Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Grave of Henry Fielding

[Explicatory Note: the below excerpt is from an old article which describes a visit to the Lisbon British Cemetery of many years ago, and is republished here as an addition to the shockingly inadequate remarks recently published by Colin Davies on his blog Thoughts from Galicia. The text of the full article – called ‘The Father of the Novel and the Mother of the Waters’ - may of course be seen in volume xviii, pp. 1,039-1,072 of The Collected Works of Alfred B. Mittington, (Kriem & DeStraffe: Louvaine 1956), available in any library worth its salt; or by picking up a back copy of the George Borrow Bulletin nº 35, which contains an adapted version. Click HERE for details.]

The sign on the massive iron gate reads, in faultless English: ‘British Cemetery. Visiting Hours 09.00-13.00. Please ring and wait.’ It is an imperfect message. What it ought to say is: ‘Our gate-keeper is over eighty. Kindly ring the bell and return in twenty minutes.’ Fortunately, our profound disappointment stops us from giving up at once. We have come such a long way to visit the site – Ronald all the way from Holland by plane; myself nine hours in a shaky Portuguese bus – that we are loath to relinquish our quest on the spur of a moment. And this is our salvation.

After some ten minutes, as we stand pouting indecisively on the sun-burnt Lisbon side-walk, not knowing what to do and why the door isn’t open at 11.15, we suddenly hear the rumbling and grumbling of rusty locks being forced against their will, and the gate swings open at a snail’s pace to show us, against a backdrop of moss-covered tombstones and blooming shrubbery, a very aged Portuguese lady, who seems to have walked straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She stands no taller than four feet three, leans most unsteadily on a cane even older than herself, and despite the heat comes wrapped in a thick coating of shawls, blankets and what seem to be heavy damask curtains ripped from a theatre stage. I don’t think I ever saw a face more wrinkled, or eyes more squinting against the light of day; and when she speaks, in a rasping voice which miraculously preserves the crystal tones of youth in the last syllables of each clause, I cannot help but remember that “elderly female” whom George Borrow says he met in an Elvas tavern late in 1835, and who assured him that it was ‘more than a hundred years since I was a girl, and sported with the daughters of the town on the hillside’. And it turns out that I am only a decade or so off the mark: for - seeing that she was over 30 when the Great Earthquake struck in 1755 - Borrow computed the age of his Lady Methuselah at some 110 years; and this here old girl is Adelina Pires, aged 98, lifelong caretaker of Lisbon’s British Cemetery, who only recently was awarded a Royal MBE for 70 years of loyal, dedicated and uninterrupted service to the graveyard.

Will she let us in? It seems, at first, that she will not. But it is hard to grasp the reason why. Even Ronald, whose Portuguese is fluent, cannot make heads or tails of what she says; as if this Sybil spoke in oracle tongues impenetrable to the 21st century ear. Only after five or six sentences we begin to make some sense of it. It seems there is a service going on in the St. George chapel, and at such times nosey sightseers are not, on the average, welcome. ‘I really should not ….’, she mumbles. But then she smiles, a broad and toothless smile which bobs on her neck like a cork on a rough sea. She quickly throws a glance over her right shoulder, looks us over once again, seems to give us a wink of the eye, and puts a twiggish finger to her lips. With a long and almost naughty shhhhhht she begs us in. If we promise to be silent like mice and do not steal into the church… We vow to be our very best behaviour, and enter Lisbon’s Protestant graveyard on tiptoe.

Borrow, who visited the site in November 1835, called it ‘a Père-la-chaise in miniature’. It is apt description; but he might better have said that was a ‘Père-la-Chaise in camouflage’. For this is a Protestant cemetery in a deeply Catholic land, and everything has been done to keep this plot, robbed from the Holy Soil of Portugal for the benefit of heretics who will only contaminate it with their vile dead bodies, perfectly inconspicuous and out of sight of the faithful. That is why the gates are kept hermetically closed at all times; why a blind, towering wall of nearly three meters surrounds the site; and why the trees are allowed to cover the whole of the area with an impenetrable blanket of foliage (just imagine that those who live in the top stories of the houses up the hill were to feast their innocent eyes on these pagan graves!)

