Henry Fielding. (17071754). The History of Tom Jones.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
SINCE the author of Tom Jones was buried, says Thackeray, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a Man. A grave impeachment, this, of the English novel, but at the same time justification for beginning a representative selection of the masterpieces of English fiction with the chief work of Henry Fielding.
Fieldings father was Major General Edmund Fielding, who had served in Queen Annes wars under the great Duke of Marlborough. Though descended from the first Earl of Denbigh through the Earl of Desmond, General Fielding was not wealthy, and the future novelist was thrown on his own resources shortly after the completion of his education. Henry was born at Sharpham Park, Somerset, the house of his maternal grandfather, Sir Henry Gould, on April 22, 1707. After some years under a private tutor, he went to Eton when about twelve, and five or six years later to the University of Leyden. In 1728 he obtained his degree there in the Faculty of Letters, and, returning to England, took up play-writing for a livelihood. He had apparently been experimenting in this art while still in Holland, for his first comedy, Love in Several Masques, was performed at Drury Lane a month before his graduation.
During the next eight years Fielding produced something over a score of playscomedies, farces, and burlesquesall of them satirical. Though himself leading the life of a gay and somewhat rakish man-about-town, he was a lively and persistent critic of the follies and abuses of the time. The plays were hastily written, and abound in passages offensive preserve were hastily written, and abound in passages offensive to modern taste, but their rollicking humor and high spirits preserve them from dullness. Three of them, Tom Thumb the Great, The Authors Farce, and Pasquin are still worth reading both for the light thrown on the conditions satirized and for the brilliance of the burlesque. The first two are dramatic satires, ridiculing bombast and pedantry, and particular practices and personages in the writing world of the day; the last exposes corruption in politics. So free had criticism of this sort in the theatre become that in 1737 a strict licensing act was passed, and with this Fieldings playwriting came to an end.
Meantime, in 1735, he had married Miss Charlotte Cradock of Salisbury, who is considered to have been the original of both Sophia Western and Amelia. His marriage was the turning point of his career. The wildness of his youth disappeared, to be bitterly repented of during the rest of his life; and in 1737, after a short experiment as a gentleman farmer, he devoted himself to the study of law. While he was striving to establish himself in his new profession there appeared Richardsons novel Pamela. This work met with an extraordinary popularity which was largely deserved, but the sentimentality and conventionality of it disgusted Fielding and induced him to begin a parody. Pamela was the history of a servant girl whose resistance to temptation was finally rewarded by receiving her master as a husband; and Fielding undertook to describe the parallel career of her brother Joseph. But, as he proceeded, the human interest of his characters got the better of the burlesque, and when in 1742 he published The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, he was found to have produced a satire indeed, but at the same time the greatest novel so far written in England. By a lucky accident he had stumbled on the literary form which suited his genius.
Early in the next year Fielding published by subscription three volumes of Miscellanies, among the contents of which was his History of the Life of the late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. This work was based on the career of a well-known criminal, and was ostensibly devoted to contrasting greatness and goodness. The tone is bitterly ironical, Wilds villainies being constantly held up to admiration as differing but slightly from the actions of the men the world has called great. It has recently been argued that beneath the obvious satire there lies an allegory in which Wild symbolizes the great prime minister of the day, Sir Robert Walpole.
Near the end of the same year, 1743, Fieldings wife died. He suffered extremely from this loss, and when four years later he married again, he chose Mary Daniel, the maid of his first wife, to whom he seems to have been drawn by her affectionate devotion to her mistress.
A new period in the career of Fielding began with his appointment as a justice of the peace for Westminster in 1748. Later his commission was extended to include the county of Middlesex, and in 1749 he was elected chairman of quarter sessions at Clerkenwell. The reputation of English magistrates at that time was none too good, but Fielding took his duties with seriousness and conscience. His experience in court brought him face to face with vice and misery, and he became more and more devoted to the devising of measures for the improvement of public morals. He took part in obtaining legislation restricting the liquor traffic, published plans for making provision for the poor, and induced the government to adopt a scheme which proved efficacious in reducing greatly the number of murders and robberies.
Meanwhile he still found some time for literature. He engaged in several journalistic enterprises, and in 1749 brought out his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. The book was at once enormously successful, and its popularity has not only been maintained in England but has spread abroad, so that translations have appeared in all the leading languages of Europe. It was followed in 1751 by Amelia, a novel almost equally well received at the time, but now less highly esteemed than its predecessor.
Though Fielding obtained good prices for his works and earned much reputation both from them and from his public services, he was never long at ease financially. He was generous and extravagant, and as a result was much troubled with anxiety about the future of his family. For it was early apparent that he was not to be long-lived. He began to suffer from gout at thirty-five, and though he sought relief in many remedies, he never conquered it. It later became complicated with asthma and dropsy, and the situation became so serious in 1754 that he decided to seek relief in a warmer climate. In June of that year he set out for Lisbon, accompanied by his wife and eldest daughter. On the voyage he kept a Journal which for the simplicity of its art, the vividness of its descriptions, and the charm of its self-revelation is one of the most highly prized of his productions. But the change was not to cure him. Two months after his arrival, on October 8, 1754, he died, and was buried in the English cemetery in the Portuguese capital.
Fieldings forty-seven years were close packed and bear testimony to the extraordinary force and vitality of the man. Apart from his services as a judge and a social reformer, he achieved distinction in several separate fields of literature. He was one of the most effective journalists of his time; he won a place of his own in the history of the drama and produced several comedies that still repay reading, besides many that exhibit his abundant wit and courage as a satirist; and his essays are among the wisest as well as cleverest that his century produced. But all these accomplishments are dwarfed by his novels. In them we find the most graphic pictures that have come down to us of English life in the first half of the eighteenth century. It was a time of hard living, hard drinking, hard swearing, and no faithful reflection of it could be nice. But despite the frankness of Fieldings pictures, it must be claimed that their morality if not delicate is at heart sound; and it is difficult to find his equal in the portrayal of warm-blooded youtha portrayal which, though in externals characteristic of his time and country, is in its insight into human nature possessed of a truth that is neither temporary nor local.
Our immortal Fielding, wrote the historian of the Roman Empire in his splendid way, was of the younger branch of the Earls of Denbigh, who drew their origin from the Counts of Hapsburg. The successors of Charles V may disdain their brethren of England: but the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of humour and manners, will outlive the palace of the Escorial and the imperial Eagle of Austria.