Skip to main content
Select Source:

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

The English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was one of the great novelists of the 18th century. His fiction, plays, essays, and legal pamphlets show he was a humane and witty man, with a passion for reform and justice.

The English novel of today was largely created by Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Richardson's works, written in the form of a series of letters, are experiments in psychological analysis. Fielding's novels, in which the author himself tells the story and controls the plot structure, are considered the first accurate portrayal of contemporary manners.

Henry Fielding was born on April 22, 1707, at Sharpham Park, Somersetshire, the estate of his maternal grandfather. In 1710 the Fieldings moved to East Stour, Dorsetshire. When Henry was 11, his mother died. A suit for custody was brought by his grandmother against his charming but irresponsible father, Lt. Gen. Edmund Fielding. The settlement placed Henry in his grandmother's care, although he continued to visit his father in London. Henry was educated at Eton. At 17 he attempted to elope with a young heiress but was frustrated by her guardian.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Fielding's cousin, described him about this time as a high-spirited youth, full of the joy of life, witty and humorous. He was handsome and more than 6 feet in height.

Career as a Playwright

Fielding's first play, Love in Several Masques, was presented in London in February 1728. The following month he entered the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, where he studied classical literature. He returned to London in 1730. For the next 7 years Fielding was active as a playwright and theater manager. He wrote masques, farces, comedies, and burlesques, including the famous burlesque Tom Thumb (1730). In 1734 he married Charlotte Cradock, who was the prototype of his heroines Sophia and Amelia. Two political satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), so infuriated the Whig government of Robert Walpole that all London theaters, except two protected by royal patent, were ordered closed by the Licensing Act of 1737. Fielding's career as a playwright was at an end.

Fielding then turned to the study of the law and was admitted to the bar in less than 3 years. He continued to oppose the Walpole government by editing a political journal, The Champion (1739-1740), the first of four journals that he edited in his lifetime.

First Novels

In 1740 Richardson published a novel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, the story of a young servant girl who preserves her virtue against the repeated advances of her master, Squire B—, so impressing him at last that he marries her. The book was an immediate success, being read as a lesson in morality by all young ladies. Fielding could not resist spoofing this, to him, ridiculous tale in an unsigned pamphlet, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), in which the virtuous heroine is hilariously exposed as a conniving wench.

Continuing the attack on Richardson, Fielding wrote The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). His purpose in this book, however, was more than parody, for he intended, as he announced in the preface, a "kind of writing which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language." In this new kind of writing, which Fielding called a "comic epic poem in prose," he creatively blended two classical traditions: that of the epic, which had been poetic, and that of the drama, but emphasizing the comic rather than the tragic. Another distinction of Joseph Andrews and of the novels to come was the use of everyday reality of character and action as opposed to the fables of the past.

Joseph Andrews is supposedly the brother of "the illustrious Pamela, whose virtue is at present so famous." He resists the advances of his employer, Lady Booby, in order to remain faithful to his true love, Fanny Goodwill. After escaping Lady Booby and surviving amusing adventures along the road with his companion, Parson Adams, Joseph is reunited with Fanny.

Fielding's law practice was not prospering, and the moderate income from Joseph Andrews was not sufficient to provide for his wife and children. Consequently he gathered for publication as Miscellanies (3 vols., 1743) some earlier works, including The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great, a savagely ironic account of a notorious London thief whom he equated satirically with all "great men," Robert Walpole in particular.

Tom Jones

Fielding's eldest daughter died in 1742, his wife in 1744, and he himself was crippled with gout. The death of his beloved wife was such a shock to Fielding that his friends feared for his reason. Yet during these sad years Fielding was creating his comic masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, which appeared in 1749.

The plot of Tom Jones is too ingeniously complicated for simple summary; its basis is Tom's alienation from his foster father, Squire Allworthy, and his sweetheart, Sophia Western, and his reconciliation with them after lively and dangerous adventures on the road and in London. The triumph of the book is its presentation of English life and character in the mid-18th century. Every social type is represented, and through them every shade of moral behavior. Fielding's varied style tempers the basic seriousness of the novel, and his authorial comment preceding each chapter adds a significant dimension to the conventionally straightforward narrative.

