Fictional Absence

In Fictional Absence, Pete Lowman considers the presence and absence of God in English literature. It has been slightly revised for publication here.


As we look at the major novels of the eighteenth century, we can see the continuing loss of God in English prose fiction.

Samuel Richardson's extremely long story Pamela is a convenient point to begin. It concerns a servant girl who is kidnapped and threatened (at great length) with rape, but finally softens her captor's heart and marries him. It is a fiction retaining a strong sense of providentialism. But unfortunately Pamela – like Moll Flanders – presents providence largely in connection with the laying up of treasure on earth; though her creator has a strong desire to keep her on the right side of the moral law, as he sees it.

The first page of the narrative presents Pamela writing to her parents:

God, whose graciousness to us we have so often experienced, put it into my good lady's heart, just an hour before she expired, to recommend to my young master all her servants, one by one... And these were some of her last words. O how my eyes run! Don't wonder to see the paper so blotted.
Well, but God's will must be done!.... My master said, "I will take care of you all, my good maidens."... God bless him! and pray with me, my dear father and mother, for a blessing upon him

Such expressions might appear to be mere commonplaces of speech, but this is belied by the sheer extent to which Pamela resorts to a mental dependence on God in her predicament: 'And so I will only say, pray for your Pamela'[2]; 'God, I hope, will give me his grace; and so I will not, if I can help it, make myself too uneasy'[3] – here the reality of divine grace is definite and dependable enough to mean that Pamela can be free from anxiety; 'And while I presume not upon my own strength, and am willing to avoid the tempter, I hope the Divine Grace will assist me'[4]; 'But the Divine Grace is not confined to space; and remorse may, and I hope Has, smitten him to the heart'[5]; the resort to prayer in a crisis in Letter XXX, 'O how my heart throbbed! And I begun (for I did not know what I did) to say the Lord's Prayer. "None of your beads to me, Pamela!" said he; "thou art a perfect nun." But I said aloud, with my eyes lifted up to Heaven, "Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil, O my good God!";'[6] 'I had recourse again, to my only refuge, comforting myself, that God never fails to take the innocent heart into his protection, and is alone able to baffle the devices of the mighty'[7]; 'This plot is laid too deep.... I put my trust in God, who I knew was able to do everything for me, when all other possible means should fail.'[8]

Once again it is not altogether easy for a modern reader to recognise the full content of these phrases, that in a less secularised culture they are not mere platitudes but represent an assertion that the power of God can be relied upon for deliverance, in the face of human probability and in defiance of the powers of this world. 'Pray for poor Pamela', she writes to her parents after being carried off to Lincolnshire; and indeed 'having enquired of all their acquaintance what could be done, and no one being able to put them in a way how to proceed, on so extraordinary an occasion, against so rich and resolute a gentleman... they applied themselves to prayers.'[9] This is realistic enough: prayer is something that the oppressed can 'apply themselves to', and one of the points that Richardson seeks to make in the novel as a whole is that virtue is not defenceless and will in truth be rewarded. This he makes clear in his summary of morals to be drawn at the close of the First Part:

Let the desponding heart be comforted by the happy issue which the troubles and trials of PAMELA met with, when they see that no danger or distress, however inevitable or deep, to their apprehensions, is out of the power of providence to obviate or relieve; and that, too, at a time when all human prospects seem to fail.[10]

The objective reality of providence may be demonstrated from its interplay with human action. Richardson was reacting against the romance tradition, and hence shy of anything approaching the miraculous. Consequently, divine grace is often portrayed in his work as operating through and interwoven with human thought. The episode where Pamela contemplates committing suicide is an example of this. Pamela reasons through the eternal consequences of suicide in a logical process of thought. But there is also the suggestion that both God and the devil are affecting these thoughts: 'That thought was surely of the devil's instigation; for it was very soothing and powerful with me' is the way she describes her fantasies[11], and later she exhorts herself:

While thou hast power left thee, avoid the tempting evil, lest thy grand enemy, now repulsed by Divine Grace, and due reflection, return to the assault with a force that thy weakness may not be able to resist!.... Though I should have praised God for my deliverance, had I been freed from my wicked keepers, and my designing master, yet I have more abundant reason to praise him, that I have been delivered from a worse enemy, myself.[12]

The modern reader may understand the first sentence cited here as nothing more than 'Get away from temptation in case the idea returns to your mind.' But to Richardson's Pamela, there are supernatural forces at work too; 'Divine Grace and due reflection' are both operative. As in any theology influenced by the attitude exemplified in Proverbs 3:5, 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding', the human mind is here seen as a fallen and fallible organ, capable of accurate decision-making with the aid of 'Divine Grace', but under pressure too from hidden but malignant forces. Pamela can give the name 'myself' to mental processes that would have led her to drown herself; that was where her own thoughts led her, while in contrast the logical process by which she moved away from that option is itself a 'deliverance' for which she should praise God as the prime agent: 'I will tell you my conflicts on this dreadful occasion, that the Divine Mercies may be magnified in my deliverance.'[13] (This gives her hope for her captor's thinking too: 'God can touch his heart in an instant', she reflects.[14] The reality of divine influence on the human mind is the presence of the incalculable, and prevents despair.)

In these cases, the action of 'Divine Grace' is more or less identified with Pamela's thought processes. But on the other hand, Richardson presents grace as active also in the orchestration of events as a whole. And the extent to which grace runs contrary to human expectation is an indication of the degree to which we should understand it as an objective reality:

Henceforth let not us poor short-sighted mortals pretend to rely on our own wisdom; or vainly think, that we are absolutely to direct for ourselves. I have great reason to say, that, when I was most disappointed, I was nearer my happiness: for had I made my escape, which was so often my chief point in view, and what I had placed my heart upon, I had escaped the blessings now before me, and fallen, perhaps, into the miseries I would have avoided. And yet after all, it was necessary I should take the steps I did, to bring on this wonderful turn: O the unsearchable wisdom of God![15]

The objectivity of grace here means that it can bring about precisely the opposite of what the human probabilities would suggest (had Pamela escaped, she would have forfeited her eventual happiness); and yet it is not separate from, but rather working through, the human agent (it is through Pamela's resistance that her captor is softened: her resistance brings about God's purposes, although it does not accomplish her own goal of escape).

