I recently stumbled across Henry Fielding and looked over his body of work…and didn’t recognize anything. This, of course, is a bummer because he boasts quite a writing resume, and I happen to appreciate satirists.
Who Was He?
Fielding was born April 22, 1707 in Sharpham Park, Somerset, England, and as a young man, he studied classics and law at the university in Leiden. The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, which happens to be an important and pivotal moment that we will get to at some point, saw fielding resume his pursuits of law as the theatre had become heavily censored by the British Government and Fielding was a fan of producing rather scathing plays critical of the ruling class. Obviously, these two competing ideas cannot coexist peacefully.
He seems to have assumed the role of many writers of his era and tackled complex issues in his writing. As Nasrullah Mambrol states in Analysis of Henry Fielding’s Novels on Literariness.org:
“These various sources, influences, and beliefs are molded into coherent works of art through Fielding’s narrative technique. It is through the role of the narrator that he most clearly and successfully experiments in the methods of teaching a moral lesson. Starting with the voice of direct literary parody in Shamela and moving through the varied structures and voices of the other novels, Fielding’s art leads in many directions, but it always leads to his ultimate concern for finding the best way to teach the clearest moral lesson. “
While involved with the law, Fielding continued to write and in 1742 wrote “Joseph Andrews,” which is considered one of the first novels ever produced in the English language (there is some debate actually but we can let this go for now), and yet his fame as a playwright takes precedence due to the lowly opinion of novelists during his time (yea, I know! what the heck!) Other Fielding novels included “Shamela,” (1741) “The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great,” (1743) “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling,” (1749) and “Amelia” (1751).
Later in his life, Fielding became London’s chief magistrate and garnered a reputation as incorruptible throughout his career (those years critical of corruption probably served him well). He also started one of the first police forces, which was known as the Bow Street Runners. Fielding suffered from gout, asthma, and dropsy (apparently a swelling of soft tissue due to excess water) toward the end of his life and died on Oct. 8, 1754.
This is an extremely narrow look at the man’s life, but it is important to know that his work jumpstarted an entire discipline and his reputation has continued as a complex individual, excellent satirist, novelist, playwright, and genuine man of principle. Good on him!