Greatness vs. Goodness in Henry Fielding’s “Jonathan Wild” (1743)

Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
Ticket to the Hanging of Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

I have previously written on this blog about London’s first mob boss, Jonathan Wild (1682-1725). He was the Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland. In the days before the establishment of a police force in England, thief takers were men who were hired by the victims of robberies to effect the return of their stolen goods. In time, he became the master of nearly all the criminals in London.

He was the subject of numerous criminal biographies, including one written by the novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731).

One of the most lengthy treatments of his life, however, was written by the novelist, Henry Fielding, entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). It is similar to the many criminal biographies of the period, but it is also different in many ways, for this was a satire (which will be explained more fully below).

At the outset, Fielding explains himself to the reader, telling them why he has decided to call this quite reprehensible man ‘the Great’. All the great men of history, he says, are in effect bad people:

Greatness consists of bringing all manner of mischief on mankind, and Goodness in removing it…In the histories of Alexander and Caesar, we are frequently, and indeed impertinently, reminded of their benevolence and generosity, of their clemency and kindness. When the former had with fire and sword overrun a vast empire, had destroyed the lives of an immense number of innocent wretches, had scattered ruin and desolation like a whirlwind, – we are told, as an example of his clemency, that he did not cut the throat of an old woman, and ravish her daughters, but was content with only undoing them.

This is what “great” men do, whilst “good” men do the opposite.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Fielding beguiles his readers into thinking that Wild is a hero (in the proper sense of the word – a man to be admired, respected), etc. And Fielding proceeds to write about his ‘hero’ as though he were some illustrious person, exercising all the qualities of “great” men. For example, when he works behind the scenes to have one of his own friends imprisoned in Newgate, Wild immediately goes to visit his friend in gaol, ‘for he was none of those half-bread fellows who are ashamed to see their friends when they have plundered and betrayed them.’

Wild, the ‘Great Man,’ as all great men do, has nothing but contempt for good men. This is shown by his treatment of an old school friend called Mr. Heartfree. Fielding writes that this Mr. Heartfree:

Had several great weaknesses of mind; being too good-natured, friendly, and generous to a great excess. He had, indeed, little regard for common justice…his life was extremely temperate, his expenses solely being confined to the cheerful entertainment of his friends at home.

Of course we, the reader, secretly want to sympathise with Heartfree, especially when Wild moves things behind the scenes to have him committed to gaol and hanged (he does this a few times in the novel).

Towards the end of the novel, however, Fielding tells the reader that they were silly, all along, to admire such a creature as Wild, when he is finally arrested for being a receiver of stolen goods, and Fielding lists the qualities of this “great” man in great detail, so that his readers too would know when they came across “greatness” in a fellow and avoid them. Wild lays down his maxims for being a great man in the following way:

  1. Never to do more mischief to another than was necessary to the effecting his purpose; for that mischief was too precious a thing to be thrown away.
  2. To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
  3. Never to communicate more of an affair to the person who was to execute it.
  4. Not to trust him who hath deceived you, nor who knows that he hath been deceived by you.
  5. To forgive no enemy; but to be cautious and often dilatory in revenge.
  6. To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
  7. To maintain a constant gravity in his countenance and behaviour, and to affect wisdom on all occasions.
  8. Never to reward any one equal to his merit, but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
  9. A good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring any advantage.

This was not merely an attack on Wild, however, for it was also a critique of politicians, and in particular the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Walpole was the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and, in Fielding’s view, entrenched his power in the world of courtiers and MPs in the same way that Wild set himself up as the master of London’s low-life and thieves. Walpole was regularly lampooned in the press, and even was equated with Robin Hood on occasion. The constant references to “greatness” and “great man” are a reference to Walpole, who in his role as Prime Minister was often derogatorily called “The Great Man”.

Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild)
Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild) [Source: http://www.corbould.com/artists/rc/rc_ex.html%5D

To Fielding, there was no difference between the great men in high life and those in low life.

But I think Fielding’s lessons on goodness and greatness have resonance beyond the 18th century. When people think of history, they often do so in terms of a “great man” approach, and they often (I do on occasion) confuse goodness in a man with greatness. They are not the same thing. Napoleon was a great man, but he was not a good man. Fielding says of Caesar similarly that:

When the mighty Caesar, with wonderful greatness of mind, had destroyed the liberties of his country, and with all the means of fraud and force had placed himself at the head of his equals, had corrupted and enslaved the greatest people whom the sun ever saw; we are reminded, as an evidence of his generosity, of his largesses [gifts] to his followers and tools, by whose means he had accomplished his purpose and by whose assistance he was to establish it.

Fielding chose Caesar and Alexander because the Georgians practically idolised the Classical period, but the same could be true of our own day and our veneration of, say, Winston Churchill. The English nation praises him for being a Great Man, but he was not necessarily a Good Man.

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8 thoughts on “Greatness vs. Goodness in Henry Fielding’s “Jonathan Wild” (1743)

  1. […] Daniel Defoe’s authorship has also been ascribed to three criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). It has been suggested by some scholars that Defoe was actually Charles Johnson, but I have discussed the credibility of that in another post. We know that Defoe definitely authored novels whose protagonists were criminals, such as Moll Flanders (1722), whilst Henry Fielding authored an embellished acccount of Wild’s life entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). […]

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  2. […] In the literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries Newgate gaol looms large. Indeed, it gave its name to The Newgate Calendar, a compendium of criminals’ lives that appeared frequently throughout the eighteenth century. Newgate was an idea as much as a place. The people in it constituted, as Henry Fielding declared in his novel The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743): […]

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