*Fielding, Henry

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding



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Fielding, Henry

British, 1707–1754
Henry Fielding is justly famous for his three great novels—Joseph Andrews (1742), Tom Jones (1749), and Amelia (1751)—and was praised by George Bernard Shaw as “the greatest dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespeare, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century.” His work as an essayist, stretching from the mid1730s until the last years of his life, is substantial although less well known.
He produced four major periodicals—the Champion (1739–40), the True Patriot (1745– 46), the Jacobite’s Journal (1747–48), and the Covent-Garden Journal (1752). In addition, it now appears that from 1734 to 1738 Fielding contributed essays to the Craftsman, although his ties to that journal were clandestine. In his essays, Fielding addresses major political and social issues of his day: the prime ministry of Sir Robert Walpole; the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745; problems of crime and poverty in the growing metropolis of London. He comments on literary matters less frequently than he does on political. But the periodicals do include important evaluations of major figures in 18thcentury British literature—Pope, Swift, Addison, and Steele—as well as of Fielding’s own work. Parson Abraham Adams from Joseph Andrews reappears in the True Patriot; Fielding defends Amelia from criticism in the Covent-Garden Journal.
Fielding had a complicated family background, which profoundly influenced his political and literary loyalties. Cousin to the Earls of Denbigh, Fielding’s father, Edmund, achieved success and some fame as a soldier, but his splendid social connections paid no bills for him; he was improvident and chronically in debt. Fielding’s mother’s family was wealthy and landed, but its wealth was not Henry’s to inherit. When Henry’s mother died in 1718, a custody battle ensued over her children (Henry had five sisters and one brother) between Edmund Fielding and the children’s maternal grandmother, who eventually won custody of them and control of their inherited property. Fielding’s connections with the social elite, then, were tenuous, even traumatic. He attended Eton with classmates who included William Pitt the Elder and George Lyttelton, but while they went on to Oxford, Fielding attended the University of Leiden for a year until his funds ran out. He then returned to London, a gentleman with no fortune.
Having grown up in Dorset, Fielding tended to idealize rural life, but he chose to earn his living in London. Educated in the classics at Eton, in his career as a playwright he appealed to popular taste, struggling to win the favor of theater managers like Colley Cibber, the prince of Alexander Pope’s Dunces. While he admired the work of Swift and Pope, Fielding was loyal to the memory of his father’s commander, the Duke of Marlborough, and remained throughout his life a Whig in politics. In the absence of a viable Tory opposition, however, Fielding could remain loyal to Marlborough’s memory, even as he sniped at Walpole. Particularly when his essays treat of matters political, Fielding works between the models of Addison and Steele and of Swift and Pope. In their mediation between the Whig sentiment of the former and the Tory satire of the latter, Fielding’s essays achieve their distinctive tone.
The format of the Champion—and of all Fielding’s subsequent periodicals—followed that of Addison and Steele’s Tatler and Spectator. Sections include a lead essay, home and foreign news (with Fielding frequently commenting wryly upon those news items), and advertisements. Appearing three times a week, the paper, like those of Addison and Steele, relies upon a persona, one Captain Hercules Vinegar. Vinegar, whose namesake was a famous cudgel fighter and prize fight promoter, sets down his club and takes up his pen as a weapon. He appoints himself head of a Court of Censorial Inquiry and brings both literary and political figures to the bar. Vinegar has an extended family, which loosely resembles the Spectator Club in that its members can comment upon all parts of British life. One relative is an expert on foreign affairs, one has studied law, another the classics, another medicine. Vinegar’s sons visit theaters and other popular entertainments; his wife has connections with polite families and can report on the activities of the great.
The breadth of the Champion diminished over the course of its run. Fielding’s coadjutor, James Ralph, who took the pseudonym “Dr. Lilbourne,” is described by Fielding in his farewell to the reader (12, June 1740), as ready to “dose” them with political “Physic…as often as it is requisite.” As the paper continued under Ralph’s supervision, it became an antiWalpole voice. After 12, June, however, Fielding did contribute a series of essays on the “Voyages of Mr. Job Vinegar.” Vinegar, in this imitation of Gulliver’s Travels, visits the Ptfghsiumgski—or “the Inconstants”—who are guilty of all manner of political tergiversation. In a paper for 6 September 1740, Fielding attacks Walpole for patronizing scribblers while the true literary giants—he mentions Pope, Swift, Gay, and Thomson—oppose him.
