Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

Johnson on Fielding and Richardson:
A Problem in Literary Moralism

[As published in The Humanities Association Review, 27:4 (Fall 1976), [412]-420.]

It is not a good idea, T. S. Eliot remarked in his essay on the metaphysical poets, to "reject the criticism of Johnson (a dangerous person to disagree with) without having mastered it." This advice is especially valuable in situations where Johnson's criticism seems capricious or inconsistent, or unimaginatively moralistic. It is often at precisely such moments that significant insight into Johnson's canons of taste can be gained and that his criticism is most valuable to the practicing critic or scholar.

One of these moments seems to have occurred whenever Johnson dealt with the novels of Fielding and Richardson. Repeatedly and unequivocally, Johnson rejected what we might have expected him to think of as the open, honest work of Henry Fielding and preferred to it the hothouse of emotions created by Samuel Richardson. The vivid forcefulness with which he generally expressed his comparisons of the two has emphasized the contrast between his opinion and the verdict of posterity. More important, the opinion seems inconsistent with the general temper of Johnson's mind. One would have little difficulty in constructing a persuasive and detailed argument that Johnson has far more affinities of style and personality with Fielding than with Richardson. Johnson's and Fielding's control of irony, their fundamental philosophical and political conservatism -- their concern, in other words, with public behaviour and public morality -- stand in contrast to Richardson's almost prurient interest in the emotions, in private behaviour and private morality. And the affinities between Fielding and Johnson go beyond such generalizations to more specific matters. For instance, a comparison of their statements about the aim and methods of the novel reveals striking similarities1; and their foursquare Anglican rejections of benevolism and stoicism and other trendy religious movements of the time often sound notably similar.2 It is, however, the sure and casual use of irony and sceptical, hardheaded realism that characterizes the prose style of both men, which is perhaps the most obvious characteristic linking the two and setting them apart from Richardson.

In spite of this, Johnson's detestation for Fielding was unwavering and violent, and was accompanied by a reciprocal admiration for Richardson. This detestation, traced through Johnson's public utterances, roughly divides itself into three areas of concern: Fielding's personal morality, his literary ability, and the moral tendency of his writings.

The first of these is the least important. Johnson's direct statements about Fielding's personal morality clearly arise from his impression of the books rather than from personal knowledge, and the strongest statement depends on the memory of Dr. Burney and on his doubtful ability to keep novels and life separate.3 Much more important is Johnson's concern about Fielding's skill as a novelist, and his opinion here is reiterated and consistent. It is perhaps best summarized by Boswell: "In comparing these two writers, he used this expression; 'that there was as great a difference between them as between a man who knew how a watch was made, and a man who could tell the hour by looking on the dialplate' " (Life, II, 49).4 Johnson's objection to Fielding's art was no more (and no less) than that he was superficial in his observation and presentation of human nature.

Another passage in Boswell is revealing of the intensity with which this opinion was held:

Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, "he was a blockhead." . . . "What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren rascal." BOSWELL. "Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?" JOHNSON. "Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's, than in all Tom Jones. I, indeed, never read Joseph Andrews." (Life, II, 173-174)
It is apparent that, while Johnson is clearly exaggerating his opinion when he calls Fielding a blockhead, and perhaps is merely echoing the standard charge of the Richardsonian camp when he refers to Fielding's "lowness," he is in dead earnest in his opinion of Fielding's presentation of human nature. What is even clearer is that Johnson's reaction is out of all proportion if his only -- or even his primary -- objection were to the ineffectiveness of Fielding's art. It may be that part of the reason for the exaggerated rhetorical ploy of "blockhead" is his characteristic desire for conversational triumph. But at least as important is his very real indignation at a writer whose work is not merely unskilful, but in fact pernicious.

And indeed, it is his opinion of the moral effects of Fielding's work that is most central to Johnson's position. In Hannah More's memoirs occurs the following passage:

I never saw Johnson really angry with me but once, and his displeasure did him so much honor that I loved him the better for it. I alluded rather flippantly, I fear, to some witty passage in Tom Jones: he replied, "I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it; a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work." . . .
He went so far as to refuse to Fielding the great talents which are ascribed to him, and broke out into a noble panegyric on his competitor Richardson; who, he said, was as superior to him in talents as in virtue, and whom he pronounced to be the greatest genius that had shed its lustre on this path of literature.5
This is probably as uncompromising an indictment of any respectable author as Johnson ever made in so small a space.

