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The focus of Henry Fielding’s work progressed from drama to satire to the novel to legal inquiries and proposals, with some overlap and with a nearly constant overlay of critical and political journalism. Among his novels, his masterpiece Tom Jones (1749) is a monument of English literature, though Joseph Andrews (1742) is highly regarded and Amelia (1751) was his own favorite. An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741) burlesques Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740-1741), and the strongly satiric The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1743) attacks the contemporary prime minister of England, Sir Robert Walpole. Political satire formed the staple of The Champion, a thrice-weekly journal in which Fielding was a leading partner in 1739 and 1740, but social commentary and drama criticism played a large role in The Covent-Garden Journal, which came out during 1752. In the early 1750’s, Fielding authored several influential tracts aimed at reforming his country’s criminal and poor laws, and in 1754 he wrote a moving and contemplative travel book, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755).
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Henry Fielding was a central figure in the theatrical world of the 1730’s, and he continued to be influential as a literary and social critic almost up to his death in 1754. He wrote in popular and established forms, but his cleverness and vigor raised his work well above the level set by his contemporaries. Fielding exploited the ballad opera, a form originated by John Gay, with particular success. By adding broad farce and often surreal fantasy to Gay’s inspiration of setting satiric lyrics to popular tunes sung in operatic style, Fielding produced one of his best plays, The Author’s Farce. He combined farce, burlesque, and fantasy to create The Tragedy of Tragedies, another masterpiece. Both plays, often classified as dramatic satires, were hugely popular by the standards of the time.
Beyond his contribution as a playwright, Fielding’s management of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket set a dangerously bold pace in terms of showmanship and satire. He attacked the shortcomings of society in general and of the theater in particular but found his chief target in the Whig government of Robert Walpole. Fielding’s popularity, his influence in the theater, and the potency of his satire are usually credited with bringing on the Licensing Act of 1737, an instrument of political censorship that limited the staging of plays to a select list of theaters and required the Lord Chamberlain’s approval before a new play could be staged or an old one altered. The Licensing Act ended Fielding’s theatrical career on an ironic note; he had made the stage at once so lively and so central to England’s political life that its control and suppression had become a political necessity.
Shorn of topical relevance and their original sense of daring, only two or three of his plays are still performed. They have wit and pace, and they certainly repay the discriminating reader, but they no longer exert the tremendous popular appeal that was Fielding’s first goal. As a contributor to dramatic tradition, Fielding presents another irony; he was restless within the forms he chose, but his experimentation forced and complicated those forms rather than breaking through and extending them. Had his career as a playwright not ended so early—in part through his own doing—he might well have made a more substantial contribution to the genre. As it was, his interest turned to the novel, and he joined Daniel Defoe and Richardson in establishing a great new English literary tradition.
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Henry Fielding’s literary output, aside from his novels, can be categorized into three groups: plays, pamphlets and miscellaneous items, and journals. In addition, the publication of his three-volume Miscellanies (1743) by subscription brought together a number of previously published items as well as new works, including the first version of Jonathan Wild, and an unfinished prose work, “A Journey from This World to the Next.”
Fielding’s dramatic works, many presented with great success at either London’s Little Theatre in the Haymarket or the Drury Lane Theatre, include ballad opera, farce, full-length comedy, and adaptations of classical and French drama. Most are overtly political in theme. Because of their contemporary subject matter, few have survived as viable stage presentations, although The Covent Garden Tragedy (pr., pb. 1732) was presented by the Old Vic in London in 1968. Fielding also wrote a number of prologues, epilogues, and monologues that were performed in conjunction with other dramatic pieces.
The pamphlets and miscellaneous items that are currently attributed to Fielding, excluding those for which he merely wrote introductions or epilogues, are “The Masquerade” (1728), a poem; The Military History of Charles XII King of Sweden (1740), a translation; “Of True Greatness” (1741), a poem; “The Opposition: A Vision” (1741), a poem; “The Vernoniad” (1741), a poem; “The Female Husband” (1746); “Ovid’s Art of Love Paraphrased” (1747); “A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez” (1749); “An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robbers” (1751); “Examples of the Interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder” (1752); “A Proposal for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor” (1753); “A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning” (1753); and The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which was published posthumously (1755).
