Henry Fielding

From New World Encyclopedia

Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding.jpg
Pseudonym(s): Captain Hercules Vinegar (some published anonymously)
Born: April 22, 1707
Sharpham, Glastonbury, England
Died: October 8, 1754
Occupation(s): Justice of the peace, novelist, dramatist
Nationality: England
Writing period: 1728-1754
Literary genre: satire, picaresque
Literary movement: Enlightenment, Augustan Age

Henry Fielding (April 22, 1707 – October 8, 1754) was an English novelist and dramatist, known for his rich, earthy—if sometimes crude—humor and satirical prowess, and as the author of the novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. His novels and plays criticizing the government of the time (as well as rival authors) often struck a discordant note with contemporary leaders, especially Sir Robert Wapole. Despite this, he later became London's Chief Magistrate.

While his literary work scandalized many, his role in the development of the novel as a major art form is signification. He helped to develop the form from the epistolary works of Samuel Richardson in to one with more diverse characters, helping to pave the way for the psychological realism that would come after him.


Born at Sharpham near Glastonbury in Somerset, in 1707, Fielding was educated at Eton College. His younger sister, Sarah, was also destined to be a successful writer. Both were shaken in 1718, when their mother died. Their maternal grandmother was given custody of them after she accused their father of being an unfit parent. After a romantic episode with one young woman, Sarah Andrew, that ended in his getting into trouble with the law, Fielding went to London where his literary career began.

In 1728, he traveled to Leiden to study. On his return, he began writing for the theater; some of his work, notably Tom Thumb (1730), The Coffee House Politician (1730), The Letter Writers (1731), and The Covent Garden Tragedy (1732, was savagely critical of the contemporary Whig government under Sir Robert Walpole). He also translated Molière's The Mock Doctor (1732) and The Miser (1733). Fielding staged Don Quixote in England in 1734, before marrying Charlotte Cradock—a woman from Salisbury whom he had been courting for some time—on November 28, 1734.

The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 is alleged to be a direct result of Fielding's activities. The particular play that triggered the Licensing Act was The Vision of the Golden Rump, which Walpole read aloud during proceedings to argue the point that the government should regulate theater performances. Although it is unknown who penned The Vision of the Golden Rump—some have theorized that the play was engineered for the purpose of inciting the Licensing Act of 1737—Fielding's works are considered to be the main offenders, particularly because several of them personally targeted Walpole. When the Licensing Act passed, political satire on the stage was virtually impossible, and playwrights whose works were staged were viewed as suspect. Fielding therefore retired from the theater and resumed his career in law, becoming a Justice of the Peace in 1748, for Middlesex and Westminster, after passing his bar exam in only three years.

Fielding never stopped writing political satire and satirizing the then current state of affairs in arts and letters. His Tragedy of Tragedies of Tom Thumb was, for example, quite successful as a printed play. He also contributed a number of works to journals of the day. He wrote for Tory periodicals, usually under the name of "Captain Hercules Vinegar." As Justice of the Peace, he issued a warrant for the arrest of Colley Cibber, an English playwright/actor/manager, for the "murder of the English language."

His anonymously published pamphlet, The Female Husband of 1746, is a fictionalized account of a notorious case in which a female transvestite was tried for duping another woman into marriage. Though a minor item in Fielding's total oeuvre, the subject is consistent with his ongoing preoccupation with fraud, sham, and masks.

His first wife, Charlotte, on whom he later modeled the heroines of both Tom Jones and Amelia, died in 1744. Three years later Fielding married her former maid, Mary, with whom he became close during their mutual grieving for the late Charlotte. Despite negative public opinion of Fielding's second marriage, he became London's Chief Magistrate and his literary career and reputation continued to grow stronger. Joined by his younger half-brother John, he helped found what some have called London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners, in 1749. In 1751, he was presiding judge in the trial of notorious criminal James Field, finding him guilty in a robbery and sentencing him to hang. However, his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he went abroad in 1753, in search of a cure. He died shortly after his arrival in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1754, where his tomb at the English Church may be visited. His final work was published posthumously in 1755: The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. Despite becoming blind, John Fielding succeeded his older brother as Chief Magistrate and became known as the "Blind Beak" of Bow Street for his ability to recognize criminals by their voice alone.


An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews

Fielding's first major success in a novel was An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), an anonymous parody of Samuel Richardson's melodramatic novel, Pamela, which was exceedingly popular at the time, particularly for its strong moral message. Shamela was a satire that follows the model of the famous Tory satirists of the previous generation, especially (Jonathan Swift and John Gay.

