We have UK national elections this week. For most of this country’s history most people did not have the right to vote or freedom of speech. The 1832 Reform Bill enfranchised sections of the middle (but not working) classes. Before 1832, voting was restricted to men of property – out of a population of 8.5 million, only 11,000 men could vote. In 1918 men over 21 and women over 30 gained the vote, in 1929 voting rights were extended to women aged 21. These days it’s difficult to engage people to vote at all. We may be losing the plot a bit here.
See my lecture on Jonathan Wild for a look at eighteenth-century politics and satire. Our political worlds may not be as far removed as we would like but today’s readers benefit from freedoms which Fielding and other writers fought for but did not see in their lifetime.
Extract from Jonathan Wild lecture:
Fielding had a private grudge against Walpole because he had been responsible for The Licensing Act of 1737, which required that the Lord Chamberlain should approve all plays before they were performed. This effectively ended Fielding’s career as a dramatist since his works were often satirical and had attacked Walpole. We need to bear this in mind when reading Fielding’s heavily ironic comments in Book 3 ch 5:
‘many inconveniences arise to the said great men from these scribblers publishing without restraint their hints or alarms to society; and many great and glorious schemes have been thus frustrated; wherefore it were to be wished that in all well-regulated governments such liberties should be by wholesome laws restrained, and all writers inhibited from venting any other instructions to the people than what should be first approved and licensed by the said great men (pp.136-7).’
There is a wider political context to the novel, which moves beyond specific historical confines to consider the nature of political power and those who crave it but also those who vote for it. David Hume commented in ‘Of The First Principles of Government’ (1742): ‘Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the ease with which the many are governed by the few and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.’
The idea that politicians are self-seeking and corrupt manipulators is hardly new – Shakespeare presented political leaders with cynicism and none of Fielding’s readers would have been surprised at the negative portrayal of political figures. Swift commented in ‘Thoughts on Various Subjects’ (1706): ‘Politics, as the word is commonly understood, are nothing but corruptions.’ The narrator of Jonathan Wild tells us, ‘those great arts which the vulgar call treachery, dissembling, promising, lying, falsehood, etc…are by great men summed up in the collective name of policy, or politics'(Bk 2, ch 5 p.102). Perhaps things don’t change very much – Mencken commented in 1956, ‘A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar’. Politicians have always been associated with rhetoric, the ability to persuade the electorate.
While in Newgate, Wild canvasses for support among the inmates much as politicians do – Book 4 ch 3, pp.172-6: ‘Friends, and fellow-citizens…the liberty of Newgate is at stake'(p.172). The exhortation is just what one would expect from a politician – think of Antony’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Wild’s speech, described by the narrator as ‘florid’, is meaningless: Newgate is a prison – hardly the place to discourse on liberty – he’s promising the one thing he clearly can’t deliver but is exploiting what they most desire – typical of political rhetoric. Wild appeals to moral and democratic values in order to manipulate people. He is a cutting but amusingly ironic comment on politicians doing the same.
More seriously, Wild’s practices mirror Machiavellian principles of politics, which allow lies and manipulation as necessary political tools. See Wild’s maxims for success in Book 4 ch 15 eg ‘To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest’. Machiavelli wrote in 1519: ‘Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious natures, whenever they may find occasion for it.’
It is commonly objected that the novel isn’t topical in its principal character, Wild, or the man he in part represents, Walpole. Walpole was no longer in power when Jonathan Wild was published in 1743 – he lost power in 1742; Wild himself was executed in 1725. However, political corruption did not disappear with Walpole. In using the idea of the thief as politician and vice versa, Fielding was exploiting an old joke but one which would have struck a chord with his readers, many of whom would have been disillusioned with their political leaders.