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Fielding and fake news

Fake news is not only a phenomenon of post-truth politics in the Trump era. It’s as old as newspapers themselvesor as old, Robert Darnton suggests, as the scurrilous Anecdota of Procopius in sixth-century Byzantium. In England, the first great age of alternative facts was the later seventeenth century, when they clustered especially around crises of dynastic succession. The biggest political lie was the widely believed Popish Plot of 1678, a fictitious Jesuit conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II that played into the Whig campaign to exclude Charles’s Catholic brother from succession to the throne. Conspiracy theorists of all political stripes got in on the act. At one point in his history of the period, David Hume writes wearily that “this was no less than the fifteenth false plot, or sham plot, as they were then called, with which the court, it was imagined, had endeavoured to load their adversaries.”

Daniel Defoe, before his career as a novelist began with Robinson Crusoe (1719), was among the journalists who fought fierce running battles in rival newspapers during the reign of Queen Anne. In 1703, he was convicted of seditious libel for fabricating an incendiary pamphlet in the voice of his Tory opponents, and a year later his political stablemate John Tutchin was arrested and tried as “a daily inventor and publisher of false novelties, and of horrible and false lies” in his journal the Observator. Tutchin got off on a technicality, but was later beaten up to order (evidence points to the Duke of Marlborough) and died of his injuries. Defoe continued to flourish with his journal the Review, berating rival journalists for their own fabrications. One target was George Ridpath’s rabble-rousing newspaper the Flying Post, which Defoe called simply the “Lying Post.”

Etching of Henry Fielding from 1920, originally based on drawing by William Hogarth, 1798. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We think of Henry Fielding, in the next generation, as a novelist above all else. But before writing Joseph Andrews (1742) and his masterpiece Tom Jones (1749), he was London’s foremost comic playwright, and, in the Champion (1739–41) and later periodicals, the funniest satirical journalist of the day. It was a gift to Fielding’s career that it coincided with the heyday of Sir Robert Walpole, the powerful, charismatic “Great Man” and longest-serving Prime Minister in history—if “serving” is the right word for a politician so thoroughly committed, his enemies alleged, to corruption and self-enrichment.

Fielding’s relations with Walpole make up a complex story including periods in which he sought Walpole’s patronage and ending, very possibly, with his acceptance of a bribe to desist. As a well-placed insider reported shortly before Walpole fell from power in 1742, Fielding “is actually reconciled to the great Man, and as he says upon very advantageous Terms.” Satirical hostility, however, is central to the story. At the height of his celebrity as a playwright, Fielding targeted Walpole’s ministry with innovative, incendiary dramas including Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), a farce teasingly named after one of the period’s few objective news sources. These plays were not the sole cause of Walpole’s Stage Licensing Act of 1737, which required pre-performance approval of playtexts and prohibited improvisation, but they were a major catalyst. When Fielding then turned to journalism, it was widely feared that print censorship would follow. In 1740, another insider reported impending legislation to control “the Licentiousness (as they call it) of the press. There is not one of the Courtiers but I hear talk of such a Bill. The champion’s way of writing, they say, makes it necessary.”

Among the Champion’s most damaging themes was its ridicule of Walpole’s propaganda machine. One barbed issue (29 January 1740) offers spoof instructions in the “Art of Lying,” a word which “as it regards our interest, however it came to be scandalous I will not determine, comprehends Flattery and Scandal, a false Defence of ourselves, and a false Accusation of other People.” Fielding then outlines a poetics of disinformation in all its varieties (“the Lie Scandalous,” “the Lie Panagyrical,” etc.), necessary to the exercise of which is a brazen fearlessness of being contradicted. Flexibility is crucial, and sometimes the accomplished political liar must even “quit his Occupation, and dabble in Truth.” Preparation is essential—no careless ad libs about alternative facts—and “in spreading false News, especially Defamation, Care should be taken in laying the Scene.” In a precept discarded today, Fielding warns his ambitious politician “never to publish any Lie in the Presence of one who knows the Falsehood of it.”

The attack also spilled over into Fielding’s fiction. Shamela (1741) is on the face of it a parody of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), subverting that novel’s premise by turning Richardson’s virtuous heroine (a servant rewarded by marriage to her master) into a cynical gold-digger. But Fielding also likens his falsifying anti-heroine, who has “endeavoured by perverting and misrepresenting Facts to be thought to deserve what she now enjoys,” to Walpole-era ministers whose “worldly Honours…are often the Purchase of Force and Fraud.” In Tom Jones, the mendacious villain Blifil (his name suggests both “lie” and “fib”) ends up as Member of Parliament for a rotten borough. Fielding’s most sustained political fiction, Jonathan Wild (1743), builds on a longstanding analogy in opposition journalism between Prime Minister Walpole and the historical Wild, an underworld kingpin. Politicians and thieves are engaged alike in “the great and glorious…Undertaking…of robbing the Publick.” Both succeed by clever ruses to distract the public’s attention, so that “while they are listening to your Jargon, you may with the greater Ease and Safety, pick their Pockets.”

Walpole was now out of office, but he remained a formidable operator. His last and most engaging imposture was to pretend that none of this had anything to do with him—or, if it did, that even a satirist as brilliant as Fielding couldn’t hurt him. Jonathan Wild was published in Fielding’s Miscellanies, preceded by a list of subscribers who could show special approval by buying expensive “royal paper” sets, sometimes in multiple copies. The most generous patron of all, subscribing for ten sets in royal paper, was Walpole himself.

Featured image credit: Anonymous Interior of a London Coffee House, 1668. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Roger

    False news goes back further than Procopius: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars features descriptions of activities that it would be impossible for anyone to know about.

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