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Henry Fielding
Born(1707-04-22)22 April 1707
Sharpham, Somerset, England
Died8 October 1754(1754-10-08) (aged 47)
Lisbon, Kingdom of Portugal
Pen name"Captain Hercules Vinegar", "H. Scriblerus Secundus"; some work published anonymously
Occupationnovelist, dramatist and essayist
EducationEton College
Genrecomedy, satire, picaresque
Literary movementEnlightenment, Augustan Age
RelativesSarah Fielding, John Fielding

Henry Fielding (22 April 1707 – 8 October 1754) was an English writer and magistrate known for the use of humour and satire in his works.[1] His 1749 comic novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling was a seminal work in the genre. Along with Samuel Richardson, Fielding is seen as the founder of the traditional English novel. He also played an important role in the history of law enforcement in the United Kingdom, using his authority as a magistrate to found the Bow Street Runners, London's first professional police force.

Early life

Henry Fielding was born on 22 April 1707 at Sharpham Park, the seat of his mother's family in Sharpham, Somerset. He was the son of Lt.-Gen. Edmund Fielding and Sarah Gould, daughter of Sir Henry Gould. A scion of the Earl of Denbigh, his father was nephew of William Fielding, 3rd Earl of Denbigh.[2]

Educated at Eton College, Fielding began a lifelong friendship with William Pitt the Elder.[3] His mother died when he was 11. A suit for custody was brought by his grandmother against his charming but irresponsible father, Lt Gen. Edmund Fielding. The settlement placed Henry in his grandmother's care, but he continued to see his father in London.[4]

In 1725, Henry tried to abduct his cousin Sarah Andrews (with whom he was infatuated) while she was on her way to church. He fled to avoid prosecution.[5]

In 1728, Fielding travelled to Leiden to study classics and law at the university.[3] However, penury forced him back to London, where he began writing for the theatre. Some of his work savagely criticised the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole.

Dramatist and novelist

According to George R. Levine, Henry Fielding, in his first writings used two forms of "rhetorical poses" that were popular during the eighteenth century.[6] Henry Fielding would construct "the non-ironic pseudonym such as Addison and Steele used in the Spectator, and the ironic mask or Persona, such as Swift used in A Modest Proposal."[6] The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 is said to be a direct response to his activities in writing for the theatre.[3][7] Although the play that triggered the act was the unproduced, anonymously authored The Golden Rump, Fielding's dramatic satires had set the tone. Once it was passed, political satire on stage became all but impossible. Fielding retired from the theatre and resumed his legal career to support his wife Charlotte Craddock and two children by becoming a barrister,[3][7] joining the Middle Temple in 1737 and being called to the bar there in 1740.[8]

Fielding's lack of financial acumen meant the family often endured periods of poverty, but were helped by Ralph Allen, a wealthy benefactor, on whom Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones would be based. Allen went on to provide for the education and support of Fielding's children after the writer's death.

Henry Fielding, about 1743, etching from Jonathan Wild

Fielding never stopped writing political satire and satires of current arts and letters. The Tragedy of Tragedies (for which Hogarth designed the frontispiece) was, for example, quite successful as a printed play. Based on his earlier Tom Thumb, this was another of Fielding's irregular plays published under the name of H. Scriblerus Secundus, a pseudonym intended to link himself ideally with the Scriblerus Club of literary satirists founded by Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay.[5] He also contributed several works to journals.

From 1734 to 1739, Fielding wrote anonymously for the leading Tory periodical, The Craftsman, against the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.[9] His patron was the opposition Whig MP George Lyttelton, a boyhood friend from Eton to whom he later dedicated Tom Jones. Lyttelton followed his leader Lord Cobham in forming a Whig opposition to Walpole's government called the Cobhamites, which included another of Fielding's Eton friends, William Pitt.[10] In The Craftsman, Fielding voiced an opposition attack on bribery and corruption in British politics.[11] Despite writing for the opposition to Walpole, which included Tories as well as Whigs, Fielding was "unshakably a Whig" and often praised Whig heroes such as the Duke of Marlborough and Gilbert Burnet.[12]

Fielding dedicated his play Don Quixote in England to the opposition Whig leader Lord Chesterfield. It appeared on 17 April 1734, the same day writs were issued for the general election.[13] He dedicated his 1735 play The Universal Gallant to Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, a political follower of Chesterfield.[14] The other prominent opposition paper, Common Sense, founded by Chesterfield and Lyttelton, was named after a character in Fielding's Pasquin (1736). Fielding wrote at least two articles for it in 1737 and 1738.[15]

Fielding continued to air political views in satirical articles and newspapers in the late 1730s and early 1740s. He was the main writer and editor from 1739 to 1740 for the satirical paper The Champion, which was sharply critical of Walpole's government and of pro-government literary and political writers. He sought to evade libel charges by making its political attacks so funny or embarrassing to the victim that a publicized court case would seem even worse. He later became chief writer for the Whig government of Henry Pelham.[16]

Fielding took to novel writing in 1741, angered by Samuel Richardson's success with Pamela. His first success was an anonymous parody of that novel, called Shamela.[17] This follows the model of Tory satirists of the previous generation, notably Swift and Gay.

