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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Discover Henry Fielding
Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling