Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding
© Trustees of the British Museum

Biography

Henry Fielding – novelist, playwright and magistrate – was an active and influential public figure in the early 18th century.

Early life and law

Born in Somerset in 1707, Fielding’s lifelong relationship with the law began early. After his mother’s death, Fielding was the subject of a custody battle in which his grandmother successfully challenged the custodianship of his father, Lieutenant General Edmund Fielding. The young Fielding attended Eton, where he met the future Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, but he was forced to flee the country to continue his studies after attempting to abduct his cousin, an heiress. Fielding studied classics and law at Leiden before returning to England.

From law to writing

Running short of funds, Fielding turned to writing, as did his sister, the novelist Sarah Fielding. His earliest theatrical writings so sharply satirised Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole that they were said to have catalysed the passage of the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, which curtailed criticism of the government by requiring all plays to be read and approved by the Lord Chamberlain.

Hindered by the censorship of his plays, Fielding continued to write political satire that targeted Walpole and supported the Whig opposition, but returned to his legal career to support himself and his family. Fielding became a successful barrister and magistrate, co-founding with his brother an early version of a police force called the Bow Street Runners. Fielding’s work as a magistrate would colour much of his later writing, from his profile of the criminal boss Jonathan Wild to his descriptions of London prisons in Tom Jones.

Writing fiction

Fielding’s turn to fiction came by way of his satirical impulse. The popularity of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela inspired Fielding to write an imitative parody. An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews (1741), which Fielding published anonymously, mocked Richardson’s style of ‘writing to the moment’, in which his heroines dashed off letters while defending their virtue. Fielding continued riffing on Richardson’s famous novel in his second work, Joseph Andrews (1742), which chronicled the adventures of Pamela’s brother in a genre-crossing performance that Fielding dubbed a ‘comic epic poem in prose’. Tom Jones (1749), Fielding’s masterful picaresque, remains an important milestone in the development of the 18th-century novel, with its complex plot and its mixture of moral seriousness and comic adventure.

Marriage, later work and death

Fielding had five children with his first wife, Charlotte Craddock, and, after Charlotte’s death, scandalised his peers by marrying her maidservant Mary Daniel. Fielding had a further five children with Mary.

In his later years Fielding continued to write, primarily satirical pieces for newspapers and pamphlets, while following his career as a magistrate. Fielding developed considerable influence in the movements for judicial and prison reform, authoring works such as Proposals for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor (1753). Fielding’s heath declined in the 1750s and he died shortly after travelling to Lisbon to seek medical care in 1754.

Further information about the life of Henry Fielding can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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