Henry Fielding

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Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding.png
Born(1707-04-22)22 April 1707
Sharpham, Somerset, England
Died8 October 1754(1754-10-08) (aged 47)
Lisbon, Kingdom of Portugal
Pen name"Captain Hercules Vinegar", "H. Scriblerus Secundus", also some works published anonymously
Occupation novelist, dramatist and magistrate
Genre comedy, satire, picaresque
Literary movement Enlightenment, Augustan Age
Relatives Sarah Fielding, John Fielding

Henry Fielding (22 April 1707 – 8 October 1754) was an English novelist and dramatist known for his rich, earthy humour and satirical prowess, and as the author of the comic novel Tom Jones . Additionally, he holds a significant place in the history of law enforcement, having used his authority as a magistrate to found (with his half-brother John) what some have called London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners. His younger sister, Sarah, also became a successful writer. [1]


Early life

Fielding was born at Sharpham, Somerset, and educated at Eton College, where he established a lifelong friendship with William Pitt the Elder. [2] His mother died when he was 11. 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 see his father in London. [3] In 1725, Henry tried to abduct his cousin, Sarah Andrews, while she was on her way to church. He fled to avoid prosecution. [4] In 1728, he travelled to Leiden to study classics and law at the university. [2] However, lack of money obliged him to return to London and he began writing for the theatre. Some of his work was savagely critical of the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole.

Dramatist and novelist

The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 is said to be a direct response to his activities in writing for the theatre. [2] [5] Although the play that triggered the act was the unproduced, anonymously authored The Golden Rump , Fielding's dramatic satires had set the tone. Once it was passed, political satire on the stage became virtually impossible. Fielding retired from the theatre and resumed his career in law to support his wife Charlotte Craddock and two children by becoming a barrister. [2] [5]

Fielding's lack of financial acumen meant he and his family often endured periods of poverty, but he was helped by Ralph Allen, a wealthy benefactor, on whom Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones would be based. Allen went on to provide for the education and support of Fielding's children after the writer's death.

Henry Fielding, about 1743, etching by Jonathan Wild Henry Fielding c 1743 etching from Jonathan Wild the Great.jpg
Henry Fielding, about 1743, etching by Jonathan Wild

Fielding never stopped writing political satire and satires of current arts and letters. The Tragedy of Tragedies (for which Hogarth designed the frontispiece) was, for example, quite successful as a printed play. Based on his earlier Tom Thumb , this was another of Fielding's "irregular" plays published under the name of H. Scriblerus Secundus, a pseudonym intended to link himself ideally with the Scriblerus Club of literary satirists founded by Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay. [4] He also contributed a number of works to journals of the time.

From 1734 until 1739 he wrote anonymously for the leading Tory periodical, The Craftsman, against the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. [6] Fielding's patron was the opposition Whig MP George Lyttelton, a boyhood friend from Eton. Lyttelton followed his leader Lord Cobham in forming a Whig opposition to Walpole's government called the Cobhamites (which included another of Fielding's Eton friends, William Pitt). [7] In the Craftsman, Fielding voiced the opposition attack on bribery and corruption in British politics. [8] Although writing for the opposition to Walpole, which included Tories as well as Whigs, Fielding was "unshakably a Whig" and often praised Whig heroes such as the Duke of Marlborough and Gilbert Burnet. [9]

Fielding dedicated his play Don Quixote in England to the opposition Whig leader Lord Chesterfield. It was published on 17 April 1734, the same day writs were issued for the general election. [10] He dedicated his 1735 play The Universal Gallant to Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, a political follower of Chesterfield. [11] The other prominent opposition newspaper, Common Sense, founded by Chesterfield and Lyttelton, was named after a character in Fielding's Pasquin (1736). Fielding wrote at least two articles for it in 1737 and 1738. [12]

Fielding continued to air his political views in satirical articles and newspapers in the late 1730s and early 1740s. He was the main writer and editor from 1739 to 1740 for the satirical paper The Champion, which was heavily critical of Walpole's government and of pro-government literary and political writers. He sought to avoid charges of libel by making its political attacks so funny or embarrassing to the victim that a publicized court case would seem even worse. He later became chief writer for the Whig government of Henry Pelham. [13]

Fielding took to novel writing in 1741, angered by Samuel Richardson's success with Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded . His first success was an anonymous parody of that: Shamela . [14] This follows the model of Tory satirists of the previous generation, notably Swift and Gay.

Fielding followed this with Joseph Andrews (1742), an original work supposedly dealing with Pamela's brother, Joseph. [2] His purpose, however, was more than parody, for as announced in the preface, he intended a "kind of writing which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language." In what Fielding called a "comic epic poem in prouse," he 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. [3] Although begun as a parody, it developed into an accomplished novel in its own right and is considered to mark Fielding's debut as a serious novelist. In 1743, he published a novel in the Miscellanies volume III (which was the first volume of the Miscellanies): The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great , which is sometimes counted as his first, as he almost certainly began it before he wrote Shamela and Joseph Andrews. It is a satire of Walpole equating him and Jonathan Wild, the gang leader and highwayman. He implicitly compares the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves run by Walpole, whose constant desire to be a "Great Man" (a common epithet with Walpole) ought to culminate in the antithesis of greatness: hanging.

