Four wheels of the English Novel

The group of the first four novelists of the Augustan Age or Neoclassical Age: Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne in whose hands Novel blossomed, are called the four wheels of the novel.

Smollett (1721-1771) was the grandson of a judge who was a Commissioner of the Union, and a gentleman of birth and property which last would, had he lived long enough, have come to Smollett himself. But he suffered in his youth from some indistinctly known family jars, was apprenticed to a Glasgow surgeon, and escaping thence to London with a tragedy in his pocket, was in undoubted difficulties till (and after) he obtained the post of surgeon’s mate on board a man-of-war, and took part in the Cartagena expedition. After coming home he made at least some attempts to practice: but was once more drawn off to literature, though fortunately not to tragedy. For the rest of his life he was a hard-worker but by no means ill-paid journalist, novelist, and miscellanist, making as much as £2000 by his History of England, not ill-written, though now never read. Like Fielding (though, unlike him, more than once) he went abroad in search of health and died in the quest at Leghorn. Smollett was not ignorant, but he seems to have known modern languages better than ancient: though there is doubt about his direct share in the translations to which he gave his name. Moreover he had some though no great skill in verse.

Sterne, though hardly, as it is the custom to call him, “an Irishman.” Yet vindicated the claims of the third constituent of the United Kingdom by being born in Ireland, from which country his mother came. But the Sterns were pure English, of a gentle family which had migrated from East Anglia through Nottingham to Yorkshire, and was much connected with Cambridge. Thither Laurence, the novelist, after a very roving childhood (his father was a soldier), and a rather irregular education, duly went: and, receiving preferment in the Church from his Yorkshire relations, lived for more than twenty years in that county without a history, till he took the literary world-hardly by storm, but by a sort of fantastic capful of wind-with Tristram Shandy in 1760. Seven or eight years of fame, some profit, not hard work (for his books shrink into no great solid bulk), and constant travelling, ended by a sudden death at his Bond Street lodgings, after a long course of ill-health very carelessly attended to.

All the four were married, and married pretty early; two of them married twice. Richardson’s first wife was, in orthodox fashion, his master’s daughter: of his second little is known. Fielding’s first (he had made a vain attempt earlier to abduct an heiress who was a relation) was, by universal consent, the model both of Sophia and Amelia, almost as charming as either, and as amiable; his second was her maid. Of Mrs. Smollett, who was a Miss Lascelles and a West Indian heiress in a small way, we know very little-the habit of identifying her with the “Narcissa” of Roderick Random is natural, inconclusive, but not ridiculous. Sterne’s matrimonial relations are the most famous of all: and though posterity has, with its usual charity, constructed a legend for the pair which is probably much worse than the reality, that reality is more than a little awkward. Mrs. Sterne was a Miss Lumley, of a good Yorkshire family, some, though small, fortune, and more friends who exerted themselves for her husband. By inexcusable levity, ignorance, misjudgment, or heartless cupidity their daughter Lydia published, after the death of both, letters some of which contain courtship of the most lackadaisical sentimentality and others later expressions (which occasionally reach the scandalous) of weariness and disgust on Sterne’s part. Other evidence of an indisputable character shows that he was, at least and best, an extravagant and mawkish philanderer with any girl or woman who would join in a extravagant and while there is no evidence against Mrs. Sterne’s character in the ordinary sense, and hardly any of value against her temper, she seems (which is perhaps not wonderful) to have latterly preferred to live apart from her husband, and to have put him to considerable, if not unreasonable, expenses by her fancy for wandering about France with the daughter.

Richardson seems to have been a respectable person of rather feminine, temperament and, though good-natured to his friends, endowed with a feminine spitefulness. Fielding, though by no means answering to the standard of minor and even major morals demanded

“by the wise ones,

By the grave and the precise ones.”

Though reckless and disorderly in his ways and habits, appears to have been in the main a thorough gentleman, faithful to truth and honour, fearless, compassionate, intolerant of meanness and brutality and of treachery most of all-a man of many faults perhaps, but of no really bad or disgusting ones.

Concerning Smollett’s personality we know least of all the four. It was certainly disfigured by an almost savage pugnacity of temper; by a strange indifference to what ought to be at the lowest the conduct of a gentleman, and by a most repulsive inclination-perhaps natural, but developed by training- to the merely foul and nasty. But he seems to have been brave, charitable though not in the most gracious way, honest, and on the whole a much better fellow than he might generally seem. Sterne is the most difficult of the four to characterise fairly, because of the unlucky revelations to which we possess no parallel in the case of the other three, and which, if we had them, might probably alter our estimates of a good man now well reputed people. It is perhaps enough to say that his letters contain many good traits as well as some bad ones; that his unlucky portrait, with its combination of leer and sneer, is probably responsible for much; and that the parts which, as we shall see further, he chose to play, of extravagant humorist and extravagant sentimentalist, not only almost necessitate attitudes which may easily become offensive in the playing, but are very likely, in practice, to communicate something apparently not natural and unattractive to the player.

Also Read : 


Fielding used his reluctant and indignant forerunner as a spring-board, whence to attain heights which that forerunner could never have reached: he “stood upon his shoulders” in the most cavalier but also the most successful fashion. In the novel as Richardson knew it and was thinking of it, when he began Pamela, you were, as a rule, in an artificial world altogether-a world artificial with an artificiality only faintly and occasionally touched with any reality at all. In Pamela itself there is perhaps nothing, and certainly not much, that is wholly unreal: but the reality is treated and rendered in an artificial way. In Joseph Andrews, though its professed genesis and procedure are artificial too, you break away at once from serious artifice. These are all real people who do real things in a real way now, as they did nearly two hundred years ago: however much dress, speech and manners may have changed. And we are told of their doings in a real way, too. Exactly how the teller knew it we do not know: but we do not think of this at all. And on the other hand there is no perpetual reminder of art, like the letter-ending and beginning, to disturb or alloy the once and gladly accepted “suspension of disbelief.”

Fielding discarded all kinds of adventitious aids and suggestions-all crutches, spring-boards, go-karts, tugs, patterns, tracings-and go his own way. And the way of the Novel-with no guidance but something of the example of Cervantes directly and Shakespeare indirectly among the moderns, and of the poetic fiction-writers of old. It is perfectly clear that he had thought widely (and perhaps had read not a little) on the subject of literary criticism, in a sense not common in his day, and that the thinking had led him to a conception of the “prose epic” which, though it might have been partly (not wholly by any means) pieced out of the Italian and Spanish critics of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, had never been worked out as a complete theory, much less applied in practice and to prose.

In one point only was Fielding a little unfortunate perhaps: and even here the “perhaps” has to be underlined. He came just before the end of a series of almost imperceptible changes in ordinary English speech which brought about something like a stationary state. His maligner and only slightly younger contemporary, Horace Walpole, in some of his letters, writes in a fashion which, putting mere slang aside, has hardly any difference from that of today. Fielding still uses “hath” for “has” and a few other things which seem archaic, not to students of literature but to the general. In the same way dress, manners, etc., though much more picturesque, were by that fact distinguished from those of almost the whole nineteenth century and the twentieth as far as it has gone: while incidents were, even in ordinary life, still usual which have long ceased to be so. In this way the immense advance-greater than was made by anyone else till Miss Austen-that he made in the pure novel of this ordinary life may be Jones can only be missed by those who were predestined to miss them. It is missed. But the intrinsic magnificence, interest, nature, abundance of Tom tempting-but the temptation must be resisted-to enliven these pages with an abstract of its astonishing “biograph-panorama.” But nothing save itself can do it justice. “Take and read” is the only wise advice.



Leave a Comment