Henry Fielding Fielding, Henry

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Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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Henry Fielding 1701-1754

(Also used pseudonyms of Conny Keyber and Scriblerus Secundus) English novelist, dramatist, essayist, journalist, and poet.

See also, Shamela Criticism.

Fielding is often considered one of the most significant contributors to the development of the English novel. His nearly seamless incorporation of drama, satire, romance, and epic into his works helped distinguish the novel as a new and unique genre quite distinct from its early influences. Fielding's long and bitter feud with rival novelist Samuel Richardson also contributed to the development of the novel form: opposed to the didactic tone and unrealistic characters and situations of his contemporaries, Fielding infused the novel with compassion, comedy, and a heightened sense of realism. Although Fielding's lasting reputation rests on his major novels, he was also a popular and important playwright, an influential journalist, and one of England's leading judicial reformers. In all of his writing, Fielding demonstrated a concern with social and moral hypocrisy, attacking not only Richardson but also dramatist and Poet Laureate Colley Cibber and Prime Minister Robert Walpole for what he considered their failure to deal openly with serious social issues, whether in literary works or as a government official.

Biographical Information

Fielding was born in Somersetshire to aristocratic parents. He had three sisters, including the novelist Sarah Fielding, whose first novel, The Adventures of David Simple, appeared while she lived with his family. He was educated at Eton, from which he graduated in 1725. Afterwards he moved to London and began a career as a playwright. His first effort, Love in Several Masques, was produced in 1728, and during the next nine years over twenty of his plays were performed. These burlesques and farces, which met with great success, satirize various literary, social, and political trends and figures. In 1734 Fielding married Charlotte Cradock, who later served as the model for the heroines of Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751). A year or two after his marriage, Fielding became the manager and chief playwright of the Little Haymarket Theatre; some of his noted plays from this period of his career include Tom Thumb (1730) and The Grub-Street Opera (1731). His career as a playwright ended abruptly after two of his political satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737) induced Prime Minister Robert Walpole to impose the Licensing Act, an ordinance that allowed government censorship of the stage, on the Little Haymarket. Fielding then studied law at the Middle Temple and became a lawyer in 1740. According to biographers, he was an honest lawyer with a solid but modest practice. To supplement his income, Fielding wrote and edited several periodicals, including The True Patriot and The Covent-Garden Journal. Shortly thereafter he published his first satire, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), under the name of Conny Keyber; in it he parodied both the popular Richardson novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded and the autobiography of his theatrical rival, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber. The book was a sort of preview for Fielding's first novel, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, which appeared a year later. Fielding published a variety of Miscellanies, including the satire Jonathan Wild, in the next few years which were distinguished more by professional achievement and personal tragedy than by his creative output. In 1744 his wife Charlotte died; he caused a scandal in 1747 by marrying her maid, Mary Daniel. In 1748 he was appointed a London magistrate and as a justice of the peace for Westminster. During this time he wrote several essays on criminal justice and social reform, including An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers and A Proposal for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor; his legal experience may also have provided source material for prison and trial scenes in Tom Jones.

(The entire section is 120,778 words.)