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.
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.
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.
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). □
"Henry Fielding." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/henry-fielding
"Henry Fielding." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/henry-fielding
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.
FIELDING, HENRY (1707–1754), 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 (1739–1741). 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 gender—Joseph is the victim of the lustful Lady Booby—and 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 (1745–1746) and The Jacobite's Journal (1747–1748).
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 (1749–1752). 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 .
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.
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.
"Fielding, Henry." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2019). https://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 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
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).
"Fielding, Henry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry
"Fielding, Henry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
J. A. Downie
"Fielding, Henry." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry-0
"Fielding, Henry." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved August 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry-0
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
"Fielding, Henry." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry
"Fielding, Henry." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
BORN: 1707, Sharpham, Somerset, England
DIED: 1754, Lisbon, Portugal
GENRE: Fiction, drama, essays
Tom Thumb (1730)
An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741)
The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742)
The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749)
The English novel as we recognize it today was shaped in large part by Henry Fielding's three major novels. But if he had never written a novel, Fielding would have a place in literary history as being for a time one of England's most popular comic playwrights. And if he had never written a play, Fielding would have a place in political history as an influential journalist and essayist. And if he had never written anything at all, Fielding would still have a place in British history as a reforming judge and the originator of London's first effective police force. It has often been said that if one could choose only one book from which to learn about England during the eighteenth century, that book should be Fielding's novel—often regarded as the first novel in English letters—Tom Jones.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Spirited Youth, Sans Parents Henry Fielding was born on April 22, 1707, at Sharpham Park, Somerset, the estate of his maternal grandfather. In 1710 the Fieldings moved to East Stour in Dorset. Henry's mother died when he was eleven, and he was raised by his grandmother with occasional visits to his charming but irresponsible father, Edmund Fielding. Lady Mary Wortley
Montagu, a distinguished writer and Fielding's cousin, described him about this time as a handsome and high-spirited youth, full of the joy of life, witty and humorous; very much like his most famous literary creation, Tom Jones.
A Controversial Playwright Turns to Contestatory Law Fielding's achievement as a novelist often overshadows his short but dynamic career as a playwright—between 1728 and 1737. Fielding ranks as one of the most popular dramatists of the eighteenth century, and if the political fallout from his satire had not brought his theatrical activities to an abrupt end, Fielding might never have made the transition from playwright to novelist.
Fielding's first play, Love in Several Masques, premiered in 1728, and for the next seven years Fielding was active as a playwright and theater manager. He specialized in comedies, farces, and satires, the best of which is probably Tom Thumb (1730). Two political satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), so infuriated the government of the powerful Prime Minister 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 over, along with the theatrical careers of many others.
Fielding then turned to the study of the law. He continued to oppose the Walpole government by editing a political journal, The Champion (1739–1740), the first of four journals for which he wrote over his lifetime.
The Dialectical Development of the Novel: Against Richardson In 1740, the morally earnest novelist Samuel Richardson published Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, the story of a servant girl who preserves her virtue against the sexual advances of her aristocratic employer, who later proposes a proper marriage to her. The book was an immediate success. Fielding thought the work was the very essence of moral hypocrisy, and he could not resist spoofing this in an unsigned novella, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741). Recent critics have noted with chagrin that the success of fiction like Fielding's and Richardson's was achieved at precisely the moment of the Great Irish Famine of 1740–41. A critical consensus is emerging that the success of this new art form was related to English readers' need to distance themselves from the suffering of their neighbors in Ireland, which was at the time an English colony. While 10 percent of the Irish population was starving to death, the new novels were offering moral instruction and convulsive laughter to an ever more appreciative London readership.
Continuing the attack on Richardson, Fielding wrote a bogus sequel to Pamela, giving the heroine a younger brother who likewise resists the sexual advances of his aristocratic lady employer. The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742) begins with the extended joke of the sexual double standard—female virginity being valued so much more than male chastity—but it soon outgrows its satiric origins and becomes a fully developed novel in its own right. Fielding's preface is a manifesto for the developing genre of the novel.
