Literary daybook, March 17

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published March 17, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 17, 1916, Eveline and Anthony MacMurrough discuss Oscar Wilde.
-- "At Swim, Two Boys" (2001)
By Jamie O'Neill

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1740, writing as Captain Hercules Vinegar, Henry Fielding summoned poet laureate Colley Cibber to court, charged with the murder of the English language. Fielding was not only a satiric playwright and novelist but a lawyer (soon, a justice of the peace) and a notorious wag; his joke would have been popular among London's coffeehouse wits, most of whom would know of Fielding's enmity for Cibber, if not share it. Cibber was a well-known but second-rate writer and actor in London, most famous for his adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, in which there was no "winter of our discontent" or "my kingdom for a horse," but such Cibberisms as "Off with his head -- so much for Buckingham!" It was the only version of the play acted in England for over 150 years, so popular that attempts to do Shakespeare's original were booed off the stage.

Cibber was seen by Fielding and the others -- Alexander Pope made Cibber the dunce-hero of "The Dunciad" -- as a puffed-up, self-promoting Man of Literature. In Chapter 1 of "Joseph Andrews," written several years after the murder charge, Fielding takes aim at Cibber's two-volume autobiography, marveling how it "was written by the great person himself, who lived the life he hath recorded, and is by many thought to have lived such a life only in order to write it." In "Shamela," Fielding's earlier parody-novel, his main target is Samuel Richardson -- his "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded" had been wildly popular and, thought Fielding, ridiculous on the topic of sex -- but he takes time to hoist Colley Cibber too, having "Shamela" authored by one "Conny Keyber." Fielding's heroine is a sham Pamela, a young woman who knows that "Fellows have often taken away in the Morning what they gave over Night." She knows exactly how virtue should be rewarded: "a settled Settlement, for me, and all my Heirs, all my whole Lifetime, shall do the Business -- or else cross-legged is the Word, faith, with Sham." This strategy has Squire Booby coming and going on more than one midnight mission:

"Mrs. Jervis and I are just in Bed, and the Door unlocked; if my Master should come -- Odsbobs! I hear him just coming in at the Door. You see I write in the present Tense, as Parson Williams says. Well, he is in Bed between us, we both shamming a Sleep, he steals his Hand into my Bosom, which I, as if in my Sleep, press close to me with mine, and then pretend to awake. -- I no sooner see him, but I scream out to Mrs. Jervis, she feigns likewise but just to come to herself; we both begin, she to becall, and I to bescratch very liberally. After having made a pretty free Use of my Fingers, without any great Regard to the Parts I attack'd, I counterfeit a Swoon. Mrs. Jervis then cries out, O, Sir, what have you done, you have murthered poor Pamela: she is gone, she is gone. -- O what a Difficulty it is to keep one's Countenance, when a violent Laugh desires to burst forth ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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