Fielding edited and made major contributions to four journals: The Champion (November 15, 1739-June, 1741; the journal continued publication without Fielding until 1742); The True Patriot (November 5, 1745-June 17, 1746); Jacobite’s Journal (December 5, 1747-November 5, 1748); and The Covent-Garden Journal (January 4-November 25, 1752).
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Fielding’s lasting achievements in prose fiction—in contrast to his passing fame as an essayist, dramatist, and judge—result from his development of critical theory and from his aesthetic success in the novels themselves. In the preface to Joseph Andrews, Fielding establishes a serious critical basis for the novel as a genre and describes in detail the elements of comic realism; in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, he provides full realizations of this theory. These novels define the ground rules of form that would be followed, to varying degrees, by Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence, and they also speak to countless readers across many generations. Both novels, in fact, have been translated into successful films (Tom Jones was released in 1963; Joseph Andrews, in 1977).
The historical importance of the preface to Joseph Andrews results from both the seriousness with which it treats the formal qualities of the novel (at the time a fledgling and barely respectable genre) and the precision with which it defines the characteristics of the genre, the “comic epic-poem in prose.” Fielding places Joseph Andrews in particular and the comic novel in general squarely in the tradition of classical literature and coherently argues its differences from the romance and the burlesque. He also provides analogies between the comic novel and the visual arts. Fielding thus leads the reader to share his conception that the comic novel is an aesthetically valid form with its roots in classical tradition and a form peculiarly suited to the attitudes and values of its own age.
With his background in theater and journalism, Fielding could move easily through a wide range of forms and rhetorical techniques in his fiction, from direct parody of Samuel Richardson in An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews to ironic inversion of the great man’s biography in Jonathan Wild to adaptation of classical structure (Vergil’s Aeneid, c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) in Amelia. The two major constants in these works are the attempt to define a good, moral life, built on benevolence and honor, and a concern for finding the best way to present that definition to the reader. Thus the moral and the technique can never be separated in Fielding’s works.
Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones bring together these two impulses in Fielding’s most organically structured, brilliantly characterized, and masterfully narrated works. These novels vividly capture the diversity of experience in the physical world and the underlying benevolence of the natural order, embodying them in a rich array of the ridiculous in human behavior. Fielding combines a positive assertion of the strength of goodness and benevolence (demonstrated by the structure and plot of the novels) with the sharp thrusts of the satirist’s attack on the hypocrisy and vanity of individual characters. These elements are held together by the voice of the narrator—witty, urbane, charming—who serves as moral guide through the novels and the world. Thus beyond the comic merits of each of the individual novels lies a collective sense of universal moral good. The voice of the narrator conveys to the reader the truth of that goodness.
Although the novels were popular in his own day, Fielding’s contemporaries thought of him more as playwright-turned-judge than as novelist. This may have been the result of the low esteem in which the novel as a form was held as well as of Fielding’s brilliant successes in these other fields. These varied successes have in common a zest for the exploration of the breadth and variety of life—a joy in living—that finds its most articulate and permanent expression in the major novels.
Today Fielding is universally acknowledged as a major figure in the development of the novel, although there is still some debate about whether he or Richardson is the “father” of the British novel. Ian Watt, for example, has asserted that Richardson’s development of “formal realism” is more significant than Fielding’s comic realism. Other critics, notably Martin Battestin, have demonstrated that Fielding’s broader, more humane moral vision, embodied in classical structure and expressed through a self-conscious narrator, is the germ from which the richness and variety of the British novel grows. This disagreement ultimately comes down to personal taste, and there will always be Richardson and Fielding partisans to keep the controversy alive. There is no argument, however, that of their type—the novel of comic realism—no fiction has yet surpassed Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones.
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Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, and thus the mainstream of the English novel, began as a literary competition between Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Trace the development of this competition.
Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews is considered one of Fielding’s greatest characters. Writers often prefer bad clergymen as more interesting. How does Fielding make Adams, a good clergyman, interesting?
The titles of Fielding’s novels refer to them as “histories.” What is the etymological link between “history” and “story”?
Fielding refers to Tom Jones as “a comic epic poem in prose, perhaps a confusion, but certainly an assemblage, of literary genres.” What does his use of such a phrase suggest about the literary situation in Fielding’s time?
Speculate on possible reasons for the extraordinarily simple name and mysterious origin (he was a foundling) of Tom Jones.
