18th century

The Life and Significance of Henry Fielding (1707–54) | Stephen Basdeo

Henry Fielding (1707-54)


The British playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote that,

‘Except for Shakespeare, Fielding was the greatest English playwright between the Middle Ages and the 19th century’.

This is a bold claim. Anyone interested in literary history will have their personal preferences and many may indeed disagree with Shaw. Nevertheless, Fielding’s plays (written under the pseudonym of Scriblerus Secundus) were certainly popular with contemporaries, however, and the subjects he chose for them varied wildly and included—

  • The Author’s Farce and the Pleasures of the Town (1730)
  • Rape upon Rape; or, The Justice Caught in his own Trap (1730)
  • The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1731)
  • The Covent Garden Tragedy (1732)

Later, Fielding became a novelist. He is primarily known today for his still-reprinted novel The History of Tom Jones, published in 1749. He was also a journalist as well as Magistrate of Westminster. I would, therefore, modify Shaw’s statement and say that, in the history of the eighteenth-century literature as a whole, Fielding was our nation’s greatest writer. In any discussion of eighteenth-century fiction, in fact, one must take account of Henry Fielding.

He is certainly my personal favourite out of all eighteenth-century authors just because his novels are, quite frankly, hilarious, witty, yet intellectual—certainly he’s more enjoyable to read than the dry Samuel Richardson, author of the long rambling novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748).

In fact, I aim to do three things in this short article: to introduce Henry Fielding’s life and works to those who, perhaps, have never read him yet heard of him (with the aim of hopefully inspiring some to pick up his texts). I also want to examine modern literary critics’ responses to Fielding’s works and to explain why Fielding’s novels, when they were first published, represented a new, or ‘novel’, form of novel writing.

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding’s early life was relatively unremarkable and followed a similar patter to that of most of the sons of the minor gentry. He was born in 1707—the year of the Act of Union between England and Scotland—in Sharpham, Somerset. He claimed aristocratic heritage by saying that he was descended from the Austrian Royal family. We may take with a pinch of salt for no biographer has ever uncovered any connection to the Austrian aristocracy in his lineage. It may be due to the fact that, having attended Eton College—and receiving a classical education—he wanted some kind of connection with his aristocratic peers.

Alas—the leisured life of an aristocrat was not to be his. Fielding had to work for a living. He had his plays. There were the periodicals he edited. Yet the law was to be his calling. With a family to support and, having studied law briefly at the University of Lieden, in 1737 he became a Barrister and joined the Middle Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1740—the year that Richardson’s Pamela was first published.

Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Fielding’s Shamela (1741)

Originally published in two volumes, Richardson’s Pamela is what is known as an epistolary novel: a fictional narrative written as though it were a series of letters. The plot recounts the tale of Pamela, a servant in the household of the aristocratic, Mister B. He becomes infatuated with Pamela and makes repeated attempts to seduce her. She resists all of his attempts until finally, as the subtitle suggests, Pamela’s virtue is rewarded when Mister B. marries her, having been so impressed by her moral goodness.

Now, Richardson’s novel was a commercial success. But not everyone was convinced of this tale of a virtuous young woman who manages to tame a ‘wild’ aristocratic suitor.

Fielding was most unimpressed. Rather than seeing Pamela as a tale of bourgeois virtue winning out against aristocratic immorality, Fielding saw it as a tale of ruthless ambition. So in 1741 Fielding wrote his first novel, and I quote the long version of the title here:

An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. In Which, the Many Notorious Falshoods and Misrepresentations of a Book Called PAMELA, Are Exposed and Refuted; and All the Matchless ARTS of that Young POLITICIAN, Set in a True and Just Light. Together with A Full Account of all that Passed Between Her and Parson Arthur Williams; whose Character is Represented in a Manner Something Different from what he Bears in Pamela. The Whole Being Exact Copies of Authentick Papers Delivered to the Editor.

Pamela became Shamela because her virtue was a sham. Shamela is written, like Pamela, in epistolary form. She is not a virtuous maiden but a conniving and scheming woman who beguiles Mr. B. into marrying her. Audaciously, Fielding then apologises to readers on Richardson’s behalf for the original novel being so dull.

It is important to note that Fielding never claimed authorship of Shamela when it was first published. By the following year, however, it would be clear to all just who was the author…

Henry Fielding’s History of Joseph Andrews (1742)

It turns out that the fictional Pamela had a brother named Joseph whose story Fielding decided to tell in, to quote the full title of his 1742 work,

The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote (1742).

Students—you may now, without hesitation, refer to these novels simply by their short titles.

Joseph Andrews tells the story of its title character, Joseph. He is the lowly-born footman in the household of Lady Booby (the sister of Mr. B— or Mr. Booby, who is married to Pamela). Joseph is a good-looking, kind-natured, and polite young man. Pious and virtuous. He learns music in his spare time and is always endeavouring to improve himself. Although he does not possess a title to the effect, he is de facto a gentleman.

