Fielding, Henry

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Fielding, Henry

Henry Fielding, 1707–54, English novelist and dramatist. Born of a distinguished family, he was educated at Eton and studied law at Leiden. Settling in London in 1729, he began writing comedies, farces, and burlesques, the most notable being Tom Thumb (1730), and two satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for 1736 (1737), which attacked the Walpole government and provoked the Licensing Act of 1737. This act, setting up a censorship of the stage, ended Fielding's dramatic career and turned him to the less inhibited form of the novel. In that genre he achieved his greatest success, beginning with his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), which started simply as a burlesque of Samuel Richardson's sentimental novel Pamela but developed into a great comic creation. He followed with Jonathan Wild (1743), the history of a superman of crime, which has been called the most sustained piece of irony in English. His masterpiece is Tom Jones (1749), a novel recounting the wild comic adventures of the good-hearted though highly fallible foundling, Tom Jones. In Tom and his guardian, Squire Allworthy, Fielding presents his concept of the ideal man, one in whom goodness and charity are combined with common sense. Because of its memorable characters and episodes, the brilliance of its plotting, and the generosity of its moral vision, Tom Jones is considered one of the greatest of English novels. Amelia (1751), his last novel, is a somewhat sentimental story about a young wife's devotion to her feckless husband, in which Fielding exposes numerous social evils of his day. Fielding had begun his serious study of law in 1737 and in 1740 was called to the bar. After spending several years as a political journalist, he was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster in 1748 and for Middlesex in 1749. A fearless and honest magistrate, he worked arduously in the administration of justice and the prevention of crime. Broken in health, he resigned his office in 1753 and the following year sailed for Portugal, where he died. His last work was the amusing journal Voyage to Lisbon (1755).

See biographies by W. L. Cross (3 vol., 1918, repr. 1963), F. H. Duddon (1952, repr. 1966), and J. Uglow (1995); studies by M. Johnson (1961), R. Alter (1969), R. Paulson, ed. (1962 and 1971), P. Lewis (1987), and A. J. Rivero (1989).

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