Even in his lifetime he was generously styled the Great. The scourge of London, he betrayed and destroyed every man that ever dared to live upon terms of friendship with him. It was Jonathan that made Blueskin a thief, and Jonathan screened his creature from justice only so long as clemency seemed profitable. At the first hint of disobedience Blueskin was committed to Newgate. When he had stood his trial, and was being taken to the Condemned Hole, he beckoned to Wild as though to a conference, and cut his throat with a penknife. The assembled rogues and turnkeys thought their Jonathan dead at last, and rejoiced exceedingly therein. Straightway the poet of Newgate's Garland leaped into verse:
Then hopeless of life, He drew his penknife, And made a sad widow of Jonathan's wife. But forty pounds paid her, her grief shall appease, And every man round me may rob, if he please.
But Jonathan recovered, and Molly, his wife, was destined a second time to win the conspicuous honour that belongs to a hempen widow.
As his career drew to its appointed close, Fortune withheld her smiles. `People got so peery,' complained the great man, `that ingenious men were put to dreadful shifts.' And then, highest tribute to his greatness, an Act of Parliament was passed which made it a capital offence `for a prig to steal with the hands of other people'; and in the increase of public vigilance his undoing became certain. On the 2nd of January, 1725, a day not easy to forget, a creature of Wild's spoke with fifty yards of lace, worth
Thereupon he had serious thoughts of `putting his house in order'; with an ironical smile he demanded an explanation of the text: `Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree'; but, presently reflecting that `his Time was but short in this World, he improved it to the best advantage in Eating, Drinking, Swearing, Cursing, and talking to his Visitants.' For all his bragging, drink alone preserved his courage: `he was very restless in the Condemned Hole,' though `he gave little or no attention to the condemned Sermon which the purblind Ordinary preached before him,' and which was, in Fielding's immortal phrase, `unto the Greeks foolishness.' But in the moment of death his distinction returned to him. He tried, and failed, to kill himself; and his progress to the nubbing cheat was a triumph of execration. He reached Tyburn through a howling mob, and died to a yell of universal joy.
The Ordinary has left a record so precious and so lying, that it must needs be quoted at length. The great Thief-Catcher's confession is a masterpiece of comfort, and is so far removed from the truth as completely to justify Fielding's incomparable creation. `Finding there was no room for mercy (and how could I expect mercy, who never showed any)'--thus does the devil dodger dishonour our Jonathan's memory!--`as soon as I came into the Condemned Hole, I began to think of making a preparation for my soul. . . . To part with my wife, my dear Molly, is so great an Affliction to me, that it touches me to the Quick, and is like Daggers entering into my Heart.' How tame the Ordinary's falsehood to the brilliant invention of Fielding, who makes Jonathan kick his Tishy in the very shadow of the Tree! And the Reverend Gentleman gains in unction as he goes: `In the Cart they all kneeled down to prayers and seemed very penitent; the Ordinary used all the means imaginable to make them think of another World, and after singing a penitential Psalm, they cry'd Lord Jesus Christ receive our Souls, the cart drew away and they were all turned off. This is as good an account as can be given by me.' Poor Ordinary! If he was modest, he was also untruthful, and you are certain that it was not thus the hero met his death.
Even had Fielding never written his masterpiece, Jonathan Wild would still have been surnamed `The Great.' For scarce a chap- book appeared in the year of Jonathan's death that did not expose the only right and true view of his character. `His business,' says one hack of prison literature, `at all times was to put a false gloss upon things, and to make fools of mankind.' Another precisely formulates the theory of greatness insisted upon by Fielding with so lavish an irony and so masterly a wit. While it is certain that The History of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild is as noble a piece of irony as literature can show, while for the qualities of wit and candour it is equal to its motive, it is likewise true that therein you meet the indubitable Jonathan Wild. It is an entertainment to compare the chap-books of the time with the reasoned, finished work of art: not in any spirit of pedantry--since accuracy in these matters is of small account, but with intent to show how doubly fortunate Fielding was in his genius and in his material. Of course the writer rejoiced in the aid of imagination and eloquence; of course he embellished his picture with such inspirations as Miss Laetitia and the Count; of course he preserves from the first page to the last the highest level of unrivalled irony. But the sketch was there before him, and a lawyer's clerk had treated Jonathan in a vein of heroism within a few weeks of his death. And since a plain statement is never so true as fiction, Fielding's romance is still more credible, still convinces with an easier effort, than the serious and pedestrian records of contemporaries. Nor can you return to its pages without realising that, so far from being `the evolution of a purely intellectual conception,' Jonathan Wild is a magnificently idealised and ironical portrait of a great man.
(MOLL CUTPURSE AND JONATHAN WILD)