Henry Fielding: A Life Summary (Donald Thomas)

Donald Thomas

Henry Fielding

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Many people know Fielding as father of the English novel, author of TOM JONES and JOSEPH ANDREWS. Few are aware of his impact on the society of his age. His satirical plays, in particular his lampooning on the London stage of the corruptions of Robert Walpole’s government, led to the introduction of theater censorship. He shocked contemporaries with the “infamous lewdness” and vulgarity of his writings and with the debauchery and extravagance of his life-style.

But Fielding the ungovernable anarchist and rebel gained a parallel reputation as an opponent of social anarchy and rebellion. He wrote moralistic tracts condemning the vices and decadence of society. He dedicated his journalistic talents to debunking the Jacobite cause. His unrelenting efforts to combat the mid-century wave of London gang crime were to cut short a life already made precarious by drink. Before his death, he instituted a standing crime-fighting force which developed into the London Metropolitan Police.

Fielding’s enemies never tired of pointing out the seeming contradictions of his character. They accused the former libertine of hypocrisy in his attacks on vice and moral decadence. They balked at the sexual profligacy paraded in his novels alongside devoted tributes to a wife to whom he was devoted. They jeered at the scourge of Walpole’s ministry turning his coat as a sycophantic supporter of Walpole’s successor Henry Pelham. Some were outraged that Fielding, a man of noble family, had firsthand experience of brothels and debtors’ prisons; others expressed indignation that one with such a history sat in magisterial judgment on criminals.

Donald Thomas’ achievement in his book lies in showing how the humorous, humane, even heroic vision that illuminates Fielding’s works sprang from both sides of his nature. “Surely,” says Thomas, “he was one of the best illustrations of the comment on teachers of morality made by Samuel Johnson’s Imlac: ‘They discourse like angels, but they live like men.’”