Henry Fielding Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111201546-Fielding.jpg Henry Fielding (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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 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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2230 words.)

Henry Fielding Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

In the early years of his writing career, Fielding—who was later best known for such novels as Tom Jones (1749)— enjoyed considerable success as a dramatist. Between 1728 and 1737, he wrote twenty-seven plays that were staged at Drury Lane, the Little Haymarket, and other theaters. His first plays were traditional five-act comedies, but he soon discovered a talent for mocking English society and government, particularly the royal court and the government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Such works as Tom Thumb (1730) and The Welsh Opera (1731) revealed a savagely satiric tone that would surface later.

During the early 1730’s Fielding wrote plays that were primarily entertainments, but even these works—like his earlier plays—differed from the farces of his contemporaries in offering social satire along with burlesque elements. After a three-year stint of writing more traditional burlesque, Fielding return to satire with Pasquin (1736), a nonpartisan, highly political, and extremely funny portrayal of corruption in English politics and society. This play’s success led Fielding to produce The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), a satirical piece whose name and structure both derived from the annual survey so titled. In a series of loosely related scenes, this play satirized a wide range of public figures and institutions. It targeted both Walpole and his opposition; however, when Fielding added an afterpiece to the play specifically depicting Walpole as a scoundrel, the government began to examine his dramas more closely.

During the 1730’s British political satire was widely popular; in early 1737 alone, for example, more than one hundred plays satirized Walpole’s government. As a result, Walpole and his allies introduced a bill in the House of Commons to censor theatrical activity. The Licensing Act became law on June 21, 1737. Fielding’s theatrical career was ended by the law’s provision subjecting all material for the stage to scrutiny by the Lord Chamberlain, who would have the power to approve it for public performance. Denied a venue for the production of his political burlesques, Fielding was forced to abandon his lucrative career as a playwright and impresario. He turned his attention to the law and to a new career as a novelist.

Henry Fielding Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Born on April 22, 1707, Henry Fielding grew up quietly in Somerset and Dorset. When he was eleven, however, his mother died, and after a year of turmoil, during which his father remarried and quarreled violently with his mother’s relatives, young Henry was sent to Eton. After making as much as possible of the excellent if strict and structured education offered by this famous school, Fielding chose, about 1724, to enjoy life in London rather than enter a university.

In 1728, his comedy Love in Several Masques was staged at the Theatre Royal. Instead of pursuing a stage career at once, however, Fielding enrolled at the University of Leyden, where he remained for a year, probably studying classical literature. In 1729, Fielding returned to England, where his second play, The Temple Beau, was accepted by the theater in Goodman’s Fields. This coup inaugurated ten years of immersion in the London theater world, a brilliant career in the course of which Fielding became both widely known and respected and widely disparaged and attacked. His third play, a ballad opera called The Author’s Farce, opened at a more prestigious theater, the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, where it met with great success; it was followed immediately by Tom Thumb, a minor masterpiece that Fielding reworked the following year as The Tragedy of Tragedies. This satire on Robert Walpole, a parody of heroic tragedy, is today Fielding’s most widely known dramatic production.

After his spectacular initial success, Fielding’s ability to please the public became less certain. Rape upon Rape was found only acceptable, and its afterpiece, The Letter-Writers, had to be withdrawn. A new and highly political afterpiece, however, The Welsh Opera, played to enthusiastic houses. Already the government was aware of Fielding; the play’s even more outspoken revision, The Grub-Street Opera, was suppressed before it could open.

In 1732, Fielding continued to increase the pressure he had caused by his inflammatory satire with The Lottery, an attack on the combination of financial corruption and public foolishness represented by lottery-ticket jobbers. This play did well, but The Modern Husband, a strong satire on public—rather than political or financial—morals, had a mixed reception, as did The Old Debauchees, which is a much darker work than Fielding’s lighthearted style usually produced. The afterpiece for The Old Debauchees, The Covent Garden Tragedy, was a flat failure and had to be replaced by The Mock Doctor. This ballad opera was the first of Fielding’s two successful adaptations of Molière. The second, a highly successful farce entitled The Miser, was produced the following year, followed by another ballad opera, The Intriguing Chambermaid.

Fielding was now well established as a popular London playwright, a figure to be reckoned with among his literary peers, and a man well able to earn a decent, if uneven, income through his art. At the same time, he had already made enemies among both politicians and literary critics and had himself been the butt of sharp satiric comment.

At this juncture, late in 1734, Fielding married. For information about how he lived, passed his days, dealt with his necessities, and satisfied his tastes—whatever these were—one must rely on generalizations about the period. No Fielding diaries have been found, and very little of his correspondence exists. He and his new wife, the former Charlotte Cradock, lived in the heart of London...

(The entire section is 1489 words.)

Henry Fielding Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Henry Fielding was born April 22, 1707, in Sharpham Park, Somersetshire, to Edmund and Sarah Fielding. His father, an adventurer, gambler, and swaggerer, was a sharp contrast to the quiet, conservative, traditional gentry of his mother’s family, the Goulds. In 1710, the family moved to Dorset, where Fielding and his younger brother and three sisters (including the future novelist Sarah Fielding) would spend most of their childhood on a small estate and farm given to Mrs. Fielding by her father, Sir Henry Gould.

The death of Fielding’s mother in April, 1718, ended this idyllic life. Litigation over the estate created a series of family battles that raged for several decades. In 1719, Fielding was sent to Eton...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)

Henry Fielding Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry Fielding was born at Sharpham Park, his maternal grandfather’s estate near Glastonbury, in Somersetshire, England, on April 22, 1707, the first child in a family of five. His father, Edmund Fielding, was a lieutenant who fought under the duke of Marlborough against the forces of Louis XIV of France. His mother, Sarah, was the granddaughter of Sir Henry Gould, baron of the exchequer; her family had been considered gentry for several generations. Yet Fielding himself was not fully included among this upper class; with his family being considered “poor relations,” he was déclassé. This situation, perhaps, was the genesis of his later contemptuous attitude toward many of the upper class, an attitude exhibited particularly...

(The entire section is 1172 words.)

Henry Fielding Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry Fielding was an “innovating master of the first order.” In Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, as in his other novels, he discarded his predecessor’s epistolary method, calling his own books “comic epics in prose”—in effect, the first modern novels, the development of which influenced Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray in the nineteenth century. Though he is hardly an “exalted moralist” or a philosopher, his opinions do shape his novels, in part or in whole, in various episodes. Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones show him to be one of the most thoughtful of novelists. Though satiric, he maintained a somewhat realistic outlook; he is the first novelist to give the impression...

(The entire section is 144 words.)

Henry Fielding Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry Fielding was probably born at Sharpham Park near Glastonbury, the home of his grandfather, Sir Henry Gould, a judge of the Queen’s Bench. When he was two and a half years of age his parents moved to a home of their own at the village of East Stour in the adjoining county of Dorset. The remarriage of his father, General Edmund Fielding, after his mother’s death in 1718, brought on a bitter family quarrel, partly concerned with money, and as a result of the ensuing lawsuit Fielding and his sisters and brother were made wards of Chancery, with their grandmother, Lady Gould, as their principal guardian. The old lady allowed her grandson far more freedom than was advisable for so high-spirited a boy. He was sent to school at...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)

Henry Fielding Biography

(Novels for Students)

Henry Fielding was born April 22, 1707, at his grandparents’ estate in Somerset, England. He was the first of seven children born to Edmund...

(The entire section is 466 words.)