It seems, then, that Richardson, who brought a new degree of psychological insight to the novel (eg. his depiction of Pamela's ambivalent feelings towards her captor), brought to it also a supernaturalistic vision in which the human psyche was open to, and part of, spiritual warfare and providential purposes. Richardson's overriding moral purpose in writing fiction (Clarissa, he claimed, in that book's postscript, was intended to 'steal in... the great doctrines of Christianity under a fashionable amusement', since 'when the Pulpit fails other expedients are necessary') causes him to adopt a causality that owes more to the Puritans than to the Enlightenment, and nothing at all to neo-classicism.

But, again, it did not establish a providentially-oriented tradition of significance to the novel's development. A major cause presumably is those deficiencies in his vision which have earned him much critical disgust. Virtue is rewarded in Pamela (though not in Clarissa) in thoroughly earthly terms: one wonders whether Richardson gave any thought while writing it to the reasons why Paul and the apostles ended up as martyrs rather than millionaires. His spirituality here is all too closely akin to that of Moll Flanders. Again, the providential scheme is too tidy: at the end of the First Part providence has completed its business, the moral lessons from its actions in the lives of 'Mr WILLIAMS... good old ANDREWS and his WIFE... Miss GODFREY' [16] are all plain to see, and there are no loose ends. That lacks realism: Christian theology promises no such neat arrangement until the Second Coming.

But thirdly, there is Richardson's preoccupation with rape in both Pamela and Clarissa. Dorothy Van Ghent blames it on the Puritan element in Richardson’s cultural background: 'In the Puritan mythology sex is the culmination of all evil, the unmasked face of fear.'[17] This is not really fair: Spenser, Sidney and Marvell were Puritans, and they were responsible for 'Epithalamion', the 'Astrophil and Stella' sequence, and 'To His Coy Mistress' respectively. Likewise, one cannot imagine a sturdy Puritan like John Bunyan reducing the whole Pilgrimage from this world to the next to a single sexual assault[18] – even if his sexual ethic has permitted the writing of such voyeuristic books as Pamela and Clarissa. When an attempt is made to rape Christiana early in the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, the matter is only incidental. The difference between Bunyan and Richardson arises not because seduction and rape had been unacceptable subjects to the Puritans[19], but because the spiritual universe of Bunyan's Puritanism was far broader than the narrow arena in which Richardson's morbid obsession places his heroines. If Richardson had been closer to Bunyan’s Puritanism he might well have been less myopic rather than more; but by the mid-eighteenth century the Puritan heritage had lost much of its power. At any rate, there is something unhealthy and restricted about Richardson's vision.

Taking these points together, then, Richardson's model of providence at work is not one that could be expected to establish a lasting tradition of any great significance.

Tom Jones

Richardson's contemporary Fielding was a writer who did not share Richardson's apparent morbidity; and in his work too there remains a hint of providential overruling underlying purely naturalistic events. But it is not a pattern of deliverance in answer to prayer such as appears in Pamela. Rather, Fielding’s approach in Tom Jones is to create a comic pattern whereby the coincidences of a carefully-contrived plot bring about a happy ending; and this, he suggests, is the work of a 'Fortune' that corresponds to a fundamentally beneficent divine ordering of the real universe.

The plot of Tom Jones includes numerous such coincidences: the meeting of the Man of the Hill with his father[20], and with his friend Watson[21]; the unexpected meeting between Sophia and her cousin[22]; Jones finding Sophia's pocket-book[23]; the fact that the incompetent highwayman whom Jones takes pity on is his landlady's cousin[24]; the discovery of Blifil's villainy by 'a very odd accident'[25]; and so on. Fielding remarks at one point that

...certain it is, there are some incidents in life so very strange and unaccountable, that it seems to require more than human skill and foresight in producing them. Of this kind was what now happened to Jones, who found Mr Nightingale the elder in so critical a minute, that Fortune, if she was really worthy all the worship she received at Rome, could not have contrived such another.[26]

All these are the contrivances of a consciously non-realistic work of art. And yet they bear an oblique relation to reality: Fielding's reference here to 'some incidents in life' indicates that some sort of parallel is intended to exist between what he is describing and the real world. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are several points in the fiction – contexts that are not especially 'low' or comic, particularly utterances by Allworthy – when instead of referring to 'Fortune' he suggests that the real 'final cause' behind the development and patterning of events is 'Providence':

Here an accident happened of a very extraordinary kind; one indeed of those strange chances, whence very good and grave men have concluded that Providence often interposes in the discovery of the most secret villainy, in order to caution men from quitting the paths of honesty, however warily they tread in those of vice.[27]

'I need not, madam,' said Allworthy, 'express my astonishment at what you have told me... Good Heaven! Well! the Lord disposeth all things.'[28]

And, in a passage of great topical significance in a book published just four years after the 1745 rebellion:

I had been for some time very seriously affected with the danger to which the Protestant religion was so visibly exposed, that nothing but the immediate interposition of Providence seemed capable of preserving it.[29]

It seems reasonable, then, to conclude with Martin Battestin that:

The design of Tom Jones mirrors a similar Order ... in Fielding's universe. Another, equally celebrated feature of the book, the omniscient narrator himself, functions, as both Thackeray and Wayne Booth have observed, as a kind of surrogate providence in the world of the novel, whose wit and wisdom we rely on and whose intrusions into the story keep us constantly aware of the shaping intelligence that arranges and governs all contingencies and will bring the characters at last to their just rewards... As the divines whom Fielding read and admired were at pains to make clear ... it is Providence, not Fortune, that contrives the extraordinary casualties of life. The happy accidents and surprising reversals in Fielding's novel remind us of the manipulating intelligence of the author who conducts the story, as those in real life are signs of the Deity's providential care.[30]

The concept of the author as surrogate providence is no invention of Thackeray or Wayne Booth. Fielding himself articulates it:

This work may, indeed, be considered as a great creation of our own.... The allusion and metaphor we have here made use of, we must acknowledge to be infinitely too great for our occasion, but there is, indeed, no other, which is at all adequate to express the difference between an author of the first rate, and a critic of the lowest.[31]

However, the parallel between 'Fortune' in Fielding's novel and the providential ordering in real life is not unambiguous. It is obvious from several of the references to 'Fortune' that, whatever overall pattern may be meant by this notion, in any specific context it can refer to a capricious accident, rather than an act of God:

