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by Bamber Gascoigne

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)


British writer, playwright and journalist, founder of the English Realistic school in literature with Samuel Richardson. Fielding's career as a dramatist has been shadowed by his fame as a novelist, who undertook the duty of writing comic epic poems in prose – Fielding once described himself as "great, tattered bard."

"When I'm not thanked at all, I'm thanked enough;
I've done my duty, and I've done no more."

(from Tom Thumb the Great, 1730)

Henry Fielding was born at Sharpham Park, Somerset. He was by birth a gentleman, close allied to the aristocracy. His father was a nephew of the 3th Earl of Denbigha, and mother was from a prominent family of lawyers. Fielding grew up on his parents farm at East Stour, Dotset. His mother died when Fielding was eleven, and when his father remarried, Henry was sent to Eton College (1719-1724), where he learned to love ancient Greek and Roman literature. During this period he also befriended George, later Lord, Lyttelton, and William Pitt, later Lord Chatham. To Lyttelton, his old school friend, who helped him from the late 1740s, Fielding dedicated the novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). After Eton, he attempted to elope with his cousin Sarah Andrew.

Encouraged by his cousin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Fielding began his literary career in London. In 1728 he wrote two plays, of which Love in Several Masques, performed at Drury Lane, ran only four nights. In the same year he went to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, enlarging his knowledge of classical literature. After returning to England, he devoted himself to writing for the stage. Under the pseudonym 'Sciblerus Secundus' he wrote comic-satirical burlesques, which made him the most successful playwrigh in the British theatre. His rival in the theatre was John Gay (1685-1732), the writer of the highly popular Beggar's Opera (1728). Fielding, a descendant of the Enlish ruling elite, believed in the benefits of a hierarchial social order, whereas Gay made no difference between criminals at the bottom of society and the corrupt elite at the top. .

Fielding also became a manager of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. In 1730 he had four plays produced, among them Tom Thumb, which is his most famous and popular drama, particularly in its revised version, The Tragedy of Tragedies (1731). According to a story, it made Swift laugh for the second time in his life. In 1736 Fielding took over the management of the New Theatre, writing for it among others the satirical comedy Pasquin. For several years Fielding's life was prosperous and full. His comedies earned him the title of "the English Molière".

However, Fielding's sharp burlesques satirizing the government gained the attention of the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole and Fielding's activities in theatre business was ended by Theatrical Licensing Act – it has been said that the law was directed primarily at him. In search for an alternative career Fielding became editor of the magazine Champion, an opposition journal. After studies of law Fielding was called in 1740 to the bar.

Because of increasing illness – he suffered from gout and asthma – Fielding was eventually unable to continue as a Westminster justice. Physically Fielding was impressive, he was over six feet tall, with a "frame of a body large, and remarkably robust," as his first biographer, Arthur Murphy recorded. He was also known as a man with a great appetite for food, alcohol and tobacco; the joys of the rich diet he celebrated in the song 'The Roast Beef of Old England'.

Between the years 1729 and 1737 Fielding wrote 25 plays but he acclaimed critical notice with his novels, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, and The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742), a parody of Richardson's Pamela (1740).

Although Fielding said in Tom Jones, "That monstrous animal, a husband and wife", he married in 1734 Charlotte Cradock, who became his model for Sophia Western in Tom Jones and for the heroine of Amelia, the author's last novel. It was written according to Fielding "to promote the cause of virtue and to expose some of the most glaring evils, as well public as private, which at present infect the country..." In the story an army officer is imprisoned. His virtuous wife resists all temptations and stays faithful to him.

With Charlotte Fielding enjoyed ten years of happiness until her death in 1744, leaving him with a small son and daughter. Fielding had called her "one from whom I draw all the solid Comfort of my life." Fielding's improvidence led to long periods of considerable poverty, but he did not drift into taking bribes.

At various periods of his life Fielding was greatly assisted by his friend R. Allen, the model for Allworthy in Tom Jones. His wife's fortune Fielding spent in living and hospitality. He had a small income from his share of his parents' farm and a tiny annuity from an uncle.

"What is commonly called love, namely the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh." (from Tom Jones)

In 1747 Fielding caused some scandal by marrying his wife's maid and friend Mary Daniel, who was six months pregnant at the time of the wedding – Fiending was condemned by every snob in England. Actually she was about to bear his child, and Fielding wished to save her from disgrace. In the six years of their marriage, Mary bore him five children.

