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Les Âges de la vie en Grande-Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle

Serge Soupel

Première partie. Aspects théoriques, philosophiques, historiques, artistiques, culturels et religieux

Generation in William Hogarth’s Marriage-a-la-mode

Peter De Voogd

Texte intégral

1At the beginning of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey its narrator Yorick says that “they order this matter better in France” (what the matter is, is never explained, but everybody seems to agree) — and William Hogarth evidently thought so too. When he wanted his most ambitious series of what he called his “modem moral subjects” engraved (it had been painted in 1743), he went to Paris to find the engravers to do it. He engaged Louis Gérard Scotin, Bernard Baron and Simon François Ravenet — but the heads he engraved himself, “for the better Preservation of the Characters and Expressions” (as he put it in the advertisement which he wrote for the series and which will be quoted more fully below). The series had even been given a French title (or rather, one that to an English ear would sound French): Marriage a-la-Mode. The (English) spelling of “marriage” with double R makes all the difference, and the adjectival “a-la-Mode” was in fact English and meant something like “as now fashionable on the continent”. The subject matter of the series, finally, could hardly have been more English.

2In this essay I will look at the series from the point of view of “generation”, a word which is highly ambiguous. The great Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows (and I select from two full columns what little I need):

[s.v. generation] The act or process of generating or begetting physically... the fact or manner of being begotten [and related to that: the] manner of descent: genealogy, pedigree.... Offspring... descendants, posterity... the whole body of individuals born about the same period... family, breed, race; class, kind, or “set” of persons.

3And Samuel Johnson, in his great Dictionary of the English Language, which I always use first when I want to know the eighteenth-century sense of a word straightaway, gives, considerably more concisely, and in the precise order of semantic importance:

  1. The act of begetting or producing.
  2. A Family; a race.
  3. Progeny; offspring.
  4. A single successsion; one gradation in the scale of genealogical descent.
  5. An age.

4In the following analysis of Hogarth’s series I will take the whole of this rich semantic field of “generation” in consideration. I will first describe in general the six scenes of which Marriage a-la-Mode consists, commenting as we move from one scene to the next on what happens in these wonderfully rich canvases. I will then, more briefly, consider the very personal application which the idea of “generation” may have had for Hogarth himself, and, after that speculative intermezzo, zoom in on a more specifically “generational” reading of Marriage a-la-Mode. I will move freely from the paintings (which may be seen in the National Gallery in London in the full splendour of their colour) to their black and white engraved versions, but can illustrate only the latter; they are, as always, in reverse, owing to the technical peculiarities of the engraver’s art. This, incidentally, is one more reason to doubt the truth of the notion that we are meant to “read” Hogarth’s scenes from left to right, an issue to which I will have to return below.


  • 1 See my account of the series in Henry Fielding and William Hogarth: The Correspondences of the Art (...)

5Hogarth advertised on the 2nd of April 1743 in The London Daily Post, and General Advertiser that he had finished and would sell by auction what he called “a Variety of Modem Occurences in High-Life” to be called Marriage a-la-Mode. He hastened to assert (rather ingenuously) that there “may not be the least Objection to the Decency or Elegancy of the whole Work, and that none of the Characters represented shall be personal”1. Ingenuously, since as a matter of fact most of the locations depicted were well-known interiors and quite a few of the characters portrayed were easily recognizable. Moreover, the series depicted activities that few would consider decent: adultery, whoring, murder, suicide. Elegantly executed it certainly was, but its “Decency” could be questioned, and its obvious topicality did make it quite “personal”.