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 (three volumes, 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 with all “great men,” Robert Walpole in particular.
Fielding's eldest daughter died in 1742, his wife in 1744, and he himself was painfully crippled with gout (an extremely painful form of arthritis). The death of his beloved wife, Charlotte, was such a shock to Fielding that his friends feared for his sanity. Yet, during these years, Fielding was creating one of the world's enduring masterpieces of good humor and convivial optimism, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749).
Political Journalism and Personal Scandal While he was writing Tom Jones, Fielding also edited two political journals, The True Patriot (1745–1746) and The Jacobite's Journal (1747–1748). In 1747 he married Mary Daniel, his first wife's servant, who was pregnant with his child. Fielding ignored the jeers of his enemies—their grief over Charlotte's death had drawn him and Mary together, and they had five children and a loving family for many years.
A Magistrate Sets Sail for Lisbon In 1748 Fielding was commissioned Justice of the Peace. Most of his work was concerned with London's criminal population of thieves, informers, and prostitutes. 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 three thousand criminals by their voices. The brothers organized the Bow Street Runners, the first modern police force.
Fielding's experiences as judge gave a more serious tone to his last novel, Amelia (1752). The sufferings of the heroine and her irresponsible husband are used to expose flaws in the civil and military institutions of the period.
Sick with jaundice, dropsy, and gout, and worn out by overwork, Fielding resigned his post as magistrate and sailed to Lisbon, Portugal, to recuperate. He made his journey the subject of his last work, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which was published posthumously (1755). Fielding died in Lisbon on October 8, 1754.
Works in Literary Context
Journals The early eighteenth century was a great age for journalism and essay writing. Increasing literacy rates,
an unquenchable thirst for novelty, and a constantly contentious political climate resulted in dozens of journals and newspapers appearing seemingly overnight. Fielding produced three journals in his lifetime in the model of the Tatler and the Spectator, the influential journals of cultural commentary published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Fielding's journals featured more politics, however, like the journals of Daniel Defoe.
The Rise of the Novel Many critics consider Tom Jones to be the first novel in English. Novels are long fictional stories that feature ordinary people—sometimes in everyday situations and sometimes in extraordinary circumstances. The novel emerged as a popular literary genre in the eighteenth century as literacy rates rose, printing costs dropped, and the middle class swelled. A new population of readers emerged, and these people appreciated fiction with which they could identify.
Restoration Comedy Conventions Fielding's comic dramas were indebted to Restoration comedy, a style popular during the period 1660–1700. Restoration comedies are marked by their urbane and witty dialogue, complex plots, satirical touches, and sexual humor. Fielding used all of these, greatly increasing the satire, often politicizing the content, and using a more coarse style of burlesque comedy.
Reimagining the Picaresque For his novels, Fielding drew heavily upon the inspiration and structure of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605). In Joseph Andrews, Fielding recasts the brave, idealistic, but absentminded hero of Don Quixote into the figure of Parson Adams. In Tom Jones, Fielding borrows the now-familiar formula of the hero-with-bumbling-sidekick from Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza, recasting them as the heroic Tom and the naive country bumpkin Benjamin Partridge. Fielding also borrows the on-the-road structure of episodic adventures from Don Quixote known in the Spanish literary tradition as the “picaresque.” In many of these episodes, Fielding draws upon his experience as a successful comic dramatist to create scenes remarkable for their comic timing, sharply drawn characterizations, and complex interweaving of plot and subplots.
Flawed Heroes Of the themes in Fielding's novels that have received most attention, the most enduring is whether Tom Jones is, or should be, an admirable hero despite his faults. Tom is truly in love with Sophia, but he is young and handsome, and he has a difficult time saying no to the several women who make themselves available. In one notorious case, Tom has an extended affair with Lady Bellaston, an aristocrat in London who has information about the whereabouts of Sophia. Tom accepts her money and gifts in exchange for his sexual favors. For many readers this crosses a line. Various aspects of sexuality appear in Fielding's works, including incest, sexual harassment, adultery, and the simple sexual explorations of young people who act on their emotions instead of their good judgment.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Fielding's famous contemporaries include:
Ignacy Krasicki (1735–1801): Polish poet and novelist. Krasicki was a clergyman who wrote a hilarious mockepic called Monachomachia, (1778) which ridiculed the passive lifestyle of monks. There was a huge controversy, but Krasicki responded with an equally satirical sequel.
Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov (1711–1765): One of the most learned scholars of his time, Lomonosov was a chemist, mathematician, grammarian, and rhetorician. He made lasting contributions to the regularization of the accents and syllables in the Russian language for poetic verse.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804): German philosopher who challenged the Enlightenment faith in the unlimited potential of human reason. His Critique of Pure Reason (1781) argued that what we can know about the world comes only from the evidence of our senses.
Voltaire (1694–1778): French satirist, dramatist, and poet. Voltaire was a fearless satirist who kept up a relentless attack on human bigotry, ignorance, greed, and fanaticism, seen best in his most famous work, Candide (1759).
James Thomson (1700–1748): This Scottish-born poet's evocative poems about the landscape collected in The Seasons (1726–1730) are often seen as forerunners of the emotional nature poems of the Romantic poets, fifty years ahead of their time.
Often connected with sexuality, but not limited to it, is the theme of hypocrisy. Fielding is a powerful satirist of the hypocrisy that he sees as a growing infection in society, law, and the church. For example, in Joseph Andrews, Fielding creates the memorable character of Parson Adams, an elderly, absentminded, and naive Anglican minister who serves as a kind of lightning rod for hypocrisy in the many different people he encounters on the road. Despite his backwardness and childlike innocence, indeed because of it, he demonstrates by contrast the vanity and pettiness of others. Fielding's cure for hypocrisy, which Adams embodies, is in preferring good works (the Anglican value) over strong faith (the Methodist or Calvinist value). It is what you do that matters in the end, not what abstract doctrine you believe in or what kind of person others think you are; it is worth noting that the protagonists in Fielding's three major novels are a servant, an illegitimate orphan, and an exconvict.
Works in Critical Context
Fielding's reception history is bound up in a tight knot with Samuel Richardson's reception history. The two dominant novelists of the mid-eighteenth century did not know one another personally but took several swipes at one another's work. Most significant among these swipes is probably Fielding's Shamela (1741), a satire on Richardson's classic novel of conduct, Pamela (1740). It has become a commonplace in literary criticism that the two novelists are diametrically opposed to one another, and between them one can find all the seeds of subsequent English novels: Fielding represents the external, comic, optimistic, tolerant, easygoing, panoramic, masculine, and urban aspects through his omniscient narration; whereas Richardson represents the internal, tragic, fatalistic, morally strict, anxious, focused, feminine, and domestic aspects through his first-person novels written in the form of letters. There are many themes that both novelists have in common, such as the corruption of vain aristocrats and the tyranny of self-interested parents, but it is usually the differences between the two novelists that are emphasized to make a point. Fielding's rises in critical fashion over 250 years of criticism are usually linked to Richardson's declines, and vice versa.
Tom Jones Tom Jones was the talk of the town when it first appeared. It had the best advertisement possible: the whiff of scandal. Preachers denounced its supposed sexual immorality in their sermons, and some even blamed it for the two earthquakes that hit London in 1750. Amelia was also a popular success, even though it is less often read today; still, critics were so hard on Fielding for a handful of oversights in the novel that he stated in his Covent-Garden Journal that he would never again write fiction.
In the nineteenth century, Fielding's reputation was split: among fellow novelists his influence and popularity was high, but among the moralistic Victorian critics he found little support. William Hazlitt, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot all paid their tributes to Fielding, but the most memorable statement came from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “What a master of composition Fielding was! Upon my word, I think the Oedipus Tyrannus, the Alchemist, and Tom Jones the three most perfect plots ever planned.” (Oedipus is a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, and The Alchemist is a Renaissance comedy by Ben Jonson.)
