The English novel as we recognize it today was shaped in large part by Henry Fielding’s three major novels. But if he had never written a novel, Fielding would have a place in literary history as being for a time one of England’s most popular comic playwrights. And if he had never written a play, Fielding would have a place in political history as an influential journalist and essayist. And if he had never written anything at all, Fielding would still have a place in British history as a reforming judge and the originator of London’s first effective police force. It has often been said that if one could choose only one book from which to learn about England during the eighteenth century, that book should be Fielding’s novel—often regarded as the first novel in English letters—Tom Jones.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Spirited Youth, Sans Parents Henry Fielding was born on April 22, 1707, at Sharpham Park, Somerset, the estate of his maternal grandfather. In 1710 the Field-ings moved to East Stour in Dorset. Henry’s mother died when he was eleven, and he was raised by his grandmother with occasional visits to his charming but irresponsible father, Edmund Fielding. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a distinguished writer and Fielding’s cousin, described him about this time as a handsome and high-spirited youth, full of the joy of life, witty and humorous; very much like his most famous literary creation, Tom Jones.
A Controversial Playwright Turns to Contesta-tory Law Fielding’s achievement as a novelist often overshadows his short but dynamic career as a play-wright—between 1728 and 1737. Fielding ranks as one of the most popular dramatists of the eighteenth century, and if the political fallout from his satire had not brought his theatrical activities to an abrupt end, Fielding might never have made the transition from playwright to novelist.
Fielding’s first play, Love in Several Masques, premiered in 1728, and for the next seven years Fielding was active as a playwright and theater manager. He specialized in comedies, farces, and satires, the best of which is probably Tom Thumb (1730). Two political satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), so infuriated the government of the powerful Prime Minister Robert Walpole that all London theaters, except two protected by royal patent, were ordered closed by the Licensing Act of 1737. Fielding’s career as a playwright was over, along with the theatrical careers of many others.
Fielding then turned to the study of the law. He continued to oppose the Walpole government by editing a political journal, The Champion (1739–1740), the first of four journals for which he wrote over his lifetime.
The Dialectical Development of the Novel: Against Richardson In 1740, the morally earnest novelist Samuel Richardson published Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, the story of a servant girl who preserves her virtue against the sexual advances of her aristocratic employer, who later proposes a proper marriage to her. The book was an immediate success. Fielding thought the work was the very essence of moral hypocrisy, and he could not resist spoofing this in an unsigned novella, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741). Recent critics have noted with chagrin that the success of fiction like Fielding’s and Richardson’s was achieved at precisely the moment of the Great Irish Famine of 1740– 41. A critical consensus is emerging that the success of this new art form was related to English readers’ need to distance themselves from the suffering of their neighbors in Ireland, which was at the time an English colony. While 10 percent of the Irish population was starving to death, the new novels were offering moral instruction and convulsive laughter to an ever more appreciative London readership.
Continuing the attack on Richardson, Fielding wrote a bogus sequel to Pamela, giving the heroine a younger brother who likewise resists the sexual advances of his aristocratic lady employer. The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742) begins with the extended joke of the sexual double standard—female virginity being valued so much more than male chastity—but it soon outgrows its satiric origins and becomes a fully developed novel in its own right. Fielding’s preface is a manifesto for the developing genre of the novel.
Fielding’s law practice was not prospering, and the moderate income from Joseph Andrews was not sufficient to provide for his wife and children. Consequently he gathered for publication as Miscellanies (three volumes, 1743) some earlier works, including The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great, a savagely ironic account of a notorious London thief whom he equated with all ‘‘great men,’’ Robert Walpole in particular.
Fielding’s eldest daughter died in 1742, his wife in 1744, and he himself was painfully crippled with gout (an extremely painful form of arthritis). The death of his beloved wife, Charlotte, was such a shock to Fielding that his friends feared for his sanity. Yet, during these years, Fielding was creating one of the world’s enduring masterpieces of good humor and convivial optimism, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749).
Political Journalism and Personal Scandal While he was writing Tom Jones, Fielding also edited two political journals, The True Patriot (1745–1746) and The Jacobite’s Journal (1747–1748). In 1747 he married Mary Daniel, his first wife’s servant, who was pregnant with his child. Fielding ignored the jeers of his enemies—their grief over Charlotte’s death had drawn him and Mary together, and they had five children and a loving family for many years.
A Magistrate Sets Sail for Lisbon In 1748 Fielding was commissioned Justice of the Peace. Most of his work was concerned with London’s criminal population of thieves, informers, and prostitutes. Fielding was assisted in his work by his blind half-brother, Sir John Fielding (1722–1780), a justice of the peace who was said to be able to recognize over three thousand criminals by their voices. The brothers organized the Bow Street Runners, the first modern police force.
Fielding’s experiences as judge gave a more serious tone to his last novel, Amelia (1752). The sufferings of the heroine and her irresponsible husband are used to expose flaws in the civil and military institutions of the period.
Sick with jaundice, dropsy, and gout, and worn out by overwork, Fielding resigned his post as magistrate and sailed to Lisbon, Portugal, to recuperate. He made his journey the subject of his last work, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which was published posthumously (1755). Fielding died in Lisbon on October 8, 1754.
Works in Literary Context
Journals The early eighteenth century was a great age for journalism and
essay writing. Increasing literacy rates, an unquenchable thirst for novelty, and a constantly contentious political climate resulted in dozens of journals and newspapers appearing seemingly overnight. Fielding produced three journals in his lifetime in the model of the Tatler and the Spectator, the influential journals of cultural commentary published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Fielding’s journals featured more politics, however, like the journals of Daniel Defoe.
The Rise of the Novel Many critics consider Tom Jones to be the first novel in English. Novels are long fictional stories that feature ordinary people—sometimes in everyday situations and sometimes in extraordinary circumstances. The novel emerged as a popular literary genre in the eighteenth century as literacy rates rose, printing costs dropped, and the middle class swelled. A new population of readers emerged, and these people appreciated fiction with which they could identify.
Restoration Comedy Conventions Fielding’s comic dramas were indebted to Restoration comedy, a style popular during the period 1660–1700. Restoration comedies are marked by their urbane and witty dialogue, complex plots, satirical touches, and sexual humor. Fielding used all of these, greatly increasing the satire, often politicizing the content, and using a more coarse style of burlesque comedy.
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