The effect is slightly claustrophobic. This is not so much in a garden of the slumbering dead, but a dense, antediluvian forest of the sort where Robin Hood might take cover from the Sheriff of Nottingham or druids might celebrate their most lugubrious rites. The tombstones – inscribed in English, Portuguese, German and Dutch, Cyrillic Russian and Biblical Hebrew for the few discreet Jewish graves in a distant corner - lie as thickly on the ground as leaves in autumn; and the whole of the terrain is jam-packed with hedges, cypresses, dwarf-oaks, myrtle-bushes and a variety of flamboyantly blossoming trees unknown to my city-boy’s botany. We are in fact lucky to visit on such a splendidly sunny day. Even now – with sheets of sunlight breaking through the foliage - there is an undeniable, almost subterranean gloominess to the place, which would surely turn outright depressing if the usual Atlantic fog drifted in and covered the skies above.

Courtesy of C. Davies

This desolate atmosphere would almost be enough to reconsider if we really wish to spend a full hour here. But just twenty steps into the grounds proper, we come upon a signboard of immaculate black letters on a spotless white background, which reads “Henry Fielding”, and points us to the only true tourist attraction – if that is the word for it – which the British Cemetery offers: the sepulchre of Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, Amelia and many other works, who was not only ‘the most singular genius which [England] ever produced’, as Borrow formulated it, but has even been called ‘the father of the English novel’ by no one less than Sir Walter Scott. 

The reason why the famous author rests here is, to put it mildly, a little ironic. Fielding – exhausted by his taxing legal work and troubled by a small host of ailments such as gout, dropsy, jaundice and asthma - had come south to fix his failing health. Why in the world he would have picked Lisbon for the purpose is a mystery. By the looks of it, the city was mainly chosen because it could be reached by boat. Aix-en-Provence, Fielding’s preference, was out of the question, because, being perfectly bed-ridden, he could not travel overland, and he lacked the funds to be carried all the way. Then – making a mistake which many have made since – he imagined that Lisbon, which lay hundreds of miles south of Toscane, ‘must be more mild and warm, and the winter shorter and less piercing’.

But Lisbon, then as now, lies on the windward side of the Atlantic, and enjoys the corresponding foul climate. On top of that the city at that time was one of the most crammed, one of the most populated, one of the filthiest and certainly one of the most unhygienic on the face of the earth. Even half a century later – after both urban and human room had been made by the Great Earthquake which killed a fifth of the population and flattened half the town – we still hear stories of how chamber pots got emptied enthusiastically into the street from the top story windows, with a fleeting, euphemistic warning of ‘Agoa Vai!!’ (‘Water Coming!!’) to warn pedestrians to step away from the sidewalk or ‘put up their umbrellas’! Indoor plumbing there was none; the street was the public bathroom. Beyond a few mud-carts of the very poor, and the packs of wild dogs scavenging for forage, garbage collection did not exist. Ocean shipping brought as many bugs and bacilli as cargoes to the Tagus quays. English travellers observed that it was home to ‘a race of fleas more venomous and hungry than any to be met with in England’; and odd to say, even fireplaces were unknown until deep into the 19th century…

Fielding, an observant fellow, hated this hell house from the moment he laid eyes on her, and in the parting words of his posthumously published ‘Voyage to Lisbon’ stated bluntly that Lisbon was ‘the nastiest city in the world’. One should never so rudely defy the Lares of the dwelling that welcomes you. The city was quick to take revenge. On 8 October of 1754, soon after he had penned that line and a mere two months after he had landed, Henry Fielding passed away.

Since he was, British, broke and famous at the time of his death, the members of the British Factory of Lisbon allowed him to be buried in their private graveyard, this ‘leafy spot where the nightingales fill the still air with song’. But that was all. They did no more. Despite the fact that he was the only immortal celebrity who would sleep forever in their midst, they put up no great monument. Neither did his wife and children, who was so poor that Fielding’s brother had to provide for their livelihood on their return to England. Consequently the grave was a most scrawny affair: a plot of 2 yards by 1 in the hillside dirt, perhaps not even covered by a tombstone, only by a wooden board with his hand-painted name. Admirers who visited the grave throughout the following decades invariably came away scandalized to find it the victim of wanton neglect, ‘nearly concealed by weeds and nettles’. And the foreign devotees among them never failed to pour scorn on English indifference towards their greatest men. ‘Is this how the British honour their best and brightest?’ they asked with a sneer. How can it be that philistine merchants and money-men erected ‘marble monuments with long, pompous, flattering inscriptions’ to themselves and their vulgar wives, while a man of proven genius and fame was left to rot and be forgotten in a frosty hole? The most bloodthirsty of these Bloody Foreigners went even further, and threatened to raise a splendid monument paid for out of their own unworthy continental pockets, and chisel a mocking epitaph onto it! The cheek!

