1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fielding, Henry
FIELDING, HENRY (1707–1754), English novelist and playwright, was born at Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury, Somerset, on the 22nd of April 1707. His father was Lieutenant Edmund Fielding, third son of John Fielding, who was canon of Salisbury and fifth son of the earl of Desmond. The earl of Desmond belonged to the younger branch of the Denbigh family, who, until lately, were supposed to be connected with the Habsburgs. To this claim, now discredited by the researches of Mr J. Horace Round (Studies in Peerage, 1901, pp. 216–249), is to be attributed the famous passage in Gibbon’s Autobiography which predicts for Tom Jones—“that exquisite picture of human manners”—a diuturnity exceeding that of the house of Austria. Henry Fielding’s mother was Sarah Gould, daughter of Sir Henry Gould, a judge of the king’s bench. It is probable that the marriage was not approved by her father, since, though she remained at Sharpham Park for some time after that event, his will provided that her husband should have nothing to do with a legacy of £3000 left her in 1710. About this date the Fieldings moved to East Stour in Dorset. Two girls, Catherine and Ursula, had apparently been born at Sharpham Park; and three more, together with a son, Edmund, followed at East Stour. Sarah, the third of the daughters, born November 1710, and afterwards the author of David Simple and other works, survived her brother.
Fielding’s education up to his mother’s death, which took place in April 1718 at East Stour, seems to have been entrusted to a neighbouring clergyman, Mr Oliver of Motcombe, in whom tradition traces the uncouth lineaments of “Parson Trulliber” in Joseph Andrews. But he must have contrived, nevertheless, to prepare his pupil for Eton, to which place Fielding went about this date, probably as an oppidan. Little is known of his schooldays. There is no record of his name in the college lists; but, if we may believe his first biographer, Arthur Murphy, by no means an unimpeachable authority, he left “uncommonly versed in the Greek authors, and an early master of the Latin classics,”—a statement which should perhaps be qualified by his own words to Sir Robert Walpole in 1730:—
“Tuscan and French are in my head;
Latin I write, and Greek—I read.”
But he certainly made friends among his class-fellows—some of whom continued friends for life. Winnington and Hanbury-Williams were among these. The chief, however, and the most faithful, was George, afterwards Sir George, and later Baron Lyttelton of Frankley.
When Fielding left Eton is unknown. But in November 1725 we hear of him definitely in what seems like a characteristic escapade. He was staying at Lyme (in company with a trusty retainer, ready to “beat, maim or kill” in his young master’s behalf), and apparently bent on carrying off, if necessary by force, a local heiress, Miss Sarah Andrew, whose fluttered guardians promptly hurried her away, and married her to some one else (Athenaeum, 2nd June 1883). Her baffled admirer consoled himself by translating part of Juvenal’s sixth satire into verse as “all the Revenge taken by an injured Lover.” After this he must have lived the usual life of a young man about town, and probably at this date improved the acquaintance of his second cousin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, to whom he inscribed his first comedy, Love in Several Masques, produced at Drury Lane in February 1728. The moment was not particularly favourable, since it succeeded Cibber’s Provok’d Husband, and was contemporary with Gay’s popular Beggar’s Opera. Almost immediately afterwards (March 16th) Fielding entered himself as “Stud. Lit.” at Leiden University. He was still there in February 1729. But he had apparently left before the annual registration of February 1730, when his name is absent from the books (Macmillan’s Magazine, April 1907); and in January 1730 he brought out a second comedy at the newly-opened theatre in Goodman’s Fields. Like its predecessor, the Temple Beau was an essay in the vein of Congreve and Wycherley, though, in a measure, an advance on Love in Several Masques.
With the Temple Beau Fielding’s dramatic career definitely begins. His father had married again; and his Leiden career had been interrupted for lack of funds. Nominally, he was entitled to an allowance of £200 a year; but this (he was accustomed to say) “any body might pay that would.” Young, handsome, ardent and fond of pleasure, he began that career as a hand-to-mouth playwright around which so much legend has gathered—and gathers. Having—in his own words—no choice but to be a hackney coachman or a hackney writer, he chose the pen; and his inclinations, as well as his opportunities, led him to the stage. From 1730 to 1736 he rapidly brought out a large number of pieces, most of which had merit enough to secure their being acted, but not sufficient to earn a lasting reputation for their author. His chief successes, from a critical point of view, the Author’s Farce (1730) and Tom Thumb (1730, 1731), were burlesques; and he also was fortunate in two translations from Molière, the Mock Doctor (1732) and the Miser (1733). Of the rest (with one or two exceptions, to be mentioned presently) the names need only be recorded. They are The Coffee-House Politician, a comedy (1730); The Letter Writers, a farce (1731); The Grub-Street Opera, a burlesque (1731); The Lottery, a farce (1732); The Modern Husband, a comedy (1732); The Covent Garden Tragedy, a burlesque (1732); The Old Debauchees, a comedy (1732); Deborah; or, a Wife for you all, an after-piece (1733); The Intriguing Chambermaid (from Regnard), a two-act comedy (1734); and Don Quixote in England, a comedy, which had been partly sketched at Leiden.
