fielding struggle in Amelia to achieve a quality of energy equivalent to that of his earlier novels, and diagnoses the problem in terms of Fielding’s move away from celebrating the tension between the tastes of the present and the concerns of the ancient epic, and instead trying to ‘suppress the tension’ (213). The resulting novel is taken by Power to be evidence of Fielding’s genuine commitment to work toward reconciling the concerns of ancient epic traditions with those of the present day.

One of the most exciting ideas underlying Power’s analysis is a sense of the tension between the capacity of the epic form for representing the possibility of universal meaning, and the discussion of food standing in for meaning tied to the present moment. This leads suggestively into contemporary debates within classical reception studies about historicism and the location of meaning: between meticulous historical detail on the one hand (the idea that Homer belonged so exactly to his moment that only recreation of that moment can give us any meaning worth having), and the idea that his poems have an inherently universal resonance. Power’s argument implies that, in the eighteenth-century context, to choose between eating and epic in the creation of one’s artwork was to choose between focusing on momentary meanings or eternal truths; this audience would have read Fielding’s famous description of the Odyssey as ‘that eating poem’ in Tom Jones as a provocative attempt to destabilize the elevated tone and universal subject matter of Homer’s poem and make it mundane. While it is convincing that there was an important paradox here for a contemporary audience, one central question that comes out of Power’s analysis is about why these authors believed that writing about the theme of food in epic was the best way to articulate their hopes and anxieties about the contemporary literary marketplace. It would have been interesting to read more about the strangeness of the choice whereby these authors decided to comment on these debates by writing specifically around the metaphors of eating and consumption, rather than using any other symbol of everyday human concerns or even just writing about the literary marketplace itself.

The links between the two sections of the analysis could occasionally have been made clearer with a more detailed account of both sides of the debates about literary consumption in which the Scriblerians and subsequently Fielding participated. Power writes that ‘the Scriblerians inhabited and reveled in the forms they claimed to despise’ (38), and a more developed sense of figures like Bentley, as well as the other authors whom the Scriblerians satirized for catering to public taste, would have provided a fuller understanding of what it was about them that caused so much consternation to the likes of Swift, Gay and Pope, and why Fielding felt compelled to incorporate their approaches into his modern epic. But these are paths of inquiry that will be much easier to follow in the wake of Power’s clear-sighted and controlled study: while this fascinating book offers much original material to interest experts, its lucid and elegant style also makes it an excellent introduction to classical reception in this period.