Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The lack of national distinctiveness about the characters in The Birthday King is at once a strength and a weakness, enabling Fielding to downplay the particular and idiosyncratic and to concentrate on the universal. This book is less autobiographical than the others in Fielding’s Blaydon sequence (In the Time of Greenbloom, 1956; Gentlemen in Their Season, 1966), but it nevertheless reflects the author’s own experiences and moral concerns. Just prior to its publication, the author himself underwent his own religious transformation, converting to Roman Catholicism.

The Birthday King was widely praised upon publication, especially in the author’s own country, but also in the United States, where critics usually have less patience for such slow development and lack of straightforward plotting. Fellow Englishman Anthony Burgess found the novel to be Fielding’s best work, “one of the most remarkable novels of the post war era”; other reviewers compared Fielding to Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and Ivan Turgenev. An American reviewer, J. M. Bauke, called The Birthday King the best novel so far about “the rule of the swastika” and the standard by which “other books on Nazi Germany will be judged.” The novel won several awards, including the W. H. Smith and Son Literary Prize in 1963 for the most significant novel published in England in 1962 and, in the United States, the St. Thomas More Association Gold Medal of 1963 for its distinguished contribution to Catholic literature.