Sunday, April 22, 2007

The History of Mr. Henry Fielding


Henry Fielding was born on this day in 1707 in Sharpham Park, Somerset, England.

The son of an army general, Henry Fielding studied Greek and Roman classical literature at Eton and was subsequently encouraged by his cousin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, to go to London and make his career as a writer. He had a quick success with the play Love in Several Masques (1728) before a brief stint at the University of Leiden, after which he returned to devote himself to writing for the London stage. In 1730, he had another huge popular success, The Tragedy of Tom Thumb, which according to legend made Jonathan Swift laugh for the second time in his life.

Since writing was a hand-to-mouth existence, Fielding assumed the management of the New Theatre, and wrote over a dozen plays that debuted there, including the political satire Pasquin (1737). His period of relative financial success came to an abrupt end when Sir Robert Walpole caught wind of Pasquin's anti-Whig message and passed the Theatrical Licensing Act with the express intention of kicking Fielding off the London stage.

In search of financial stability, Fielding became editor of an opposition journal, Champion, while studying at the Middle Temple. He entered the bar in 1740, but after briefly serving as a circuit judge, due to gout and asthma he failed to pursue active practice. Instead, he found his way into a new literary medium. With the publication of Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), the "epistolary novel" was all the rage, although Fielding was fairly disgusted by Richardson's cloying sentimentality and rigid conventional moralizing. In response, Fielding wrote an published a parody of Pamela, known as Shamela (1741), amounting to a lusty 70-page abridgement, exposing all the pretensions and moral ludicrousness of Pamela through a comically twisted point of view of Richardson's original plot. Despite his exasperation with Richardson's book, Fielding was captivated by the possibilities of its form.

The following year, Fielding published his own novel (liberating it from Richardson's epistolary format), The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742; about a virtuous young footman who is fired by his lady for resisting her advances). He described it in his preface as a "comic epic poem in prose," attempting to dignify the status of the novel while exhorting future novelists to use the form as a mirror held up to the prevailing society, revealing truth and exposing hypocrisy. The following year he published The History of Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743), an ironically admiring narrative based on the career of a well-known criminal, which recent critics have claimed was actually a veiled attack on Walpole.

In 1744, his wife Charlotte died, and 3 years later Fielding caused a scandal by marrying his wife's maid, Mary Daniel, who was pregnant with his child. During this period of social exile, Fielding penned his best-known novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), by which he said he intended "to promote the cause of virtue and to expose some of the most glaring evils, as well public as private, which at present infect the country" -- although Samuel Johnson called the book "vicious" and "corrupt." Like Joseph Andrews, the often bawdy Tom Jones is a comic tale about the pretensions of rank, but it is also an object lesson on the nature of happiness and goodness, showing Fielding at the height of his powers as a storyteller and social observer.

Meanwhile, his political exile having ended with the Walpole's fall in 1742, Fielding was appointed justice of the peace for the City of Westminster, London, in 1748. Taking his new position with the utmost seriousness, he worked strenuously to rid Bow Street (the magistracy headquarters) of corruption and made effective crime-fighting his mission, launching his reform of the police force with "An Enquiry into the Causes of the Latest Increase of Robbers" (1751). In 1753, Fielding obtained a small grant from the crown to establish London's first professional police force, known as the "Bow Street Runners" -- 12 men whose first task was to investigate a series of London murders. He resigned his post due to ill health and was succeeded by his half-brother, Sir John Fielding.

Fielding's last novel, Amelia (1751), was not as spry as Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones, its relative sobriety informed by his close-up view of criminal society. In 1754, seeking a better climate for his asthma, Fielding journeyed to Portugal, but died there shortly thereafter. His last book, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, was published posthumously the following year.


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