Don Quixote was produced in 1734, and the list of plays may be here interrupted by an event of which the date has only recently been ascertained, namely, Fielding’s first marriage. This took place on the 28th of November 1734 at St Mary, Charlcornbe, near Bath (Macmillan’s Magazine, April 1907), the lady being a Salisbury beauty, Miss Charlotte Cradock, of whom he had been an admirer, if not a suitor, as far back as 1730. This is a fact which should be taken into consideration in estimating the exact Bohemianism of his London life, for there is no doubt that he was devotedly attached to her. After a fresh farce entitled An Old Man taught Wisdom, and the comparative failure of a new comedy, The Universal Gallant, both produced early in 1735, he seems for a time to have retired with his bride, who came into £1500, to his old home at East Stour. Around this rural seclusion fiction has freely accreted. He is supposed to have lived for three years on the footing of a typical 18th-century country gentleman; to have kept a pack of hounds; to have put his servants into impossible yellow liveries; and generally, by profuse hospitality and reckless expenditure, to have made rapid duck and drake of Mrs Fielding’s modest legacy. Something of this is demonstrably false; much, grossly exaggerated. In any case, he was in London as late as February 1735 (the date of the “Preface” to The Universal Gallant); and early in March 1736 he was back again managing the Haymarket theatre with a so-called “Great Mogul’s Company of English Comedians.”
Upon this new enterprise fortune, at the outset, seemed to smile. The first piece (produced on the 5th of March) was Pasquin, a Dramatick Satire on the Times (a piece akin in its plan to Buckingham’s Rehearsal), which contained, in addition to much admirable burlesque, a good deal of very direct criticism of the shameless political corruption of the Walpole era. Its success was unmistakable; and when, after bringing out the remarkable Fatal Curiosity of George Lillo, its author followed up Pasquin by the Historical Register for the Year 1736, of which the effrontery was even more daring than that of its predecessor, the ministry began to bethink themselves that matters were going too far. How they actually effected their object is obscure: but grounds were speedily concocted for the Licensing Act of 1737, which restricted the number of theatres, rendered the lord chamberlain’s licence an indispensable preliminary to stage representation, and—in a word—effectually put an end to Fielding’s career as a dramatist.
Whether, had that career been prolonged to its maturity, the result would have enriched the theatrical repertoire with a new species of burlesque, or reinforced it with fresh variations on the “wit-traps” of Wycherley and Congreve, is one of those inquiries that are more academic than, profitable. What may be affirmed is, that Fielding’s plays, as we have them, exhibit abundant invention and ingenuity; that they are full of humour and high spirits; that, though they may have been hastily written, they were by no means thoughtlessly constructed; and that, in composing them, their author attentively considered either managerial hints, or the conditions of the market. Against this, one must set the fact that they are often immodest; and that, whatever their intrinsic merit, they have failed to rival in permanent popularity the work of inferior men. Fielding’s own conclusion was, “that he left off writing for the stage, when he ought to have begun”—which can only mean that he himself regarded his plays as the outcome of imitation rather than experience. They probably taught him how to construct Tom Jones; but whether he could ever have written a comedy at the level of that novel, can only be established by a comparison which it is impossible to make, namely, a comparison with Tom Jones of a comedy written at the same age, and in similar circumstances.
