Sarah Fielding Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Sarah Fielding 1710–1768

English novelist and translator.

Sarah Fielding, the sister of Henry Fielding, was an author whose best-known novel, The Adventures of David Simple: Containing an Account of His Travels thro' the Cities of London and Westminster, in the Search of a Real Friend (1744), has been called "the third real English novel" (following Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews). The Adventures of David Simple is written in the comic prose-epic style pioneered by Henry Fielding, though it lacks the narrative power of his Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones. Sarah, like her brother, abhorred sham and hypocrisy, and feared that contemporary society was growing alarmingly corrupt. In her fiction, Fielding satirized society by contrasting candor and innocence with pretense and artificiality. Most of her writing reflects a preoccupation with women's attempts to retain virtue in a world fraught with traps and temptations. However, critics generally agree that the novel form did not suit her purposes, and that her insights on women's issues would have been better rendered in the form of essays. Fielding was also one of the earliest authors of children's literature. Her work The Governess; or, Little Female Academy (1749) was the first novel written for young people and the first story for children to use a school setting. Highly popular in its time, The Governess became one of the most frequently imitated children's books.

Biographical Information

Fielding was born to a landowning family in East Stour, Devonshire. Her mother died when Fielding was seven, and upon her father's remarriage two years later the family was separated, with Henry going to Eton, and the three girls going off to boarding school. Fielding recounts autobiographical details of this period in The Governess. Upon completing her education, Fielding and her sisters lived with their maternal grandmother in Salisbury. Developing into "something of a bluestocking" (a woman of intellectual and literary tastes), Fielding read poetry, studied the classics, and (judging by the literary allusions in her works) was well-read in English and European literature. She also formed many friendships throughout her life, most notably with Samuel Richardson, her brother's chief literary rival. Fielding had a deep affection for her brother, and their close relationship was expressed in her involvement with his family. They also shared an interest in each other's work, and her first literary efforts were published in periodicals that her brother edited. After the death of Henry's wife, Sarah lived with his family, during which time she wrote her first novel, The Adventures of David Simple. With Henry's remarriage in 1747, Sarah left the household and eventually settled near Bath, where she resided until her death in 1768.

Major Works

The Adventures of David Simple is a mixture of two separate, and to some extent antithetical, influences: Richardson and Henry Fielding. Henry Fielding's influence on his sister's first novel is so evident that many readers and critics attributed the work to him when it was first published anonymously. David Simple bears his literary mark in tone as well as structure: the gentle sarcasm accompanying Fielding's observations on human nature, along with her tolerance of human failings, are very much characteristic of the older Fielding; and the episodic structure of the narrative—the many adventures of a disillusioned young hero in search of true friendship—interspersed with dialogues and character sketches, is also imitative of Henry Fielding's novelistic style. However, Sarah Fielding shared Richardson's belief that novels should present definite morals, and this she accomplished with an abundance of sentiment more characteristic of Richardson than of her brother. In her sequel, The Adventures of David Simple, Volume the Last: In Which His History Is Concluded (1753), Fielding achieved a more original and consistent style. Human dilemmas are intricately portrayed as Fielding relied more on the description of feelings and even less on the elaboration of plot than she had in her first novel. Fielding shows her hero in a long series of misfortunes which point up such shortcomings of his simplicity as his continued inability to judge character. Fielding's other important work, The Governess, played a significant part in ushering in an era of books written for children. The Governess is cleverly constructed: nine female pupils recount their life stories, which Mrs. Teachem intersperses with fairy tales and Oriental tales, a novelty for young readers unaccustomed to imaginative fiction. Together these stories serve to satisfy Fielding's moral purpose of teaching self-control, obedience, honesty, and all traditional Christian virtues. The young girls are encouraged to discover truth for themselves and to become their own agents through reasoned discussion based on their readings. Fielding's approach to education was very progressive for its day and reflects the influence of John Locke and Enlightenment ideology. In The Cry: A New Dramatic Fable (1754), Fielding in collaboration with Jane Collier examined, in part, the interior lives of women and how societal status informed or limited moral development. Two principal female characters in the narrative debate the educational methods that will best serve women and the amount of freedom vs. submission that will most likely secure women's optimal happiness. Fielding again takes up the theme of female virtue in The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia (1757), a text that blended Fielding's interest in fiction, history, and biography. The female protagonist, Octavia, nobly endures an unhappy marriage. Her moral goodness is recognized and will be rewarded in the next life while the Cleopatra character disgraces herself by misusing her intelligence and indulging her imagination in harmful ways. Fielding's sixth novel, The History of Countess Dellwyn (1759) is another tale of the failed quest of a heroine to remain upright in a debauched world, and it explores the psychological punishment endured by the countess knowing that she willingly and incrementally succumbed to her own moral dissolution.

Critical Reception

Fielding was both an imitator and an innovator. Popular in her day, especially for The Adventures of David Simple and The Governess, she remains largely unknown today, although feminist literary critics are leading a revival of interest in her work. Fielding's moral earnestness, typical of her age, and her compositional shortcomings, apparent in her struggle with narrative and dialogue, are the chief reasons for her neglect by modern readers. Nevertheless, she was among the first novelists in England to emphasize character rather than incident. Critics note that Fielding infuses the incidents of her plots with psychological insight and ironic humor, and they frequently cite her shrewd analysis of human motivation and weakness. While lauding Fielding's insight into human nature, they have also criticized her didactic intent, which often undermines or overpowers her narrative. The Countess of Dellwyn is often regarded as Fielding's most successful narrative because the plot is well-developed and the characters are more complex, thus avoiding some of the triteness of her more overtly didactic texts. Recent scholarship continues to focus on Fielding as one of the first of a class of professional women authors who sought to make their living through writing. Feminist critics debate the extent to which Fielding challenged patriarchy or was herself merely a reinforcing agent by stressing feminine virtues that ultimately encouraged submissiveness. Even though Fielding explored the theme of female subordination in a patriarchal world, as did many of the female authors of the day, she was nonetheless both psychologically and financially dependent on male patronage of her literary work. The degree to which such dependence shaped and directed her literary output remains a topic of critical inquiry.