Fielding followed this with Joseph Andrews (1742), an original work supposedly dealing with Pamela's brother, Joseph.[3] His purpose, however, was more than parody, for as stated in the preface, he intended a "kind of writing which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language." In what Fielding called a "comic epic poem in prouse", he blended two classical traditions: that of the epic, which had been poetic, and that of the drama, but emphasizing the comic rather than the tragic. Another distinction of Joseph Andrews and the novels to come was use of everyday reality of character and action, as opposed to the fables of the past.[4] While begun as a parody, it developed into an accomplished novel in its own right and is seen as Fielding's debut as a serious novelist. In 1743, he published a novel in the Miscellanies volume III (which was the first volume of the Miscellanies): The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great, which is sometimes counted as his first, as he almost certainly began it before he wrote Shamela and Joseph Andrews. It is a satire of Walpole equating him and Jonathan Wild, the gang leader and highwayman. He implicitly compares the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves run by Walpole, whose constant desire to be a "Great Man" (a common epithet with Walpole) ought to culminate in the antithesis of greatness: hanging.

Fielding's anonymous The Female Husband (1746) fictionalizes a case in which a female transvestite was tried for duping another woman into marriage; this was one of several small pamphlets costing sixpence.[18] Though a minor piece in his life's work, it reflects his preoccupation with fraud, shamming and masks.

His greatest work is The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), a meticulous comic novel with elements of the picaresque and the Bildungsroman, telling a convoluted, hilarious tale of how a foundling came into a fortune. The plot is too ingenious for a simple summary; it tells of Tom's alienation from his foster father, Squire Allworthy, and his sweetheart, Sophia Western, and his reconciliation with them after lively and dangerous adventures on the road and in London. It triumphs as a presentation of English life and character in the mid-18th century. Every social type is represented and through them every shade of moral behaviour. Fielding's varied style tempers the basic seriousness of the novel and his authorial comment before each chapter adds a dimension to a conventional, straightforward narrative.[4]


Fielding's younger sister, Sarah, also became a successful writer.[19] Her novel The Governess, or The Little Female Academy (1749) is thought to be the first in English aimed expressly at children.[20]


Fielding married Charlotte Craddock in 1734 at the Church of St Mary in Charlcombe, Somerset.[21] She died in 1744, and he later modelled the heroines of Tom Jones and of Amelia on her. They had five children; their only daughter Henrietta died at the age of 23, having already been "in deep decline" when she married a military engineer, James Gabriel Montresor, some months before. Three years after Charlotte's death, Fielding disregarded public opinion by marrying her former maid Mary Daniel, who was pregnant.[7] Mary bore five children: three daughters who died young, and two sons, William and Allen.[22]

Jurist and magistrate

Henry Fielding Memorial at Widcombe Lodge in Bath

Despite the scandal, Fielding's consistent anti-Jacobitism and support for the Church of England led to his appointment a year later as Westminster's chief magistrate, while his literary career went from strength to strength. Most of his work concerned London's criminal population of thieves, informers, gamblers and prostitutes. Though living in a corrupt and callous society, he became noted for impartial judgements, incorruptibility and compassion for those whom social inequities led into crime. The income from his office ("the dirtiest money upon earth") dwindled as he refused to take money from the very poor.[4] Joined by his younger half-brother John, he helped found what some call London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners, in 1749.[23]

According to the historian G. M. Trevelyan, the Fieldings were two of the best magistrates in 18th-century London, who did much to enhance judicial reform and improve prison conditions. Fielding's influential pamphlets and enquiries included a proposal for abolishing public hangings. This did not, however, imply opposition to capital punishment as such – as is evident, for example, in his presiding in 1751 over the trial of the notorious criminal James Field, finding him guilty in a robbery and sentencing him to hang. John Fielding, despite being blind by then, succeeded his older brother as chief magistrate, becoming known as the "Blind Beak of Bow Street" for his ability to recognise criminals by their voices alone.[24]

Henry Fielding's grave in the cemetery of the Church of England St. George's Church, Lisbon

In January 1752 Fielding started a fortnightly, The Covent-Garden Journal, published under the pseudonym "Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt., Censor of Great Britain" until November of that year. Here Fielding challenged the "armies of Grub Street" and periodical writers of the day in a conflict that became the Paper War of 1752–1753.

