Authors: Henry Fielding

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and playwright

April 22, 1707

Sharpham Park, Somersetshire, England

October 8, 1754

Lisbon, Portugal


Henry Fielding was probably born at Sharpham Park near Glastonbury, the home of his grandfather, Sir Henry Gould, a judge of the Queen’s Bench. When he was two and a half years of age, his parents moved to a home of their own at the village of East Stour in the adjoining county of Dorset. The remarriage of his father, General Edmund Fielding, after his mother’s death in 1718, brought on a bitter family quarrel, partly concerned with money, and as a result of the ensuing lawsuit Fielding and his sisters and brother were made wards of Chancery, with their grandmother, Lady Gould, as their principal guardian. The old lady allowed her grandson far more freedom than was advisable for so high-spirited a boy. He was sent to school at Eton between the ages of thirteen and eighteen and there received a thorough and valuable education, especially in the Greek and Latin classics. There followed three more years of complete freedom in the country, spent mainly in hunting, fishing, visiting various country estates, and courting half a dozen or more young girls. Early in 1728, he was in London, where his first play was produced at Drury Lane just before his twenty-first birthday. It was based in part on his unsuccessful attempt, at the age of eighteen, to abduct a beautiful sixteen-year-old heiress. Although the play was moderately successful, it was decided that he should go to Holland for further study at the University of Leyden, where he remained for most of the next two years. {$I[AN]9810000370} {$I[A]Fielding, Henry} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Fielding, Henry} {$I[tim]1707;Fielding, Henry}

Henry Fielding

(Library of Congress)

On his return to England in 1730, he found himself without any regular means of support, even though his improvident father had promised him an income of £200. He began writing plays for a living and was launched on his career with the assistance of his cousin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and James Ralph, an American friend of Benjamin Franklin then living in London. By the end of seven years he had written twenty-one comedies and revues, the majority of which had been successfully produced. Although he was then unquestionably England’s most popular living dramatist, his career was brought to an end by the Licensing Act of 1737. This provided for government censorship of all plays before they could be produced and was aimed directly at Fielding, who had offended the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, with his sharp political satires.

Fielding then turned to the study of law and was called to the bar in less than three years, although the average time required was six or seven. He never developed a lucrative practice, however, and was obliged to supplement his income with his pen. During the next fourteen years, he edited and chiefly wrote four periodicals, and wrote and published four novels and a very large number of tracts and pamphlets, mostly political. As a reward for his political services, in 1748 he was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster and a few months later for Middlesex as well. Although the position had brought his predecessor an income of about £1,000, Fielding received only about a third of that amount because, unlike the other “trading justices” of the time, he declined to accept bribes. He labored so ardently and so successfully that he practically cleared of crime one of the worst districts of London and in so doing established England’s first efficient detective force, which has since developed into the famous Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard.

In the summer of 1754, the ill health that had plagued Fielding for more than a decade caused him to journey to Lisbon for the benefit of the warm climate. He died there the following October at the age of forty-seven and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery on a hill outside the city.

Fielding's high spirits, convivial nature, and great wit as a conversationalist made him one of the most sought-after of companions. Those who knew him well knew him to be scrupulously honest, generous to a fault, and wise in the ways of the world.

Although Fielding was immensely popular as a dramatist in his own day and although several of his plays held the boards until the end of the eighteenth century, there is only one, Tom Thumb the Great, that remained widely popular. Nearly all the plays are topical and require a knowledge of contemporary events to be fully understood. Of the four periodicals Fielding edited and wrote, The Champion and The Covent-Garden Journal are among the best of their time. Four of his novels, Jonathan Wild, Amelia, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones, continue to be rewarding reading.

