Off the Shelf: Hard-a port to Lisbon: Kenneth Baxter on Henry Fielding's neglected swansong, A Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon

IN 1751 Henry Fielding, Justice of Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster, who had already fathered the English novel, published 'An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robberies and Murders'. Organised gangs of criminals infested the streets of London, and the Duke of Newcastle's administration asked Fielding how best to deal with them. Though a sick man, he worked day and night, gathering evidence and examining suspects. He submitted a plan which was accepted, was granted money with which to bribe informers; and within a short time 'this hellish society were almost utterly extirpated' - at a cost to the Treasury of pounds 200.

The cost to Fielding was that 'my health was reduced to the last extremity'. He paid a delayed visit to Bath which he hoped might relieve the combination of asthma, gout and dropsy from which he suffered. He was three times 'tapped' and resolved to seek a warmer climate - in Portugal.

The departure of this great Englishman from his native country was memorable. He had lost the use of his legs and was so emaciated that pregnant women turned away from him, fearing miscarriage. He had to be carried in a chair across the mudflats at Hyde and hoisted by pulleys over the ship's side. Rows of sailors jeered and insulted him, 'a barbarous custom peculiar to the English of the lowest degree . . . an excrescence of uncontrolled licence mistaken for liberty'.

There was almost a month's delay between leaving Gravesend and sailing from Hyde while they waited for a favourable wind. Quarrelsome sailors 'carried on a dialogue of oaths and scurrility'; rude and insolent customs officials burst into the cabin; pilots were surly. His wife was tormented by toothache and sea-sickness, and he himself, was obliged to send for a surgeon to 'tap' him again. One day, with infinite difficulty, he was transported ashore where, after an amusingly related misunderstanding with an obdurate inn-keeper's wife, he ate bacon and beans, venison and mutton, soals and whiting 'with good appetites and good humour'. Neither ever deserted him.

Finally, the Queen of Portugal got under way on 23 July and reached Lisbon on 14 August. Fielding died there on 8 October and was buried in the English cemetery. He must have written hard in the few weeks that remained to him, completing a 35,000-word account of the voyage, a generous preface and an introduction on travelling garnished with classical allusions.

It is a brave, uncomplaining book which shows that he had lost neither his zest for life, nor his delight in the contemplation of of people. His portraits of Captain Veal, who was convinced that witchcraft had deprived him of wind, of Farmer Francis and his wife, and of Mrs Humphrys, the squat, awkward and avaricious mistress of the inn, are indisputably by the author of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones.

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