Fielding's Whiggism, his flippancy, and Johnson's personal friendship with Richardson have all been offered as causes of this judgment.6 But all such explanations depend on an underestimation of Johnson's discernment or integrity as a critic. Were Johnson so easily distracted by such personal or extraliterary matters, he could hardly have been the critic he was.

The most plausible attempt to deal with this anomaly has been Moore's argument that Johnson was not really as hostile to Fielding as might appear; that the apparent violence of his opinion was due to such factors as his need to "win" conversations; and that, in fact, "Johnson actually admired him, more perhaps than he was aware" (p. 172). There were, indeed, moments at which Johnson was apparently willing to allow Fielding some merit. He was not, for instance, hostile to Amelia, but was willing to praise it rather highly as a novel. He said that he had read Amelia through without stopping (Life, III, 43) and admitted that Amelia herself was "the most pleasing heroine of all the romances" (Life, III, 43, n. 2).

In his opposition to Tom Jones, however -- and especially to Tom Jones seen in contrast with Clarissa -- there is little suggestion of doubt or hesitance. On this view he never compromised; his comment that he "scarcely knows a more corrupt work" is a clear statement of hisconsidered opinion, and the hostility he felt toward this book was so intense that he seldom allowed more than token praise even to a novel he clearly admired -- Amelia. To admit the virtues of that book would have been, for him, partially to excuse the crime of Tom Jones. Nor was it when Richardson was mentioned that he brought in Fielding to heighten his friend's praise; it was rather when Tom Jones was mentioned that he laid his hands on the most lethal weapon he could find: the undoubted moral integrity and intention of Clarissa.

The violence of his opinion, in fact, belies the appearance of agreement between Johnson and Fielding on many moral and religious issues. Even if he had known all of Fielding's writings, even if he had known, as we do, that Fielding was not in fact dissolute, but a dedicated magistrate and a moral and conscientious man, I submit that his opinion of Tom Jones and consequently of the abilities of its author would not have changed. The assumptions implicit in Tom Jones strike at the basis of Johnson's moral system. It is, in other words, no inconsistency at all for Johnson to hold the opinion he clearly embraced of Henry Fielding's work. And the understanding of this fact not only illuminates much about Johnson's own position, but offers a basis from which to look again at the work of the two rival novelists.

The most obvious contrast between the two authors is in the assumptions underlying their respective moral beliefs. Johnson's morality is based on fear of God and on the conviction that a man must do all he is capable of and even then can never deserve salvation. Johnson's emphasis in hortatory writings is always primarily on the justice of God; rarely does he mention the mediation of Christ. On the other hand, Fielding's primary concern -- especially in Tom Jones -- is, as George Sherburn has pointed out, the inculcation of "good nature," the implantation or cultivation of the capacity to gain the highest pleasure from benevolent acts.7 This is the motivation on which Allworthy consistently acts, and the ability which Tom has in such measure that all he need do is learn to control it. "Benevolence, kindness, good nature -- call it what you will -- is the essence of virtue" (Sherburn, p. 8).

It is important to notice that not only does the possession of this quality excuse Tom's transgressions, it is in large measure their cause. It is in complaisance to Molly Seagrim that he first goes astray, in sympathy to Mrs. Waters that he almost loses Sophia at Upton, and finally in charity to Mrs. Bellaston that he engages in his last "conversations." It is of course true that what Tom has to learn in the course of the novel is prudence, the ability to control his benevolence and direct it toward good ends, but the fact that the development of Tom is one of the weak points of the book has been noted by many critics since Johnson. We never see how Tom learns that his "good nature" has led him astray. It is also noteworthy that the book never develops clear criteria for finally deciding what is a legitimate result of "good nature" and what is not. We are offered, basically, three systems of morality -- the enthusiasm of Thwackum, the hazy Deism of Square, and the benevolism of Tom and Squire Allworthy. Johnson put his faith in yet another.