6The original title of the first scene [Fig. 1] was “The marriage settlement” (the text on the frame in the National Gallery — the paintings were reframed as well as renamed in the 19th century — says more neutrally: “The marriage contract”) and what we see is the following. An old Earl, whose name Lord Squanderfield appears in the engraving, gouty foot on stool, and coronet-bearing crutches by his wide seat, points to the last branch of his pedigree, and gazes at the opposite wall. His steward holds out a deed of Mortgage against a backdrop which indicates the reason for the transaction which we are witnessing: the Earl has been impoverished by his fashionable building activities, which seem to lead to a monstrosity of bad Palladian taste judging by the view through the window. The house is ill-designed, its Windows disproportionally small, its portico much too big for its size, rather like the man who is having it built, a mere façade. The merchant-alderman who is about to exchange the mortgage for a marriage settlement which will bring his daughter into the peerage is ill at ease, his ceremonial sword hangs uneasily between his legs, and the chair’s foot emphasizes his heavy posture. In the background to this Fathers’ deal we see the couple to be thus joined in wedlock, seated back to back, the Viscount taking snuff and gazing discontentedly in the mirror, the alderman’s daughter playing with the wedding band through which she has pulled her over-sized handkerchief. She is sulkily listening to a young lawyer’s plea — he puts his foot in, so to speak, and it is his face that we see reflected in the mirror — note the dogs unwillingly chained together, note also the apalling clash of fashion and taste: the interior is William and Mary (the sash window, and the canopied bed date this room, as does the State portrait of the Earl as a hero in Marlborough’s campaigns, which is in the manner of seventeenth-century Charles Le Brun), but the ill-built house in the yard is at least fifty years later in style. In this first scene the main theme of the series is set: fathers and children, old and new, and the cynical potential of regeneration in a world where debts and mortgages contracted are to be exchanged for a noble title. “Mortgage”, by the way, in Johnson’s Dictionary is described as “a dead pledge”, and the quotation to illustrate this sense is taken from John Dryden, and reads as follows:

Th’ estate runs out and mortgages are made,
Their fortunes ruin’d, and their Fame betray’d.

7Which is a quotation so apt to the scene in which a deed of mortgage holds so central a place that one wonders whether Johnson had this scene in mind when he selected it.

8The second scene [Fig. 2] was originally called “The tête à tête” (the frame in the National Gallery has, more tamely: “Shortly after the marriage”, and I much prefer the irony of the original title, as the newly wed were hardly tête à tête in the first plate and certainly are not so now). The marriage has taken place, and Alderman’s daughter and Earl’s son are going their seperate ways. The Methodist steward leaves with unpaid bills (the book in his pocket is entitled “Regeneration”, of which there seems to be none for his master). The steward’s bill is dated in the painting “Rec.d 1743”; and in the print this has become “Rec.d June 4.1744”. The title’s “a-la-Mode” definitely means “fashionable, here and now” and Hogarth updated his cycle quite purposefully, even if this means fictional nonsense: the whole series obviously must take some time to happen, indeed lasts at least several years and spans three generations, and ends in the death of the protagonists. The date on the unpaid bill must (according to the laws of narrative logic) rather considerably predate the time of painting, i.e., actual narrating, since the whole sequence of events narrated has its origins in the past. Hogarth’s giving the bill the date of the actual painting/engraving of the scene, therefore, serves no narrative function, on the contrary, but is there to underscore the topicality of his satire. The Viscountess has received visitors at home. It is quite late — card-playing (Hoyle’s popular book on Whist lies on the floor), music-making, her sensual stretching, the overturned chair and coupled violin-cases suggesting “fiddling” (slang for illicit sex), just as the Viscount’s hangoverish posture, loose shirt, broken sword, etc. suggest a night of debauch elsewhere. The dog, semi-aroused (a detail heightened in the engraving), sniffing out the girl’s ribboned cap in his pocket only confirms what is also suggested by the mantelpiece and fireplace: the dying embers, the cupid playing the bagpipes among the ruins, the cat preying on the fish in the omately ugly rococo clock, all these indicate that the young couple have no sexual interest in each other. Grown further apart, she entertains at home while he finds his pleasures abroad. Stylistically, the room mixes rather than blends styles Palladian, Rococo, fashionable Chinoiserie, and dull Grand Tour — the evangelists over the yawning servant in the farther room clashing with the half-curtained dirty picture (one suggestively naked foot only is visible). The dominant sense is that of smell: the noseless bust, the sniffing dog, the last whiff of dying candies, the smoky fire.