His anonymous The Female Husband (1746) fictionalizes a case in which a female transvestite was tried for duping another woman into marriage; this was one of several small pamphlets costing sixpence. [15] Though a minor piece of Fielding's œuvre, it reflects his preoccupation with fraud, shamming and masks.

His greatest work was Tom Jones (1749), a meticulously constructed comic novel with elements of the picaresque novel and the Bildungsroman, telling the convoluted and hilarious tale of how a foundling came into a fortune. The plot of Tom Jones is too ingenious 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 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 behaviour. Fielding's varied style tempers the basic seriousness of the novel and his authorial comment before each chapter adds a marked dimension to a conventionally straightforward narrative. [3]


Fielding married Charlotte Craddock in 1734 at the Church of St Mary in Charlcombe, Somerset. [16] She died in 1744, and he later modelled the heroines of Tom Jones and of Amelia on her. They had five children; their only daughter Henrietta died at the age of 23, having already been "in deep decline" when she married a military engineer, James Gabriel Montresor, some months before. Three years after Charlotte's death, Fielding disregarded public opinion by marrying her former maid Mary Daniel, who was pregnant. [5] Mary bore five children: three daughters who died young, and two sons, William and Allen. [17]

Jurist and magistrate

Despite this scandal, Fielding's consistent anti-Jacobitism and support for the Church of England led to his being appointed a year later as London's chief magistrate, while his literary career went from strength to strength. Most of his work concerned London's criminal population of thieves, informers, gamblers and prostitutes. Though living in a corrupt and callous society, he became noted for impartial judgements, incorruptibility and compassion for those whom social inequities forced into crime. The income from his office ("the dirtiest money upon earth") dwindled as he refused to take money from the very poor. [3] Joined by his younger half-brother John, he helped found what some call London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners, in 1749. [18]

According to the historian G. M. Trevelyan, the Fieldings were two of the best magistrates in 18th-century London, who did much to enhance judicial reform and improve prison conditions. Fielding's influential pamphlets and enquiries included a proposal for abolishing public hangings. This did not, however, imply opposition to capital punishment as such – as is evident, for example, in his presiding in 1751 over the trial of the notorious criminal James Field, finding him guilty in a robbery and sentencing him to hang. John Fielding, despite being blind by then, succeeded his older brother as chief magistrate, becoming known as the "Blind Beak of Bow Street" for his ability to recognise criminals by their voices alone. [19]

Henry Fielding's grave in the cemetery of the Church of England St. George's Church, Lisbon Henry Fielding grave.jpg
Henry Fielding's grave in the cemetery of the Church of England St. George's Church, Lisbon

In January 1752 Fielding started a fortnightly, The Covent-Garden Journal , which he published under the pseudonym "Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt., Censor of Great Britain" until November of that year. Here Fielding challenged the "armies of Grub Street" and periodical writers of the day in a conflict that became the Paper War of 1752–1753.

Fielding then published Examples of the Interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder (1752), a treatise rejecting deistic and materialistic visions of the world in favour of belief in God's presence and divine judgement, [20] arguing that the murder rate was rising due to neglect of the Christian religion. [21] In 1753 he wrote Proposals for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor.

Fielding's humanitarian commitment to justice in the 1750s (for instance in support of Elizabeth Canning) coincided with rapid deterioration in his health. Gout, asthma and cirrhosis of the liver left him on crutches, [4] and with other afflictions sent him to Portugal in 1754 to seek a cure, only to die two months later in Lisbon, reportedly in pain and mental distress. [5] [22] His tomb there is in the English Cemetery (Cemitério Inglês), now the graveyard of St. George's Church, Lisbon.

List of works


Partial list of poems


Miscellaneous writings

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The early plays of Henry Fielding mark the beginning of Fielding's literary career. His early plays span the time period from his first production in 1728 to the beginning of the Actor's Rebellion of 1733, a strife within the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane that divided the theatrical community and threatened to disrupt London stage performances. These plays introduce Fielding's take on politics, gender, and morality and serve as an early basis for how Fielding develops his ideas on these matters throughout his career.

<i>The Authors Farce</i> Play by Henry Fielding

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<i>Tom Thumb</i> (play) play by Henry Fielding

Tom Thumb is a play written by Henry Fielding as an addition to The Author's Farce. It was added on 24 April 1730 at Haymarket. It is a low tragedy about a character who is small in both size and status who is granted the hand of a princess in marriage. This infuriates the queen and a member of the court and the play chronicles their attempts to ruin the marriage.

<i>The Tragedy of Tragedies</i> play

The Tragedy of Tragedies, also known as The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, is a play by Henry Fielding. It is an expanded and reworked version of one of his earlier plays, Tom Thumb, and tells the story of a character who is small in stature and status, yet is granted the hand of a princess in marriage; the infuriated queen and another member of the court subsequently attempt to destroy the marriage.

