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Henry Fielding

On April 22, 1707, British literary history was about to change, for Henry Fielding was born in Sharpham Park, Somerset, England.  No one could have known at the time that he was no mere human, for he was destined to become a novelist, one of the first writers of long fiction to work in English.  His most famous novels include Joseph Andrews (1742), Amelia (1752), and his crown jewel, Tom Jones (1749). 

Throughout each of his books, Fielding creates memorable characters with names such as Harry Luckless, Bookweight, Judge Squeezum, Captain Merit, Lord Richly, Mother Bilkum, Puzzletext, Colonel Promise, Squire Tankard, and Mrs. Slipslop.

Born by birth a gentleman, Fielding was closely allied to the English gentry.  His father was a nephew of the 3rd Earl of Denbigha, and his mother came from a prominent family of lawyers.  Their son grew up on a farm at East Stour, Dorset.  Fielding's mother died when he was eleven, and when his father remarried, the son was enrolled at Eton where he learned to love ancient Greek and Roman literature.

At 17, Fielding was encouraged by his cousin to become a writer.  He went off to London to learn his craft.  For four years, he had little money and struggled to survive.  He referred to himself as a "great, tattered bard."  He was, more accurately, a social-climbing womanizer, infamous locally for his bouts with unbridled drunkenness.  During one such spree, he was accused of assaulting a servant, but no charges were pressed. 

In 1728, Fielding's first play, Love in Several Masques, was produced at Drury Lane.  Afterward, the author left London to study the classics in Holland, and when he returned to England, he took the position of manager of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket.  In 1730, he had four plays produced, including his breakthrough success, Tragedy of Tragedies; or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb, his most famous and popular drama.  It was a parody of the epic tragedies that were popular in London at the time.  According to legend, the play made Jonathan Swift laugh for only the second time in his life. 

Following the success of Tom Thumb, Fielding wrote more than twenty more hit plays and became known for making fun of the politicians of his day.  In 1736, he became manager of the New Theatre, writing for it and for several others the satirical comedy, Pasquin.  For several years, Fielding was both happy and prosperous.

The writer may never have turned his attention to penning novels but for an act of censorship by the British government.  The prime minister at the time, Sir Robert Walpole, was angered by the slough of rowdy political satires that had become so popular in London theatres.  He felt that Fielding was particularly spiteful in his attacks on the existing political party; so, in 1737, the government passed the Theatrical Licensing Act that forbade the performance of any plays not licensed by the Board.

When Fielding realized that none of his plays would ever gain the approval of Walpole's new governing body, he quit the theater and entered law school.  When he was graduated in 1740, he started a magazine of literary essays called the Champion.  Two years later, he published his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742).  It was a parody of the best-selling novel at the time, Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson, about a virtuous servant girl.

Seven years later, Fielding published his most famous novel, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.  In it, an infant is left on the bed of an aristocrat, Squire Allworthy, who nobly decides to keep the child and raise him in his own image.  He names the child Tom Jones. 

But, as a young man, Jones is expelled from the house after having an affair with the gamekeeper's daughter, and he goes on to have a series of bawdy misadventures.  Fielding wrote that his goal in Tom Jones was "to laugh mankind out of their favorite follies and vices."  The book is filled with passages that have little to do with advancing the plot but are included nonetheless to explain the narrator's intentions and to make the reader laugh. 

At one point, Fielding's muse writes, "Reader, I think proper to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no ways concern them."

The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling was well received by the general public and universally lauded by critics--a rare combination, especially for the time.  Coleridge declared the plot to be one of the three most perfect plots in all of literature, the others being Ben Jonson's Alchemist and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

Fielding said, "What is commonly called love [is] merely the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh."

In 1747, Fielding caused more than a little scandal by marrying his deceased wife's maid and close personal friend, Mary Daniel.  As a result, he was spurned by every snob in England.  In reality, she was about to bear his child, and Fielding wished to save her from disgrace. 

When prime minister Walpole was voted out of office, Fielding went to the defense of the new government.  As a reward for his writing in support of the establishment, he was made Justice of the Peace of the City of Westminster in 1748 and for the county of Middlesex in 1749.  Together with his half brother Sir John Fielding, he established a new tradition of justice and suppression of crime in London, organizing a detective force that eventually developed into Scotland Yard.

When the author's health began to fail, he was forced to rely on crutches, and he left England with his wife and one of his daughters for Portugal to recuperate.  He died on October 8, 1754, in Lisbon.  He was 46.  His travel book, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, appeared posthumously in 1755.

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