Mr Fitzpatrick ... flew directly upstairs ... and unluckily (as Fortune loves to play tricks with those gentlemen who put themselves entirely under her conduct) ran his head against several doors and posts to no purpose.[32]
Indeed Fortune seems to have resolved to put Sophia to the blush that day, and the second malicious attempt succeeded better than the first; for my landlord had no sooner received the young lady in his arms, than his feet, which the gout had lately very severely handled, gave way, and down he tumbled.[33]
And now Fortune, according to her usual custom, reversed the face of affairs, the former victor lay breathless on the ground, and the vanquished gentleman had recovered breath...[34]

That the specific references to 'Fortune' are not intended to represent a direct parallel to the nature of providence in reality may also be deduced from Fielding's criticisms of Richardson, as Battestin points out:

The events in the novel ultimately lead toward a comic Apocalypse – that last, improbable, joyous catastrophe in which true identities are discovered, the innocent redeemed, an unerring justice meted out to one and all. How is it, then, that one of the absurdities of Pamela that Fielding ridiculed was Richardson's insistence that virtue was rewarded in this world? 'A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine', Fielding remarked in Tom Jones (XV.i), 'to which we have but one objection, namely that it is not true'. Why, one may well ask, should the happy conclusion of Fielding's own fiction be considered any less intellectually reprehensible than that of Pamela? The answer is implicit in what we have been saying so far about the relation of form to meaning in Tom Jones. Whereas Richardson offers Pamela to us as a literal transcription of reality, Fielding's intention is ultimately symbolic.... Ultimately he asks us to consider not Tom Jones, but 'HUMAN NATURE', not so much the particular story of one man's fall and redemption, as the rational and benign scheme of things which the story and its witty, genial author imply.[35]

Indeed, in the passage Battestin cites, Fielding derides the doctrine that 'virtue is the certain road to happiness' as both un-Christian and false ('We have in our voyage through life seen so many other exceptions to it'[36]). The reason why he can depict virtue leading to happiness in Tom Jones is that his purpose is not what we might understand by the term 'realism'; it is 'by no means necessary', he insists, for an author's 'characters, or his incidents' to be 'such as happen in every street, or in every house, or which may be met with in the home articles of a newspaper.'[37] As a good neo-classicist, he is depicting the universal, not the particular; and the relation between the pattern he indicates and the realities of the lives of individuals is unspecified.

The fact that he is a neo-classicist has two other results. It means that his characters are static 'types' rather than individuals in their own right, and consequently do not have the ability to develop in the way that would be necessary if they were to be depicted in a dynamic relationship with providence.[38] Auerbach remarks in Mimesis that a crucial difference between the classical and Judaeo-Christian traditions is that in the latter we find a wide range of qualities and development within one character, whereas the classical characters tend towards 'types' or 'humours' that are static and easily summarized in ethical terms.[39] It would not have been easy for Fielding to take the forms of the classical tradition and force their characters to develop under the hand of providence in a way presupposing the concerns of the Judaeo-Christian worldview.

Fielding's neo-classicism also involved something of the ‘segregation of styles’, which meant that his choice of comedy as his form hindered the use of Christian supernaturalism in his subject-matter.[40] In the Preface to Joseph Andrews he remarks that the comic romance such as he is writing:

differs from the serious romance in its fable and action, in this; that as in the one these are grave and solemn, so in the other they are light and ridiculous: it differs in its characters by introducing persons of inferior rank, and consequently, of inferior manners, whereas the grave romance sets the highest before us.

So, at the close of that preface, he feels the need to apologise for introducing a clergyman into 'the low adventures in which he is engaged'; and it becomes plain why he felt he could not 'introduce into his works any of that heavenly host which make a part of his creed', as he remarks in Tom Jones.[41] 'Man therefore is the highest subject (unless on very extraordinary occasions indeed) which presents itself to the pen of our historian.'[42]

It is noticeable, too, that he states a deliberate intention not to explore the causality underlying his narrative events; when relating a marked change in Partridge's circumstances, Fielding comments that 'as we are very far from believing in any such heathen goddess' as a personified Nemesis, we wish Mr John Fr--, or some other such philosopher, would bestir himself a little, in order to find out the real cause of this sudden transition, from good to bad fortune... for it is our province to relate facts, and we shall leave causes to persons of much higher genius.[43]

These tongue-in-cheek remarks confirm that while the pattern of 'Fortune' in Tom Jones matches Fielding's belief in the overall beneficence of providence, it is not intended to represent a providential causality behind individual events as they take place in the real world. Fielding's basic beliefs are not given any close working out in the lives of his characters. Such a 'supernatural realism' was not his purpose.


It is striking to see how Fielding's approach had altered by the time he published Amelia in 1751. Amelia may be said to be a less neo-classical and more deliberately 'realistic' novel than Tom Jones. The long authorial disquisitions, drawing attention to the fictive nature of the work, have largely disappeared; the names tend to be ordinary names rather than the 'typical' kind that many characters in Tom Jones possessed[44]; and the depiction of London as experienced by a family in straitened circumstances has the flavour of daily life. It is, interesting, therefore, that this closer relation to realism is accompanied by a clearer use of a Christian concept of providence.

On the novel's very first page, Fielding distances himself from the use of 'Fortune' that underlay the coincidence-based plot of Tom Jones:

The distresses which they waded through were some of them so exquisite, and the incidents which produced these so extraordinary, that they seemed to require not only the utmost malice, but the utmost invention, which superstition hath ever attributed to Fortune: though whether any such being interfered in the case, or, indeed, whether there be any such being in the universe, is a matter which I by no means presume to determine in the affirmative. To speak a bold truth, I am, after much deliberation, inclined to suspect that the public voice hath, in all ages, done much injustice to Fortune, and hath convicted her of many facts in which she had not the least concern.[45]

At this point, he affirms instead the importance of 'natural means' and the extent to which people follow 'the directions of Prudence'. Within a few pages, however, we find his hero Booth in prison, and there the idea of providence emerges; the first villainous character he encounters is one in part marked out by his being 'a deist, or, perhaps, an atheist; for, though he did not absolutely deny the existence of a God, yet he entirely denied his providence.'[46]

