Sarah Fielding Essay - Critical Essays

Fielding, Sarah


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.

Principal Works

The Adventures of David Simple: Containing An Account of His Travels thro' the Cities of London and Westminister, in the Search of a Real Friend (novel) 1744

Familiar Letters between the Principal Characters in "David Simple," and Some Others (fictional letters) 1747

The Governess; or, Little Female Academy (novel) 1749

Remarks on Clarissa (criticism) 1749

The Adventures of David Simple, Volume the Last: In Which His History Is Concluded (novel) 1753

The Cry: A New Dramatic Fable [with Jane Collier] (fable) 1754

The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia (fictional biography) 1757

The Countess of Dellwyn (novel) 1759

The History of Ophelia (novel) 1760

Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates [translator] (memoirs) 1762


Robert S. Hunting (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Fielding's Revisions of David Simple," in Boston University Studies in English, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1957, pp. 117-21.

[Below, Hunting discusses the extent of Henry Fielding's "corrections" to his sister's novels, describing them as the benign attempt of a loving brother to polish his sister's inferior literary efforts.]


In 1744 appeared a now almost forgotten two-volume book, anonymously published, called The Adventures of David Simple: Containing An Account of his Travels Through the Cities of London and Westminister, In Search of A Real Friend. This first of the so-called "humanitarian" novels was written "By a...

(The entire section is 1704 words.)

Ronald Paulson (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Satirist as Point of View," in Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 208-115.

[In the excerpt below, Paulson examines Fielding's David Simple as an example of eighteenth-century novelists' use of characters as satirists within the narrative text.]

… [Tobias] Smollett's development shows a number of important facts about satire's situation in the second half of the eighteenth century. He becomes increasingly concerned with the character of the satirist, until in his last novel the evil object has become simply the reflection of a point of view—a symptom of sickness or isolation or a sense of fun....

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Martin C. Battestin (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Henry Fielding, and 'the Dreadful Sin of Incest'," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 6-18.

[In the excerpt below, Battestin examines the theme of incest between brother and sister in the works of Sarah Fielding and her brother Henry.]

… As with the process of artistic creation in general, the making of a play or a novel entails the making of choices—the choice of theme, of genre, of characters and setting, of the shape of an action, of a style and tone and attitude. And choices, whether deliberate or unconsciously motivated, are personal things. We may therefore find it significant that as an author—and particularly as a comic...

(The entire section is 6403 words.)

Deborah Downs-Miers (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "For Betty and the Little Female Academy: A Book of Their Own," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 30-3.

[Below, Downs-Miers suggests that literary critics have typically overlooked Fielding's The Governess as the first English novel written expressly for children because girls, not boys, are both the subject of and audience for Fielding's didactic tale.]

… We now know that there had been published in England, probably as early as the late seventeenth century, books expressly for children. While the intent of these texts was clearly to instruct, they approached that intent from the point of view of...

(The entire section is 2390 words.)

Mary Anne Schofield (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Cry, by Sarah Fielding, Scholars' Facsimilies & Reprints, Inc., 1986, pp. 5-11.

[Below, Schofield discusses how Fielding and Jane Collier in their collaborative novel, The Cry, subvert the traditional romance genre to explore the female psyche and to critique the genre itself.]

Fielding's observations [in The Cry] are shrewd. Like her contemporary fellow-novelist Eliza Haywood,1 she hides her radical observations under the cover of the accepted romance story, using the popular topos of the masquerade.2 She probes beneath the ubiquitous disguise in order to expose and delineate the state and fate of the...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)

Deborah Downs-Miers (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Springing the Trap: Subtexts and Subversions," in Fetter'd or Free?: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1986, pp. 308-323.

[In the following essay, Downs-Miers examines the literary strategies and conventions Fielding used to create texts that would appeal to a middle-class market, even though her narratives included unconventional explorations of the female psyche and challenges to prevailing eighteenth-century views of womanhood.]

Sarah Fielding (1710-68), like Virginia Woolf two hundred years later, was a popular novelist, a conscious experimenter in the art of fiction, a...

(The entire section is 7500 words.)

Jane Spencer (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, Basil Blackwell, 1986, 225 p.

[In the first part of the following excerpt, Spencer discusses how the financial and emotional dependence of women novelists in the mid-eighteenth century on male patrons thwarted their willingness to challenge existing sexual hierarchies. In the second part of the excerpt, Spencer examines Fielding's The Countess of Dellwyn in relation to changing attitudes toward adultery and seduction in the mid-eighteenth century.]

