Article abstract: Although he was an effective journalist and a successful dramatist, and although with his brother John he was responsible for establishing the London police force which developed into Scotland Yard, Fielding’s major contribution was in the development of the novel as a carefully plotted form with fully developed characters, dramatic scenes, and serious intent.
Henry Fielding was born April 22, 1707, at the home of his mother’s father near Glastonbury in Somersetshire. His ancestry was distinguished. His father was related to the Earl of Denbigh and to Lady Mary Pierrepont (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), who later encouraged his literary efforts. His paternal grandfather was Archdeacon of Dorset and a chaplain of King William. Following a family tradition, Henry Fielding’s father, Edmund, became a military officer, serving under the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim and rising eventually to the rank of lieutenant general. Henry’s maternal grandfather was a judge of the Queen’s Bench, Sir Henry Gould. Although the match between Sarah Gould and Edmund Fielding was an elopement, evidently the judge was reconciled to the match; nevertheless, he took steps to guard his daughter’s inheritance from her rather imprudent husband.
Henry was born the year after Sarah and Edmund were married; six other children followed in rapid succession, five daughters and a son. (It was the third daughter, Sarah, who was so close to Henry in later years.) The children were reared on a country estate in Dorsetshire, living a happy life, despite the frequent absence of their restless father, until their mother’s death in 1718. After the colonel’s remarriage to a woman of dubious social rank, a Roman Catholic as well, the children were placed in various schools to remove them from the unhappy home environment and finally became wards of their grandmother. Henry remained on good terms with his father, as well as with his grandmother. At Eton, he developed a love of the classics, which was later consistently reflected in his works. There, too, he grew into a tall, well-built, graceful man, with brown hair and sparkling eyes which suggested his habitual optimism. Fielding’s intelligence, his fascination with human nature, and his perception of the comic side of life were already evident; these qualities would pervade the later poems, pamphlets, plays, and novels which he wrote.
Choosing not to proceed immediately to a university, Fielding lived the life of a gentleman of leisure for several years after leaving Eton. Alternating between country life with his grandmother and exciting visits to London, he postponed the decision as to his life’s work. Probably he studied some law; certainly he continued to read and to write. He was unsuccessful in the planned abduction of an heiress in Lyme Regis; he was more successful in charming his cousin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who enjoyed his enthusiasm and encouraged his writing. Because she was one of the most interesting women in London, the friend of wits and nobles alike, she could help her young relative both with advice and with influence. Early in 1728, Fielding’s poem “The Masquerade” appeared, supposedly written by Jonathan Swift’s character, Lemuel Gulliver. Not surprisingly, it was a burlesque. Less than three weeks later, Fielding’s comedy Love in Several Masques was produced. It was dedicated to Lady Mary.
Despite his success in London, Fielding now decided to complete his education and enrolled in the University of Leyden. At the end of a year and a half, his father was evidently unable to continue remittances, and Henry returned to London, faced with the necessity of earning his own living. As he later remarked, he had to...
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choose between being a hackney writer and a hackney coachman. He chose to write. For him, and for the English novel, it was a momentous decision.
During the period from 1730 to 1737, Fielding produced more than two dozen plays, including translations of Molière, satirical comedies, burlesques, and farces. The most notable of these was the hilarious literary burlesque, Tom Thumb: A Tragedy (1730), which was revised and enlarged the next year under the title The Tragedy of Tragedies: Or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great. The plays delighted his audience, particularly the Tory opposition to Sir Robert Walpole, the powerful prime minister whose spokesman Fielding became.
Meanwhile, Fielding had fallen in love with Charlotte Cradock, one of the beauties of Salisbury, where his grandmother, Lady Gould, lived. For four years he courted “Celia,” in poetry and in person. Impulsively, in 1734, they eloped and married. It was Charlotte who became the model for his finest women characters, such as the lovely Sophia Western in The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, which was published in 1749, five years after Charlotte’s death. In 1736, Henry and Charlotte had a daughter, and in 1737, another. It was at this point, however, that Fielding lost his livelihood. Infuriated by his ridicule, the Whig government passed the Theatrical Licensing Act, which permitted England’s Lord Chamberlain to censor the theater, thus driving Fielding from the stage.
Desperate, Fielding began to read law, meanwhile beginning his journalistic career by editing the opposition journal The Champion: Or, British Mercury as well as turning out any kind of translation or essay which might help to support his family. Although he was called to the bar in 1740, Fielding found that his legal fees were insufficient for his needs and continued his writing career, as well. By 1741, his situation had worsened. His health was failing, probably from overwork, his debts were troubling, and his older child was ill. Disgusted by the popular success of Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741), Fielding published a parody, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741). Although it did not solve his financial problems, the short work was significant, for with it Fielding had embarked upon fiction. Prompted by his desire to continue the satire of Pamela, he now began a novel about her brother, titled The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. It was published in February, 1742. With it Fielding won his rank among the world’s greatest writers. Beginning with Lady Booby’s attempts to seduce the virtuous Joseph, the novel soon transcended mere mockery of Richardson, to create a panorama of English society, high and low, virtuous and vicious, ranging from scoundrelly lawyers and hypocritical ladies to the saintly but human Parson Adams, who is generally considered to be Fielding’s finest character, illustrating Fielding’s faith that virtue will at last triumph, however it may be tested.
