I hesitated before doing a posting on Jonathan Wild for the reason I’ve already given, but here I go anyway. Written after he had already published his first great novel Joseph Andrews, Jonathan Wild appeared originally in Fielding’s Miscellanies, as did A Journey From This World to the Next. In essence it is a parody of “Newgate” books that had a tendency to glamourize the lives of criminals. Fielding writes a mock-heroic biography of a real criminal. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) was notorious for playing both sides of the law. He posed as a respectable businessman who industriously recovered stolen goods and returned them to their owners, while managing to turn in some of the thieves. In this guise he was known as a “thief-taker”. In fact it was he himself who ran London’s gangs of thieves and burglars. He took a generous commission for returning goods his own gangs had stolen and the only thieves he ever dobbed in were those who were expendable to him.
Fielding begins with a mock-heroic account of Jonathan Wild’s ancestors and of his seven years’ transportation in America, and of his sordid quarrels with his mistress Laetitia Snap, who is in fact sleeping with Tom Smirk. Jonathan Wild loses at cards to the cheating Count La Ruse, so he induces Bob Bagshot to rob the count on the highway. He then threatens Bagshot into allowing him to take most of the loot. Jonathan Wild sums up his youthful philosophy when he says: “I had rather stand on the summit of a dunghill than at the bottom of a hill in Paradise” (Book One, Chapter Five) (Read more.)