Coleridge's comment was frequently cited by critics in the twentieth century, especially the “New Critics” of the 1940s and 1950s who gave detailed appreciations of Fielding's plotting and sense of structure. R. S. Crane's “The Plot of Tom Jones” became a classic of the movement, and Martin Battestin argued that Fielding's plots reflect the symmetrical elegance of the neoclassical architecture popular in the eighteenth century. Feminist critics starting in the 1960s found less to admire in Fielding's masculine approach and sexist characterizations. Most recently, Fielding has been blessed with a generation of responsible (and sometimes competing) biographers who have done much to erase the rumors and innuendos that had damaged his reputation over the years. In his Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding, Claude Rawson describes Fielding as “the most important English playwright of his time” and “one of the great inaugural figures of the history of the novel.” Further, Rawson observes, “Fielding's almost obsessive concern with Richardson was to develop and sharpen a mode of fiction-writing whose life and after-life continue strong.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Fielding's Jonathan Wild, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones are influenced by the “picaresque”—a Spanish genre about the adventures of a trickster or rogue hero, traveling from place to place, getting into trouble with authority figures, and escaping by use of his cleverness and charm. Below are some works about tricksters, as well as about clashes between urban or industrial and rural or agricultural lifetsyles.
Gulliver's Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. Gulliver is more gullible than roguish, but he travels to several remote islands discovering little people, huge people, and talking horses. Gulliver gets himself into trouble by maintaining his English “common sense” values in places with very different assumptions and traditions—the vehicle for Swift’s often bitter satire.
Firefly (2002), a television series created by Joss Whedon. In the twenty-sixth century, a group of smugglers—led by a former sergeant from the losing side of a galactic war—journey across the galaxy and find trouble wherever they go, but always manage to stay one step ahead of the peacekeepers, bounty hunters, and criminals trying to track them down.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a novel by Mark Twain. In this picaresque novel about a trip on a raft down the Mississippi River, Twain shows what is great and enduring about life in the South, but Huck also encounters all the forces of racism, corruption, and greed that mark a turn of the corner in Southern life on the eve of the Civil War.
From Print to Film Fielding's popularity received a major boost in 1963 when Tony Richardson's movie version of Tom Jones won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Tom Jones was later produced as a BBC mini-series in 1997, and the character of Fielding himself has appeared, along with his brother John Fielding, as a crusading judge in the British television series City of Vice (2008).
Responses to Literature
- Evaluate Fielding as a moralist in Tom Jones. Does the author's seeming tolerance of Tom's sexual escapades undermine or outweigh the theology and morality argued for elsewhere in the novel? Do you think Tom is a positive or negative role model, both in Fielding's time and in ours?
- Read the preface to Joseph Andrews and measure Fielding's new theory of comedy with his practice in his novels. How well do they live up to Fielding's high aims?
- Consider Fielding's powerful use of irony in Jonathan Wild. How many different kinds and shades of irony can you find? Does the culture of celebrity today, where even criminals are considered “great” if they are famous enough, provide a fresh perspective on Fielding's ironies?
- In Fielding's short lifetime, he had three distinct careers: as a playwright, a novelist, and a judge. From your reading, how did his experience in each of these areas have an influence on what he achieved in the other two? Provide and analyze examples.
Battestin, Martin. The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Battestin, Martin C., with Ruthe R. Battestin. Henry Fielding: A Life. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
Crane, R. S. “The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones,” in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern. Ed. R. S. Crane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.
Hunter, Paul. Occasional Form: Henry Fielding and the Chains of Circumstance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Michie, Allen. Richardson and Fielding: The Dynamics of a Critical Rivalry. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.
Paulson, Ronald. The Life of Henry Fielding: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Paulson, Ronald, and Thomas Lockwood, eds. Henry Fielding: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969.
Rawson, Claude, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Rogers, Pat. Henry Fielding: A Biography. New York: Scribners, 1979.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.
"Fielding, Henry." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry
"Fielding, Henry." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Retrieved August 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fielding-henry