Other Literary Forms
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).
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.
Other literary forms
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...
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