Tom Jones is one of the world’s great novels. An epic comedy, its design is such a masterpiece of literary architecture that Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its plot one of the three most perfect in all literature. The novel’s eighteen books divide evenly into six books set in the country, six on the road, and six in London. The subplots and their many characters and themes are profusely interconnected with the trunk of the main plot, which is a rollicking jaunt of unforgettable characters as the orphan Tom Jones pursues his love, Sophia, and his maturity (“Sophia” is Greek for wisdom). An allegorical journey through life, the novel reveals the traps besetting the innocent individual: deception, sex, envy, greed, and hypocrisy. Tom’s good nature, God’s providence, and Fielding’s comic exposure of the evils finally win the day when Tom settles down, a country gentleman, with his Sophia. The moral and comic main plot serves as a window on Georgian England, for it is panoramic in its social scope. The settings include inns, coaches, hunts, masquerades, prisons, town houses, and country houses, and Fielding exhibits a vivid gallery of characters in them. Counterpointed types such as squires, teachers, clergymen, servants, fathers, siblings, women, spouses, lawyers, innkeepers and many others allow Fielding comic contrast as well as moral evaluation, and throughout the novelist’s ironic voice provides further humorous and ethical tone to the novel.

Christian and conservative, Fielding mocked folly and satirized corruption ruthlessly, but he considered traditional social and moral structures to be sound. His main legacies to the genre of novel are his merger of the comic with the satiric and moral, his application of epic techniques to the novel, and his panoramic social realism. Fielding is responsible for elevating the novel, until his time thought to be a low literary form, to the status of high literature, the prose equivalent of the classical epic.