Following Sir Robert Walpole's replacement by another prime minister, Fielding assume the role of a Whig ideologist. Before the mid-1740s he did not make it clear what his political views were. In the 'Prologue' to his play Pasquin (1737) he said: "... our Author, rumaging his Brain, / By various Methods try to entertain; / Brings a strange Groupe of Characters before you, And shews you here at once both Whig and Tory; / Or, Court and Country Party you may call ´em: / But, without fear and favour he will maul ´em." (A Political Biography of Henry Fielding by J. A. Downie, 2009, p. 7) Fielding's political satire The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) did not appear until after the fall of Walpole. "Roguery, and not a Rogue, is my Subject," Fielding said. Walpole was called in the phrases of his day, "His Honour," "Sir Bob," and the "Great Man."

As a reward for his governmental journalism Fielding was made justice of the peace for the City of Westminster in 1748 and for the county of Middlesex in 1749. The position was unpaid, and thus not much admired. Together with his half brother Sir John Fielding, assistant Saunders Welch, and clerk Joshua Brodgen, he established a new tradition of justice and suppression of crime in London, organizing a detective force (with a salary), that later developed into Scotland Yard. Fielding's writings became more socially orientated – he opposed among others public hangings. From the court in Bow Street he continued his struggle against corruption and and saw successfully implemented a plan for breaking up the criminal gangs who were then flourishing in London. One of his most controversial cases was the riot after which a sailor was executed. As a vehicle for his ideas he used The Covent-Garden Journal.

When the author's health was failing and he was forced to use crutches, he went with his wife, Margaret Collier, and one of his daughters to Portugal to recuperate in the milder air. His health badly damaged, Fielding died on October 8, 1754, in Lisbon. Fielding's travel book, Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, in which he recorded the unhappy journey, appeared posthumously in 1755.

The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, was enthusiastically revived by the general public, if not by Richardson, Dr. Johnson and other literary figures. Coleridge declared that the plot of Tom Jones was one of the three perfect plots in all literature, the others were Ben Jonson's Alchemist and Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. In its 'Preface' Fielding stated: "The excellence of the entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author's skill in well dressing it up... we shall represent human nature at first to keep appetite of our reader, in that more plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragout it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford." Much of the action unfolds against the backdrop of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The introductory chapters that preface each of the novel's 18 books cultivate the reader in a way that was then unprecedented in English fiction. The kindly, prosperous Mr Allworthy finds a baby boy on his bed. He adopts the child, naming it Tom Jones. Allworthy suspects that Jenny Jones, a maid-servant to the wife of the schoolmaster Partridge, is the mother. Jenny leaves with Partridge the neighborhood. Allworthy's sister Bridget marries Captain Blifil, they have a son. Tom and the young and mean-spirited Blifil are raised together. Years later a rivalry over the attention of Sophia Western arises between them. Because of an affair with the gamekeeper's daughter Molly Seagrim, and because of Blifil's treachery, Tom is expelled from the house. He experiences adventures in the picaresque section of the novel, drifts into an affair with Lady Ballaston, nearly kills his opponent in a duel, and is imprisoned. Meanwhile Sophia flees to London to escape the marriage with Blifil. Jenny Jones turns up to reveal that Bridget is the mother of Tom, and Blifil's cruelties to Tom over the years are exposed – Blifil knew the truth of Tom's birth. Tom marries Sophia, who forgives him for his infidelities, and Tom becomes the heir of Allworthy. Ford Madox Ford's comment on the work was: "Obviously, marital bliss is possible to the wives of the worst of rakes and to the rakes themselves. But to convince us that that is the lot of one or other of his characters the writer must take much more trouble... and write much better." (The March of Literature by Ford Madox Ford, 1938, second printing, 1998, p. 591)

