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Henry Fielding was born in 1707 to Lieutenant George Fielding and his wife
Sarah, who was herself the daughter of nobility. Socially, the family hovered at
the edges of high society, but they had decidedly middle-class means. Fielding
lost his mother in 1718, and his father remarried just a year later and began
immediately to raise a new family. That same year Fielding began his education
Fielding seems to have been an avid reader and an overly lively student, often
flogged for his amorous escapades. Fielding's pursuit of women did not, however,
prevent him from absorbing vast quantities of Greek and Latin, or from pursuing
the beginnings of a career in drama. His first play, Love in Several
Masques, was produced in February of 1728 at the Drury Lane Theater, with
encouraging results. Fielding would go on to write over twenty plays and farces,
the most successful of which was The Tragedy of Tragedies, or, The Life and
Death of Tom Thumb the Great. In the meantime, however, Fielding spent some
time between 1728 and 1729 in Holland at the University of Leyden as a law
student. His father may have been unable to support him through the completion
of his degree, and so Fielding was forced to fall back on his talents as a
writer and theater manager to support himself.
Fielding's life took a major turn in 1734 with his marriage to Charlotte
Cradock. Fielding loved Cradock passionately, and their short life together was
marked by intense affection and, at times, intense misery. Despite the
responsibilities Fielding faced as a father and husband, his extravagant and
reckless nature kept him and his family wavering on the edge of destitution. In
order to provide for them, Fielding hurriedly finished his study of the law, and
in 1740 was called to the bar. He began to eke out a living as a barrister,
supplementing this work with extensive writings for political journals such as
The Champion and later, the Jacobite's Journal.
Fielding's first major novel, The Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his
Friend, Mr. Abraham Adams, was published in 1742. The novel was conceived as
a satire poking fun of the insanely popular novel Pamela, or Virtue
Rewarded by Fielding's rival Samuel Richardson, but its characters and plot
developed independently of that text. Two years later, Fielding's wife Charlotte
succumbed to a fever and died. Although Fielding remained heart-broken, he
eventually married Mary Daniel, the faithful housekeeper who had looked after
him and his first wife even in their moments of extreme poverty. This marriage
was a happy one, but Fielding never stopped loving Charlotte, and he would model
his two major female characters, Sophia and Amelia, on her.
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling was published in 1749. Almost every
aspect of Fielding's own life is apparent in the novel, from the love and
reverence he had for his first wife to his extensive knowledge of the
Southwestern part of England. Even Tom Jones himself clearly shows the markings
of Fielding, exhibiting the same careless good nature as well as a deeply
entrenched awareness of poverty and the reversals of fortune.
In this same year, Fielding was appointed magistrate for Middlesex. Although he
had satirized the law and lawmakers throughout his career as a dramatist and
novelist, Fielding appears to have been an exemplary magistrate. He was honest,
and wrote several influential tracts that reveal his deep interest in
alleviating the widespread problems of poverty and crime in England. As
evidenced by Tom Jones, Fielding was also extremely interested in English
politics, particularly in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, when the displaced
Stuart family attempted to restore themselves to the throne by ousting George
Despite the demands of a family, a profession, and his rapidly deteriorating
health, Fielding managed to publish his last novel, Amelia, in 1751.
Although it is considered inferior to Fielding's two earlier novels,
Amelia was an immediate commercial success, and Fielding's own favorite
among his writings.
Fielding's work as a magistrate began to take up more of his time and
energy—he engaged in an apparently successful campaign against robber
gangs in London in 1753 and published an extensive Proposal for making
effective provision for the Poor. His health was rapidly deteriorating dues
to a devastating combination of gout, asthma, jaundice, and dropsy. Fielding's
doctor advised him to avoid England's harsh winters, and Fielding decided to go
to Portugal. Leaving behind the children from his second marriage, accompanied
only by his wife, his first daughter Harriet, and two servants, Fielding left
England in the summer of 1754. Ever industrious, he documented his final travels
in what would be published posthumously as The Journal of a Voyage to
Lisbon, and the account took him almost to the moment of his death. Henry
Fielding died on October eight of the same year, in Junqueira, near Lisbon.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Tom Jones!