Author Works Long Fiction: 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 the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great, 1743, 1754 The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 1749 Amelia, 1751 Drama: Love in Several Masques, pr., pb. 1728 The Temple Beau, pr., pb. 1730 The Author’s Farce, and The Pleasures of the Town, pr., pb. 1730 Tom Thumb: A Tragedy, pr., pb. 1730 (revised as The Tragedy of Tragedies, pr., pb. 1731) Rape upon Rape: Or, Justice Caught in His Own Trap, pr., pb. 1730 (also known as The Coffee-House Politician) The Letter-Writers: Or, A New Way to Keep a Wife at Home, pr., pb. 1731 The Welsh Opera: Or, The Grey Mare the Better Horse, pr., pb. 1731 (revised as The Grub-Street Opera, pb. 1731) The Lottery, pr., pb. 1732 The Modern Husband, pr., pb. 1732 (five acts) The Old Debauchees, pr., pb. 1732 The Covent Garden Tragedy, pr., pb. 1732 The Mock Doctor: Or, The Dumb Lady Cur’d, pr., pb. 1732 (adaptation of Molière’s Le Medecin malgré lui) The Miser, pr., pb. 1733 (adaptation of Molière’s L’Avare) Don Quixote in England, pr., pb. 1734 The Intriguing Chambermaid, pr., pb. 1734 (adaptation of Jean-François Regnard’s Le Retour imprévu) An Old Man Taught Wisdom: Or, The Virgin Unmask’d, pr., pb. 1735 The Universal Gallant: Or, The Different Husbands, pr., pb. 1735 (five acts) Pasquin: Or, A Dramatic Satire on the Times, pr., pb. 1736 Tumble-Down Dick: Or, Phaeton in the Suds, pr., pb. 1736 Eurydice: Or, The Devil’s Henpeck’d, pr. 1737 (one act) Eurydice Hiss’d: Or, A Word to the Wise, pr., pb. 1737 The Historical Register for the Year 1736, pr., pb. 1737 (three acts) Miss Lucy in Town, pr., pb. 1742 (one act) The Wedding-Day, pr., pb. 1743 (five acts; also known as The Virgin Unmask’d) The Fathers: Or, The Good-Natured Man, pr., pb. 1778 (revised for posthumous production by David Garrick) Nonfiction: The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, 1755 The Correspondence of Henry and Sarah Fielding, 1993 Translation: The Military History of Charles XII King of Sweden, 1740 Miscellaneous: Miscellanies, 1743 (3 volumes) Bibliography Battestin, Martin C. A Henry Fielding Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000. A comprehensive reference work covering the life and writings of Fielding. Includes sections on where he lived, his family, significant historical figures and literary influences, his works, themes, and characters. Bibliography and index. Battestin, Martin C., with Ruthe R. Battestin. Henry Fielding: A Life. London: Routledge, 1989. The Sunday Times voted this work one of the four best biographies of the year. Based on fourteen years’ research, this detailed biography provides a definitive story of Fielding. Includes a useful bibliography of Fielding’s writings. Bertelsen, Lance. Henry Fielding at Work: Magistrate, Businessman, Writer. New York: Palgrave, 2000. An analysis of Fielding in his roles as writer, magistrate, and businessman. Bibliography and index. Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry Fielding. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on Fielding’s major novels, his anti-Romanticism, and his uses of style, history, and comedy. Includes chronology and bibliography. Campbell, Jill. Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding’s Plays and Novels. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. A look at gender and identity issues in the works of Fielding. Bibliography and index. Dircks, Richard J. Henry Fielding. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This study is designed to provide an introduction to Fielding in such a way as to integrate his central ideas and vision of life as they are experienced in his works as a dramatist, journalist, pamphleteer, and novelist. Emphasis is placed on Fielding’s major works. Excellent bibliography, chronology. Hunter, J. Paul. Occasional Form: Henry Fielding and the Chain of Circumstance. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. This work attempts to place Fielding’s career and major works in relation to historical forces operating on his mind and art, chronicling his anxiety and adjustment to circumstance. Provides extensive analysis of Fielding’s major works. Johnson, Maurice. Fielding’s Art of Fiction: Eleven Essays on “Shamela,” “Joseph Andrews,” “Tom Jones,” and “Amelia.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961. Eleven essays provide a good critical survey of Fielding’s fiction. Lewis, Peter. Fielding’s Burlesque Drama: Its Place in the Tradition. Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press, 1987. Lewis argues that because of the overwhelming success of Fielding’s novels, the author’s drama has been neglected—with the exception of the Tom Thumb plays. Emphasizes the burlesque and satirical dimension of Fielding’s plays and places his work in the history of burlesque theater. Illustrations. Mace, Nancy A. Henry Fielding’s Novels and the Classical Tradition. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996. Examines the Classical influence on Fielding. Michie, Allen. Richardson and Fielding: The Dynamics of a Critical Rivalry. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999. A study of the relationship between Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Bibliography and index. Pagliaro, Harold E. Henry Fielding: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Part of the Literary Lives series, this is an excellent, updated biography of Fielding. Provides bibliographical references and an index. Paulson, Ronald. The Life of Henry Fielding: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Paulson examines how Fielding’s literary works—plays, essays, and novels—all contained autobiographical elements. Bibliography and index. Rivero, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Henry Fielding. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. A good collection of essays about Fielding’s major novels. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Rivero, Albert J., ed. The Plays of Henry Fielding: A Critical Study of His Dramatic Career. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Taking a new approach to Fielding’s dramatic career, Rivero tells the story of this career by focusing on the plays themselves and by offering a detailed critique of ten representative plays. Discusses dramatic technique, construction, and themes and provides some historical context to the plays. Simpson, K. G., ed. Henry Fielding: Justice Obscured. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. This collection of essays attests the diversity of Fielding’s experience as a citizen, magistrate, political writer, and dramatist—varied aspects that influenced the nature of his writing. Stoler, John A., and Richard D. Fulton. Henry Fielding: An Annotated Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Criticism, 1900–1977. New York: Garland, 1980. After listing a number of major Fielding bibliographies and various editions of his works, this bibliography provides a comprehensive, annotated list of secondary works. Arrangement is by title, so students seeking material on a specific work, such as Tom Jones, can quickly find what they need. Uglow, Jennifer S. Henry Fielding. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1995. An examination of the life and works of Fielding. Bibliography and index.

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