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that faith in providence is to be set over against attitudes based around fortune. To speak of fortune is to speak superficially[47], and though this is acceptable in passing[48], the novel makes clear that a safe passage through the difficulties of life depends on penetrating to a deeper (or higher) perspective. Booth escapes unhurt from a duel with the pugnacious Colonel Bath; 'it was Fortune's pleasure, and neither of our faults', says the latter[49]; but Amelia sees it differently: "'Oh, Heavens!" cried she, falling upon her knees, "from what misery have I escaped, from what have these poor babes escaped, through your gracious providence this day!";'[50]

In fact the character who gives her name to the book, and whose unblemished nature is the anchor for her family's survival, is sustained throughout by a strong faith in the overruling of providence. When Booth has to go abroad in the army, he finds the grief-stricken Amelia 'on her knees, a posture in which I never disturbed her'[51]; and her responses to crisis are of a piece with this commitment to prayer: 'Heaven will, I doubt not, provide for us'[52]; 'I have been guilty of many transgressions ...against that Divine will and pleasure without whose permission, at least, no human accident can happen... I am shocked at my own folly'[53]; 'The tears burst from her eyes, and she cried -"Heaven will, I hope, provide for us.";'[54] (It is perhaps Amelia's strength of feeling – even though it makes her over-prone to swooning – and her expressive affection for her husband, that keep her from appearing a colourlessly perfect saint-figure.)

Her faith finds its mentor in Dr. Harrison, the clergyman who is in the end the architect of Booth's escape from misfortune. Again, it is important to note that this man who proves a wise guide and effective rescuer in life's misfortunes grounds his own conduct on faith in the eternal world. His letter to Booth in Paris challenges him that it is when 'we are not in earnest in our faith' that we become troubled by our experience of 'temporary and short transitory evils' – though Harrison knows he is acting the radical in saying so: 'If one of my cloth should begin a discourse of heaven ... at Garraway's, or at White's; would he gain a hearing... would he not presently acquire the name of the mad parson?'[55] When Booth is converted to Christianity, Dr.Harrison’s comment is 'The devil hath thought proper to set you free'[56] (and as A.R. Humphreys comments, 'Fielding means this literally[57]). It is such a man, Fielding insists throughout Amelia, who is best able to find his way through the complexities of the social universe that is depicted with grainy realism in the novel.

There is, indeed, an awareness that providence has its unfathomable complexities. Mrs. Atkinson, recalling her own experience of seduction, speaks of her discovery of the attempted betrayal of Amelia as 'mere accident... unless there are some guardian angels that in general protect innocence and virtue; though I may say, I have not always found them so watchful.'[58] As the book's action comes to completion, however, Booth and Amelia are brought out of misfortune; and the final passage is one with clear providential overtones. Robinson the deistic gambler, seriously wounded, informs Harrison that he has had a chance encounter with Amelia in a pawnbroker's. Or not by chance; Robinson now wants to repent before his Creator, and knows he has a wrong against Amelia weighing on his conscience, which this chance encounter gives him the opportunity to undo. 'I think further, that this is thrown in my way, and hinted to me by that great Being; for an accident happened to me yesterday, by which, as things have fallen out since' (i.e. his being wounded and so facing up at last to his responsibilities before God) 'I think I plainly discern the hand of Providence.'[59] The doctor sees it the same way: 'Good Heaven! How wonderful is thy providence!'[60] The result of Robinson’s confession is that good triumphs, evil is unmasked, and Amelia comes at last into her rightful property.

Amelia's story, the doctor suggests, is a paradigm, an example of the providential purposes being completed in a visible manner in this world, rather than being left ambiguous as may occur in other instances: 'Providence hath done you the justice at last which it will, one day or other, render to all men.'[61] Fielding's classicism is not left entirely outside the happy resolution; Booth has had a dream the previous night of their fortunes being restored, and the doctor declares he has 'a rather better opinion of dreams than Horace had. Old Homer says they come from Jupiter', and he proceeds to quote Homer on the certainty that 'If Jupiter doth not immediately execute his vengeance, he will however execute it at last.'[62] But the classical heritage is here being used to testify to the certainty of divine providence active in the real world.

An outburst of praise to the Christian God is Amelia's response to her deliverance, as we might expect; not casually, either, but 'falling on her knees' once again.[63] And Fielding is wise in making her immediately follow it like this: 'Starting up, she ran to her husband, and, embracing him, cried, “My dear love, I wish you joy";'; her strength of human feeling, expressed despite Dr. Harrison's recommendation to avoid 'any violent transports of mind', gives essential colour to her faith. One suspects that Fielding is wise also to make his final reference to the action's causality in terms of a lighthearted allusion to the very 'fortune' that he undermined on the opening page: 'As to Booth and Amelia, Fortune seems to have made them large amends for the tricks she had played them in their youth.'[64] He has shown us the deeper perspective; but this is a story, not a sermon; better, therefore, to close on the casual note, given that it has already been made quite clear how events are really organized.

Fielding died three years after Amelia. In this his last novel, therefore, we can see how his deepening moral concern and his increased interest in the realistic depiction of 'true history' come together in a novel of ordinary life based on a clear providentialism. But the future did not lie that way. As saint-figures go, the resolute yet passionate Amelia is not unattractive. But it is less easy to write a colourful novel about such a figure than about a picaresque and promiscuous rogue like Tom Jones. Fielding had a partial solution to this problem, in that much of Amelia's most interesting action happens to her husband; she and Dr.Harrison pray, trust, encourage, explain, and simply go on living. But as the centrepiece character, the title character, of a book, Tom Jones has the stronger power. Fielding's earlier, picaresque novel, with its much vaguer commitment to the actions of providence in the real world, was the one to be more central in the English novel's developing tradition.