For a number of reasons, Johnson was violently opposed to the concept of "good nature," of benevolent emotions, as the basis of a system of morality -- or as the moral center of a work of literature. This is obvious, as Robert Voitle points out, in his attitude toward what he called "feelers."8 The wife of Tim Warner, in Idler No. 100, is a good example of this:

She daily exercises her benevolence by pitying every misfortune that happens to every family within her circle of notice; she is in hourly terrors lest one should catch cold in the rain, and another be frighted by the high wind. Her charity she shews by lamenting that so many poor wretches should languish in the streets, and by wondering what the great can think on that they do so little good with such large estates. (Works, V, 400)9
Johnson's objection to the doctrine is based on the opinion that benevolence becomes a substitute, rather than a motive, for virtue, when adopted as a principle of conduct in the real world. He argues that benevolent emotions are neither native to mankind nor can be made strong enough to govern our stronger inclinations toward selfishness and cruelty.
Pity is not natural to man. Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel. Pity is acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason. We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them. (Life, 1, 437)
Johnson, as Voitle points out, habitually made a distinction between the words "benificence" (in his Dictionary "the practice of doing good") and "benevolence" ("disposition to do good"), and wherever possible he uses the first, to emphasize the difference between feeling and acting, between experiencing an emotion and assisting distress.

But his major objection to the doctrine is not, finally, that it does not work, or even that, like the "inner light," it is not ascertainable by others. It is that it subverts the dominant position of reason in the moral life, and substitutes for it the blind reactions of emotion. Thus Johnson cannot be tolerant -- as Fielding is -- of Tom's lapses. It is in Johnson's view habitual rather than inadvertent and isolated vice, as it proceeds directly from Tom's (and Fielding's) own ethical position, rather than being in violation of it. Even when such a doctrine produces good actions, it proceeds -- like the shilling thrown at the head of a beggar (Life, I, 397-398) -- from the wrong motives and is quite as likely to break the head of the beggar (to get Tom into bed with Mrs. Bellaston) as it is to buy him his dinner (to relieve the distress of the "highwayman's" family). Like the doctrine of the "ruling passion," it substitutes an irrational principle of behaviour for a rational one. Johnson's consistent and vociferous championship of the freedom of the will ("Sir, . . . we know our will is free, and there's an end on't" [Life, II, 180]) is closely connected with his belief in the primacy of reason, and the final end of the benevolist doctrine, as Johnson believed, was the eradication of reasoned will and the importation of a mechanical system of behaviour, which in turn threatened, by its implied denial of moral responsibility, the whole system of God's justice.

In view of Johnson's belief that this would be the probable result of the system of behaviour so persuasively recommended by Fielding, the very moral protestations of Fielding are likely to have provoked Johnson as much as the doctrine itself. The book would be dangerous precisely insofar as it gained a reputation for being a moral book, and thus Johnson is motivated to attack it as strongly and as vividly as he can whenever it is mentioned.

It is important to note here that Richardson is a convenient club precisely because the morality at the center of his work -- whatever flaws it may have -- is based not on emotion, but on reason. As A. D. McKillop notes of Sir Charles Grandison:

The important thing about Sir Charles is that his benevolence is part of a system and is inseparably connected with his control of property and with the policies determined by his reason and his will. . . . Far from being carried away by spontaneous feeling, Grandison would call on feeling to serve or ratify but not to determine the finding of the conscience, which is controlled by or identified with the reason and the will. (Samuel Richardson, pp. 207-208)
However "sentimental" we habitually think of Richardson as being, and however "hard-headed" Fielding may appear, it remains true that Fielding's is finally an ethic based on emotion, and Richardson's one based on reason. In fact, of course, it is precisely the heroine's "calculation" that Fielding found most repellent in Pamela. Johnson would argue, however, that Pamela's "calculation" is the working out of a complicated, intellectual "moral calculus" which, if not as spontaneous and warm as Fielding would like virtue to be, is more predictable in its direction and more useful in its effect than Fielding's emotion-centered ethic. In Clarissa, to which Fielding objected much less violently, Richardson did not change the basis on which his heroine's virtue was built. He merely learned how to present reason operating in the moral sphere more sympathetically. He does this, for instance, by introducing the ironies of Anna Howe's comments and by increasing the complexity of his heroine's reaction to her problem. But finally what the novel holds up for our admiration is, of course, not the emotion which causes Lovelace to rape Clarissa, or the emotion which prompts his remorse, or even Clarissa's own complex emotional reactions to him, but rather the finality with which Clarissa rationally assesses the moral situation and subordinates her emotions to that assessment. It is significant that Fielding was among those who pleaded, during the composition of Clarissa, for a "happy ending." For Richardson -- and for Johnson -- there was only one ending consonant with both reason and Christianity.

