Fielding, Henry

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Fielding, Henry (1707-54). English Writer.

Henry Fielding, best known as the author of the comic novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), wrote poetry, plays, satires, and fiction, as well as moral and political essays and legal tracts. Fielding was always conscious of his genteel birth and breeding: his father (the nephew of an earl) ultimately achieved the rank of Lieutenant General of the Army; Fielding’s maternal grandfather was a judge of the Queen’s Bench. Educated at Eton College (1719-24) and the University of Leiden (1728-29), Fielding was proud of the classical education that distinguished him from most of the hack writers with whom the extravagance of his appetites and the narrowness of his fortune forced him to associate.

Fielding enjoyed a successful early career as a dramatist in London, writing comedies, satires, farces, and burlesques (including The Tragedy of Tragedies: or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great) until a series of politically daring plays (including Fielding’s own The Historical Register for the Year 1736) led to the 1737 Licensing Act, which (in effect) banned Fielding from the stage. He turned to the law and was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1740. He practiced law on and off during the 1740s, while continuing his career as a writer, and was ultimately appointed a magistrate for the London counties of Westminster (1748) and Middlesex (1749). Fielding administered justice from his home in Bow Street (establishing his “Bow Street Runners” as London’s first modern police force) until 1754, when he traveled to Portugal for health reasons, died, and was buried there.

Fielding’s chief literary importance lay in his providing one of the major competing models for the then nascent genre of the English novel. The popularity of Richardson, Samuel’s sentimental novel Pamela (1740) inspired Fielding to write, first a parody, Shamela (1741), and then a comic novel of his own, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). Fielding called Joseph Andrews a “comic epic-poem in prose,” stressing its literariness, its continuity with the classical tradition of Homer, and its affinity to Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The young hero’s mentor, the absent-minded, pedantic, but good-natured and vibrant Parson Adams, is one of the great comic characters in literature.

Although Fielding praised Richardson’s later tragic novel Clarissa (1747-48), he continued to develop, in his own Tom Jones (1749), the kind of self-conscious, witty comedy that characterized his earlier novel. Providing what Fielding called a “history of the world in general,” Tom Jones follows its good-natured (if sexually undisciplined) hero through his childhood in rural Somersetshire, his youthful adventures on the road, his temporary degradation in London society, and his ultimate redemption. For many readers, the most engaging character in the novel is the narrator himself, who provides prefatory chapters to each of the eighteen books of the novel and witty and wise commentary along the way. Other notable characters include: the deistic philosopher Square; the birch-wielding clergyman Thwackum; Black George the Gamekeeper and his sluttish daughter Molly; the vibrantly brutish Squire Western and his spirited but virtuous daughter, Sophia; Tom’s comical sidekick, Partridge; the caddish Lord Fellamar; and the worldly Lady Bellaston.

Fielding’s final novel, Amelia (1751), darker and more sentimental in tone, follows the misfortunes of Capt. William Booth who, like Tom, is good-natured, but whose indulgence in the genteel vices of free-thinking, libertinism, dueling, and gambling nearly destroy both him and his family. Booth’s wife, Amelia, is generally thought to be a portrait of Fielding’s beloved first wife, Charlotte Cradock, and was said by Johnson, Samuel (not otherwise an admirer of Fielding’s) to be “the most pleasing heroine of all the romances.”

Fielding also wrote two prose satires which were both published in his Miscellanies (1743): the Lucianic fantasy A Journey from This World to the Next and the ironic History of the Life of Jonathan Wild the Great. Jonathan Wild purports to be the biography of a famous thief, whose villainy the narrator ironically praises as “Greatness” and likens to the behavior of political “Great Men,” such as Alexander of Macedon and Sir Robert Walpole. Further reading:

Martin C. Battestin, A Henry Fielding Companion, 2000.

Treadwell Ruml

California State University