Fielding’s own trials were not over. His older child, Charlotte, died just after Joseph Andrews was published, and his wife died in 1744. For a time he continued his journalistic efforts, which were now devoted to support the Hanoverians against the Jacobites. In 1747, Fielding married Mary Daniel, his housekeeper, who had formerly been his wife’s maid. Although she bore him five children, she could never take the place of Charlotte, either in his heart or in his works.
In 1748, however, Fielding’s Hanoverian loyalties were repaid when he was appointed a Bow Street magistrate and later magistrate of Middlesex. With his blind half brother John, who soon joined him, Fielding could now attempt in actuality to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty, just as Providence did in his novels. It is interesting that in a short novel published in 1743 (but perhaps written much earlier), The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great, Fielding had dealt with a real criminal who had been hanged at Tyburn in 1725 and who was compared to Sir Robert Walpole, much like Peachum in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). As magistrate, Fielding attempted to break up the street gangs who terrorized London. His effective Bow Street Runners eventually developed into the London police force known as Scotland Yard.
In 1749, Fielding published the second of his three major novels, the rollicking Tom Jones, whose innocent young hero is initiated into the ways of lust, love, and finally restraint for the sake of love. In contrast to his essentially decent Tom, Fielding exposes dozens of hypocrites, all of whom, however, are convincing as people as well as targets of satire. Magnificently plotted, Tom Jones takes its characters on the road, as Joseph Andrews had done, thus enabling Fielding to bring together people from every level of life.
Fielding’s final novel, Amelia, was published in 1751. Although it was his most popular novel, it lacks the comic grandeur of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. The story of a married couple who innocently fall afoul of the law, it takes the noble Amelia Booth, again a portrait of Charlotte, and her frailer husband through temptations to safety and prosperity.
In 1754, because of illness, Fielding was forced to resign his judicial position. In search of health, he traveled to Portugal, writing the travel book The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755) as he proceeded. He did not live to see it published, however, dying in Lisbon on October 8, 1754.
Before Henry Fielding, the novel generally related a series of adventures in the life of a single character who was also the narrator; this pretense of autobiography guaranteed the work’s respectability. The scene was sketchy; atmosphere was almost nonexistent; characters were not fully developed. It is true that Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe do seem to spring into a fuller life than earlier characters and that Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa reveal psychological complexities which had not previously been found in fiction. When Fielding invented his “comic prose epic,” however, he was appropriating for the novel the careful plotting and the satirical purpose of classical comedy along with the stylistic devices and the high purpose of the traditional epic. No longer would the novel pretend to be real and thus worthwhile. Without apology, Fielding asserted that his works were fiction, but like Sir Philip Sidney before him, he insisted that they were therefore even more true, even more instructive, because they were an imitation of nature.
Admitting that his novels were fictional, Fielding could exploit all the possibilities of authorial omniscience. When he liked, he could stop the story to make an observation about life or literature. If he wished, he would address the reader as a friend, so skillfully that even William Makepeace Thackeray could not successfully imitate him. Although his plots were flawless, Fielding could choose to interpolate a seemingly unrelated story, concealing from the reader the fact that the characters, the events, and the themes of the story were essential to the central situation of his novel.
Because of Fielding, novelists had a new respect for their art and a new license to experiment with technique. Above all, they began to discover that all of society and all of human life were their province. Perhaps more than any other writer of the eighteenth century, Fielding gave the world the modern novel.
Allen, Walter. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954. A clear, well-written history of the novel which underlines Fielding’s place in its development. The introductory chapters, as well as those on Richardson and Fielding, provide a background for the study of any individual novel.
Butt, John. Fielding. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1954. A brief but penetrating evaluation of Fielding’s place in literary history. Integrates the pattern of Fielding’s life with the pattern of his novels.
Cross, Wilbur L. The History of Henry Fielding. 3 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1918. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963. Still the standard life of Fielding, this work is scholarly but readable. Because Cross summarizes and even quotes the works of Fielding which are less easily available, such as his plays, and because he also draws together the contemporary comments about Fielding and his works, even the gossip, his biography is fascinating as well as essential.
Dudden, F. Homes. Henry Fielding: His Life, Works, and Times. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952. This work is particularly valuable for its description of Fielding’s England, especially the plight of the poor, the problem of crime in eighteenth century London, and the deficiencies of the judicial system. Dudden details Fielding’s effective responses to these problems.
Paulson, Ronald, and Thomas Lockwood, eds. Henry Fielding: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969. Like the other books in the Critical Heritage series, this one collects comments about a writer and his works from contemporary sources, ranging from published reviews to personal letters. The statements by other writers, such as Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, Tobias Smollett, Thomas Gray, and Horace Walpole, are illuminating.
Stevenson, Lionel. The English Novel: A Panorama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960. Because it is organized chronologically rather than in separate chapters for each writer, Stevenson’s book can show relationships and influences which are otherwise more difficult to trace. Includes an interesting discussion of the relationship between Sarah Fielding, also a writer, and her brother Henry.
Van Ghent, Dorothy. The English Novel: Form and Function. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1953. Contains essays on eighteen novels, including Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, which was an important influence on Fielding, as well as on Smollett, Tom Jones, and Clarissa. Van Ghent’s analysis of structure is outstanding.