But his virtue and innocence are in danger, for Lady Booby desires Joseph Andrews, and tries to seduce him. He is such a virtuous young man, however, that nothing can tempt him away from the path of virtue. Enraged, embarrassed, Lady Booby dismisses him from service.

After his dismissal from service, Joseph decides to make his way back home in the country to be reunited with his sweetheart, Fanny. On the way many misfortunes befall him. First he gets what little money he has stolen from him by highwaymen (one of my favourite scenes, obviously). He is then stripped naked and left for dead. A stagecoach passing by then rescues Joseph and takes him to an inn and Joseph gets better (but not without the doctor mistakenly pronouncing him dead to begin with). While he is recovering, Betty, a chambermaid at the inn takes a fancy to Joseph and attempts to seduce him. Again he resists, because he is such a virtuous young man.

Arriving at the inn in the meantime is Joseph’s old friend, Parson Abraham Adams. He was on his way to sell copies of his Sermons in London but, his wife forgot to pack them. He and Joseph have a catch up and decide to travel back to Adams’ parish together because that is where Fanny is from. Further down the line many more slapstick adventures befall Adams and Joseph, and a few more people try to corrupt Joseph’s innocence but he resists temptation. When finally Joseph meets Fanny again, someone comes and ruins their marriage prospects by saying that Joseph and Fanny may actually be brother and sister, but thankfully this turns out not to be correct. The tale then ends happily with the marriage of Fanny and Joseph.

This is a comedy. But Fielding still has a point to make: out of all of the supposedly ‘high-born’ members of the middle classes and the aristocracy, it is only Joseph, Fanny, and Parson Adams – of no particularly high status in society – who are virtuous people. It is the aristocracy who are corrupt and degenerate; it is the way that Joseph conducts himself in daily life which marks him out as a true nobleman:

He has an Air, which to those who have not seen many Noblemen, would give an idea of Nobility.

In contrast to the aristocracy, Joseph’s

‘morals remained entirely uncorrupted…he was at the same time smarter and genteeler than any of the beaus in Town’.

This is in keeping with Fielding’s own patrician country upbringing, an outlook which stressed the virtues of the country against the moral corruption of those who lived in the town.

Fielding’s first two novels, then, were parodies of Richardson’s novels, the latter of which are unnecessarily long. Fielding’s Shamela and Joseph Andrews are light and short in comparison. So in a direct attack on Richardson, Fielding assures us that there will be no long, drawn out sequel.

Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

Greatness, Goodness, and Jonathan Wild (1743)

As well as his novels, Fielding was the author of numerous tracts which proposed solutions to social problems such as An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751).

In other works he argued that the old Poor Laws (welfare laws) had become unfit for purpose, especially in how they dealt with society’s infirm and elderly people. He proposed that the infirm and elderly should be cared for in workhouses—those institutions did not yet have the negative connotation that they would acquire in the Victorian era after the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834).

Fielding also proposed helping society’s most destitute by increasing and expanding the Speemhamland System, whereby paupers had their wages topped up by the local parish to increase the cost of living.

As a man of the law, Fielding was also most interested in the lives of those who fell afoul of it. In 1748 he even became the Magistrate of Westminster and founded London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners. Yet the interest in why people committed crime was dealt with him as early as 1743 in a novel titled The History of Mr Jonathan Wild the Great.

Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)

Jonathan Wild (1682-1725) was the Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland. In the days before the establishment of a police force and the Bow Street Runners, thief takers were men who were hired by the victims of robberies to effect the return of their stolen goods. In time, his association with criminals led to him becoming a sort of ‘director’ of all the criminals in London. He was London’s first mob boss, essentially.

Wild was the subject of numerous criminal biographies, including one written by the novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) but Fielding’s is the most lengthy treatment of his life. It is similar to the many criminal biographies of the period, but it is also different in several ways, for this was a satire (which will be explained more fully later).

Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild)

At the outset, Fielding explains himself to the reader, telling them why he has decided to call this quite reprehensible man ‘the Great’. All the great men of history, he says, are in effect bad people:

Greatness consists of bringing all manner of mischief on mankind, and Goodness in removing it…In the histories of Alexander and Caesar, we are frequently, and indeed impertinently, reminded of their benevolence and generosity, of their clemency and kindness. When the former had with fire and sword overrun a vast empire, had destroyed the lives of an immense number of innocent wretches, had scattered ruin and desolation like a whirlwind, – we are told, as an example of his clemency, that he did not cut the throat of an old woman, and ravish her daughters, but was content with only undoing them.

Goodness is not the same as greatness.