9The dog’s nose leads us to the third scene [Fig. 3], “The inspection” (the text on the frame says more directly, “The visit to the quack doctor”). The overdressed girl in blue has the very bonnet on her head that the dog in the previous painting was sniffing at; she is far too young for the fashion she’s wearing (her clothes are too large for her size as well), the gold watch hanging from her girdle (a costly status Symbol then) also indicates that her income will be from prostitution. The Viscount is gaily protesting and weakly threatening, the pillbox at his crotch, in his hand, in the girl’s hand, indicating how the quack doctor, M. Misaubin, nicknamed M de la Pillule, in whose office we are, has not succeeded in curing the Viscount’s venereal ailment — virgins were considered a cure, and the procuress is ready to defend her professional honour as the doctor is cleaning his spectacles (a curious reminder of the alderman’s spectacles in Plate I) whilst the inanimate objects in this cabinet filled with medical curiosities underscore the scene’s main message: the alchemical laboratory, in which life’s elixir was to be invented, leads but to the venereal skull, the Viscount’s raised cane is as ineffectual as the narwall’s supposedly medicinal unicorn, and the skeleton making love to the fleshed out model under the tripod gallows is a sinister warning of things to come.

10As the fourth scene makes clear [Fig. 4], the wife has not been idle, either. The coronets in her boudoir indicate that the old Earl has died, and that we must call the Viscountess a Countess now, as her husband will have come into the title. The lawyer whom we saw in the first scene is back, in person, but also in the large portrait on the wall, and he is now inviting her to a masquerade (which is depicted on the screen to which he points so gaily). All this happens very much in the open, in public morning meeting, at “The Countess’s morning levée” (as the tile on the frame has it; Hogarth’s original title was “The toilette”). The dominant sense of this plate obviously is that of hearing: as the bejewelled castrato sings under a painting of Ganymede, various fashionable visitors listen whilst sipping their morning coffees, the lady in white exaltedly near-swooning, her husband with hunting whip in hand nearly dropping off. The hairdresser doing the Countess’s hair is all ears — forgetting his curling tongs — while the lawyer (his name is Counsellor Silvertongue, as the last scene will tell us) casually stretched out on the sopha (the licentious novel by Crébillon Fils of the same title lies on it by his side) makes his adulterous appointment, indecently at ease, their affair conducted without any discretion, while the (fashionable) negro servant points knowingly at Actaeon’s horns on the statuette bought at the auction. Note the time gap: from the (now) Countess’s chair hangs a child’s teething ring with coral charm — note also her watch, which recalls that of the girl prostitute in the previous scene, and the bed so dominant in this room, recalling the canopied bed in the first scene. The paintings on the wall refer to Ganymede and Io taken by Jove, Lot seduced by his daughters — no good can come of this.

11And indeed, what is called, as indication of place “The bagnio”, and more explicitly on the frame: “The killing of the Earl”, spells out the outcome [Fig. 5]: the husband, warned no doubt by the hairdresser, has surprised his wife and the lawyer in the bagnio (originally a public bath-house, like a sauna, but also and more notoriously a place where one could rent a room for one night stands), and we see the room to which they went after the masquerade — their hastily shed clothes on the floor a token of their lust — the fire in the fireplace, casting its clear shadow, causing the Earl’s death in the ensuing broil as the light must have been in his eyes, the lawyer escaping through the window in his shift while the night watch enters the room too late. The most curious intertextual association in this scene has to do with the dying Earl’s posture, which reminds one of a Descent from the Cross, or Entombement of Christ, the mirror acting as ironic halo, certainly when seen in combination with the Countess’s attitude which resembles that of the peninent Mary Magdalen, the whole religious subtext underscored by the painting of St Luke (patron saint of painters as he was reputed to have portrayed the Blessed Virgin Mary) who is gazing on the scene over the door, on which the shadowed cross from the nightwatch’s lantern is rather prominent.