Goldsmith and Smollett

Fielding's practice is similar to that of some other eighteenth-century authors. Oliver Goldsmith, the author of The Vicar of Wakefield, can be seen as standing in the neo-classical tradition, and he does not attempt a realism of the kind that marks Robinson Crusoe or Pamela. However, The Vicar of Wakefield is closer to them than is Tom Jones. Goldsmith does not scruple to portray a clergyman in his narrative (although, indeed, the narrative is not as 'low' as some parts of Fielding); and there is a much clearer reference to providence.[65] Goldsmith's vicar, Mr Primrose, is distinguished by his faith. When his son leaves home, he reminds him of the text, 'I have been young, and now am old; yet never saw I the righteous man forsaken, or his seed begging their bread.'[66] After their house has been burnt down, he urges his (recently seduced) daughter, 'Our happiness... is in the power of one who can bring it about a thousand unforeseen ways, that mock our foresight.’[67] Prayer forms an important part in Mr Primrose’s life: at the start of each day his family 'all bent in gratitude to that Being who gave us another day'[68]. When his misfortunes conclude in him being thrown into the debtor's prison, he goes to sleep 'after my usual meditations, and having praised my heavenly corrector'[69]; and his reaction to his eventual deliverance is 'as soon as I found myself alone, I poured out my heart in gratitude to the giver of joy.'[70] Indeed, even in jail he seeks to accomplish God's work (and be a good Augustan) by bringing order to the society within the prison; some passages that are both humorous and realistic follow as Goldsmith describes his attempts to get the prisoners' attention. The loss of his last hope, when his son appears as a prisoner guilty of a capital offence, is itself made a pretext for a sermon on providence, that he hopes will have a powerful effect on the prisoners.

The fact that Primrose suffers both from naïveté and intellectual pride (but to an extent that is gently comic rather than obnoxious) serves to make him and his attitudes acceptable, in a way that would not be so if he were a total paragon of virtue and wisdom. Indeed, Goldsmith presents both Primrose and his wife expressing their confidence in the protection of providence at exactly the wrong moment, immediately before a catastrophe.[71] This much weakness is necessary to make Primrose tolerable.

Overall, his faith in God is conveyed sufficiently strikingly to mean that, when the denouement comes and the family's fortunes are restored, Primrose's own providential and worshipping interpretation of the situation seems to be the right one.

However, the numerous improbabilities on which Goldsmith's comic denouement depends[72] make it clear that The Vicar of Wakefield is not intended to be a realistic novel. The beneficent patterning of events is, as in Tom Jones, an expression of faith in the general overall benevolence of providence.[73] The basic appropriateness of a providential worldview is expressed, but not what that means in everyday reality.

Providentialism is conspicuous by its absence from much other eighteenth-century fiction. It is significant that the hero of Johnson's Rasselas makes his extensive investigations into the meaning of existence and the 'choice of life'[74] without any hint of a superintending providence drawing him towards God.[75] And in Smollett the absence is clearer still. Most of Smollett's fiction is picaresque, comic, non-idealist – very definitely on the 'lower' side of the 'segregation of styles'. But the picture that results seems virtually to imply a metaphysic. As Leopold Damrosch remarks,

Roderick Random... puts its unlovable hero through a series of disasters and recoveries that are as random as the title suggests, and ends by conferring wealth, a wife, and a long-lost father he has done nothing to deserve. The tale eventually gets somewhere, but not for any good reason; the hero eventually learns something, but not much... Roderick inhabits a Lucretian universe of ceaseless change that is at once random and determined: random in that it responds only to the swerving and rebounding of atom against atom in their fall through the void; determined in that every rebound leads to another rebound, and there is thus plenty of causation even though no presiding principle organizes the whole.[76]

The 'segregation of styles' may be only a formal principle, but comedy of Smollett's kind creates a vision of a certain kind of amoral, patternless world: in much of his work, as Alastair Duckworth says, 'Life is assumed to lack order.'[77]

A somewhat mellower picture of the world is to be found in Humphry Clinker, which appeared at the end of Smollett's life; and here belief in providence is given rather more treatment. But such a faith is still either mocked or patronised as a belief fit only for the weak minds of women or of servants (such as Humphry Clinker himself, who is a keen Methodist): for example, in Mrs Jenkins' disastrously-misspelled letters:

Ould Scratch has not a greater enemy upon earth than Mr Clinker, who is, indeed, a very powerful labourer in the Lord's vineyard. I do no more than use the words of my good lady, who has got the infectual calling; and I trust that even myself, though unworthy, shall find grease to be excepted.[78]

Likewise among the upper classes: 'my good lady', Tabitha Bramble, is as fervent a Wesleyan as her servant, but all too obviously her faith is part of her matrimonial schemes[79]; Lydia, the niece of the Bramble household, is a believer in the work of providence[80] (though not a Methodist), but she again is clearly young and inexperienced. The real mouthpieces of commonsense in Humphry Clinker, the shrewd 'men of the world', are old Matthew Bramble (who in some respects resembles Smollett himself) and his nephew Jery; and though somewhere at the root of their view of life there seems to be a vague faith which occasionally surfaces in the most general of terms[81], their usual attitude is a supercilious scorn of any practical expressions of faith.[82] A good example is Jery's attitude after they have all narrowly escaped drowning on the Firth. (During the crisis the servants have turned to 'prayer and ejaculation'; Matthew Bramble, in contrast, 'sat, collected in himself, without speaking.')

To be sure (cried Tabby, when she found herself on terra firma), we must all have perished, if we had not been the particular care of Providence.' 'Yes (replied my uncle), but I am much of the honest highlander's mind – after he had made such a passage as this: his friend told him he was much indebted to Providence;– "Certainly (said Donald), but, by my saul, mon, I'se ne'er trouble Providence again, so long as the brig of Stirling stands."[83]

Rather more ugly is the incident where Bramble and Jery find the other members of their household at a Methodist chapel hearing Clinker, the footman, preach. Jery comments that Humphry led the singing 'with peculiar graces', but nonetheless 'I could hardly keep my gravity on this ludicrous occasion'; and what strikes Bramble 'was the presumption of his lacquey, whom he commanded to come down, with such an air of authority as Humphry did not think proper to disregard... My uncle, with a sneer, asked pardon of the ladies for having interrupted their devotion, saying, he had particular business with the preacher, whom he ordered to call a hackney-coach.' In the subsequent interview Bramble demands, 'What right has such a fellow as you to set up for a reformer?', and browbeats Clinker into a denial of his sense of calling. Bramble himself is treated slightly ironically by Smollett, but there can be little doubt that he and Jery are being presented as the most sensible participants in the incident; Clinker's co-religionist, Mrs Tabitha, does their cause no good by callously criticising him when he backs down.[84]