Fielding conned his readers into thinking that Wild is a hero (in the proper sense of the word – a man to be admired, respected) and Fielding proceeds to write about his ‘hero’ as though he were some illustrious person, exercising all the qualities of ‘great’ men. For example, when Wild works behind the scenes to have one of his own friends imprisoned in Newgate, Wild immediately goes to visit his friend in gaol,

‘for he was none of those half-bread fellows who are ashamed to see their friends when they have plundered and betrayed them.’

Wild, the ‘Great Man,’ as all great men do, has nothing but contempt for good men. This is shown by his treatment of an old school friend called Mr. Heartfree. Fielding writes that this Mr. Heartfree:

Had several great weaknesses of mind; being too good-natured, friendly, and generous to a great excess. He had, indeed, little regard for common justice…his life was extremely temperate, his expenses solely being confined to the cheerful entertainment of his friends at home.

Of course we, the reader, secretly want to sympathise with Heartfree, especially when Wild moves things behind the scenes to have him committed to gaol and hanged (he does this a few times in the novel).

Later edition of Jonathan Wild

Towards the end of the novel, however, Fielding tells the reader that they were silly, all along, to admire such a creature as Wild, when he is finally arrested for being a receiver of stolen goods, and Fielding lists the qualities of this great man in great detail, so that his readers too would know when they came across greatness in a fellow and avoid them. Wild lays down his maxims for being a great man in the following way:

  1. Never to do more mischief to another than was necessary to the effecting his purpose; for that mischief was too precious a thing to be thrown away.
  2. To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
  3. Never to communicate more of an affair to the person who was to execute it.
  4. Not to trust him who hath deceived you, nor who knows that he hath been deceived by you.
  5. To forgive no enemy; but to be cautious and often dilatory in revenge.
  6. To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
  7. To maintain a constant gravity in his countenance and behaviour, and to affect wisdom on all occasions.
  8. Never to reward any one equal to his merit, but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
  9. A good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring any advantage.

This was not merely an attack on Wild, however, for it was also a critique of politicians, and in particular the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Walpole was the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and, in Fielding’s view, entrenched his power in the world of courtiers and MPs in the same way that Wild set himself up as the master of London’s low-life and thieves. Walpole was regularly lampooned in the press, and even was equated with Robin Hood on occasion. The constant references to ‘greatness’ and ‘great man’ are a reference to Walpole, who in his role as Prime Minister was often derogatorily called ‘The Great Man’.

To Fielding, there was no difference between the great men in high life and criminals in low life.

Fielding’s lessons on goodness and greatness have resonance beyond the 18th century. When people think of history, they often do so in terms of a ‘great man’ approach, and they often confuse goodness in a man with greatness. They are not the same thing. For example, we might say that Napoleon was a great man but he was not a good man. Fielding says of Caesar similarly that:

When the mighty Caesar, with wonderful greatness of mind, had destroyed the liberties of his country, and with all the means of fraud and force had placed himself at the head of his equals, had corrupted and enslaved the greatest people whom the sun ever saw; we are reminded, as an evidence of his generosity, of his largesses [gifts] to his followers and tools, by whose means he had accomplished his purpose and by whose assistance he was to establish it.

The idea that there was a difference between greatness and goodness, that men of the country were kinder and more hospitable than the scheming nobles and courtiers of the town, that a seemingly bad person can actually be good and vice versa, were all taken up by Fielding when he wrote his magnum opus: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749).

Fielding’s History of Tom Jones (1749)

As we come now to Fielding’s most famous novel, it is worth reflecting upon just how conscious Fielding was that he was writing something special. He did this by setting out his own theory of the novel.

Fielding’s Theory of the Novel

Fielding was the first major novelist to write fiction without pretending otherwise. The writers who had come before him had always pretended to write all of their stories as if they were based on real events. Daniel Defoe’s novels had always been written in the style of autobiography. Samuel Richardson claimed merely to be an ‘editor’ of letters that had come into his possession.

Fielding’s novels were still realist in that they drew on ‘real life’ but he never pretended that he as a novelist was an ‘editor’ of letters. Instead Fielding wrote fiction to be enjoyed and to serve as a vehicle for a useful moral lesson.

A novel can give a useful moral but an author had to make money by entertaining his readers (and this is perhaps where modern readers may think Richardson failed—Richardson’s novels are certainly didactic but they are hardly the most entertaining). As Fielding said

‘An author ought to consider himself, not as a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather as one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money’.

First edition of Fielding’s Tom Jones (Wikimedia Commons)

Fielding: The Founder of the Modern Novel?

Ultimately, with his writing of literary works that were unashamedly fictional and which made no pretence to being ‘histories’, Fielding viewed himself as having established a new form of writing:

I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever; for as I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein (emphasis added).

Such an attitude places Fielding in opposition to modern critics who generally regard the novel as having begun with either Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Richardson’s Pamela. Yet Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) certainly agreed that Fielding was

‘[the] father of the English novel’.

