Henry Fielding Fielding, Henry - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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. 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Love in Several Masques (drama) 1728

The Author's Farce and The Pleasures of the Town (drama) 1730

The Temple Beau (drama) 1730

Tom Thumb (drama) 1730; also published as The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great [enlarged edition] 1731

The Welsh Opera, or, The Grey Mare the Better Horse [as Scriblerus Secundus] (drama) 1731; also published as The Grub-Street Opera, 1731

The Covent-Garden Tragedy (drama) 1732

The Modern Husband (drama) 1732

Don Quixote in England [adaptor; from the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes] (drama) 1734

Pasquin: A Dramatick Satire on the Times; Being the Rehearsal of Two Plays, viz. a Comedy Called "The Election "and a Tragedy Called "The Life and Death of Common Sense" (drama) 1736

The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (drama) 1737

An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. In Which, the Many Notorious Falsehoods and Misrepresentations of a Book Called "Pamela" Are Exposed and Refuted; and All the Matchless Arts of That Young Politician, Set in a True and Just Light [as Conny Keyber] (satire) 1741; also published as Shamela in Joseph Andrews and Shamela, 1961

The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of Cervantes, Author of "Don Quixote" (novel) 1742; also published as Joseph Andrews, 1935

A Journey from This World to the Next (satire) 1743; published in Miscellanies, Vol. II

The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (satire) 1743; published in Miscellanies, Vol. III; also published as Jonathan Wild, 1932

Miscellanies. 3 vols. (essays, satires, dramas, and poetry) 1743

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (novel) 1749; also published as Tom Jones, 1896

Amelia (novel) 1751

An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, & c., with Some Proposals for Remedying This Growing Evil (essay) 1751

A Proposal for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor (essay) 1753

The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (journal) 1755

The Works of Henry Fielding, Esq; With the Life of the Author. 4 vols. (dramas, novels, satires, and essays) 1762

The Complete Works of Henry Fielding, Esq. 16 vols. (novels, satires, dramas, essays, journalism, and poetry) 1903

Martin Price (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Forms: Low and High," in Henry Fielding, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 43-50. Originally published in Martin Price, To the Palace of Wisdom: Studies in Order and Energy from Dryden to Blake (Price, 1964; Feffer & Simons, 1970).

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1964 and reprinted in 1970 and 1987, Price maintains that the low social status of Fielding's virtuous characters subverts both social and generic expectations.]

It would have been useless for our Lord Jesus Christ to come like a king, in order to shine forth in His kingdom of holiness. But He came there appropriately in...

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Ronald Paulson (essay date 1967)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Fielding the Anti-Romanticist," in his Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 100-31.

[In the following chapter from his book-length study Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, Paulson argues that the works of Fielding represent a transition between satire and the early English novel. Focusing mainly on Joseph Andrews, Paulson discusses Fielding's subversions of the romance genre and his disagreement with Samuel Richardson's Pamela.]

Fielding vs. Richardson

In the context of his earlier work it would appear that when Fielding came to write the first of his novels...

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Glenn W. Hatfield (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'Words and Ideas': Fielding and the Augustan Critique of Language," in his Henry Fielding and the Language of Irony, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 28-53.

[In the following excerpt from his book Henry Fielding and the Language of Irony, Hatfield examines Fielding's moral vision in the context of early eighteenth-century concerns about the increasing discontinuity between words and the things they were intended to represent. Taking into account Fielding's occasional prose as well as his major novels, Hatfield focuses on Fielding's pessimism with respect to the potential for clear and coherent communication.]

The idea of the "corruption of...

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Martin C. Battestin (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Fielding's Definition of Wisdom: Some Functions of Ambiguity and Emblem in Tom Jones," in Henry Fielding: "Tom Jones": The Authoritative Text, Contemporary Reactions, Criticism, 2d ed., edited by Sheridan Baker, Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton, 1995, pp. 733-49. Originally published in ELH, Vol. 35, 1968, pp. 188-217.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1968 and reprinted in 1995, Battestin, one of Fielding's most important modern biographers and critics, examines Fielding's treatment of the virtues of prudence and wisdom in Tom Jones. Battestin focuses on the character of Sophia, arguing that the novel's heroine and protagonit's love...

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Alan T. McKenzie (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Physiology of Deceit in Fielding's Works," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 62, No. 1, 1982, pp. 140-52.

[In the following essay, McKenzie examines Fielding's use of physiology in each of his major novels, arguing that Fielding's depictions of theatrical displays of passion offer keys to interpreting the actions of his characters.]

