(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Henry Fielding died at the age of forty-seven, a short life even by eighteenth century standards. Yet he lived a life of extraordinary literary productivity, including a startling range of political hackwork, and public service. Accounted by no less an authority than George Bernard Shaw as the best dramatist between Shakespeare and himself, he was also one of the parents of “the English novel” and the creator of the first organized police force in London during his tenure as “Mr. Justice Fielding” for Middlesex and Westminster. Known for his conviviality and social nature, Fielding made—and abused—many friendships during his all too brief life. Never one to put the claims of financial prudence before the claims of friendship and his own generous nature, Fielding was always short of money even when he was, by all the evidence at hand, enjoying a substantial income. He died so deeply in debt on October 8, 1754—he owed Andrew Millar, his publisher, £1,900—that all of the money from his estate was used to pay the claims of his creditors. As the Battestins point out, Fielding’s character was essentially a paradoxical one. On the one hand was “his improvident delight in living, fully and recklessly, for the moment; on the other hand is the equally impressive quality of his mind, a love of learning and a clarity and penetration of thought that in his own day earned him the respect of accomplished classicists and sober clergymen, of Lord Chancellors and Prime Ministers.”

The task of the would-be biographers of Fielding has ever been daunting. As the Battestins note, “Fielding’s image—the impression, that is, of his character and genius, even of his physical aspect—descended to later generations of readers…

preserved imperfectly in Millar’s truncated edition of the Works (1762), with its famous frontispiece drawn from memory by Hogarth and its incompetent assessment of his life and art by Arthur Murphy.” His friend James Harris, helped by Sarah Fielding, had written an “Essay on the Life and Genius of Fielding” and thought Millar would publish it. Instead, he hired the hack writer Murphy, with the result that gossip and imagination have generally been substituted for accuracy ever since. Wilbur L. Cross published his three-volume The History of Henry Fielding in 1918, drawing a somewhat fanciful portrait of the author. E H. Dudden added nothing of substance in his 1952 two-volume life. Little in the way of solid information about Fielding had come to light, and most scholars assumed there was little to be had because of the paucity of public and private records.

Martin C. Battestin, however, with the invaluable assistance of his wife, Ruthe R. Battestin, dared to undertake a massive research task with no assurance that new and significant facts about Fielding’s life and work could be found. The result is a readable, scholarly, and informative life that fills in many previous gaps in Fielding’s biography and sheds important new light on this man, whose works are among the most significant in the English language. To give some idea of the success of the Battestins’ research, of the seventy some extant letters by Fielding (not a large number by any account), two-thirds were discovered by the Battestins. Ruthe Battestin’s researches in the Public Record Office, the British Museum, and “dozens of other archives in London and the provinces… illuminate virtually every aspect of Fielding—his family and the circle of his acquaintance, his private and public affairs, his works.” Martin Battestin’s equally thorough rereading of all of the plays, essays, journalism, fiction, and other productions of Fielding’s prolific pen—including a range of material not previously ascribed to him and a thorough examination of the newspapers published from 1726 to 1755—yielded a good case for claiming Fielding’s contribution to The Craftsman from 1734 to 1739, a publication of the Opposition in its effort to bring down Robert Walpole. Consequently, the virtues of the present work are numerous and its shortcomings few. The publication of this biography—along with Paula R. Backscheider’s Daniel Defoe.. His Life (1989) and T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel’s Samuel Richardson: A Biography (1971)—completes a contemporary reassessment of three of the most important progenitors of the English novel. Thus, everyone who has ever enjoyed the major novels—Joseph Andrews (1742), Tom Jones (1749), and Amelia (1751)—will now be able to read these works and the rest of Fielding’s oeuvre with increased pleasure and understanding, and perhaps amazement that a man whose personal life was marked by such stress, both fiscal and personal, could have produced works of such spirit and humanity.

Fielding was born in Somerset on April 22, 1707, at Sharpham Park, the country seat of his maternal grandfather, Sir Henry Gould. This house was the model for Squire Allworthy’s Paradise Hall, and Somerset, especially the area around Glastonbury and Tor Hill, provided much of the physical setting for Tom Jones. Despite his father’s relatively successful military career—after a period as “half-pay officer” he rose to the rank of Major General by 1735—and despite his connection with one of the “noblest families in the...

(The entire section is 2186 words.)