Fielding then published Examples of the Interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder (1752), a treatise rejecting deistic and materialistic visions of the world in favour of belief in God's presence and divine judgement,[25] arguing that the murder rate was rising due to neglect of the Christian religion.[26] In 1753 he wrote Proposals for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor.

Fielding's humanitarian commitment to justice in the 1750s (for instance in support of Elizabeth Canning) coincided with rapid deterioration in his health. Gout, asthma and cirrhosis of the liver left him on crutches,[5] and with other afflictions sent him to Portugal in 1754 to seek a cure, only to die two months later in Lisbon, reportedly in pain and mental distress.[7][27] His tomb there is in the British Cemetery (Cemitério Inglês), the graveyard of St. George's Church, Lisbon.

List of works

Fielding on a 1957 Soviet stamp


Partial list of poems


Further Adaptations

Miscellaneous writings


  1. ^ Levine, George R. (1967). Henry Fielding and the dry mock: a study of the techniques of irony in his early works. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter. p. 11. ISBN 978-3-11-140039-6. OCLC 971364640.
  2. ^ Lawrence, Frederick (1855). The Life of Henry Fielding: With Notices of His Writings, His Times, and His Contemporaries. FB&C Limited (republished, 2015). ISBN 978-1-334-08074-6.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Henry Fielding". People. The Dorset Page. Archived from the original on 15 August 2009. Retrieved 9 September 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d "Henry Fielding Facts". biography.yourdictionary.com. Retrieved 4 May 2017.
  5. ^ a b c Battestin, Martin C. (23 September 2004). "Fielding, Henry (1707–1754), author and magistrate". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9400. Retrieved 6 April 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) (subscription required)
  6. ^ a b Levine, George R. (1967). Henry Fielding and the dry mock : a study of the techniques of irony in his early works. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter. p. 31. ISBN 978-3-11-140039-6. OCLC 971364640.
  7. ^ a b c d Liukkonen, Petri. "Henry Fielding". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 6 July 2009.
  8. ^ Register of Admissions to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, Volume I. p. 322.
  9. ^ Battestin, Martin C. (1989). "Introduction". New Essays by Henry Fielding: His Contributions to the Craftsman, 1734-1739 and Other Early Journalism. University Press of Virginia. ISBN 978-0-8139-1221-9., p. xvi
  10. ^ Battestin (1989), p. xx.
  11. ^ Battestin (1989), p. xiii.
  12. ^ Battestin (1989), p. 61.
  13. ^ Battestin (1989), p. xxiii.
  14. ^ Battestin (1989), p. xxv.
  15. ^ Battestin (1989), p. 299n and 62.
  16. ^ Battestin (1989), p. 4.
  17. ^ Castro-Santana, Anaclara (18 August 2015). "Sham Marriages and Proper Plots: Henry Fielding's Shamela and Joseph Andrews". English Studies. 96 (6): 636–53. doi:10.1080/0013838X.2015.1045728. ISSN 0013-838X. S2CID 163073219.
  18. ^ Cross, Wilbur L. (1918). The History of Henry Fielding. Vol. 2. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  19. ^ "Henry Fielding (1707–1754)". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 9 September 2009. (subscription required)
  20. ^ H. Carpenter and M. Prichard. 1984. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford University Press.
  21. ^ "Henry Fielding (I1744)". Stanford University. Retrieved 27 July 2011.
  22. ^ Battestin, Martin C. (2000). A Henry Fielding Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood. pp. 10, 15. ISBN 9780313297076.
  23. ^ "Henry Fielding". Spartacus Educational. Archived from the original on 17 May 2009. Retrieved 9 September 2009.
  24. ^ "Words, Words, Words", From the Beginnings to the 18th Century, La Spiga languages, 2003.
  25. ^ Henry Fielding, 1988. An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers and Related Writings. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.
  26. ^ Claire Valier, 2005. Crime and Punishment in Contemporary Culture. Routledge. p. 20.
  27. ^ Fielding, Henry (1999). Hawley, Judith (ed.). Joseph Andrews/Shamela. Penguin. p. ii. ISBN 978-0-14043386-9.

Further reading