In fact in preaching to Clinker 'the light of reason, which you don't pretend to follow'[85], Bramble identifies himself as a good Augustan, a follower of moderation in all things[86]not the kind of person to whom the enthusiasm of Methodism, with its faith in a God who was disturbingly present in the everyday world, seemed very attractive. Yet Humphry Clinker appeared in 1771, a stage in the 'Age of Reason' by which it was becoming obvious that the 'light of reason' might need to be complemented by other sources of significance. The 'man of feeling' had made his appearance in fiction (Mackenzie's novel of that name appeared the same year); and in Humphry Clinker Smollett (like his contemporary Sterne) has a lot of time for sentiment.[87] As a result there is a curious ambiguity in the presentation of Clinker.[88] Though as a Methodist he comes in for the ridicule to which believers in simple Christianity seem doomed in English fiction (from Nashe's attacks on the Anabaptists through to Dickens savaging the dissenters of his era), yet there seems to be a grudging recognition that he embodies something genuine which, somehow, the 'men of the world' of the age of reason may have missed; when an example of simple goodness is needed, Smollett is forced to make use of a Methodist.[89] One example of this ambivalence is Smollett's presentation of a scene in which Clinker is mistakenly arrested; while in jail he brings about a virtual revival among the prisoners, in a manner similar to Goldsmith's Mr Primrose:

The turnkey ... looked remarkably sullen; and when we enquired for Clinker, 'I don't care, if the devil had him (said he); here has been nothing but canting and praying since the fellow entered the place – Rabbit him! the tap will be ruined – we han't sold a cask of beer, nor a dozen of wine, since he paid his garnish – the gentlemen get drunk with nothing but your damned religion... Two or three as bold hearts as ever took the air on Hounslow, have been blubbering all night; and if the fellow an't speedily removed by Habeas Corpus, or otherwise, I'll be damned if there's a grain of true spirit left within these walls.'

Jery's own description of the scene makes clear that all this is 'not for him'; and he uses the colourful vocabulary appropriate to ridiculebut there is something too genuine for him to press the attack home:

I never saw any thing so strongly picturesque as this congregation of felons clanking their chains, in the midst of whom stood orator Clinker, expatiating in a transport of fervor, on the torments of hell, denounced in scripture against evil-doers, comprehending murderers, robbers, thieves and whore mongers. The variety of attention exhibited in the faces of those ragamuffins, formed a group that would not have disgraced the pencil of a Raphael. In one, it denoted admiration; in another, doubt; in a third, disdain; in a fourth, contempt; in a fifth, terror... The gaoler's wife declared he was a saint in trouble, saying, she wished from her heart there was such another good soul, like him, in every gaol in England.[90]

The challenge Clinker poses to Smollett's world is not an insignificant one – he is, after all, the book's title character. But in the end, Smollett declines to endorse the radicalism Clinker stands for, even though he recognises in it a goodness of genuine power: in Smollett's world the truly shrewd are too clever to take on board the faith of the Methodists. It must be left to the women and the servants. And so the providence Clinker believes in remains, once again, absent from the structure of the narrative.

Nor does providential faith find much more expression in the fiction of Sterne, vicar though he was. The general ethos of Tristram Shandy may reflect an easy-going belief; but the task of establishing any real engagement between his book and the world of reality remains (entertainingly) beyond Tristram's grasp. Hence, no close working-out of providentialism in the everyday can be attempted in it. But in these instances where no such working-out exists, the result can all too easily be the kind of divorce between the general credal statement about God’s activity on the one hand, and its grounding in any practical particulars on the other, that writers like Francis Schaeffer have seen as a key problem in the theological thinking of the modern era.[91] The danger is that where the general belief that God has acted in history cannot be expressed in particular terms, then, as Os Guinness says, 'What starts as a factual assertion is gradually reduced to a particular religious way of looking at things.'[92] It becomes less and less clear what 'living by faith' means in the mundane world. For practical purposes life is to be seen in a naturalistic way. And that is the picture presented by the novel as the century proceeds.

Latitudinarianism and the Anti-Romance Reaction

We should finally note two other factors in the eighteenth-century milieu that may have been of significance in accentuating the novel's loss of God: the dominance of Latitudinarianism in religion, and the reaction against the romancers.

Latitudinarianism was a movement within Anglican theology that was a significant influence on Fielding and Sterne in particular.[93] It tended to stress charity above (and therefore as distinct from) dogma; in reaction, no doubt, to the violent doctrinal warfare of the previous century, the dogmatism of which had often been far from charitable. But this emphasis tended to devalue and marginalize concern for the believer's relationship with the supernatural realities of his faith. Latitudinarianism was very much a creed of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on a rationalistically-based morality, and its beliefs in the ability of man to achieve and know this morality without such a radical revolution of grace as was necessitated by the Fall of humankind as the Puritans understood it. Of course, if man can more or less reform himself, then the activity of God in history becomes less important, or at least less distinguishable from history itselfwhich brings us back towards deism. Latitudinarians would still pray, of course; nonetheless, the supernatural was to them something of a peripheral reality. Theirs was a conservative creed, a well-behaved part of the orderly Enlightenment world.

In a Latitudinarian author, then, we expect to find an emphasis on natural order and charity in society and the universe, rather than individual salvation, or the Puritan emphasis on being 'strangers and pilgrims', traces of which are still visible in Defoe. Such a well-behaved, orderly creed fits neatly with the neo-classical influence in the work of a writer like Fielding: the basic direction of the plot of Tom Jones is, as Watt says, a 'return to the norm', which demonstrates a 'fundamentally static quality.'[94] In Latitudinarianism there was no desire for radicalism: 'Above all', says A.R. Humphreys, this movement 'feared "enthusiasm", that ardent sense of divine stimulus which had fired the sects of the seventeenth century.'[95] So Fielding's stress on charity, and Sterne's concern in The Sermons of Mr.Yorick with 'philanthropy, and those kindred virtues to it, upon which hang all the law and the prophets'[96], signal their commitment to a theological tradition that was not overwhelmingly anxious to see the supernatural intervening in their world.[97] The tendency towards an anti-supernaturalistic convention in the novel was a product of its times theologically as well as philosophically.