While he was writing Tom Jones, Fielding also edited two journals—The True Patriot (1745-1746) and The Jacobite's Journal (1747-1748)—which were undertaken to counteract popular enthusiasm for Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. Fielding wrote a preface (1744) for The Adventures of David Simple, a novel by his sister Sarah, and another preface (1747) for its sequel. In 1747 he married Mary Daniel, his first wife's servant; their grief over her death had drawn them together. Together they had five children.

Career as a Magistrate

In 1748 Fielding was commissioned justice of the peace for Westminster and later for Middlesex as well. Most of his work was concerned with London's criminal population of thieves, informers, gamblers, and prostitutes. In a corrupt and callous society he became noted for his impartial judgments, incorruptibility, and compassion for those whom social inequities had forced into crime. The income from his office, which he called "the dirtiest money upon earth," dwindled because he refused to take money from the very poor. Fielding was assisted in his work by his blind half brother, Sir John Fielding (1722-1780), a justice of the peace, who was said to be able to recognize over 3,000 thieves by their voices. The brothers organized the Bow Street Runners, the first modern police force, and they lobbied continually in Parliament for enlightened criminal legislation.

Henry Fielding's experiences as a magistrate gave a more serious tone to his last novel, Amelia (1752). The sufferings of the heroine, Amelia Booth, and her husband, a soldier, are used to expose and condemn the civil and military establishments of the period. In his essays for his last periodical, the Covent Garden Journal (1752), Fielding criticized wittily and incisively politics, society, and literature.

Sick with jaundice, dropsy, and gout and worn out by overwork, Fielding resigned his post as magistrate and sailed to Lisbon, where he hoped to recuperate. Even this painful voyage was matter for his pen; he made it the subject of his last work, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which was published posthumously (1755). Fielding died in Lisbon on Oct. 8, 1754, and was buried in the English cemetery there.

Further Reading

There are two major critical biographies of Fielding: Wilbur L. Cross, The History of Henry Fielding (3 vols., 1918; repr. 1964), and Frederick H. Dudden, Henry Fielding: His Life, Works, and Times (2 vols., 1952; repr. 1966). A short biography is John E. Butt, Fielding (1954). The fullest treatment of the novels is in Aurélien Digeon, The Novels of Fielding (1925). The chapters on Fielding in the following books are useful: Ernest A. Baker, The History of the English Novel, vol. 4 (1932); Arnold Kettle, An Introduction to the English Novel, vol. 1 (1957); and Ian P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957). Recommended for general historical background are Arthur S. Tuberville, English Men and Manners in the Eighteenth Century (2d ed. 1929); George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (2d ed. 1946); and Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (2d ed., rev. by C. H. Stuart, 1962). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Henry Fielding." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Henry Fielding." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/henry-fielding

"Henry Fielding." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/henry-fielding

Fielding, Henry

FIELDING, HENRY

FIELDING, HENRY (17071754), English novelist and playwright. Fielding was born 22 April 1707 at Sharpham Park, Somerset, and the family moved to East Stour in Dorset three years later. His father, Edmund, was a lieutenant who was reckless with money, and his mother, Sarah Gould, was a judge's daughter. Edmund Fielding remarried in 1718 after Sarah's death, and Fielding was educated at Eton, where he developed a love of the Greek and Roman classics. In 1728, he moved to London, where he published his first work, an ode on King George II's birthday, a satirical poem, "The Masquerade," and his first play, Love in Several Masques. From 1728 to 1729 he studied law at the University of Leiden, but returned to London because his father's increasing extravagance had left Fielding penniless. He supported himself by writing for the stage; between 1729 and 1737 he wrote twenty-five comedies and satires that were passionately engaged with exposing the vices of the court, politics, and society of the 1720s and 1730s. Fielding's first success, The Author's Farce, reflects on his own difficult financial position. In 1734 he married Charlotte Craddock, and they lived in lodgings in the Strand in London with their two children. His other successes at the Little Theatre, Haymarket (which he managed) included Tom Thumb (1730) and The Grub Street Opera (1731). His political satires Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for 1736 (1737) provoked the government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole to pass the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737, which banned political satire on the stage, thereby ending Fielding's career as a playwright.