The Terms of Acceptance: Richardson and Fielding: Two Traditions in the Novel

… For women novelists, the debate...

(The entire section is 4822 words.)

Carolyn Woodward (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Sarah Fielding's Self-Destructing Utopia: The Adventures of David Simple," in Living by The Pen: Early British Women Writers, edited by Dale Spender, Teachers College Press, 1992, pp. 65–81.

[In the excerpt below, Woodward argues that Fielding's David Simple is a critique of the feminine virtues prescribed by capitalist-patriarchal society, and suggests that domestic ideology confined and stultified Fielding herself.]

Utopian Visions and Feminist Theory

… In The Adventures of David Simple (1744 and 1753),1 Sarah Fielding considers the human need for friendship and criticizes patriarchy for the greed...

(The entire section is 7393 words.)

Judith Burdan (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Girls Must Be Seen and Heard: Domestic Surveillance in Sarah Fielding's The Governess," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1994, pp. 8–13.

[In the following essay, Burdan suggests that in The Governess, Fielding provides a model of progressive education for girls based on Enlightenment thought and using pedagogical tools of observation believed to be specifically suited for females.]

Sarah Fielding's The Governess, or, Little Female Academy (1749), the tale of the various adventures of the nine girls in Mrs. Teachum's school, has been described by Jill Grey as not only "the first novel for...

(The entire section is 6302 words.)

Betty Rizzo (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Satires of Tyrants and Toadeaters: Fielding and Collier," in Companions Without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century British Women, The University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 41–60.

[Below, Rizzo discusses the concept of the "toadeater" in eighteenth-century literature and Fielding's use of the motif to explore unhealthy relationships maintained by unequal distributions of power.]

The toadeater—certainly a common type of humble companion—is often, and sometimes unjustifiably, first thought of when the subject of humble companionship arises. The word toadeater as applied to a political lackey (or toady) was new when in 1742 Horace Walpole...

(The entire section is 6560 words.)

Christopher D. Johnson (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, by Sarah Fielding, edited by Christopher D. Johnson, Bucknell University Press, 1994, pp. 15–31.

[Below, Johnson discusses how Fielding blends fiction and biography to create a unique narrative form in The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia which she uses to examine women's psychological complexity while exposing the corrupting power of human institutions.]

When Sarah Fielding published The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia in 1757, she was forty-seven years old and living in Bath under the patronage of Ralph Allen.1 Known to many of the leading intellectuals of her day, she maintained...

(The entire section is 7769 words.)

Arlene Fish Wilner (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Education and Ideology in Sarah Fielding's The Governess," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 24, 1995, pp. 210–8.

[Below, Wilner argues that Fielding's The Governess is not a subversive text, but is a conservative didactic narrative that leaves unchallenged prevailing bourgeois patriarchal values, and instead presages eighteenth and nineteenth-century idealizations of domestic, middle-class womanhood.

Sarah Fielding, author of nine works of fiction and a translation of Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates, has been characterized by several critics in recent years as a proto-feminist. One interpreter of her first novel, The...

(The entire section is 9934 words.)

Norman Simms (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The Psychological Adventures of Sarah Fielding's David Simple," in Études Anglaises, Vol. 49, No. 2, April-June, 1996, pp. 158–67.

[Below, Simms argues that David Simple is a psychological tour-de-force, but that Fielding left much of her character's subconscious unexplored.]

When Sarah Fielding (1710–1768) published The Adventures of David Simple in 1744, her brother Henry excused her feminine sensibilities: "[The] merit of this work consists in a vast Penetration into human Nature, a deep and profound Discernment of all the Mazes, Windings and Labyrinths, which perplex the Heart of Man to such a degree, that he is himself often incapable...

(The entire section is 4202 words.)

Further Reading


Battestin, Martin C., and Clive T. Probyn. The Correspondence of Henry and Sarah Fielding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, 207 p.

Contains the first published collection of the complete correspondences of both Henry and Sarah Fielding known to date, as well as a selection of letters by other family members of interest to biographers.


Beasley, Jerry C. "'Novelistic' Fiction in the 1740's." In his Novels of the 1740's, pp. 181–4. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Discusses both the success and limitations of...

(The entire section is 365 words.)