Again, it should be noted that, in their interest in a 'normal universe' consisting of that which was perceivable by the senses, the eighteenth-century novelists were consciously reacting against the earlier continental romance tradition of writers like de Scudery, de la Calprenede and d'Urfe; and a key aspect of this reaction was the rejection of what could be considered 'marvellous' or 'wonderful'. 'What the duce', wrote Richardson to Miss Mulso, 'do you think that I am writing a Romance? Don't you see that I am copying nature?'[98]; and his criticism of romances was that they 'gave me no pleasure; for ... they dealt so much in the marvellous and improbable.'[99] Fielding stresses the need to keep 'within the rules of probability.'[100] Smollett attacks the writers of romances as having arisen 'when the minds of men were debauched, by the imposition of priestcraft, to the highest pitch of credulity'; these authors, he says, having lost 'sight of probability, filled their performances with the most monstrous hyperboles.'[101] Miriam Allott sees Scott as summarizing the development up to his time by distinguishing the Novel'a fictitious narrative, differing from the Romance, because the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society,' from the Romance 'which turns upon marvellous and uncommon events.’[102]

One wonders whether, in this exclusion of the unusual, the 'religious supernatural' tended to be parcelled up and rejected along with the purely 'fantastic' in which the romancers loved to deal: to be fair, such a combination was an amalgam that some of the saints' legends had plentifully provided. In these, thundered Holcroft late in the century,

Secure from criticism, by the tremendous alliance between their works and THE FAITH, the more improbable the story, the greater was its merit.[103]

Hence, the young novel tradition's need to mark out a territory distinct from that of the romancers may have been a further factor combining with the Enlightenment's sense of an orderly, regular universe to establish a consensus as to what was 'probable' which stayed within a closed, naturalistic system. The novel form, complained Leslie Fiedler, was 'invented precisely (as Samuel Richardson himself once boasted) to drive the "marvellous" and "wonderful" from the realm of prose fiction'[104]: and the intervention of providence, which is certainly 'wonderful' in one way or another, tended to be a casualty.[105]

When one puts together all these factorsthe philosophical background of the Enlightenment; the absence of any tradition of fiction based on supernaturalistic realism; the neo-classical aesthetic doctrine of the Stiltrennung or 'segregation of styles'; the decline of Puritanism as a living force, and its eclipse by Latitudinarianism; the reaction against the 'marvellous' in the romancersit is not surprising that the developing novel tradition tended to become, in practice, naturalistic; based on what we might call a 'lowest-common-denominator' view of reality, stressing the world as perceived by the senses and the generally-agreed virtues. By the late eighteenth century a convention had been established, whereby the novel left God out of the world, and yet still considered the resulting picture adequate.