Returning to the study of the law, Fielding was admitted to the bar in 1740. He also established the satirical periodical Champion (17391741). In 1741 his debts caused him to be detained in a bailiff's sponging-house (a preliminary detention center before prison), where he wrote Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, an attack on novelist Samuel Richardson's concept of "virtue rewarded" in his novel Pamela (1740). Shamela parodied Richardson's epistolary style, revealing Shamela's "virtue" or "vartue" to be a weapon of self-interest and gain.

Fielding's talent for comic ridicule blossomed further with Joseph Andrews (1742), described by Fielding as a "comic epic-poem in prose" (Preface). Fielding attacked Richardson's schematic moral simplicity by inverting genderJoseph is the victim of the lustful Lady Boobyand by the panoply of characters Joseph encountered with his quixotic friend Parson Adams. The novel's originality lies with its self-consciousness as fiction and the strong authorial presence of an omniscient narrator introducing each chapter and controlling the pace and plot.

In 1743, Fielding published the successful Miscellanies including A Journey from this World to the Next and Jonathan Wild (revised and republished in 1754), based on the life of a Machiavellian gangster living in the 1720s. After Fielding's wife died in 1744, his sister, Sarah Fielding, who was also a writer, managed his household until he married his wife's former servant, Mary Daniel, in 1747. Meanwhile Fielding produced two anti-Jacobite newspapers, The True Patriot (17451746) and The Jacobite's Journal (17471748).

The epic scale of Fielding's art reached its apex with Tom Jones (1749). He commented in the dedication that ". . . to recommend goodness and innocence hath been my sincere endeavour in this history." Fielding's attitude to morality, judgment, justice, and honor in depicting the life of his eponymous orphan hero revealed his realism. He challenged the reader's judgment with the complexity of his characterization, for example in the female characters who test Tom's honor, ranging from the idealized Sophia to the sexually avaricious Molly Seagrim to the conniving socialite Lady Bellaston. Samuel Johnson found the moral ambiguity of the novel troubling.

Fielding's experience as a justice of the peace (for Westminster in 1748 and for Middlesex in 1749) and as chairman of the quarter sessions of Westminster, where justices of the peace for Westminster met to discuss petty crime, shaped his last, rather sentimental, novel, Amelia (1751). The novel sympathetically portrayed how Amelia and her husband, Captain Booth, suffered from institutionalized injustice in the military, the aristocracy, and the court of law. Accused of losing the comedy of his earlier novels, Fielding responded in his satirical periodical The Covent-Garden Journal that he would write no more fiction.

In his final years, Fielding's determination to suppress crime and administer justice led him to assist his half-brother, Sir John Fielding, in establishing the "Bow Street Runners," an embryonic police force, while writing on contemporary legal debates (17491752). In 1754 he sailed to Portugal in an attempt to improve his failing health and wrote The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (published posthumously in 1755). He died in Lisbon and was buried there.

See also English Literature and Language ; Richardson, Samuel .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Fielding, Henry. Amelia. Edited by David Blewett. London, 2001.

. Jonathan Wild. Edited by David Nokes. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1982.

. Joseph Andrews/Shamela. Edited by Judith Hawley. London, 1999.

. A Journey from This World to the Next and The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. Edited by Ian A. Bell and Andrew Varney. Oxford and New York, 1997.

. Tom Jones: The Authoritative Text, Contemporary Reactions, and Criticism. 2nd ed. Edited by Sheridan Baker. New York, 1995.

Secondary Sources

Battestin, Martin C., and Ruthe R. Battestin. Henry Fielding: A Life. London and New York, 1989. The standard expansive biography of Fielding by the most eminent scholar on Fielding.

Campbell, Jill. Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding's Plays and Novels. Stanford, 1995. A study deconstructing critical assumptions about gender in Fielding's work by historicizing his fiction.

Pagliaro, Harold. Henry Fielding: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, U.K., 1998. A thought-provoking biography examining the relation between Fielding's work as a lawyer, magistrate, and political essayist and his fiction and drama.