Demonstrate how Tom Jones resembles, but also differs from, an established literary type called the picaro, a common synonym for which is “rogue.”
Samuel Richardson, Fielding’s early rival, claimed with reference to Tom Jones that Fielding was trying “to whiten a vicious character.” Comment on the unfairness of that assertion.
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Battestin, Martin C. A Henry Fielding Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000. A comprehensive reference work covering the life and writings of Fielding. Includes sections on where he lived, his family, significant historical figures and literary influences, his works, themes, and characters. Bibliography and index.
Battestin, Martin C., with Ruthe R. Battestin. Henry Fielding: A Life. London: Routledge, 1989. The Sunday Times voted this work one of the four best biographies of the year. Based on fourteen years’ research, this detailed biography provides a definitive story of Fielding. Includes a useful bibliography of Fielding’s writings. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.
Bertelsen, Lance. Henry Fielding at Work: Magistrate, Businessman, Writer. New York: Palgrave, 2000. An analysis of Fielding in his roles as writer, magistrate, and businessman. Bibliography and index.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry Fielding. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on Fielding’s major novels, his anti-Romanticism, and his uses of style, history, and comedy. Includes chronology and bibliography.
Campbell, Jill. Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding’s Plays and Novels. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. A look at gender and identity issues in the works of Fielding. Bibliography and index.
Dircks, Richard J. Henry Fielding. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This study is designed to provide an introduction to Fielding in such a way as to integrate his central ideas and vision of life as they are experienced in his works as a dramatist, journalist, pamphleteer, and novelist. Emphasis is placed on Fielding’s major works. Excellent bibliography, chronology.
Hunter, J. Paul. Occasional Form: Henry Fielding and the Chain of Circumstance. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. This work attempts to place Fielding’s career and major works in relation to historical forces operating on his mind and art, chronicling his anxiety and adjustment to circumstance. Provides extensive analysis of Fielding’s major works.
Johnson, Maurice. Fielding’s Art of Fiction: Eleven Essays on “Shamela,” “Joseph Andrews,” “Tom Jones,” and “Amelia.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961. Eleven essays provide a good critical survey of Fielding’s fiction.
Lewis, Peter. Fielding’s Burlesque Drama: Its Place in the Tradition. Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press, 1987. Lewis argues that because of the overwhelming success of Fielding’s novels, the author’s drama has been neglected—with the exception of the Tom Thumb plays. Emphasizes the burlesque and satirical dimension of Fielding’s plays and places his work in the history of burlesque theater. Illustrations.
Mace, Nancy A. Henry Fielding’s Novels and the Classical Tradition. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996. Examines the Classical influence on Fielding.
Michie, Allen. Richardson and Fielding: The Dynamics of a Critical Rivalry. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999. A study of the relationship between Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Bibliography and index.
Pagliaro, Harold E. Henry Fielding: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Part of the Literary Lives series, this is an excellent, updated biography of Fielding. Provides bibliographical references and an index.
Paulson, Ronald. The Life of Henry Fielding: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Paulson examines how Fielding’s literary works—plays, essays, and novels—all contained autobiographical elements. Bibliography and index.
Rivero, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Henry Fielding. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. A good collection of essays about Fielding’s major novels. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Rivero, Albert J., ed. The Plays of Henry Fielding: A Critical Study of His Dramatic Career. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Taking a new approach to Fielding’s dramatic career, Rivero tells the story of this career by focusing on the plays themselves and by offering a detailed critique of ten representative plays. Discusses dramatic technique, construction, and themes and provides some historical context to the plays.
Simpson, K. G., ed. Henry Fielding: Justice Obscured. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. This collection of essays attests the diversity of Fielding’s experience as a citizen, magistrate, political writer, and dramatist—varied aspects that influenced the nature of his writing.
Stoler, John A., and Richard D. Fulton. Henry Fielding: An Annotated Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Criticism, 1900-1977. New York: Garland, 1980. After listing a number of major Fielding bibliographies and various editions of his works, this bibliography provides a comprehensive, annotated list of secondary works. Arrangement is by title, so students seeking material on a specific work, such as Tom Jones, can quickly find what they need.
Uglow, Jennifer S. Henry Fielding. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1995. An examination of the life and works of Fielding. Bibliography and index.