12The last scene [Fig. 6] is now inevitable; called by Hogarth “The lady’s death” (on the frame: “The suicide of the countess”), it portrays how the widowed Countess has committed suicide on the day of her lover’s death by hanging; Counsellor Silvertongue’s “Last Dying Speech” lies at her feet, as well as the bottle of poison with which she has taken her own life. Apparently, she returned to her father’s house after the death of her husband. We are in the City of London, and through the window (the top light of which carries the City’s coat of arms in stained glass) we see London Bridge (which is indeed nearly falling down). As a suicide’s properties fell to the State, her father salvages what little he can from the wreck of his daughter’s life: her golden ring (with which the whole tragedy began in the first place). The doctor leaves, the apothecary scolds the weak-witted servant, and the starving dog takes the pig’s head left unattended on the table. The paper curlers in the hair of the idiot servant (cheap labour, no doubt) who is dressed in a cast-off coat of his master’s are an ironic reminder of the fop sipping coffee at the Countess’s levée. The alderman’s taste is as low as the paintings on the wall. As a Dutchman it pains me to say that these low paintings are in the Dutch manner. Recently bought (it has not yet been framed) is a peasant making water against the wall of his barn, which partly obscures from view a still-life which contains considerably more food than the miserly amount on the actual dining table; finally there is a Dutch carousal scene in which one drunkard lights his pipe from the nose of another drunkard. An addition made to the print is the spider’s web in the window light — the symbolism of which should be obvious. Caught in the web of predetermining fate all the characters in this sad tale have come to their necessary ending — Hogarth was a Naturalist “writer” avant le lettre. Above all, note the child taking loving leave of its mother: we see its father’s scrofulous sore, apparently congenital, on its cheek, the depressed forehead, blubber lips, enlarged head, the weak leg in surgical iron braces indicating rickets, and stunted body — this sole descendent will not live long, and it will be the last of this “noble” generation.


13It is one of the many subtle poignancies of this great series that the only portrayal of affection is found in this final scene, and that it comes from the innocent victim of its parents’ misbehaviour. It would be interesting to make a special study of Hogarth’s portrayal of children. He did an astounding range of them; perhaps the best known one is the beautifully painted portrait of the Graham children from 1742 [Fig. 7], like Marriage a-la-Mode on display in the National Gallery, and life-size (160 by 180 centimeters), in which the children’s expressions are as realistic as the setting is symbolic. Amor and Time are personified on the clock to the left, and a very realistic cat is eying a caged bird on the right — the caged bird an emblem of virginity, as are the eldest daughter’s cherries — she is the only one to look out of the painting, knowingly, into the grown-up world — but note also how the boy’s face mirrors the greedy cat, the girl in the middle is vainly posing, and the youngest girl, although she is still holding a half-eaten biscuit, looks avidly at her sister’s still unplucked cherries. The signs are very slight, but unmistakable, that even these well-to-do and as yet innocent children will have their weaknesses and will give in to them in due course.

