Book Review

Potter, Tiffany. Honest Sins: Georgian Libertinism and the Plays and Novels of Henry Fielding. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

In Honest Sins: Georgian Libertinism and the Plays and Novels of Henry Fielding, Tiffany Potter offers a fresh and interesting way to situate the work of Henry Fielding. Rather than seeing him as a traditional moralist who had moments of personal backsliding, Potter works to demonstrate the unity of Fielding’s aesthetic work, from the early plays, through Shamela, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Amelia. The concept that unifies these works, and Fielding’s own life, is said to be “Georgian libertinism.” For the way it assumes the priority of individualism, the primacy of pleasure, and propounds a subversive and skeptical view of social and religious and political orthodoxy, Fielding’s writing does articulate a form of libertinism. However, instead of the violent, egotistical, hypersexualized libertine epitomized by the Earl of Rochester, and rationalized through the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, Fielding, according to Professor Tiffany, promoted a moderate, good-hearted and ultimately ethical libertinism, expressed most vividly in the character of Tom Jones. This book offers a quite convincing and fresh reading of Fielding’s work. However, I have two caveats: although the argument pivots upon the notion of a “Georgian” libertinism, relatively little is done to make the case for a broad cultural formation. Instead the focus is always upon Fielding and his works. There is not even a taking into account of the new work done on Fielding’s skepticism and deism, for example in the recent work of Ronald Paulson. Secondly, although this book offers a strong alternative to the traditional Christian interpretation developed by Martin Battestin, like Battestin, Potter is seeking to explain the deeper conscious moral design of Henry Fielding, imagined as the masterful deity of his own work. This is a figure Fielding plays with in the prefaces to Tom Jones, but it is too limiting an assumption for most of Fielding’s contemporary readers.

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