Note: After novel established itself as a certain literary form in Britain, were novels often described as The Adventures of... Examples: The Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell by Daniel Defoe (1720); The Adventures of Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (1742); The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Philip by W.M. Thackeray (1861-62), The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871) by George Meredith. For further reading: biographies by W.L. Cross (3 vols, 1918) and F.H. Duddon (2 vols, 1952).  Fielding and the Nature of the Novel by Robert Alter (1968); Henry Fielding: The Critical Heritage, ed. by R. Paulson and T. Lockwood (1969); Henry Fielding: Justice Observed, ed. by K.G. Simpson (1986); Imagining the Penitentiary by John Bender (1987); Henry Fielding: A Life by Martin C. Battestin and Ruthe R. Battestin (1989); Natural Masques: Gender and Indentity in Fielding's Plays and Novels by Jill Campbell (1995); Critical Essays on Henry Fielding, ed. by Albert J. Rivero (1998); Henry Fielding: A Literary Life by Harold E. Pagliaro (1998); The Author's Inheritance: Henry Fielding, Jane Austen and the Establishment of the Novel by Joy Alyson Parker (1998); Henry Fielding In Our Time: Papers Presented at the Tercentenary Conference, edited by J. A. Downie (2008); A Political Biography of Henry Fielding by J. A. Downie (2009); Eighteenth-century Brechtians: Theatrical Satire in the Age of Walpole by Joel Schechter (2016)

Selected works:

  • Love in Several Masques: A Comedy, 1728 (play)
  • The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb, 1730 (play)
  • Rape upon Rape, or The Justice Caught in His Own Trap, 1730 (play; also: The Coffee-House Politician, or The Justice Caught in His Own Trap)
  • The Temple Beau: A Comedy, 1730 (play)
  • The Author's Farce, 1730 (play)
  •  The Letter Writers, 1731 (play)
  • The Genuine Grub-Street Opera, 1731 (play)
  • The Modern Husband: A Comedy, 1732 (play)
  • The Covent Garden Tragedy, 1732 (play)
  • Lottery: A Farce, 1732 (play)
  • The Miser: A Comedy, 1732 (play)
  • Don Quixote In England: A Comedy, 1734 (opera)
  • The Intriguing Chambermaid: A Comedy in Two Acts, 1734 (play)
  • Pasquin: A Dramatick Satire on the Times, 1737 (play)
  • The Historical Register for the Year 1736, 1737 (play)
  • An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, 1741
  • Plutus, the God of Riches. A Comedy, 1742 (play; translated from the original Greek of Aristophanes)
  • The Opposition: A Vision, 1742
  • The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend, Mr. Abraham Abrams, 1742 - Josef Andrewsin seikkailut (suomentanut Valfrid Hedman, 1927) - film 1977, prod. Woodfall Film Productions, dir. by Tony Richardson, starring Peter Firth, Ann-Margret, Michael Hordern
  • The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great, 1743
  • The Wedding-Day. A Comedy, 1743 (play)
  • A Journey from this World to the Next, 1743
  • Tumble-Down Dick; or, Phaeton in the Suds, 1744 (play)
  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 1749 - Tom Jones (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1950; Marja Alopaeus, 1994) - films: 1917, dir. by Edwin J. Collins, starring Langhorn Burton, Sybil Arundale, Will Corrie, Wyndham Guise; 1960 (TV series), prod. by Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), dir. by Eros Macchi, starring Pino Colizzi; 1963, dir. by Tony Richardson, written by John Osborne, starring Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith; The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones, 1976, dir. Cliff Owen, starring Nicky Henson, Trevor Howard, Terry-Thomas, Arthur Lowe, Joan Collins; 1997 (TV mini-series), prod. A&E Television Networks
  • Amelia, 1751
  • An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c., 1751
  • Proposal for Making Effective Provision for the Poor, 1753
  • Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, 1755
  • The Works of Henry Fielding, Esq;: With the Life of the Author, 1766 (12 vols.)
  • The Works of Henry Fielding, esq., 1882 (10 vols.; ed., with a biographical essay, by Leslie Stephen)
  • The Complete Works of Henry Fielding, 1902 (16 vols.)
  • Selected Essays of Henry Fielding, 1905 (ed. with introd. and notes by Gordon Hall Gerould)
  • The Complete Works, 1967 (16 vols.)
  • The True Patriot and Related Writings, 1987 (edited by W.B. Coley)
  • New Essays by Henry Fielding: His Contributions to the Craftsman, 1734-1739, and Other Early Journalism, 1989 
  • The Correspondence of Henry and Sarah Fielding, 1993 (edited by Martin C. Battestin and Clive T. Probyn)
  • The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon; Shamela ; and Occasional Writings, 2008 (edited by Martin Battestin; with the late Sheridan W. Baker, Jr. and Hugh Amory)
  • The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams; and, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, 2008 (edited by Douglas Brooks-Davies)
  • The History of Tom Jones: a Foundling, 2014 (with an introduction and commentary by Martin C. Battestin; the text edited by Fredson Bowers)

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