Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist and playwright
April 22, 1707
Sharpham Park, Somersetshire, England
October 8, 1754
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. Henry Fielding
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.