At long last embarrassment and foreign derision whipped the Lisbon British into action. In 1830, a supreme effort was made under the aegis of the Rev. Christopher Neville, British Chaplain of Lisbon, and the humble, unmarked plot in the dirt was replaced with a splendid, towering, heroic monument of epic stone which George Borrow visited five years later, and which may still be seen today. (1)

Whether this renovation was really an improvement is rather a matter of taste. The tomb is an all-time 18th century favourite: a heavy rectangular pedestal, heaved upon an altar of four bulky steps, topped with a heavy granite soup tureen, which itself is surmounted by a sculptured “urn and flame” of giant dimensions. It is austere and yet unbearably pompous, as if to proclaim to the world that celebrities should not so much be buried, as squashed beneath a pile of massive cenotaphs which embody their weighty deeds and fame. To add even more splendour to the whole, the base is inscribed with an interminable epitaph, which sets out with “Henrici Fielding a Somersetensibus apud Glastoniam oriundi” and goes on and on and on in that brick-layer’s Latin of the Baroque age, by which our ancestors hoped to ensure that, in saecula saeculorum and so long as the ages roll, the educated of the civilized world would be able to understand their meaning; and which, ironically, guarantees that nearly nobody today can read it.  

Just about the only thing I can make out in this bombastic brushwood of apothecaries’ jargon are the dates; and I shudder to see that Fielding, born in 1707, was exactly my own age when Lisbon finished him off.... Beset by a slight, superstitious discomfort, I quickly search my memory for verbal sins. Did I say anything offensive about the city since I got here? Did I call her names or make a jibe? To my horror I remember how, just yesterday evening, provoked by vinho verde and a particularly bad-mannered waiter, I also said some rather uncomplimentary things about the city… What if the Lares heard me? What if, at this very moment, they are deliberating what to do with me; how to punish another disrespectful pen-pusher who comes to a decent town only to insult her?

And that, then, is the main reason why I do not press a kiss onto this cold tomb, as Borrow claims he did and urges his readers to emulate.  One clearly cannot be too careful in one’s middle age… Least of all with a Jealous City whose very name proudly proclaims her Infinite Goodness. No, this is no time to embrace the grave.

(1) Note that there is some uncertainty whether the great author really sleeps in his own grave…  Wordsworth’s daughter, Mrs Dora Quillinan, who may have had some murky inside information, wrote in her 1847 Journal of a Few Months Residence in Portugal: ‘The exact spot where Fielding was buried in this inclosure is not known. His monument (…) is on a spot selected by guess. The bones it covers may possibly have belonged to an idiot.’


  1. The foto of the sign was taken by one Lucy Watson, one of the prettier sights of Lisbon.


  2. How could I know? You give her no credit on your blog....!

  3. What a fantastic story... and wonderfully told. I can't believe that 98 year olds are still allowed to work in Portugal. I can only imagine all the stories she can tell!


  4. Thank you so much, Ms Azra. As I understand it, the Pires family has taken care of the British Cemetery in Lisbon for a very long time. They actually live in a small cottage on the grounds, and lie buried in a privileged plot nearby. As such, the sweet old lady was not a wage-slave, but a citizen of the place.

  5. Fielding's first tombstone in Lisbon was placed in 1786 by the French consul in Lisbon, le chevalier Saint-Marc de Meyrionet. It supposedly read:

    Sous ces cyprès touffus, parmi ces os muets,
    Tu cherches de Fielding les restes mémorables ;
    De la mort et du temps, déplore les effets,
    Ou déteste plutôt l’oubli de ses semblables.
    Ils élèvent partout des marbres fastueux,
    Un bloc reconnaissant ici manque à tes vœux,
    Et ton pas incertain craint de fouler la cendre,
    Sur laquelle tes pleurs cherchent à se répandre.
    Vieillard, qui détruis tout dans un profond silence,
    Ne dissous point ce marbre à Fielding consacré !
    Qu’aux siècles à venir il arrive sacré,
    Pour l’honneur de mon nom et celui de la France !