Fielding, Henry (1707-1754)
novelist, playwright, and barrister, who, with his contemporary Samuel
Richardson, established the English novel tradition.
Fielding was born at Sharpham Park, Somerset, and educated at Eton College and in law at the Leiden University. From 1729 to 1737 he was a theatrical manager and playwright in London. Of his 25 plays, the most popular was the farce Tom Thumb (1730). In 1740 he was called to the bar; as justice of the peace for Westminster from 1748 and for Middlesex from 1749, he worked hard to reduce crime in London.
Meanwhile his career as a novelist began. His first published novel, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742), was intended as a parody of the sentimental moralism of the popular novel Pamela (1740), written by Samuel Richardson. Fielding had already parodied Pamela in his pseudonymous work, Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. Fielding's talent for characterization and for depicting a lower-class milieu, however, make Joseph Andrews far more than mere parody; it is a great comedy in its own right. Miscellanies (3 vol., 1743) contains a long mock-epic treatment of heroism, The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great, as well as miscellaneous poems, essays, and plays, including A Journey from This World to the Next. The latter is a lively account of a group of disparate spirits on their way to Elysium (from Greek mythology, a place of ideal happiness).
Two volumes of political journalism, The True Patriot (1745) and The Jacobite's Journal (1747), preceded publication of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). Tom Jones, regarded by critics as one of the great English novels, is in the picaresque tradition, involving the adventures and misadventures of a roguish hero. It tells in rich, realistic detail the many adventures that befall Tom, an engaging young libertine, in his efforts to gain his rightful inheritance. (It was made into a successful motion picture, Tom Jones, in 1962.) Amelia (1751), a study of justice and the penal system in England, is the most serious of Fielding's fiction and his last novel.
In 1752 he returned to political writing as publisher of the periodical The Covent Garden Journal. Illness forced him to relinquish his post as magistrate in 1753, but he had achieved a reputation for honesty and fearlessness in fighting crime in the city of London. His journey to Portugal in 1754 is the subject of Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755), a posthumously published, warm and touching family chronicle. Fielding is highly regarded for his innovations in the development of the modern novel. Although he was not the first novelist, he was the first writer to break away from the epistolary method. Fielding devised a new structure and theory that laid the foundation for the works of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and the Victorian domestic novelists.