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Pros and Cons of Linda Bree's Sarah Fielding
Linda Bree.Sarah Fielding.Twayne English Authors 522.Boston: Twayne, 1996.176pp.US$33.00.ISBN 0805770518.
Bree's goal is to show Sarah Fielding's life and work "not as a sister or friend of the literary great but in her own right as a prominent writer and scholar"(Bree vii ).Sarah Fielding is a well-structured book.It is enjoyable to read for its succinctness, clarity and style.Bree presents her work in a convenient manner: a preface, a chronology, and ten chapters, each devoted to a singular work.For example, chapter one encapsulates her biography, chapter two deals with David Simple written in 1744 and chapter three deals with Familiar Letters written in 1747.This format allows one to research a particular aspect of the writer and her career with ease.
Bree adequately presents a summary of Fielding's life in her first chapter, "A Woman of Singular Energy, Learning, and Ability."Despite the difficulties in tracing Sarah Fielding's life for lack of sources, Bree's summary leaves us with thoroughness.Her depiction of Fielding's early troubled and chaotic family life treats to how Sarah became an independent woman.Bree explains Fielding's later life which was plagued with financial trouble to which her brother was of little avail. Bree makes clear Henry Fielding's rather lacking support throughout her life whether it be intellectual or financial: "the attitute [sic] imputed to Henry is consistent with the view of Sarah that he presents in the preface to David Simple and with the distinctly unappealing nature of the learned female as a figure in his own fiction"(20). An especial analysis of her formal and informal educations defines Fielding's academic growth from Mrs. Rooke's school to an independent scholarship with the intellectual crowd at Salisbury.Bree also credits part of Fielding's academic success with her friendship to Samuel Richardson.
Bree adequately presents evidence which credits Sarah Fielding's scholarship.Bree proves this by drawing attention to the many references in her works as a source of scholarship: "As references and citations in her fiction make clear, she became formidably well educated in British literature.She was familiar not only with Shakespeare...but also with Spencer, Ben Johnson, and Dryden, as well as the more recent poems and plays of Alexander Pope, Sir Richard Steele, and George Lillo"(12-3).Although Bree does not deny Henry's influence in Sarah's life, she certifies her academic independence from him.Her study and translation of Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates demonstrates her skill as an independent, perseverant and dedicated scholar: "She was determined that her translation of Xenophon would be respectable by the standards of classical-that is, male-scholarship"(21).
Bree uses Sarah Fielding's Advertisement from David Simple as the basis of her argument in which she claims that Fielding "was making it clear at the outset of her book [that it] was not merely a story, or a series of stories, that set out to entertain but that it would also contain instructive advice"(30).She argues that David Simple is a moral teaching on "the commercial and capitalist principles perceived increasingly to dominate [18th century] human relations and society's structures"(34).To this end she shows that the characters Daniel and Livia, two of the book's greater antagonists, are representatives of the principles of commerce: These characters's "`even-handed' logic of contractual principles, reduced to its essence, merely justif[y] outright selfishness, the specific reverse of David's ideal true friendship"(34).
Without specifically saying so, Bree portrays Sarah Fielding as an 18th century feminist.She argues that David is a sedate hero bycomparing him to Sir John Galliard thereby portraying David Simple as a "very unmasculine"(32) character.By first legitimizing the use of a male protagonist to pro-feminist ends, Bree represents David as the incarnation of the morality Fielding thought men should possess."For Sarah Fielding drinking and womanizing, far from being the natural characteristics of an innocent and naïve young man, were symptoms of serious moral faults"( 33).
Bree's convinces us further on this pro-feminist stance when she discusses the character of Cynthia.After reading the argument one is left feeling as though Cynthia is the true heroine of the novel and that perhaps Sarah Fielding based this character on herself.One can see the similarities between Fielding and Cynthia; specifically on the issue of marriage."[H]aving rebelled against the idea of being a servant to a husband...[Cynthia] openly asserts that sensible women who marry fools for material gain `prostitute themselves'"(38-9).Bree inevitably draws a parallel between Fielding and Cynthia which could have been interesting had she chosen to follow it.Instead Bree leaves the reader to assimilate for him- or herself the similarities between Fielding and Cynthia.
Bree's disposition on portraying Sarah Fielding as a literary genius does not account enough for David Simple's shortcomings.For instance, she shows the use of the male protagonist for feminist ends and she shows Cynthia as the `true' hero of the novel, but she does not account for the dullness of flat and static characters such as Mr. Varnish or Mr. Spatter.Also, Bree doesn't account for the fractional structure of David Simple, but only says that it is "episodic"(31).
Bree is weak when she defends the intrusive narrator of David Simple.She claims that a bond is formed between narrator, text, and reader and that this is central to the communicationof the `morals' of David Simple.This argument is detached from the gist of her other arguments and is less convincing.She does not account for the possible downfalls of such a narration which can be regarded as simply a convenient way to end a chapter for an inexperienced writer.As a literary device Fielding's narrator can be viewed as a device that distances the reader from anything the author strives to communicate through her characters.
Also, Bree's attempt to legitimize Isabelle's story in David Simple is not very convincing in contrast to her feminist arguments about the condition of women's rights in the 18th century.Bree seems to run out of breath as she tries to justify a parallel between Isabelle and David.She laces a certain amount of her argument with open-ended questions which she calls "`what if' scenarios"(44) that do little in terms of convincing her point.Isabelle's story, as the critics point out, remains perhaps a failure of the novel.
Linda Bree is successful, however, in arguing against the critics who dismiss David Simple as a simple plot-driven story of marriage.Bree shows how other 18th century novels and David Simple differ in their treating of sex in general thereby showing other novels to be less concerned with "mental as well as physical attraction"(42).In David Simple, Bree points out, "sexual desire is often portrayed by Fielding not as an aspect of romance but as a destructive passion"(43).Further, Bree's maintenance of Fielding's Advertisement keeps Fielding's purpose clear-that is to entertain and instruct.
Overall, Linda Bree's Sarah Fielding makes the point that Fielding deserves the recognition proper to her numerous literary achievements.Bree's book, being the first full-length study on Sarah Fielding, is a successful study at portraying her as a "prominent writer and scholar" (vii).
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