If Fielding’s politics in the Champion are uncertain, his literary opinions can also be surprising. While at times he offers fairly sharp criticism of Pope, he also describes him as a poet “whose works will be coeval with the Language in which they are writ.” No. 80 puts Colley Cibber on trial for “assaulting” the English language, while no. 75 attacks his Apology but praises his early plays. Fielding, who in some of his early satires refers to himself as “H.Scriblerus Secundus,” writes essays on the model of Steele, the great rival of the Scriblerians, and uses the letters by which Addison, Pope’s Atticus, identified his contributions to the Spectator to distinguish his contributions from Ralph’s.
In his response to the crisis of 1745 and his subsequent confidence in the “Broad- Bottom” ministry of Henry Pelham, Fielding moved beyond his political uncertainty of the 1730s. The True Patriot gave Fielding a chance to define his political loyalties and also to put his conflicting literary loyalties behind him. In its first number, Fielding not only reports the advance of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he also offers news of the death of Jonathan Swift and a fine eulogy upon him: “He possessed the Talents of a Lucian, a Rabelais, and a Cervantes, and in his Works exceeded them all.” Throughout the True Patriot, Fielding’s treatment of public credit parallels Addison’s in Spectator no. 3—a dream vision in which the Stuarts threaten a female personification of credit, and the Hanoverians rescue her. In no. 2 Fielding explicitly avows Addison’s Freeholder no. 4 as his model for comment upon the stock exchange, particularly those companies like the East India and South Sea, which assumed part of the national debt in exchange for trade monopolies. Fielding celebrates the economic system that Addison and Steele helped to invent and that Swift detested. Defending both the Protestant Succession and the Bank of England, Fielding’s loyalties to both Addison and Swift are no longer troubled by the “curse of party.”
In the Jacobite’s Journal, Fielding maintains the course he took in the True Patriot, placing himself within a recognizably Whiggish political and literary tradition, turning to the models of Addison and Steele, dropping the persona in which he begins the paper (John Trott-Plaid, a bibulous, bellicose Jacobite) to speak directly in support of Pelham.
In no. 36, he transcribes Addison’s lead essay from Freeholder no. 28; in no. 37, he cites Addison’s analysis of the dangers of Jacobitism in 1715 and applies it to 1748. He reopens the “Office of Censor” that Steele’s Isaac Bickerstaff established and publishes a letter in no. 30 that refers to “your great Patterns, Addison and Steel [sic].” But Fielding also suggests that Addison and Steele, like Swift and Pope, must now give way to others.
Fielding’s Covent-Garden Journal was his last attempt at an ongoing periodical. He opens the paper announcing, “I disclaim any dealings in Politics,” and returns to literary criticism and religious and moral instruction. Taking the persona of “Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knight Censor of Great Britain,” he puts himself one last time in the camp of the Tory satirists. Like Hercules Vinegar, Drawcansir concerns himself with “Taste.”
Pervasive in the journal is the sense that the taste of the social elite—the old English “Genius”—is in decline. Casting himself as an agent of reform, Fielding compares his task to Hercules’ cleansing the stables of Augeus (no. 5). If Hercules Vinegar in the Champion occasionally brings together political and literary attitudes that reveal Fielding’s uncertainty, here Drawcansir reveals an attitude closer to despair.
Throughout this final journal, however, Fielding generally manages to keep his tone light. He proceeds ironically, returning to the model of Swift. He offers mock etymologies and learned discourses that turn upon his readers. Drawcansir, like Vinegar, is a “Censor,” and Fielding uses the proceedings of his court to comment upon manners.
The Covent-Garden Journal also includes a column which reports on cases that Fielding had heard in his magistrate’s court. This column, compiled by Fielding’s clerk Joshua Brogden but frequently revealing Fielding’s hand in it, gives great topicality to the Journal; so too do the news columns in which Fielding reprints items from other journals and then reflects upon or satirizes them.
Fielding’s essays reveal him working between his great predecessors. As he integrates the genial and tolerant modernity of Addison and Steele with the conservative and satiric classicism of Swift and Pope, Fielding, in the course of his essays, defines a transitional moment in 18th-century British life, even as he limns the combination of sentiment and satire that enriches his novels.