Richardson's Pamela concerns the steadfast virtue of a young woman, Pamela, who has been been employed by the lecherous Mr. B-----, who has been making sexual advances at her, out of wedlock, leading to her practical imprisonment in his home. Both Pamela and Shamela are epistolary novels, composed of letters that the eponymous character sends home to her mother. In Pamela, Richardson's heroine eventually convinces her near-rapist to marry her so that she can maintain her "virtue" and they can live a happily married couple. Fielding satirized Richardson's story, suggesting that Pamela was a consistent typo, and that the true protagonist, Shamela, wasn't insisting upon living a devoted religious life out of a desire to uphold high moral standards, but rather because she was having an affair with the parson, Williams. In the end, however, she still marries Mr. Booby (as Fielding named the anonymous "Mr. B-----") whom, it is noted, is rather wealthy.

Joseph Andrews

Fielding followed Shamela with Joseph Andrews (1742), an original work supposedly dealing with Pamela's brother, Joseph. Although also begun as a parody, this work developed into an accomplished novel in its own right and is considered to mark Fielding's debut as a serious novelist.

The book's original title page read, "The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote. Fielding satirized Cervantes picaresque style of episodic chapters that often depict isolated incidents that have little or no bearing on the overarching story. Joseph Andrews is on a voyage towards London to reunite himself with his beloved Fanny after being kicked out of his Master's home when he refused the sexual advances of the Master's wife. Along the way he, by chance, encounters his good friend, Parson Abraham Adams, who helps him through his mishaps on the way to London. Also, Fielding takes a very proactive role as narrator, never turning down a chance to take the reader aside for several hundred words of moral advice or previously untold back story.

This incessant narration, to some, is the jewel of Fielding's writing and his best opportunity to say exactly what he means to say. Other readers find Fielding's unrelenting presence downright annoying and heavy-handed. The main criticism of the novel, however, was its crass nature. It evokes humor from situations involving violence, name-calling, nudity, and social taboos. However, for many readers, the moral direction offered by Fielding justifies the use of "low" subject matter.

And, of course, Fielding pokes fun at all of his usual victims, such as Colley Cibber, Samuel Richardson, and Sir Robert Walpole. Sometimes Fielding dedicates the better half of a chapter to explaining how a rival writer would have portrayed the previous scene, and why Fielding's rendition is superior.

Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great

In 1743, Fielding published a novel in the Miscellanies volume III (which was the first volume of the Miscellanies). This was The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great. This novel is sometimes thought of as his first because he almost certainly began composing it before he wrote Shamela and Joseph Andrews. It is a satire of Walpole that draws a parallel between Walpole and Jonathan Wild, the infamous gang leader and highwayman. He implicitly compares the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves being run by Walpole, whose constant desire to be a "Great Man" (a common epithet for Walpole) should culminate only in the antithesis of greatness: Being hanged.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, often known simply as Tom Jones—a comic novel first published on February 28, 1749—is arguably one of the first prose works describable as a novel, and Fielding's most accomplished work—or certainly most epic. The novel is divided into 18 smaller books. It was published on February 28, 1749, and enjoyed immediate popularity despite intense criticism for its "lowness."

Tom Jones is a foundling discovered on the property of a very kind, wealthy landowner, Squire Allworthy, in Somerset in England's West Country. Tom grows into a vigorous and lusty, yet honest and kind-hearted, youth. He develops affection for his neighbor's daughter, Sophia Western. On one hand, their love reflects the romantic comedy genre popular in eighteenth century Britain. However, Tom's status as a bastard causes Sophia's father and Allworthy to oppose their love; this criticism of class friction in society acted as a biting social commentary. The inclusion of prostitution and sexual promiscuity in the plot was also original for its time, and also acted as the foundation for criticism of the book's "lowness."

Like his contemporary, Smollett, Fielding draws on a variety of literary sources. The narrative situation comes from picaresque. The narrative situation of a dispossessed young man's peregrinations around the country, accompanied by a faithful servant (Partridge) who acts as character-foil to him is a feature of picaresque, as is the "low life" material and the introduction of secondary figures who display their natures in some kind of interaction with the hero and then disappear again.

Despite Fielding's general disdain, the French and English medieval and Elizabethan romance also plays a role in Tom Jones. According to Doreen Roberts, it often used the idea of a journey, but also turned on a love-plot dominated by aristocratic and idealized characters (akin to Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), typically involving a conflict between passion and some loftily conceived duty. Fielding also turned to comic drama to supply the model for certain localized plot-transactions, especially the Upton episode and the denouement events in London.

