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Henry Fielding | Biography

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Henry Fielding was born on April 22, 1707, near Glastonbury, Somerset, in rural southwestern England. His father, Edmund, an army officer, married shortly after Fielding's mother, Sarah, died, when Fielding was about 11. Fielding's maternal grandfather, Sir Henry Gould, was a judge of the Queen's Bench who died a few years after Fielding was born. The author had a somewhat difficult childhood. His mother's aunt, Mrs. Cottington, took care of the Fielding children both before and after Sarah's death, spoiling Henry and teaching the children to hate their father and stepmother. Since Edmund Fielding was a spendthrift, he argued with Sarah's family about her estate and the custody of his children. Henry was sent to Eton College while his younger siblings—three sisters and a brother—were raised by their grandmother, Lady Gould, the widow of Sir Henry Gould.

Fielding was wild as a young man. He dropped out of Eton at 17 and spent the next four years as a man about town. He unsuccessfully tried to force an elopement in 1725 with his first love, Sarah Andrew, a wealthy heiress. He returned to school at the University of Leyden (Netherlands) in 1728 to continue his study of the classics but was forced to return home since his father could no longer support him. Fielding spent the early 1730s running up debt and getting into trouble until he married Charlotte Cradock in 1734. In London he became a successful playwright, but his satiric attacks on political figures cost him his career when the Licensing Act was passed in Parliament in 1737. The act required all new work to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before production, and Fielding's political satires could never pass muster. Next Fielding turned to law and was called to the bar in 1740. He also began editing and writing a newspaper and aligned his politics with the anti-Jacobites—those opposed to restoring Catholic King James VII and his heirs to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Fielding began his career as a novelist in 1741, writing a parody of fellow writer Samuel Richardson's first novel, Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, which is often referred to as the first modern English novel. It is the story of how a servant girl resists the sexual advances of her master so well that he ends up marrying her. Fielding's story, called An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, made fun of Richardson's sentimentality and what Fielding considered to be his sham morality. He followed this up with Joseph Andrews, which begins as another comic parody of Pamela but becomes a "comic epic-poem in prose" that masterfully uses various types of irony and engages in social criticism. In 1743 Fielding published three collections of new and old works, including a new novel, The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. In 1744 Fielding was laid low when his wife, Charlotte, died, and it took him about a year to recover. In 1747 he married his wife's maid, Mary Daniel, who along with his sister Sarah helped him through his grief. In 1748 he was appointed magistrate (justice of the peace) for Westminster and Middlesex and had his courthouse in Bow Street in London. Fielding worked hard to clean up crime in the city and strengthened the police force.

Fielding published The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, in 1749. His comic masterpiece was highly successful in its time, even if it was derided and misunderstood by some early critics. One newspaper denounced it as a "motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery," and Samuel Richardson said "it had a very bad tendency" in which the author intended "to whiten a vicious character, and to make his morality bend to his practices." As time went on the novel was praised for its plot structure and complex irony and was recognized as a work whose central concerns were moral. Most of all Tom Jones has been hailed for helping to establish the novel as a respected literary genre.

Fielding's personal experience is integrated into the novel in both fictional and nonfictional form. For example, he specifically refers to his beloved Charlotte, whom he hopes readers will remember in her guise as Sophia. Charlotte is the model upon which Sophia Western is built, and the love between Tom and Sophia mirrors Fielding's own feelings. Mr. Allworthy is partially based on Fielding's kindly mentor Ralph Allen, postmaster of Bath, who provided financial support to the author and his family. Fielding's bad-boy behavior and attitudes about sex are reflected in his hero, who doesn't think intimacy outside of marriage is a great crime so long as the female partner is not injured in the process. The author's knowledge of the law glosses many sections—for example, in discussions about poaching, inheritance, impressment, and claims to the lost property of others. His positions on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the uprising of 1745 are put in the mouths of Tom and other Protestant nationalists, who decry the Catholic Stuarts for attempting to retake the throne of England.

Tom Jones was followed two years later by Amelia, a more somber work. Fielding was in poor health, mostly because of his terrible gout, and later asthma and dropsy, or edema (heart trouble). He took a trip to Portugal in August 1754 to improve his health in the southern sun and wrote an account of his journey in The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. He died on that voyage, on October 8, 1754, and was buried in the British Cemetery in Lisbon.

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