14Elsewhere Hogarth’s scenes contain quite a few equally unidealized children, more often than not breaking things, crying bitterly, making water, making noise, being cruel to animals. That would have been another lecture, and I can assure you that Hogarth was no idealizer of children — even the portrait of the children of Lord Grey (unillustrated here; it hangs in St. Louis, Missouri) shows one of the Grey children shaking an unfortunate spaniel puppy by the hind leg. Just look at these three pictures of children in Hogarth: the crying boy [Fig. 8] in “Noon”, one of the Four Times of Day (1738), clutching the broken plate — one can almost hear him — while the girl stuffs one piece of the fallen pie in her mouth and grabs for another; or the overdressed boy in “Evening” [Fig. 9], unhappily holding his gingerbread figure, in tears as his fierce-looking sister demands it, threatening him with her fan; and the group that Hogarth added to the fourth scene of A Rake’s Progress [Fig. 10], a collection of that terrifying species that peoples his modem moral subjects and is far too benignly described as “Street urchins”. Mere children, they gamble openly in broad daylight, with dice and cards; the boy with the star tattoo has lost all his clothes to his companion except for his cap and trousers, other boys are playing at cards — the boy on the far right cheats, as he has a fellow behind the other player’s back who signals the contents of his cards to him.

  • 2 Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times (New Haven: Yale UP, 1971) 2: 85.

15It is a fact too seldomly noticed that Hogarth had no children himself. At least, Ronald Paulson States “I have found no record of any children of the Hogarths, either in the parish registers or in the family Bible”2, and as we know, if Paulson hasn’t found it, it doesn’t exist. Might this perhaps explain Hogarth’s profound and active (and in all likelihood vicarious) interest in the Foundling Hospital? It surely is significant that each of the great series concludes with a last glimpse at the children involved, as innocent victims: the child which the Rake has with Sarah Young made to visit him in Newgate, the boy in mourning for his mother in the last scene of A Harlot’s Progress, and here again, this poor and malformed last of the Squanderfields.


16To return to Marriage a-la-Mode: the rich colouring of the paintings is important for the first and overriding effect they have, of beauty and, indeed, “Elegancy” — but also in the engravings the marked contrast between form and content is noticeable, sometimes almost embarrassingly so, as when the allusion to a descent from the cross and Mary Magdalen is entirely inappropriate. It is instructive to gaze at these compositions in horizontal bands, and see how in the play of hands and gestures the elegant rococo curves, and Hogarth’s very serpentine “line of beauty” connect the various degrees of avarice, vanity, lust, and mere stupidity. Such horizontal readings yield details one might otherwise miss, whether one looks at the engravings or at the paintings: contrary to what Paulson and others have said, we do not “read” these crowded scenes from left to right.

  • 3 Robert L.S. Cowley, Marriage A-La-Mode: A Review of Hogarth's Narrative Art (Manchester UP, 1983).

17Direction doesn’t matter, I think, because whatever direction we look (the plates are small enough to take in as a whole, anyway), in scanning the surface one connects elements in criss-cross fashion and piecemeal. I have long stopped looking for over-elaborate symbolic or emblematic readings of the kind Ronald Paulson has been handing out over the years, many of which are repeated with some extra thrown in for good measure in Robert Cowley’s near-exhaustive and rather exhausting over-reading of Marriage a-la Mode3. The school of iconographic interpretation of genre painting, which originated in my own university of Utrecht, has too often been misapplied to read every mirror as a vanity symbol, every cast off shoe as an indication of lechery, every dog as emblematic of faithfulness, every child as innocent. I much prefer a more common-sensical reading which consists in, on the whole, just looking in close-up, and connecting the various hundreds of elements that make up these scenes so as to trace how the chains of cause and effect, the whole convoluted narrative works. Scanning particular sections, or focusing on a particular corner of all the six plates, may yield interesting observations. Thus, it appears that all six paintings have a kind of opening to the right (or to the left, in the engravings, of course): Windows in plates 1 and 6, doors in plates 3 and 5, the open fireplace in plate 2, and the screen with the masquerade scene painted on it in plate 4. What one is to make of such symmetries (except noticing them) is rather unclear, but I might suggest that the masquerade screen is, at least to the Countess, one way-out of a stifling and constricting marriage she never wanted in the first place. Or one might scan a plate horizontally, thus: in the quack doctor’s room we place the various gestures that take place in the middle “band” of the composition from left to right as follows: the girl, arms tight to body, holding a closed pillbox, and dabbing her mouth’s sores with her handkerchief, the much larger hand of the Viscount (which emphasizes the girl’s extreme youth) raising the cane, the other hand holding out wide an open pillbox, the procuress, moving slightly away from him with her body, though turning her head towards him, opening a clasp-knife, the doctor polishing one glass of his spectacles with a handkerchief while his thumb must dirty the other glass — and all this within the framework provided by the vials and machinery in the laboratory in which life’s secrets are to be discovered, on the far left, and on the right, the mummies, and (final resting place of the scanning eye, and still point that ends the swinging movement of all this gesturing) the syphilitic skull. Memento mori, indeed. Or the more crowded curves of the fourth scene, where the two main groupings, centred in the theatricality of the lady in white’s unnatural pose, are framed by the similarly exalted lawyer and castrato singer, at either end — both, of course, semi-actors who make their living with their voice, both social poseurs.