As unwilling to be imposed upon as the most sceptical of his contemporaries, and with an eye for deceit sharpened both behind the stage and upon the bench, Henry Fielding developed one of the general concerns of his age into high art. He equipped many of his characters with certain passions and their attendant physiology—just...

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Sheridan Baker (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Fielding: The Comic Reality of Fiction," in The First English Novelists: Essays in Understanding, edited by J. M. Armistead, Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 29, University of Tennessee Press, 1985, pp. 109-42.

[In the following essay, noted scholar and Fielding editor Sheridan Baker offers a thorough account of Fielding's approach to quixotic comedy in both his drama and his fiction. Calling the theater "Fielding's apprenticeship," Baker demonstrates that Fielding's early comic plays provided the groundwork for his didactic use of comedy in the novel.]

Fielding's achievement in his four novels is immense. Joseph Andrews (1742) is not only the...

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Michael McKeon (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Institutionalization of Conflict (II): Fielding and the Instrumentality of Belief," in his The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 382-409.

[In the following excerpt, McKeon examines the representation of truth and the foundation of knowledge in Fielding's fiction, especially Jonathan Wild and Joseph Andrews. McKeon's book is an early and important major revision of Ian Watt's history of the eighteenth-century novel, The Rise of the Novel; in this chapter and throughout the book, McKeon emphasizes both cultural and philosophical movements as essential context for analyzing the development of this generic...

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James Thompson (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Patterns of Property and Possession in Fielding's Fiction," in Critical Essays on Henry Fielding, edited by Albert J. Rivero, G.K. Hall & Co., 1998, pp. 112-30. Originally published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 3, 1990, pp. 21-42.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1990 and reprinted in 1998, Thomspon examines the importance of money and other valued objects in the context of eighteenth-century economic history. Focusing primarily on Tom Jones, Thompson suggests that Fielding's work reflects the instability of money—specifically cashas a mode of social relations, responding by valorizing land and estates as true and lasting forms...

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Charles A. Knight (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Joseph Andrews and the Failure of Authority," in Critical Essays on Henry Fielding, edited by Albert J. Rivero, G.K. Hall & Co., 1998, pp. 69-82. Originally published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 4, 1992, pp. 109-24.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1992 and reprinted in 1998, Knight examines Fielding's narrative style in Joseph Andrews, arguing that the text's heterogeneous construction emphasizes the mutual relationship between author and reader made possible by the emerging genre of the novel.]

The garrulous narrator of Joseph Andrews and his complex novel have been interpreted in terms of implicitly...

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Elizabeth Kraft (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Narrative Authority and the Controlling Consciousness in Fielding's Tom Jones," in her Character and Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Comic Fiction, University of Georgia Press, 1992, pp. 65-82.

[In the following chapter from her book Character and Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Comic Fiction, Kraft examines the way in which authorial narrative interrupts and replaces the representation of the characters' consciousness in Tom Jones.]

No one has ever seriously argued that there is no evidence of consciousness in Tom Jones. The narrator is clearly a thinking being, and throughout the introductory chapters we find ourselves as readers...

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Jill Campbell (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Meaning of a Male Parmela," in her Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding's Plays and Novels, Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 67-89.

[In this chapter from her book Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding's Plays and Novels, Campbell argues that Joseph Andrews not only compels us to examine assumptions about gender roles but also demonstrates the potential of the novel as a new genre to offer new modes of characterization.]

Even in the opening scenes of Joseph Andrews, Fielding's substitution of a man for a woman in Richardson's plot does not function as simply as it might seem to at first glance. The inversion...

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Nancy A. Mace (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Classical Epic and the 'New Species of Writing,"' in her Henry Fielding's Novels and the Classical Tradition, University of Delaware Press; Associated University Presses, 1996, pp. 61-76

[In the following chapter from her book Henry Fielding's Novels and the Classical Tradition, Mace details the specific classical influences on Fielding's major novels and his use of the epic tradition. Mace includes a special section on Fielding's Amelia as a revision of Virgil's Aeneid.]

Now a comic Romance is a comic Epic-Poem in Prose;

—Preface to Joseph Andrews

when any kind of...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Baker, Sheridan. "Bridget Allworthy: The Creative Pressures of Fielding's Plot." In Tom Jones: The Authoritative Text, Contemporary Reactions, Criticism, edited by Sheridan Baker, pp. 778-786. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. Originally published in Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 52 (1967): 345-56.

Argues that an examination of the little-studied character of Bridget reveals something of Fielding's technique in creating Tom Jones.

Bartschi, Helen. "Character's Speeches: Transparence and Intertextuality." In her The Doing and Undoing of Fiction: A Study of Joseph Andrews, pp. 72-115. Beme: Peter Lang, 1983.


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