The Letter Writers Or, a New Way to Keep a Wife at Home is a play by Henry Fielding and was first performed on 24 March 1731 at Haymarket with its companion piece The Tragedy of Tragedies. It is about two merchants who strive to keep their wives faithful. Their efforts are unsuccessful, however, until they catch the man who their wives are cheating with.

<i>The Welsh Opera</i> play

The Welsh Opera is a play by Henry Fielding. First performed on 22 April 1731 in Haymarket, the play replaced The Letter Writers and became the companion piece to The Tragedy of Tragedies. It was also later expanded into The Grub-Street Opera. The play's purported author is Scriblerus Secundus who is also a character in the play. This play is about Secundus' role in writing two (Fielding) plays: The Tragedy of Tragedies and The Welsh Opera.

The Grub Street Opera is a play by Henry Fielding that originated as an expanded version of his play The Welsh Opera. It was never put on for an audience and is Fielding's single print-only play. As in The Welsh Opera, the author of the play is identified as Scriblerus Secundus. Secundus also appears in the play and speaks of his role in composing the plays. In The Grub Street Opera the main storyline involves two men and their rival pursuit of women.

<i>The Lottery</i> (play) play written by Henry Fielding

The Lottery is a play by Henry Fielding and was a companion piece to Joseph Addison's Cato. As a ballad opera, it contained 19 songs and was a collaboration with Mr Seedo, a musician. It first ran on 1 January 1732 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The play tells the story of a man in love with a girl. She claims she has won a lottery, however, making another man pursue her for the fortune and forcing her original suitor to pay off the other for her hand in marriage, though she does not win.

<i>The Covent-Garden Tragedy</i> play written by Henry Fielding

The Covent-Garden Tragedy is a play by Henry Fielding that first appeared on 1 June 1732 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane alongside The Old Debauchees. It is about a love triangle in a brothel involving two prostitutes. While they are portrayed satirically, they are imbued with sympathy as their relationship develops.

The Mock Doctor: or The Dumb Lady Cur'd is a play by Henry Fielding and first ran on 23 June 1732 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It served as a replacement for The Covent-Garden Tragedy and became the companion play to The Old Debauchees. It tells the exploits of a man who pretends to be a doctor at his wife's requests.

The Golden Rump is a farcical play of unknown authorship said to have been written in 1737. It acted as the chief trigger for the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737. The play has never been performed on stage or published in print. No manuscript of the play survives, casting some doubt over whether it ever existed in full at all. The authorship of the play has often been ascribed to Henry Fielding, at that time a popular and prolific playwright who often turned his incisive satire against the monarch George II and particularly the "prime minister" Sir Robert Walpole. Modern literary historians, however, increasingly embrace the opinion that The Golden Rump may have been secretly commissioned by Walpole himself in a successful bid to get his Bill for theatrical licensing passed before the legislature.

The Life and Death of the Late Jonathan Wild, the Great is a satiric novel by Henry Fielding. It was published in 1743 in Fielding's Miscellanies, third volume. It is a satiric account of the life of London underworld boss Jonathan Wild (1682–1725). It is an experiment in the various narrative genres that were popular at the time: serious history, criminal biography, political satire, and picaresque novel. Some have argued that it is mainly a satire on Britain's first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who was continuously charged by his political enemies with allegations of corruption.


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  5. 1 2 3 4 Liukkonen, Petri. "Henry Fielding". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 6 July 2009.
  6. Battestin, Martin C. (1989). "Introduction" . New Essays by Henry Fielding: His Contributions to the Craftsman, 1734-1739 and Other Early Journalism. University Press of Virginia. ISBN   978-0-8139-1221-9., p. xvi
  7. Battestin (1989), p. xx.
  8. Battestin (1989), p. xiii.
  9. Battestin (1989), p. 61.
  10. Battestin (1989), p. xxiii.
  11. Battestin (1989), p. xxv.
  12. Battestin (1989), p. 299n., 62.
  13. Battestin (1989), p. 4.
  14. Castro-Santana, Anaclara (18 August 2015). "Sham Marriages and Proper Plots: Henry Fielding's Shamela and Joseph Andrews". English Studies. 96 (6): 636–53. doi:10.1080/0013838X.2015.1045728. ISSN   0013-838X.
  15. Cross, Wilbur L. (1918). The History of Henry Fielding. 2. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  16. "Henry Fielding (I1744)". Stanford University . Retrieved 27 July 2011.
  17. Battestin, Martin C. (2000). A Henry Fielding Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood. pp. 10, 15.
  18. "Henry Fielding". Spartacus Educational. Archived from the original on 17 May 2009. Retrieved 9 September 2009.
  19. "Words, Words, Words", From the Beginnings to the 18th Century, La Spiga languages, 2003.
  20. Henry Fielding, 1988. An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers and Related Writings. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.
  21. Claire Valier, 2005. Crime and Punishment in Contemporary Culture. Routledge. p. 20.
  22. Fielding, Henry (1999). Hawley, Judith (ed.). Joseph Andrews/Shamela. Penguin. p. ii. ISBN   978-0-14043386-9.