18Indeed, all the plates share this interweaving, this chaining of cause and effect, each incident and detail generating the others, each movement mirrored. The subject of the series has everything to do with “generation” in the dictionary senses of the word, with begetting progeny, and with social class. But also in a wider sense, Marriage a-la-Mode is a matter of generation, of the begetting of a subsequent series of events. The right word for this sequence of fatal decisions is, indeed, a cycle, with all which that word inevitably implies: this series about succession is replete with meaningful repetition and recycling, in which the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. There is grim justice in the title of the book which the Methodist steward carries in his pocket in the second plate: “Regeneration” (deflated by the fact that he is serving both God and Mammon, Regeneration in his pocket and bills in his hand), and there is comic irony in the following juxtaposition: the ill-placed cannon in the oversized painting of the old Earl on the battlefield in the opening scene (it is fired nearly from the groin — if only his sole descendant had been as forceful) — is it far-fetched to compare this with the significantly placed pillbox near the groin of his son in the third plate? Such repetitions and juxtapositions give perfect order to these teeming plates, and enable us to read this sequential cycle as if it were a visual palindrome, that is to say, a series that yields analogies from front to back as from back to front, with a still point in the middle.

19A detailed comparison of the first and the last scenes, for instance would yield these striking similarities and correspondences: both scenes have, in the same corner, a window through which we can locate the interior: the fashionable West End, and the city of London respectively, both also show buildings that totter and dilapidate; the alderman’s City arms proudly displayed in the window light, and his wearing (and displaying on his wall) the robes and chain of his office is echoed in the old Earl’s omnipresent coronets; in a curious and comic way the glaring dog in the last scene echoes the Earl in the first one, just as the horizontal William the Conqueror on the family pedigree echoes the fallen chair’s horizontal plane, and the lawyer bending over the alderman’s daughter in the opening scene is ironically echoed by the old nurse in the last one; the old Earl’s crutches are echoed in his grandchild’s surgical braces; and the alderman now takes the ring off the bride he had given away in the first scene; the paintings on the walls reflect the high and low styles of the fathers; first and last scenes are corresponding, both containing fathers and children, generations, views, wedding rings, dogs, even the contrasting perspective angles make these two scenes complementary. My ideal hanging of the cycle would be thus, palindromatically combining first and last, second and all-butlast, third and fourth, all the time side by side, as I describe them here. Such patterning in corresponding pairs is typical of epic poetry, which is why, for instance, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is in twelve books, Satan’s first visit to Paradise in book 4 is repeated in the corresponding 4th from the end, book 9. In order to view Marriage a-la-Mode as a series of corresponding analogues, which generate multiple ironies, all one needs to do is place plates 1 and 6, 2 and 5, and 3 and 4 together, side by side.