[1] Samuel Richardson, Pamela (First Part, 1740; all references are to the 1946 Everyman edition), p.1.
[2] Ibid, p.2.
[3] Ibid, p.10.
[4] Ibid, p.40.
[5] Ibid, p.53.
[6] Ibid, p.70.
[7] Ibid, pp.89-90.
[8] Ibid, p.91.
[9] Ibid, pp.81-82.
[10] Ibid, p.452.
[11] Ibid, p.150.
[12] Ibid, p.152.
[13] Ibid, p.149.
[14] Ibid, p.151.
[15] Ibid, pp.276-277.
[16] Ibid, p.451.
[17] Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (New York, 1953: Harper edition of 1961), p.54.
[18] Graham Greene makes the interesting suggestion that in Richardson's (very different) contemporary Fielding 'Evil is always a purely sexual matter: the struggle seems invariably to take the form of whether or not the "noble lord" or colonel James will succeed in raping or seducing Amelia, and the characters in this superficial struggle... do tend to become less and less real' (Collected Essays (1969), p.73). This loss of the significance of evil seems to have been a general eighteenth-century problem.
[19] Louis B. Wright, Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England (North Carolina, 1935), pp.476-77.
[20] Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749; Penguin edition of 1966), p.419.
[21] Ibid, p.423.
[22] Ibid, p.511.
[23] Ibid, p.561.
[24] Ibid, p.643.
[25] Ibid, p.838.
[26] Ibid, p.682.
[27] Ibid, p.819.
[28] Ibid, p.837.
[29] Ibid, p.426.
[30] Martin C. Battestin, in his introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'Tom Jones', ed. Battestin (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1968), p.12.
[31] Tom Jones, p.467.
[32] Ibid, p.489.
[33] Ibid, p.511.
[34] Ibid, p.622.
[35] Battestin, op.cit., pp.12-13.
[36] Tom Jones, p.697.
[37] Ibid, p.367.
[38] Cf. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957; Pelican edition of 1972), pp.309, 312. Admittedly, some of the characters do undergo changes; Tom Jones learns prudence, Square repents. But Jones is fundamentally the same good-natured individual at the beginning of the book as at the end, and Square's repentance smacks of the plot device – even though it is narrated in thoroughly providential style: 'God hath however been so gracious to shew me my error in time' (Tom Jones, p.624).
[39] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Berne, 1946; trans. W.R. Trask, Princeton, 1953), pp.17-18.
[40] Although Fielding professes his impatience with the 'many rules for good writing' (Tom Jones, p.200), this does not apply to the more 'noble critics' (p.507).
[41] Ibid, p.362.
[42] Ibid, p.363.
[43] Ibid, p.95.
[44] The point is Watt's (op.cit., p.22); he also notes that epic diction and the mock-heroic have been abandoned, and that the reader no longer needs to recognise the book's analogy with classical epic to appreciate it (pp.290-91). He describes Fielding's 'increasingly serious moral outlook' as resulting in a disillusionment with his earlier models, and cites the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon'spreface, where Fielding departs from classicism so far as to wish Homer had written 'a true history of his own times in humble prose' (pp.291-92). Here again the swing towards the realist approach, and a deepened moral concern grounded in a Christian providentialism, seem to come together.
[45] Fielding, Amelia (1751; Everyman edition of 1962), Vol.I, p.3.
[46] Ibid, p.14. It should be added, however, that the next villain Booth encounters is a methodist who calls on Booth to 'rejoice at' his crime, whatever it might be, because wrongdoing makes 'room for grace. The spirit is active, and loves best to inhabit those minds where it may meet with the most work' (Ibid, p.19.) To Fielding, deism and antinomianism were equally dangerous to practical Christianity.
[47] Eg. ibid, p.177: 'Such rises we often see in life, without being able to give any satisfactory account of the means, and therefore ascribe them to the good fortune of the person.'
[48] Cf. the narrator's own use in ibid, Vol.II, p.69.
[49] Ibid, Vol.I, p.232.
[50] Ibid, p.234.
[51] Ibid, p.99.
[52] Ibid, p.170.
[53] Ibid, Vol.II, p.70.
[54] Ibid, p.242.
[55] Ibid, Vol.I, p.141. Cf. also Fielding's extended presentation of the doctor’s enthusiasm over the glories of worship, and the profound effect his words have on Amelia: 'One of the greatest and highest entertainments in the world... Suppose ... I should carry you to the court... Ay, suppose I should have interest enough indeed to introduce you into the presence.... Indeed, I am serious... I will introduce you into that presence, compared to whom the greatest emperor on the earth is many millions of degrees meaner than the most contemptible reptile is to him' (ibid, Vol.II, pp.151-52).
[56] Ibid, p.288.
[57] Ibid, Vol.I, p.xiii.
[58] Ibid, p.68.
[59] Ibid, p.293.
[60] Ibid, p.294.
[61] Ibid, p.299.
[62] Ibid, p.306.
[63] Ibid, p.307.
[64] Ibid, p.311.
[65] It is interesting to speculate whether the stress on 'Providence' rather than 'Fortune' is linked to Goldsmith's interest in biography, and the presentation of The Vicar of Wakefield as a kind of spiritual autobiography (cf. Stephen Coote's introduction to the Penguin edition, pp.10-11), in view of the providentialist tendencies of the spiritual auto-biography tradition.
[66] Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766; Penguin edition of 1982), p.45.
[67] Ibid, p.144.
[68] Ibid, p.50.
[69] Ibid, p.155.
[70] Ibid, p.196.
[71] Ibid, pp.169-71.
[72] Eg. the fact that Mr. Burchell is really Sir William Thornhill; the kindness of Jenkinson; the unreality of the deaths of Primrose's daughter and the person his son had supposedly killed; the arrival of Miss Wilmot; the documentation of Olivia's marriage.
[73] Goldsmith interrupts his narrative towards the end to remark, 'Nor can I go on, without a reflection on those accidental meetings, which, though they happen every day, seldom excite our surprise but upon some extraordinary occasion. To what a fortuitous concurrence do we not owe every pleasure and convenience of our lives' (ibid, p.188). The novel as a whole gives a providential cast to these 'accidents', perhaps, as with a similar passage (quoted above) in Tom Jones, p.819. But though these remarks point towards reality, as does the Fielding passage, they do not alter the basically non-realistic nature of the book.
[74] Samuel Johnson, Rasselas (1759; Penguin edition of 1976), pp.75-76.
[75] It is true that at the close the 'choice of eternity' comes to dominate the 'choice of life' in the princess' thinking (ibid, p.149); it is also true that there is one occasion when Imlac directs her attention to the sovereignty of God, when Pekuah is kidnapped (p.112). But this suggestion is an isolated instance; and the final emphasis on 'eternity' is not matched by any this-worldly action of grace in Rasselas' searchings.
[76] Leopold Damrosch, God's Plot and Man's Stories (Chicago, 1985), p.286.
[77] Alastair Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate (1971), p.16.
[78] Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker (1771; Penguin edition of 1967), p.189.
[79] Eg. ibid, p.173.
[80] Ibid, pp.39, 376.
[81] Eg. Matthew Bramble on p.63 and p.383, and (probably) in the 'wonderful interposition' of p.203. Jery doesn't tend to make comments of this kind.
[82] It is not surprising to find the approving narrative Smollett includes of the death of an individual named Hewett, who chose to fast to death, and 'finished his course with such ease and serenity, as would have done honour to the firmest Stoic of antiquity' (p.218). Christian content is completely lacking at this point; the classical heritage has replaced it again.
[83] Ibid, pp.266-67.
[84] Ibid, pp.169-71.
[85] Ibid.
[86] Eg. the attacks on excess and passion, pp.333, 369, 374.
[87] Eg. ibid, pp.302-03.
[88] Eg. ibid, pp.220-21.
[89] An interesting parallel is the apparently simplistic faith and goodness of Dilsey among the ubiquitous meanness of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.
[90] Humphry Clinker, pp.183-84.
[91] Cf. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (1968), passim.
[92] Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (1973), p.341. See also Antony Flew, 'Theology and Falsification’, in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (1955), pp.95-97, and the essays that follow.
[93] See A.R. Humphreys, The Augustan World (1954), ch.4, or Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason (1970), pp.70-72, 157-59.
[94] Watt, op.cit., pp.306, 308. See also Daniel P. Fuller, Easter Faith and History (1965), pp.28-29.
[95] A.R. Humphreys, 'The Social Setting', in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. Boris Ford, Vol.iv, p.41.
[96] Quoted in Peter Faulkner, Humanism in the English Novel (1975), p.24.
[97] Wesley complained that 'The doctrine of a particular providence is absolutely out of fashion in England – and any but a particular providence is no providence at all' (quoted in Damrosch, op.cit., p.190).
[98] Samuel Richardson, in a letter to Miss Mulso (5 October 1752), quoted in Miriam Allott, Novelists on the Novel (1959), p.41.
[99] Richardson, Pamela, quoted Allott, ibid.
[100] Fielding,Tom Jones, p.363.
[101] Tobias Smollett, Preface to Roderick Random (1748), quoted Allott, ibid, p.43.
[102] Sir Walter Scott, Essay on Romance (1824), quoted Allott, ibid, p.15.
[103] Thomas Holcroft, Preface to Alwyn (1780), quoted Allott, ibid, p.46.
[104] Leslie Fiedler, 'Ishmael's Trip', The Listener, 3 August 1967, p.135.
[105] The influence on Fielding, Smollett and Sterne of the prince of anti-romancers, Cervantes, was perhaps a further force pointing in the same direction; parodic, balancing different and opposed notions of reality, unlikely to express any view of the world more serious or radical than a general benevolence.

© 2009 Pete Lowman
Fictional Absence is published here by the kind permission of the author.