Born 22 April 1707 at Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury. Studied at Eton College, Berkshire, 1719–24; University of Leiden, 1728–29; Middle Temple, London, 1737–40, admitted to the bar, 1740. Playwright, 1728–37: writer and manager, Little Theatre, Haymarket, London, 1736–37. Married Charlotte Cradock, 1734 (died, 1744): one son and four daughters (all but one daughter died). Contributor, the Craftsman, 1734–38; editor, the Champion (with James Ralph), 1739–40, the True Patriot, 1745–46, the
Jacobite’s Journal, 1747–48, and the Covent-Garden Journal, 1752. Appointed high steward of the New Forest, Hampshire, 1746. Married Mary Daniel, 1747: one daughter and two sons (another child died). Principal magistrate, City of Westminster, 1748, and County of Middlesex, 1749; chair, Westminster Quarter Sessions, 1749–52. Traveled to Lisbon for health reasons, 1754. Died in Lisbon, 8 October 1754.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
The Champion; or, British Mercury, with James Ralph, nos. 1–158, 15 November 1739– December(?) 1740; in 2 vols., 1741
Miscellanies, vol. 1, 1743; vol.I edited by Henry Knight Miller, in The Wesleyan Edition of the Works, 1972
The True Patriot; and The History of Our Own Times, nos. 1–33, 5 November 1745–17
June 1746; in The True Patriot and Related Writings, edited by W.B.Coley (part of the Wesleyan Edition), 1987
The Jacobite’s Journal, nos. 1–49, 5 December 1747–5 November 1748; in The Jacobite’s Journal and Related Writings, edited by W.B.Coley (part of the Wesleyan Edition), 1974
The Covent-Garden Journal, nos. 1–72, 4 January–25 November 1752; edited by Gerard Edward Jensen, 2 vols., 1915, and Bertrand A.Goldgar (part of the Wesleyan Edition), 1988
Criticism, edited by Ioan Williams, 1970
An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers and Related Writings, edited by Malvin R.Zirker, Jr. (part of the Wesleyan Edition), 1988
New Essays by Henry Fielding: His Contributions to the Craftsman (1734–1739) and Other Early Journalism, edited by Martin C. Battestin, 1989
Other writings: five novels (the parody Shamela, 1741; Joseph Andrews, 1742;
Jonathan Wild, 1743; Tom Jones, 1749; Amelia, 1751), 26 plays, poetry, and works of nonfiction.
Collected works editions: The Complete Works, edited by William E.Henley, 16 vols., 1902; The Wesleyan Edition of the Works, edited by W.B.Coley and others, 1967–(in progress).
Hahn, H.George, Henry Fielding: An Annotated Bibliography, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1979
Morrissey, L.J., Henry Fielding: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1980
Stoler, John A., and Richard Fulton, Henry Fielding: An Annotated Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Criticism, 1900–1977, New York: Garland, 1980
Further Reading
Battestin, Martin C., and Ruthe R.Battestin, Henry Fielding: A Life, London and New York: Routledge, 1989
Goldgar, Bertrand A., Walpole and the Wits: The Relation of Politics to Literature, 1722– 1742, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976
McCrea, Brian, Henry Fielding and the Politics of Mid-EighteenthCentury England, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981
Paulson, Ronald, Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1967
Paulson, Ronald, and Thomas Lockwood, Henry Fielding: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969
Rawson, C.J., Henry Fielding and the Augustan Ideal Under Stress, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972
Shaw, George Bernard, Preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, London: Grant Richards, and Chicago: Stone, 1898
Zirker, Malvin R., Jr., Henry Fielding’s Social Pamphlets, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966

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