Tumble-Down Dick; or, Phaeton in the Suds, Eurydice and Eurydice hissed are the names of three occasional pieces which belong to the last months of Fielding’s career as a Haymarket manager. By this date he was thirty, with a wife and daughter. As a means of support, he reverted to the profession of his maternal grandfather; and, in November 1737, he entered the Middle Temple, being described in the books of the society as “of East Stour in Dorset.” That he set himself strenuously to master his new profession, is admitted; though it is unlikely that he had entirely discarded the irregular habits which had grown upon him in his irresponsible bachelorhood. He also did a good deal of literary work, the best known of which is contained in the Champion, a “News-Journal” of the Spectator type undertaken with James Ralph, whose poem of “Night” is made notorious in the Dunciad. That the Champion was not without merit is undoubted; but the essay-type was for the moment out-worn, and neither Fielding nor his coadjutor could lend it fresh vitality. Fielding contributed papers from the 15th of November 1739 to the 19th of June 1740. On the 20th of June he was called to the bar, and occupied chambers in Pump Court. It is further related that, in the diligent pursuit of his calling, he travelled the Western Circuit, and attended the Wiltshire sessions.
Although, with the Champion, he professed, for the time, to have relinquished periodical literature, he still wrote at intervals, a fact which, taken in connexion with his past reputation as an effective satirist, probably led to his being “unjustly censured” for much that he never produced. But he certainly wrote a poem “Of True Greatness” (1741); a first book of a burlesque epic, the Vernoniad, prompted by Vernon’s expedition of 1739; a vision called the Opposition, and, perhaps, a political sermon entitled the Crisis (1741). Another piece, now known to have been attributed to him by his contemporaries (Hist. MSS. Comm., Rept. 12, App. Pt. ix., p. 204), is the pamphlet entitled An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews, a clever but coarse attack upon the prurient side of Richardson’s Pamela, which had been issued in 1740, and was at the height of its popularity. Shamela followed early in 1741. Richardson, who was well acquainted with Fielding’s four sisters, at that date his neighbours at Hammersmith, confidently attributed it to Fielding (Corr. 1804, iv. 286, and unpublished letter at South Kensington); and there are suggestive points of internal evidence (such as the transformation of Pamela’s “MR B.” into “Mr Booby”) which tend to connect it with the future Joseph Andrews. Fielding, however, never acknowledged it, or referred to it; and a great deal has been laid to his charge that he never deserved (“Preface” to Miscellanies, 1743).
But whatever may be decided in regard to the authorship of Shamela, it is quite possible that it prompted the more memorable Joseph Andrews, which made its appearance in February 1742, and concerning which there is no question. Professing, on his title-page, to imitate Cervantes, Fielding set out to cover Pamela with Homeric ridicule by transferring the heroine’s embarrassments to a hero, supposed to be her brother. Allied to this purpose was a collateral attack upon the slipshod Apology of the playwright Colley Cibber, with whom, for obscure reasons, Fielding had long been at war. But the avowed object of the book fell speedily into the background as its author warmed to his theme. His secondary speedily became his primary characters, and Lady Booby and Joseph Andrews do not interest us now as much as Mrs Slipslop and Parson Adams—the latter an invention that ranges in literature with Sterne’s “Uncle Toby” and Goldsmith’s “Vicar.” Yet more than these and others equally admirable in their round veracity, is the writer’s penetrating outlook upon the frailties and failures of human nature. By the time he had reached his second volume, he had convinced himself that he had inaugurated a new fashion of fiction; and in a “Preface” of exceptional ability, he announced his discovery. Postulating that the epic might be “comic” or “tragic,” prose or verse, he claimed to have achieved what he termed the “Comic Epos in Prose,” of which the action was “ludicrous” rather than “sublime,” and the personages selected from society at large, rather than the restricted ranks of conventional high life. His plan, it will be observed, was happily adapted to his gifts of humour, satire, and above all, irony. That it was matured when it began may perhaps be doubted, but it was certainly matured when it ended. Indeed, except for the plot, which, in his picaresque first idea, had not preceded the conception, Joseph Andrews has all the characteristics of Tom Jones, even (in part) to the initial chapters.
Joseph Andrews had considerable success, and the exact sum paid for it by Andrew Millar, the publisher, according to the assignment now at South Kensington, was £183:11s., one of the witnesses being the author’s friend, William Young, popularly supposed to be the original of Parson Adams. It was with Young that Fielding undertook what, with exception of “a very small share” in the farce of Miss Lucy in Town (1742), constituted his next work, a translation of the Plutus of Aristophanes, which never seems to have justified any similar experiments. Another of his minor works was a Vindication of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough (1742), then much before the public by reason of the Account of her Life which she had recently put forth. Later in the same year, Garrick applied to Fielding for a play; and a very early effort, The Wedding Day, was hastily patched together, and produced at Drury Lane in February 1743 with no great success. It was, however, included in Fielding’s next important publication, the three volumes of Miscellanies issued by subscription in the succeeding April. These also comprised some early poems, some essays, a Lucianic fragment entitled a Journey from this World to the Next, and, last but not least, occupying the entire final volume, the remarkable performance entitled the History of the Life of the late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great.