Fielding also mixes some more obviously Augustan elements into this pot-pourri of literary influences, such as the mock-epic descriptions of morning or evening, several long-tailed similes, and the fisticuffs scene between Molly Seagrim and the villagers in the Somerset churchyard (c.f. Book IV, Chapter viii).

Structural coherence of the plot is as important as rhetorical, according to Doreen Robers, and Fielding uses various means to achieve this. First, and most obviously, he exploits the birth-mystery of Tom to counteract the effect of the novel's episodic nature. Secondly, he uses as many characters as possible in more than one role (for example, Mr. Anderson, the highwayman whom Tom helps, is Mrs. Miller's cousin, who is also a trusted agent of Mr. Allworthy and is thus in a position to redeem his character). However, the main unity-promoting device is the use of nearly all the secondary characters to advance an ethos and illustrate a scheme of moral taxonomy. Fielding's moral vision operates between the moral polarities of appearance and reality, action (what one sees) and motive (what one deduces), reasoned principle and instinct, prudence and impulsiveness, and suspicion and trust.

Fielding also takes the opportunity at the beginning of each book to discourse on some general moral or social issue, and then proceeds to a narrative situation in which the issue is demonstrated, or he refers his reader back by implication to some past action to which it is pertinent.


Perhaps due to Fielding's strenuous service as a justice and declining health, his 1752 novel, Amelia, took on a more deliberate moral authority and was met with apathy. It's titular character, Amelia, was modeled after his late first wife, Charlotte, and her character is considered the one redeeming value of this particular novel. Having such a morally sound protagonist caused Fielding to stray slightly away from his traditional picaresque form. Rather, the uncouth-yet-likable character is found in Amelia's husband, William Booth. Their domestic quarrels are the subject of the novel. Fielding died in Lisbon, Portugal, two years after its publication.

Partial list of works

  • Love in Several Masques—play, 1728
  • Rape upon Rape—play, 1730. Adapted by Bernard Miles as Lock Up Your Daughters! in 1959, filmed in 1974
  • The Temple Beau—play, 1730
  • The Author's Farce—play, 1730
  • The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb—play, 1731
  • Grub-Street Opera—play, 1731
  • The Modern Husband—play, 1732
  • Pasquin—play, 1736
  • The Historical Register for the Year 1736—play, 1737
  • An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews—novel, 1741
  • The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend, Mr. Abraham Abrams (Joseph Andrews)—novel, 1742
  • The Life of Jonathan Wild the Great—novel, 1743, ironic treatment of Jonathan Wild, the most notorious underworld figure of the time.
  • Miscellanies—collection of works, 1743, contained the poem Part of Juvenal's Sixth Satire, Modernized in Burlesque Verse
  • The Female Husband or the Surprising History of Mrs Mary Alias Mr George Hamilton, Who was Convicted of Having Married a Young Woman of Wells and Lived with her as her Husband, Taken from her own Mouth Since her Confinement—pamphlet, fictionalized report, 1746
  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling—novel, 1749
  • A Journey from This World to the Next—1749
  • Amelia—novel, 1751
  • The Covent Garden Journal—1752
  • Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon—travel narrative, 1755
  • Tom Thumb N.D.


Fielding's work represents a transitional phase in the rise of the novel. Whereas Daniel Defoe and Saumuel Richardson both attempt to hide the fictional nature of their work under the guise of "memoirs" and "letters" respectively, Henry Fielding adopted a position which represented a new departure in terms of prose fiction as in no way do his novels constitute an effort to disguise literary artifact. He was the first major novelist to openly admit that his prose fiction was pure artifact. Also, in comparison with his arch rival and contemporary, Richardson, Fielding presents his reader with a much wider range of characters taken from all social classes. While his characters still largely represent types, his work is a step along the way to the greater psychological realism that would follow in the nineteenth century. Although Fielding's humor and parodies are often lost on modern audiences, his works are good examples of the genre of satire. His popularity during his time period was enough to keep him writing and publishing despite government attempts at censorship, which only attests to his ability to bring attention to what he felt were injustices at the time. His incorruptibility in public office as Chief Magistrate prevented him from being considered a hypocrite, but most criticisms against Fielding and his writing cite the relatively lewd nature of his works.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews with Shamela and Related Writings. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987. ISBN 039302449
  • Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1992. ISBN 1853260215
  • Rogers, Pat. Henry Fielding, a Biography. New York: Scribner, 1979. ISBN 0684162644

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2017.


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