Search This Blog

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Henry Fielding


Henry Fielding (1797-1754) was born at Sharpham near Glastonbury in Somerset on April 22, 1707. His father, Edmund Fielding was a lieutenant general.

When Henry was two his father retired to an estate in Dorset where he was unsuccessful as a gentleman farmer.

His mother, Sarah Fielding, the daughter of a judge, died when Henry was 11.

Henry's impoverished father spent most of his time in and out of various debtor's prisons. After the death of their mother, Henry and his seven siblings were taken in by their maternal grandmother, Lady Gould.

His father got remarried to an Italian woman after which he and Lady Gould, battled for the custody of the children. Lady Gould won.

Henry was educated at Eton College between 1719-24 , where he established a lifelong friendship with William Pitt the Elder.

After spending four years as a man about town in London, Fielding traveled to The Netherlands in 1728 after the failure of his first play, Love in Several Masques. He studied classics and law at the University of Leiden.


Known as a brawler, a drunkard, and a womanizer, Fielding was nonetheless a prolific and energetic writer. He wrote 25 plays in differing forms and 5 full-length novels.
After moving to London From Somerset, Fielding took advantage of his connections there to gain an introduction to theater circles. His first play, Love in Several Masques, was produced in 1728 at the Drury Lane Theater.

Fielding took over London's Haymarket theatre in 1729. He assembled a company of actors and wrote a number of political satires.

His 1730 The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, a spoof of heroic serious plays, was Fielding's most successful drama. It packed the Haymarket theater night after night.

Fielding's 1737 The Historical Register established him as one of the leading dramatic satirists of his day. It contained a villainous, bribing politician by the name of ‘Quidam’, who was instantly recognizable to the audience as their Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

The Historical Register led effectively to the end of Fielding’s drama career, with the production said to be the cause for Walpole’s stringent Licensing Act of 1737,  The law required all plays to be submitted for censorship by the Lord Chamberlain.

Despite a large inheritance from Lady Gould, Fielding found himself in financial straits, so he began in 1739 editing an anti-Walpole periodical called The Champion, or British Mercury under the pseudonym Captain Hercules Vinegar.

Using his pen name Captain Hercules Vinegar, Fielding summoned poet laureate Colley Cibber to court for “murder of the English language”.

Fielding's first venture into prose fiction came in 1741 with the publication in pamphlet form of Shamela, a direct response to the stylistic failings and moral hypocrisy that Fielding saw in Samuel Richardson's Pamela.

Fielding's novels established a new form of English writing, the use of a large complicated plot to produce a great number of comic situations. He was highly influenced by the 16th century Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Fielding published his first full-length novel Joseph Andrews in 1742. A satirical farce about Pamela's reputed brother Joseph, it mocked the social conditions of his time.

Fielding's Jonathan Wild, a semi fictional account about the infamous gang leader and highwayman of that name. was published as Volume III of Miscellanies in 1743. A satire of Sir Robert Walpole, it drew a parallel between the British politician and Jonathan Wild. He implicitly compared the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves, being run by Walpole.

His 1749 novel Tom Jones, a popular but not a critical success made Fielding famous. A kind of anti-hero leaping in and out of beds for fun or self preservation, at heart  Tom Jones was a good man. It was originally published in 6 volumes.

The characters in Tom Jones Squire Allworthy and his sister Bridget were based on Fielding's friends R Allen and G Lyttelton. The heroine Sophia Western was modeled on his late wife Charlotte.

Fielding received 1,000 guineas for the copyright of his 1751 partly autobiographical novel Amelia. It sold the best of all his books and was Fielding's favorite amongst his works. .

Though his novels were very successful, Fielding inherited his father's inability to handle money, and he remained perpetually in debt.

Fielding returned to journalism with The Covent-Garden Journal, an English literary periodical published twice a week for most of 1752. It was edited and almost entirely funded by him, under the pseudonym Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt. Censor of Great Britain.

Fielding's younger sister, Sarah, (1710-68) was a fairly successful novelist especially the moral romance, The Adventures of David Simple.


Once the 1737 Licensing Act was passed, political satire on the stage was virtually impossible, and playwrights whose works were staged were viewed as suspect. Fielding, therefore, retired from the theatre and took up a career in law in order to support his wife Charlotte Cradock and two children,

Henry Fielding, about 1743, etching by Jonathan Wild

Fielding was appointed magistrate at the Bow Street Police Court in London in 1748. He obtained the position largely through the influence of his friend George Lyttelton and the Duke of Bedford.

As a magistrate at the Bow Street Police Court in London, Fielding organised with his blind half brother John what was virtually the first English police force. The small group of six constables became known as "Bow Street Runners" or "Robin Redbreasts".

The Fielding brothers collected and disseminated information about crimes and suspected criminals, making their Bow Street office the center of a criminal intelligence network. It was the forerunner of the Criminal Record Office of Scotland Yard.

The numerous reforms by Fielding reduced robberies in his district and improved the state of the prisons.


After attending Eton, Fielding courted a young heiress, Miss Sarah Andrew of Lyme Regis, but was unsuccessful in persuading her to elope with him.

During the early 1730s Fielding lived on an estate in Dorset with his lover, the then unmarried Charlotte Craddock.

In 1734, after a four year courtship, Fielding convinced Charlotte Craddock to marry him.

Charlotte was loving, forgiving, strong and spirited. They enjoyed ten happy years of marriage before her death in 1744 of a fever, having just lost a daughter.

Fielding was grief stricken after losing Charlotte and wrote hardly anything for two years. He took comfort in the company of his daughter Harriet, sister Sarah and his late wife's maid and friend, Mary Daniel.

Sophia Western, the heroine of Fielding's novel Tom Jones was modelled on Charlotte. The main character of Amelia, was possibly based on her too.

Three years after losing Charlotte Fielding married Mary Daniel, disregarding public opinion. She gave him five children,  but three of them died young.

Mary Daniel's book for educating girls The Governess, or Little Female Academy was used well into the next century.

Fielding frequented the Bedford Coffee shop at the North East corner of The Strand with such notables as Garrick, Sheridan and Howarth.

Fielding's sister Sarah Fieding, was  the author of The Governess, or The Little Female Academy (1749), which was the first novel in English written especially for children,


By the age of 33, Fielding's health began to fail and he suffered acutely and increasingly from gout.

By the age of 47 Fielding's gout, asthma, jaundice and other afflictions meant he had to use crutches. In 1754 he sailed for Lisbon, Portugal with his wife and daughter hoping the kinder climate would benefit him. Unfortunately the change of climate came too late and he died in Lisbon of dropsy on October 8, 1754, two months after arriving there.

Fielding's tomb is in Lisbon's English Cemetery (Cemitério Inglês), which is now the graveyard of St. George's Church.

Henry Fielding's grave in the cemetery of St. George's Church, Lisbon. By Flickr: Tó Lobato Wikipedia

In 1963 Tony Richardson's movie version of Tom Jones won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Picture.

The Welsh singer Tommy Woodward took his stage name from Fielding's bodice ripping novel, Tom Jones.

Sources The Oxford Companion to English Literature,  Wordsworth Encyclopedia, Encarta,

No comments:

Post a Comment