It is probable that, in its composition, Jonathan Wild preceded Joseph Andrews. At all events it seems unlikely that Fielding would have followed up a success in a new line by an effort so entirely different in character. Taking for his ostensible hero a well-known thief-taker, who had been hanged in 1725, he proceeds to illustrate, by a mock-heroic account of his progress to Tyburn, the general proposition that greatness without goodness is no better than badness. He will not go so far as to say that all “Human Nature is Newgate with the Mask on”; but he evidently regards the description as fairly applicable to a good many so-called great people. Irony (and especially Irony neat) is not a popular form of rhetoric; and the remorseless pertinacity with which Fielding pursues his demonstration is to many readers discomforting and even distasteful. Yet—in spite of Scott—Jonathan Wild has its softer pages; and as a purely intellectual conception it is not surpassed by any of the author’s works.
His actual biography, both before and after Jonathan Wild, is obscure. There are evidences that he laboured diligently at his profession; there are also evidences of sickness and embarrassment. He had become early a martyr to the malady of his century—gout, and the uncertainties of a precarious livelihood told grievously upon his beautiful wife, who eventually died of fever in his arms, leaving him for the time so stunned and bewildered by grief that his friends feared for his reason. For some years his published productions were unimportant. He wrote “Prefaces” to the David Simple of his sister Sarah in 1744 and 1747; and, in 1745–1746 and 1747–1748, produced two newspapers in the ministerial interest, the True Patriot and the Jacobite’s Journal, both of which are connected with, or derive from, the rebellion of 1745, and were doubtless, when they ceased, the pretext of a pension from the public service money (Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, “Introduction”). In November 1747 he married his wife’s maid, Mary Daniel, at St Bene’t’s, Paul’s Wharf; and in December 1748, by the interest of his old school-fellow, Lyttelton, he was made a principal justice of peace for Middlesex and Westminster, an office which put him in possession of a house in Bow Street, and £300 per annum “of the dirtiest money upon earth” (ibid.), which might have been more had he condescended to become what was known as a “trading” magistrate.
For some time previously, while at Bath, Salisbury, Twickenham and other temporary resting-places, he had intermittently occupied himself in composing his second great novel, Tom Jones; or, the History of a Foundling. For this, in June 1748, Millar had paid him £600, to which he added £100 more in 1749. In the February of the latter year it was published with a dedication to Lyttelton, to whose pecuniary assistance to the author during the composition it plainly bears witness. In Tom Jones Fielding systematically developed the “new Province of Writing” he had discovered incidentally in Joseph Andrews. He paid closer attention to the construction and evolution of the plot; he elaborated the initial essays to each book which he had partly employed before, and he compressed into his work the flower and fruit of his forty years’ experience of life. He has, indeed, no character quite up to the level of Parson Adams, but his Westerns and Partridges, his Allworthys and Blifils, have the inestimable gift of life. He makes no pretence to produce “models of perfection,” but pictures of ordinary humanity, rather perhaps in the rough than the polished, the natural than the artificial, and his desire is to do this with absolute truthfulness, neither extenuating nor disguising defects and shortcomings. One of the results of this unvarnished naturalism has been to attract more attention to certain of the episodes than their inventor ever intended. But that, in the manners of his time, he had chapter and verse for everything he drew is clear. His sincere purpose was, he declared, “to recommend goodness and innocence,” and his obvious aversions are vanity and hypocrisy. The methods of fiction have grown more sophisticated since his day, and other forms of literary egotism have taken the place of his once famous introductory essays, but the traces of Tom Jones are still discernible in most of our manlier modern fiction.
