In the context of British novelists of the twentieth century, Gabriel Fielding presents some characteristics that distinguish his work sharply from that of mainstream novelists and at the same time place him firmly in a tradition that, in fact, goes back to the realistic social novel of Daniel Defoe. Fielding’s distinctiveness lies in a steadiness and explicitness of worldview and ethical philosophy that raise his novels well above mere stories or entertainments; his identification with British literary tradition reveals itself in the spell he casts as a storyteller whose characters, plots, and settings have the dramatic quality of those found in the works of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, striking the reader’s mind like reality itself and haunting the memory forever. The result of what is, for a British novelist, an unusual combination of philosophical outlook and intensity of fictional realization is an integrated creativity that expresses the writer’s unified sensibility of spirit and mind and that evokes within the reader an intense and often uncomfortable urge to reassess his or her own preoccupations and prejudices, yet whose effect is ultimately cathartic.
Fielding’s major novels—In the Time of Greenbloom, The Birthday King, and Gentlemen in Their Season—pursue and explore a theme that is found more frequently in the European novel than in the British: that of individual responsibility in an irrational world. Each of the three novels has a different “world” as its setting—a middle-class English county, Nazi Germany, and postwar liberal London—but the dilemmas of decision and action that face theprotagonist in each novel are of the same kind. The novels’ settings reflect the stages of Fielding’s own life: country vicarage and Oxford, wartime military service, and postwar intellectual life in London. In many ways one feels that the novels represent a working-out in fiction of the writer’s own perplexities, which were not resolved until his emigration to the United States—to the more primal setting of eastern Washington State and the Moscow Mountains, where it is clear that Fielding found a peace and joy of life, and a professional satisfaction, that had eluded him in England.
The Blaydon novels
The autobiographical element of Fielding’s work is seen most clearly in the four novels concerning the Blaydon family. The family name itself is a well-known Northumbrian place-name, while the chronicles of John Blaydon—spanning childhood in Brotherly Love, adolescence in In the Time of Greenbloom, adulthood and medical studies in Through Streets Broad and Narrow, and wartime medical service in The Women of Guinea Lane—reflect the early progress of Fielding’s own life. Of the three Blaydon novels, In the Time of Greenbloom is the most striking, with its presentation of a guilt-ridden and domineering adult society bent on finding sin in the young. In the novel, twelve-year-old John Blaydon is wrongly blamed for the death of his friend Victoria Blount, who has been murdered by a hiker in a cave. He is made the scapegoat for an adult crime, and he is ready to acquiesce in the guilt forced on him by the adult world when he is saved by the ministrations of Horab Greenbloom, an eccentric Jewish Oxford undergraduate who applies to John’s sense of guilt a bracing dose of Wittgensteinian positivism and Sartrean existentialism. Greenbloom’s therapeutic interest is that of one scapegoat for another, and his remedy is to make John see that the empty, abstract categories of the adult moral scheme lead ultimately to personal irresponsibility and inevitable pangs of guilt that must be transferred to the innocent and vulnerable for punishment.
Fielding had initially explored the theme of blame, and the accompanying figure of the scapegoat, in Brotherly Love, in which John observes and chronicles the moral demolition of his older brother, David, by their domineering mother. She forces David to become a priest, thereby perverting his natural creative talents into sordid sexual encounters and alcoholism. In this earlier novel, the adult world is only too successful in transferring its empty notions of duty, faith, sin, and shame to the adolescent, but there is no suggestion of an alternative, redemptive way. In the Time of Greenbloom offers hope for redemption in the magus figure of Greenbloom through his resolute opposition to spurious objective abstraction and his insistence that John must make his own moral decisions and not accept those offered by his elders. (In this and in several other respects, Fielding anticipates the concerns and solutions offered in Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy.)
The Birthday King
The theme of guilt, blame, and the scapegoat principle is one that preoccupies Fielding in all of his major novels, but nowhere does it achieve more compelling realization than in The Birthday King, which elevates and generalizes John’s suffering in a northern English county to the agony of a whole race in wartime Nazi Germany. The novel chronicles the rise and...
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