It is in Rambler No. 4 that we find the most explicit statement of Johnson's moral objection to Tom Jones. The essay is clearly a review of the book and hints at the use of the comparison with Clarissa, though neither book is mentioned by name:

these familiar histories may perhaps be made of greater use than the solemnities of professed morality, and convey the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficacy than axioms and definitions. But if the power of example is so great . . . care ought to be taken, that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects. (Works, II, 23)
Clearly, Johnson's reaction to the novels of both Richardson and Fielding is heightened by the power which he senses in the form -- now that it deals with life and not fancy, now that it is the novel and not the romance -- for both good and evil. Writers of the same tendencies in another, less influential, form would not cause so violent a reaction.

In what is patently a comment on Fielding's moral protestations in Tom Jones, and also an echo of the postscript to Clarissa, Johnson continues:

It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character, that it is drawn as it appears; for many characters ought never to be drawn: nor of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience; for that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good. (Works, 11, 24)
Johnson goes on to indict those writers who mingle good and evil qualities in their characters, leading us to admire them and to "lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit." It is apparent, I think, that "writers" here may be read as "Fielding," especially since Johnson was to comment that it was only in Richardson's Lovelace that this sort of mixed character was adequately handled.

He then contends, against Fielding's argument that he will show no paragons because he has not met any such, that in "narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability . . . but the highest and purest that humanity can reach" (Works, II, 26).

Johnson's condemnation of Tom Jones on ethical grounds, and the severity of that condemnation, then, are perfectly consistent with his own moral beliefs and critical principles. In this connection, it is important to notice that his condemnation of Fielding as "superficial" arises from the same cause. Fielding's superficiality, from Johnson's point of view, lies not so much in his presentation of his own created characters as it does in the scrutiny of human nature which led to the creation of those characters. It is necessary, both Fielding and Johnson believed, for a man to have both experience of the world and knowledge of books in order to write novels; and it is apparent that in Johnson's opinion Fielding lacked experience of the world -- not, of course, in quantity, but in quality. His observation had been superficial. He had been able to tell time by looking at the clock face, but had not known how the clock worked. His estimation of the motives which actually govern men's actions had been wrong -- and wrong in such a way as to make his recommendations not only useless but pernicious.

It is clear, then, that it is the very nature of Johnson's moral commitment to literature that accounts for what has been, since Boswell, regularly dismissed as an incomprehensible anomaly in his literary outlook. Walter Raleigh wrote that "where Johnson repeats a thought many times, it is always worthwhile to pause, and look for his meaning.''10 The reward in this case is not only a clearer view of the coherence of Johnson's critical opinions and their relationship to his moral convictions, but a powerful argument that, in a very fundamental way, Samuel Richardson's masterpiece is a profounder reading of life than Henry Fielding's.


1. See Robert Etheridge Moore, "Dr. Johnson on Fielding and Richardson," PMLA, 66 (1951), 175-177.

2. They reject stoicism, for instance, with similar deflationary techniques, the philosopher who breaks down at his daughter's death in Chapter XVIII of Rasselas is exactly parallel to Parson Adams when his disquisition on stoicism is juxtaposed to his reaction to his son's drowning in Joseph Andrews, IV, viii.

3. Burney remembered that Johnson's opinion of Fielding arose from his 'loose life." "Fielding's conversation," he says, "was so coarse, and so tinctured with the rank weeds of the garden, that it would now be thought fit only for a brothel." See Boswell's Life, ed. J. W. Croker (New York, 1837), I, 292 n. Quoted in Frederic T. Blanchard, Fielding the Novelist (New Haven, 1926), p. 191.

4. References to Boswell's Life, unless otherwise noted, are to George Birkbeck Hill's edition, revised by L. F. Powell (Oxford, 1934-50).

5. Memoirs of . . . Hannah More, ed. William Roberts (New York, 1936), I, 101. Quoted Blanchard, p. 194.

6. See, e.g., Blanchard, p. 176, Moore, pp. 179-181, A. D. McKillop, Samuel Richardson, Printer and Novelist (Chapel Hill, 1936), p. 189. An argument from the two men's friendship is lent plausibility by the fact that Richardson apparently lent Johnson money when he was under arrest for debt. See Blanchard, p. 176, and The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford, 1952), I, 86, 89.

7. "Fielding's Social Outlook," PQ, 25 (1956), 7-9.

8. See Voitle's Samuel Johnson the Moralist (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1961), pp. 50-52.

9. References to Works, unless otherwise noted, are to The Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. Arthur Murphy (London, 1823).

10. Six Essays on Johnson (Oxford, 1910), p. 151.