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.
Reimagining the Picaresque For his novels, Fielding drew heavily upon the inspiration and structure of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605). In Joseph Andrews, Fielding recasts the brave, idealistic, but absentminded hero of Don Quixote into the figure of Parson Adams. In Tom Jones, Fielding borrows the now-familiar formula of the hero-with-bumbling-sidekick from Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza, recasting them as the heroic Tom and the naive country bumpkin Benjamin Partridge. Fielding also borrows the on-the-road structure of episodic adventures from Don Quixote known in the Spanish literary tradition as the ‘‘picaresque.’’ In many of these episodes, Fielding draws upon his experience as a successful comic dramatist to create scenes remarkable for their comic timing, sharply drawn characterizations, and complex interweaving of plot and subplots.
Flawed Heroes Of the themes in Fielding’s novels that have received most attention, the most enduring is whether Tom Jones is, or should be, an admirable hero despite his faults. Tom is truly in love with Sophia, but he is young and handsome, and he has a difficult time saying no to the several women who make themselves available. In one notorious case, Tom has an extended affair with Lady Bellaston, an aristocrat in London who has information about the whereabouts of Sophia. Tom accepts her money and gifts in exchange for his sexual favors. For many readers this crosses a line. Various aspects of sexuality appear in Fielding’s works, including incest, sexual harassment, adultery, and the simple sexual explorations of young people who act on their emotions instead of their good judgment.
Often connected with sexuality, but not limited to it, is the theme of hypocrisy. Fielding is a powerful satirist of the hypocrisy that he sees as a growing infection in society, law, and the church. For example, in Joseph Andrews, Fielding creates the memorable
character of Parson Adams, an elderly, absentminded, and naive Anglican minister who serves as a kind of lightning rod for hypocrisy in the many different people he encounters on the road. Despite his backwardness and childlike innocence, indeed because of it, he demonstrates by contrast the vanity and pettiness of others. Fielding’s cure for hypocrisy, which Adams embodies, is in preferring good works (the Anglican value) over strong faith (the Methodist or Calvinist value). It is what you do that matters in the end, not what abstract doctrine you believe in or what kind of person others think you are; it is worth noting that the protagonists in Fielding’s three major novels are a servant, an illegitimate orphan, and an ex-convict.
Works in Critical Context
Fielding’s reception history is bound up in a tight knot with Samuel Richardson’s reception history. The two dominant novelists of the mid-eighteenth century did not know one another personally but took several swipes at one another’s work. Most significant among these swipes is probably Fielding’s Shamela (1741), a satire on Richardson’s classic novel of conduct, Pamela (1740). It has become a commonplace in literary
criticism that the two novelists are diametrically opposed to one another, and between them one can find all the seeds of subsequent English novels: Fielding represents the external, comic, optimistic, tolerant, easygoing, panoramic, masculine, and urban aspects through his omniscient narration; whereas Richardson represents the internal, tragic, fatalistic, morally strict, anxious, focused, feminine, and domestic aspects through his first-person novels written in the form of letters. There are many themes that both novelists have in common, such as the corruption of vain aristocrats and the tyranny of self-interested parents, but it is usually the differences between the two novelists that are emphasized to make a point. Fielding’s rises in critical fashion over 250 years of criticism are usually linked to Richardson’s declines, and vice versa.
Tom Jones Tom Jones was the talk of the town when it first appeared. It had the best advertisement possible: the whiff of scandal. Preachers denounced its supposed sexual immorality in their sermons, and some even blamed it for the two earthquakes that hit London in 1750. Amelia was also a popular success, even though it is less often read today; still, critics were so hard on Fielding for a handful of oversights in the novel that he stated in his Covent-Garden Journal that he would never again write fiction.
In the nineteenth century, Fielding’s reputation was split: among fellow novelists his influence and popularity was high, but among the moralistic Victorian critics he found little support. William Hazlitt,
Charles Dickens, and George Eliot all paid their tributes to Fielding, but the most memorable statement came from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘‘What a master of composition Fielding was! Upon my word, I think the Oedipus Tyrannus, the Alchemist, and Tom Jones the three most perfect plots ever planned.’’ (Oedipus is a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, and The Alchemist is a Renaissance comedy by Ben Jonson.)
Coleridge’s comment was frequently cited by critics in the twentieth century, especially the ‘‘New Critics’’ of the 1940s and 1950s who gave detailed appreciations of Fielding’s plotting and sense of structure. R. S. Crane’s ‘‘The Plot of Tom Jones’’ became a classic of the movement, and Martin Battestin argued that Fielding’s plots reflect the symmetrical elegance of the neoclassical architecture popular in the eighteenth century. Feminist critics starting in the 1960s found less to admire in Fielding’s masculine approach and sexist characterizations. Most recently, Fielding has been blessed with a generation of responsible (and sometimes competing) biographers who have done much to erase the rumors and innuendos that had damaged his reputation over the years. In his Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding, Claude Rawson describes Fielding as ‘‘the most important English playwright of his time’’ and ‘‘one of the great inaugural figures of the history of the novel.’’ Further, Rawson observes, ‘‘Fielding’s almost obsessive concern with Richardson was to develop and sharpen a mode of fiction-writing whose life and after-life continue strong.’’
From Print to Film Fielding’s popularity received a major boost in 1963 when Tony Richardson’s movie version of Tom Jones won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Tom Jones was later produced as a BBC mini-series in 1997, and the character of Fielding himself has appeared, along with his brother John Fielding, as a crusading judge in the British television series City of Vice (2008).
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