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.
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. Shortly after he completed his final novel, Amelia, in 1751, Fielding became seriously ill. He resigned his judicial posts and traveled to Portugal to recover. He recorded the details of his journey in The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (published posthumously in 1755) before dying in 1754.
The extreme topicality of most of Fielding's essays and dramatic works made most of them seem dated rather quickly. As a result, his novels Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Amelia are generally considered his major works. In contrast to Shamela, his parody of the self-centered virtue of the heroine of Richardson's novel Pamela, Joseph Andrews is a full-fledged novel of manners that did not directly parody the plot and characters of Pamela, but which attacked Richardson's sanctimonious values and sentiments. Andrews is introduced as Pamela's brother, and, like Richardson's heroine, he is determined to remain chaste until marriage. But where Fielding saw Pamela's virtue as a facade calculated to advance her social standing, he portrays Joseph's as sincere, founded on Christian ethics rather than social mores. In Joseph Andrews, Fielding advanced one of the first theories of the English novel, distinguishing it from the pastoral romances and epic poems which had been its major influences. His second novel, however, is generally considered to be his greatest achievement. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, is often called the quintessential comic novel. This work is renowned for its artistic unity, memorable characters, and vivid portrayal of life in the eighteenth century. The book chronicles the adventures of a well-intentioned but imprudent orphan, Tom Jones, after he is banished from his kind but misguided guardian's estate. Throughout the novel, Tom pursues his beloved Sophia, the daughter of the memorable Squire Western, who owns the neighboring estate. As in Joseph Andrews, a number of interpolated episodes thread through the main narrative, but in Tom Jones Fielding succeeds in integrating these stories into the main plot, contributing to a sense of greater coherence.
In contrast to his earlier novels, Amelia is regarded as one of Fielding's most overtly serious works. The novel evokes a world in cultural and spiritual decline, recounting the corruption of a weak but basically good man, Captain Booth, by social, political, and legal forces. Lacking the narrative interruptions and interpolated stories that mark his first novels, Amelia is considered Fielding's most coherent work, but it suffers from its didactic tone and stilted rhetoric. Some critics suggest that Amelia reveals Fielding's exploration of new possibilities for the novel form.
Commentators on the novel generally preferred Richardson's serious, unambiguous piety to Fielding's comic moral vision throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His sympathy with the lower classes and his critical depiction of the justice system won him the scorn of most of his contemporaries, who found his writing coarse and his characters base. Not until early in the twentieth century did critics begin to appreciate Fielding's literary skill, which had in part been overshadowed by inaccurate biographies portraying Fielding as a licentious drunkard. More recent criticism has explored Fielding's complex value system: Martin Price suggests that Fielding's so-called low characters contribute to his definition of virtue, and Martin Battestin examines the character of Sophia Western as an example of Fielding's nuanced moral code. The influence of Fielding's theatrical training has also been the subject of scholarly inquiry. Alan T. McKenzie examines the theatrical displays of passion in Fielding's novels and in Jonathan Wild, and Sheridan Baker describes in some detail how plot devices and themes from Fielding's plays were transplanted into his fiction. The rich realism of Fielding's fiction has encouraged scholars to examine his work in its cultural context, as exemplified both in Michael McKeon's study of Fielding's work and in James Thompson's essay on Tom Jones and economic history. Critics continue to debate the influences and effects of Fielding's innovative narrative techniques; some focusing on his connection to classical traditions, others emphasizing Fielding's skillful exploitation of the developing novel genre which he himself helped bring into being.