Meanwhile, its author was showing considerable activity in his magisterial duties. In May 1749, he was chosen chairman of quarter sessions for Westminster; and in June he delivered himself of a weighty charge to the grand jury. Besides other pamphlets, he produced a careful and still readable Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers, &c. (1751), which, among its other merits, was not ineffectual in helping on the famous Gin Act of that year, a practical result to which the “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street” of his friend Hogarth also materially contributed. These duties and preoccupations left their mark on his next fiction, Amelia (1752), which is rather more taken up with social problems and popular grievances than its forerunners. But the leading personage, in whom, as in the Sophia Western of Tom Jones, he reproduced the traits of his first wife, is certainly, as even Johnson admitted, “the most pleasing heroine of all the romances.” The minor characters, too, especially Dr Harrison and Colonel Bath, are equal to any in Tom Jones. The book nevertheless shows signs, not of failure but of fatigue, perhaps of haste—a circumstance heightened by the absence of those “prolegomenous” chapters over which the author had lingered so lovingly in Tom Jones. In 1749 he had been dangerously ill, and his health was visibly breaking. The £1000 which Millar is said to have given for Amelia must have been painfully earned.
Early in 1752 his still indomitable energy prompted him to start a third newspaper, the Covent Garden Journal, which ran from the 4th of January to the 25th of November. It is an interesting contemporary record, and throws a good deal of light on his Bow Street duties. But it has no great literary value, and it unhappily involved him in harassing and undignified hostilities with Smollett, Dr John Hill, Bonnell Thornton and other of his contemporaries. To the following year belong pamphlets on “Provision for the Poor,” and the case of the strange impostor, Elizabeth Canning (1734–1773). By 1754 his own case, as regards health, had grown desperate; and he made matters worse by a gallant and successful attempt to break up a “gang of villains and cut-throats,” who had become the terror of the metropolis. This accomplished, he resigned his office to his half-brother John (afterwards Sir John) Fielding. But it was now too late. After fruitless essay both of Dr Ward’s specifics and the tar-water of Bishop Berkeley, it was felt that his sole chance of prolonging life lay in removal to a warmer climate. On the 26th of June 1754 he accordingly left his little country house at Fordhook, Ealing, for Lisbon, in the “Queen of Portugal,” Richard Veal master. The ship, as often, was tediously wind-bound, and the protracted discomforts of the sick man and his family are narrated at length in the touching posthumous tract entitled the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which, with a fragment of a comment on Bolingbroke’s then recently issued essays, was published in February 1755 “for the Benefit of his [Fielding’s] Wife and Children.” Reaching Lisbon at last in August 1754, he died there two months later (8th October), and was buried in the English cemetery, where a monument was erected to him in 1830. Luget Britannia gremio non dari fovere natum is inscribed upon it.
His estate, including the proceeds of a fair library, only covered his just debts (Athenaeum, 25th Nov. 1905); but his family, a daughter by his first, and two boys and a girl by his second wife, were faithfully cared for by his brother John, and by his friend Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath, the Squire Allworthy of Tom Jones. His will (undated) was printed in the Athenaeum for the 1st of February 1890. There is but one absolutely authentic portrait of him, a familiar outline by Hogarth, executed from memory for Andrew Millar’s edition of his works in 1762. It is the likeness of a man broken by ill-health, and affords but faint indication of the handsome Harry Fielding who in his salad days “warmed both hands before the fire of life.” Far too much stress, it is now held, has been laid by his first biographers upon the unworshipful side of his early career. That he was always profuse, sanguine and more or less improvident, is as probable as that he was always manly, generous and sympathetic. But it is also plain that, in his later years, he did much, as father, friend and magistrate, to redeem the errors, real and imputed, of a too-youthful youth.
As a playwright and essayist his rank is not elevated. But as a novelist his place is a definite one. If the Spectator is to be credited with foreshadowing the characters of the novel, Defoe with its earliest form, and Richardson with its first experiments in sentimental analysis, it is to Henry Fielding that we owe its first accurate delineation of contemporary manners. Neglecting, or practically neglecting, sentiment as unmanly, and relying chiefly on humour and ridicule, he set out to draw life precisely as he saw it around him, without blanks or dashes. He was, it may be, for a judicial moralist, too indulgent to some of its frailties, but he was merciless to its meaner vices. For reasons which have been already given, his high-water mark is Tom Jones, which has remained, and remains, a model in its way of the kind he inaugurated.
An essay on Fielding’s life and writings is prefixed to Arthur Murphy’s edition of his works (1762), and short biographies have been written by Walter Scott and William Roscoe. There are also lives by Watson (1807), Lawrence (1855), Austin Dobson (“Men of Letters,” 1883, 1907) and G. M. Godden (1909). An annotated edition of the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon is included in the “World’s Classics” (1907). (A. D.)
- For a full account of this celebrated case see Howell, State Trials (1813), vol. xix.