20Plates 2 and 5 both take place at night (all other scenes are in daylight), and both portray husband and wife together. Different though the interiors are, the paintings on their walls share more than one might think at first. In the bagnio the picture of the prostitute with the squirrel in her hand doesn’t tally with the wall-painting of Solomon’s judgment — the soldier’s legs make the prostitute look like a Scot, just as the ugly mantelpiece in the Viscount’s salon crazily combines a cupid playing the bagpipes, and a Roman general; the saints Matthew, John and Andrew in the salon are joined by the bagnio’s St Luke, and a closer look at the lower horizontal band of the plates suggests further correspondences (note the fallen chairs, the coupled objects indicating how time has been spent, the swords).

21Plates 3 and 4, finally, correspond as daytime scenes both, depicting the pastimes of husband and wife separately, one plate containing the mistress, the other the lover; in both interiors we see the owners’ collections, curios in Misaubin’s case, bric-a-brac bought at an auction in the Countess’s, in both the characters are larger than life, exalted, gesturing, and both rooms contain numerous allusions to unnatural love-scenes (the skeleton making love to a model, Io being raped by Jupiter, Lot’s daughters seducing their father, etc).

22This takes me to my last picture [Fig. 11], and a last meaning of the idea of “generation”, relating to the OED’s “family, breed, race; class, kind” and moving towards the strictly 18th-century term “kind” as meaning generic species, or genre. An important due is found in the famous manifesto-like engraving from 1743 which served as the “subscription ticket” to the engraved series of Marriage a-la-Mode. The series was sold by subscription, and the subscribers received this small engraving in return of their first half Guinea. In the caption to this marvellous study in heads, which refers to and “quotes” intertextually from Raphael, Ghezzi, Carracci, and Leonardo Da Vinci, and shows itself the whole range of generations from young to old, and from children’s scratch to advanced drawing technique — in that caption Hogarth explicitly refers the viewer to Fielding’s preface to Joseph Andrews to read more about his middle position between the sublime and the grotesque, between character and caricature. Fielding’s tremendously important introduction to his new concept of prose fiction writing for which the genre-name of novel had not yet been invented contains a passage in which he explicitly mentions Hogarth as “Comic History-Painter”; this is the passage to which Hogarth refers the viewer in Characters and Caricaturas. Fielding’s Preface also contains a key-passage, in which he defines what he was really up, as follows:

  • 4 Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews, ed. M.C. Battestin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) 3-4.

Now a comic Romance is a comic Epic-Poem in Prose; differing from Comedy, as the serious Epic from Tragedy; its Action being more extended and comprehensive; containing a much larger Circle of Incidents, and introducing a greater Variety of Characters....4

23a definition that would equally fit Marriage a-la-Mode. That paradoxical phrase “comic Epic-Poem in Prose” yields our last twist to the notion of generation and Marriage a-la-Mode: the wholly generic one. All those artful and artificial palindromatic correspondences (and I suggested but a few out of many) are just as many reminders that Hogarth’s art, like Fielding’s, is epic in its being interested in the founding of generations, and their comic or tragic decline, in the history of the nation, in posterity, and in the very special characteristics of their unique novel art-form. To label that art proudly “epic poem” is to claim for it the highest prestigious ranking of the period, and to indicate to the connoisseur that here is high art, in which all the elements are artfully structured and organised in bound language, as in a classic epic poem. To depict contemporary history is to discuss generation in the composite sense of “descent: genealogy, descendants, posterity... the whole body of individuals born about the same period... family, breed, race; class, kind, or ‘set’ of persons”, and to discuss it in terms of interwoven strands of families and actions, cause and effects, analogies of human, all too human behaviour — the longer we study Marriage a-la-Mode, the more we must admire its masterful portrayal of generation in mid-eighteenth century English society.


1 See my account of the series in Henry Fielding and William Hogarth: The Correspondences of the Arts (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981) 84-96.

2 Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times (New Haven: Yale UP, 1971) 2: 85.

3 Robert L.S. Cowley, Marriage A-La-Mode: A Review of Hogarth's Narrative Art (Manchester UP, 1983).

4 Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews, ed. M.C. Battestin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) 3-4.

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University of Utrecht

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