Uglow, Jenny. Henry Fielding. Plymouth, U.K., 1995. A useful introduction to the life and major works.

Max Fincher

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Fielding, Henry." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Fielding, Henry." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry

"Fielding, Henry." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry

Fielding, Henry

Henry Fielding, 1707–54, English novelist and dramatist. Born of a distinguished family, he was educated at Eton and studied law at Leiden. Settling in London in 1729, he began writing comedies, farces, and burlesques, the most notable being Tom Thumb (1730), and two satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for 1736 (1737), which attacked the Walpole government and provoked the Licensing Act of 1737. This act, setting up a censorship of the stage, ended Fielding's dramatic career and turned him to the less inhibited form of the novel. In that genre he achieved his greatest success, beginning with his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), which started simply as a burlesque of Samuel Richardson's sentimental novel Pamela but developed into a great comic creation. He followed with Jonathan Wild (1743), the history of a superman of crime, which has been called the most sustained piece of irony in English. His masterpiece is Tom Jones (1749), a novel recounting the wild comic adventures of the good-hearted though highly fallible foundling, Tom Jones. In Tom and his guardian, Squire Allworthy, Fielding presents his concept of the ideal man, one in whom goodness and charity are combined with common sense. Because of its memorable characters and episodes, the brilliance of its plotting, and the generosity of its moral vision, Tom Jones is considered one of the greatest of English novels. Amelia (1751), his last novel, is a somewhat sentimental story about a young wife's devotion to her feckless husband, in which Fielding exposes numerous social evils of his day. Fielding had begun his serious study of law in 1737 and in 1740 was called to the bar. After spending several years as a political journalist, he was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster in 1748 and for Middlesex in 1749. A fearless and honest magistrate, he worked arduously in the administration of justice and the prevention of crime. Broken in health, he resigned his office in 1753 and the following year sailed for Portugal, where he died. His last work was the amusing journal Voyage to Lisbon (1755).

See biographies by W. L. Cross (3 vol., 1918, repr. 1963), F. H. Duddon (1952, repr. 1966), and J. Uglow (1995); studies by M. Johnson (1961), R. Alter (1969), R. Paulson, ed. (1962 and 1971), P. Lewis (1987), and A. J. Rivero (1989).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Fielding, Henry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Fielding, Henry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry

"Fielding, Henry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry

Fielding, Henry

Fielding, Henry (1707–54). English writer and magistrate best known as the intrusive, ironic narrator of his novels. Educated at Eton and Leiden, Fielding wrote numerous plays, including swingeing political satires of Walpole's government, until the theatrical Licensing Act of 1737. Called to the bar in 1740, Fielding subsequently divided his time between literature and the law, developing his own idiosyncratic theory of fiction as ‘comic epics in prose’ in Joseph Andrews (1742) and his masterpiece, Tom Jones (1749), a political allegory set in the midst of the '45. Appointed JP at Bow Street in 1748, Fielding was an energetic advocate of effective measures to reduce crime, corruption, and public disorder in the capital, earning notoriety for insisting on the death penalty in the Bosavern Penlez case. His health undermined by overwork, Fielding travelled to Lisbon after the publication of Amelia, his final novel, dying there in 1754. His half-brother, Sir John Fielding (d. 1780), blind from the age of nineteen, was for many years also a magistrate at Bow Street.

J. A. Downie

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Fielding, Henry." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Fielding, Henry." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry-0

"Fielding, Henry." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry-0

Fielding, Henry

Fielding, Henry (1707–54) English novelist and playwright. During the 1730s, he wrote a number of satirical plays, such as Pasquin (1736). His first work of fiction, An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews (1741), was a parody of Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740). Joseph Andrews (1742) was his first novel. Fielding strengthened the novel genre through his depiction of character and narrative sophistication. His masterpiece is the picaresque novel Tom Jones (1749). Fielding was responsible for the foundation of Britain's first organized police force, the Bow Street Runners.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Fielding, Henry." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Fielding, Henry." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry

"Fielding, Henry." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry