Henry Fielding genius

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Henry Fielding  (1707-1754)

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Birth Place
Sharpham, Somerset, England
Death Place
Lisbon, Kingdom of Portugal
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Novels, Satire
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I am content; that is a blessing greater than riches; and he to whom that is given need ask no more.

Henry Fielding was an English novelist and dramatist known for his earthy humour and satire. His comic novel Tom Jones is still widely appreciated. He and Samuel Richardson are seen as founders of the traditional English novel. He also holds a place in the history of law enforcement, having used his authority as a magistrate to found the Bow Street Runners, London's first intermittently funded, full-time police force.

Early life

Fielding was born at Sharpham, Somerset, and educated at Eton College, where he established a lifelong friendship with William Pitt the Elder. His mother died when he was 11. A suit for custody was brought by his grandmother against his charming but irresponsible father, Lt Gen. Edmund Fielding. The settlement placed Henry in his grandmother's care, although he continued to see his father in London. In 1725, Henry tried to abduct his cousin, Sarah Andrews, while she was on her way to church. He fled to avoid prosecution. In 1728, he travelled to Leiden to study classics and law at the university. However, lack of money obliged him to return to London and he began writing for the theatre. Some of his work was savagely critical of the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole.

Dramatist and novelist

The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 is said to be a direct response to his activities in writing for the theatre. Although the play that triggered the act was the unproduced, anonymously authored The Golden Rump, Fielding's dramatic satires had set the tone. Once it was passed, political satire on the stage became virtually impossible. Fielding retired from the theatre and resumed his career in law to support his wife Charlotte Craddock and two children by becoming a barrister, joining the Middle Temple in 1737 and being called to the bar there in 1740.

Fielding's lack of financial acumen meant he and his family often endured periods of poverty, but he was helped by Ralph Allen, a wealthy benefactor, on whom Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones would be based. Allen went on to provide for the education and support of Fielding's children after the writer's death.

Fielding never stopped writing political satire and satires of current arts and letters. The Tragedy of Tragedies for which Hogarth designed the frontispiece was, for example, quite successful as a printed play. Based on his earlier Tom Thumb, this was another of Fielding's "irregular" plays published under the name of H. Scriblerus Secundus, a pseudonym intended to link himself ideally with the Scriblerus Club of literary satirists founded by Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay. He also contributed several works to journals.

Henry Fielding, about 1743, etching by Jonathan Wild

From 1734 until 1739 he wrote anonymously for the leading Tory periodical, The Craftsman, against the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Fielding's patron was the opposition Whig MP George Lyttelton, a boyhood friend from Eton. Lyttelton followed his leader Lord Cobham in forming a Whig opposition to Walpole's government called the Cobhamites which included another of Fielding's Eton friends, William Pitt. In The Craftsman, Fielding voiced the opposition attack on bribery and corruption in British politics. Although writing for the opposition to Walpole, which included Tories as well as Whigs, Fielding was "unshakably a Whig" and often praised Whig heroes such as the Duke of Marlborough and Gilbert Burnet.

Fielding dedicated his play Don Quixote in England to the opposition Whig leader Lord Chesterfield. It was published on 17 April 1734, the same day writs were issued for the general election. He dedicated his 1735 play The Universal Gallant to Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, a political follower of Chesterfield. The other prominent opposition newspaper, Common Sense, founded by Chesterfield and Lyttelton, was named after a character in Fielding's Pasquin 1736. Fielding wrote at least two articles for it in 1737 and 1738.

Fielding continued to air his political views in satirical articles and newspapers in the late 1730s and early 1740s. He was the main writer and editor from 1739 to 1740 for the satirical paper The Champion, which was heavily critical of Walpole's government and of pro-government literary and political writers. He sought to avoid charges of libel by making its political attacks so funny or embarrassing to the victim that a publicized court case would seem even worse. He later became chief writer for the Whig government of Henry Pelham.

Fielding took to novel writing in 1741, angered by Samuel Richardson's success with Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. His first success was an anonymous parody of that: Shamela. This follows the model of Tory satirists of the previous generation, notably Swift and Gay.

Fielding followed this with Joseph Andrews 1742, an original work supposedly dealing with Pamela's brother, Joseph. His purpose, however, was more than parody, for as announced in the preface, he intended a "kind of writing which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language." In what Fielding called a "comic epic poem in prouse," he blended two classical traditions: that of the epic, which had been poetic, and that of the drama, but emphasizing the comic rather than the tragic. Another distinction of Joseph Andrews and of the novels to come was the use of everyday reality of character and action as opposed to the fables of the past. While begun as a parody, it developed into an accomplished novel in its own right and is seen as Fielding's debut as a serious novelist. In 1743, he published a novel in the Miscellanies volume III which was the first volume of the Miscellanies: The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great, which is sometimes counted as his first, as he almost certainly began it before he wrote Shamela and Joseph Andrews. It is a satire of Walpole equating him and Jonathan Wild, the gang leader and highwayman. He implicitly compares the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves run by Walpole, whose constant desire to be a "Great Man" a common epithet with Walpole ought to culminate in the antithesis of greatness: hanging.

His anonymous The Female Husband 1746 fictionalizes a case in which a female transvestite was tried for duping another woman into marriage; this was one of several small pamphlets costing sixpence. Though a minor piece in Fielding's œuvre, it reflects his preoccupation with fraud, shamming and masks.

His greatest work was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling 1749, a meticulously constructed comic novel with elements of the picaresque novel and the Bildungsroman, telling the convoluted and hilarious tale of how a foundling came into a fortune. The plot of Tom Jones is too ingenious for simple summary; its basis is Tom's alienation from his foster father, Squire Allworthy, and his sweetheart, Sophia Western, and his reconciliation with them after lively and dangerous adventures on the road and in London. The triumph is its presentation of English life and character in the mid-18th century. Every social type is represented, and through them every shade of moral behaviour. Fielding's varied style tempers the basic seriousness of the novel and his authorial comment before each chapter adds a marked dimension to a conventionally straightforward narrative.


Fielding's younger sister, Sarah, also became a successful writer. Her novel The Governess, or The Little Female Academy 1749 is thought to be the first in English aimed expressly at children.


Fielding married Charlotte Craddock in 1734 at the Church of St Mary in Charlcombe, Somerset. She died in 1744, and he later modelled the heroines of Tom Jones and of Amelia on her. They had five children; their only daughter Henrietta died at the age of 23, having already been "in deep decline" when she married a military engineer, James Gabriel Montresor, some months before. Three years after Charlotte's death, Fielding disregarded public opinion by marrying her former maid Mary Daniel, who was pregnant. Mary bore five children: three daughters who died young, and two sons, William and Allen.

Jurist and magistrate

Despite this scandal, Fielding's consistent anti-Jacobitism and support for the Church of England led to his being appointed a year later as London's chief magistrate, while his literary career went from strength to strength. Most of his work concerned London's criminal population of thieves, informers, gamblers and prostitutes. Though living in a corrupt and callous society, he became noted for impartial judgements, incorruptibility and compassion for those whom social inequities forced into crime. The income from his office "the dirtiest money upon earth" dwindled as he refused to take money from the very poor. Joined by his younger half-brother John, he helped found what some call London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners, in 1749.

Henry Fielding Memorial at Widcombe Lodge in Bath

According to the historian G. M. Trevelyan, the Fieldings were two of the best magistrates in 18th-century London, who did much to enhance judicial reform and improve prison conditions. Fielding's influential pamphlets and enquiries included a proposal for abolishing public hangings. This did not, however, imply opposition to capital punishment as such – as is evident, for example, in his presiding in 1751 over the trial of the notorious criminal James Field, finding him guilty in a robbery and sentencing him to hang. John Fielding, despite being blind by then, succeeded his older brother as chief magistrate, becoming known as the "Blind Beak of Bow Street" for his ability to recognise criminals by their voices alone.

In January 1752 Fielding started a fortnightly, The Covent-Garden Journal, which he published under the pseudonym "Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt., Censor of Great Britain" until November of that year. Here Fielding challenged the "armies of Grub Street" and periodical writers of the day in a conflict that became the Paper War of 1752–1753.

Henry Fielding's grave in the cemetery of the Church of England St. George's Church, Lisbon

Fielding then published Examples of the Interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder 1752, a treatise rejecting deistic and materialistic visions of the world in favour of belief in God's presence and divine judgement, arguing that the murder rate was rising due to neglect of the Christian religion. In 1753 he wrote Proposals for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor.

Fielding's humanitarian commitment to justice in the 1750s for instance in support of Elizabeth Canning coincided with rapid deterioration in his health. Gout, asthma and cirrhosis of the liver left him on crutches, and with other afflictions sent him to Portugal in 1754 to seek a cure, only to die two months later in Lisbon, reportedly in pain and mental distress. His tomb there is in the English Cemetery Cemitério Inglês, now the graveyard of St. George's Church, Lisbon.

List of works


  • Shamela – novella, 1741
  • The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend, Mr. Abraham Abrams – 1742
  • The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great – 1743, ironic treatment of Jonathan Wild, a notorious underworld figure of the time. Published as Volume 3 of Miscellanies.
  • The Female Husband or the Surprising History of Mrs Mary alias Mr George Hamilton, who was convicted of having married a young woman of Wells and lived with her as her husband, taken from her own mouth since her confinement – pamphlet, fictionalized report, 1746
  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling – 1749
  • A Journey from this World to the Next – 1749
  • Amelia – 1751

Partial list of poems

  • The Masquerade – Fielding's first publication
  • Part of Juvenal's Sixth Satire, Modernized in Burlesque Verse


  • Love in Several Masques – 1728
  • Rape upon Rape – 1730. Adapted by Bernard Miles as Lock Up Your Daughters! in 1959, filmed in 1974
  • The Temple Beau – 1730
  • The Author's Farce – 1730
  • The Pleasures of the Town
  • The Letter Writers or A New Way to Keep a Wife at Home, A Farce – 1731
  • The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great – 1731
  • The Copper-House Politician or The Justice Caught in his own Trap, A Comedy – 1731
  • The Debauchees, or The Justice Caught – 1731
  • The Grub Street Opera – 1731
  • The Modern Husband – 1732
  • The Mock Doctor or The Dumb Lady Cured, a Comedy done from Molière – 1732
  • The Lottery – 1732
  • The Covent Garden Tragedy – 1732
  • The Miser, A Comedy taken from Plautus and Molière – 1733
  • The Intriguing Chambermaid – 1734
  • An Old Man Taught Wisdom, or The Virgin Unmasked, A Farce- 1734
  • Don Quixote in England – 1734
  • The Universal Gallant, or The Different Husbands, A Comedy – c. 1735
  • Pasquin – 1736
  • Eurydice, A Farce – 1737
  • Eurydice Hiss'd, or A Word to the Wise – 1737
  • The Historical Register for the Year 1736 – 1737
  • Miss Lucy in Town, A Farce – 1742
  • Tumbledown Dick or Phaeton in the Suds
  • The Wedding-Day, A Comedy
  • The Fathers: Or, the Good-Natur'd Man – published posthumously in 1778

Miscellaneous writings

  • Miscellanies – collection of works, 1743, contained the poem "Part of Juvenal's Sixth Satire, Modernized in Burlesque Verse"
  • "Examples of the interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder containing above thirty cases in which this dreadful crime has been brought to light in the most extraordinary and miraculous manner; collected from various authors, ancient and modern" 1752
  • The Covent-Garden Journal – periodical, 1752
  • Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon – travel narrative, 1755

More facts

Gender: Male
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Number of spouses: 2
First Marriage To: Charlotte Craddock
Second Marriage To: Mary Daniel
Children: 10
Children names: Henrietta, William and Allen
Citizen Of: United Kingdom
Henry Fielding
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