But if an author was to entertain people then what should he write about?

What the Novelist Should Write.

Fielding had a firm idea of what kind of writing a novel should contain. All novel writing should aspire to showcase real life. The subject of this new form of fiction should be the showcasing of human nature—there was no excuse for modern, enlightened writers to have fairies, ghouls, or demons in their narratives as these were relics of a more barbarous age. Finally, to be able to showcase human nature in all its beauty and ugliness, a writer had to be acquainted with all classes of mankind.

In short, the writer had to be someone like Henry Fielding, who numbered among his friends members of the aristocracy, the gentry, the bourgeoisie, and plebeians. In this respect, then, the novelist should be a thoroughly polite gentleman.

Tom Jones and Sophia (Wikimedia Commons)

Politeness and the Eighteenth Century in Britain

In eighteenth-century history and literature modules you are bound to come across the idea of politeness at some point. It was one of the most important concepts in eighteenth-century society and culture. Nowadays we tend to think of politeness as being a very basic thing: holding open the door for someone, saying please and thank you. In 1755 Samuel Johnson defined the words ‘polite’ and ‘politeness’ as ‘elegant of manners’ and ‘gentility [and] good breeding’.

For a deeper understanding of politeness in its historical context, we might turn to Paul Langford, who has written extensively upon the subject. As well as encompassing the meanings that people would associate with the term today, in the eighteenth century it had a wider, socially aspirational meaning: it was an art, a way of making one’s self agreeable when in company with others.

The rise of politeness as an ideal which should be aspired to was connected with the emergence of the bourgeoisie.

With this class’s increasing wealth, due partly to the expansion of trade and empire, many of them wanted to acquire higher status in society by emulating the manners of the aristocracy. Henry Fielding said in Joseph Andrews, of course, that the eighteenth century was a period in which

‘the Nobleman will emulate the Grandeur of a Prince; and the Gentleman will aspire to the proper State of the Nobleman’.

The main argument in Langford’s work is that politeness and commerce in this period were complementary. Politeness was not restricted to the aristocracy because it was measured, not by people’s status, but by the activities in which they engaged. Polite sociability within the urban public sphere allowed men of the nobility and commercial classes to—in theory—mix freely. Venues such as the coffeehouse allowed the middling sort to socialise with their social superiors, irrespective of rank, effectually admitting those with no status other than wealth into the polite public sphere.

If one practised politeness through learning and self-improvement, and the cultivation of the ‘polite arts’, one became virtuous and earned the right to enter into polite society. One did not need formal education to be a part of polite society and enjoy its culture. One could be self-taught, as Joseph Andrews was under the guidance of Parson Adams. Thus, polite society was inclusive, and admitted into its ranks men of lesser social status enabling them to associate with members of the upper classes. We see this in Joseph Addison’s Spectator coffeehouse club which included aristocrats, gentry, merchants, and lawyers.

Fielding’s place in Ian Watt’s ‘Rise of the Novel’ thesis

Now, when Ian Watt wrote his rise of the novel thesis, he argued that the history of the novel was intertwined with the history of the bourgeoisie’s ascendancy. The novels of Defoe and Richardson, Sterne and Swift, reflect the ideology of the middle classes—individualism, social advancement, and the cultivation of politeness.

Now, Watt assumed that Fielding’s novel complicated his thesis because Fielding’s novels displayed a patrician outlook. Watt made this assumption, not only because of Fielding’s own social position, but also because of the fact that, in true aristocratic mode, Fielding, instead of drawing upon writing styles as pioneered by Defoe and Richardson, adopts a quasi-aristocratic mode of writing that was influenced by his classical education at Eton. Tom Jones is an epic novel that has influences from the picaresque or as Fielding put it: prosai-comi-epic writing showing the fortunes and misfortunes of the foundling Jones on his way to becoming an eighteenth-century gentleman.

(British Library)

Tom Jones: Patrician or Bourgeois?

Nicholas Hudson shows us how although the form of Fielding’s writing is classical and aristocratic, Fielding is just as middle class as Defoe and Richardson. After all, Fielding acknowledged, as we have seen, that novelists had to make money. In Tom Jones, while Squire Allworthy is undoubtedly a good man, not every aristocratic character is good. For example, one of the most ‘patrician’ characters, Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s protector, is an Irish nobleman who is portrayed as seedy and sinister. As Hudson argues, Fielding evokes the imagery and values of the ancien regime only to raise doubts about them. In keeping with the middle-class ideology of politeness, then, it is conduct—no matter a person’s social station—which is the measure of a person’s true status in society.

Plebeians in Tom Jones

However, Fielding does have some snobbery towards the plebeian classes which comes through in Tom Jones. These characters are often more buffoonish and humorous than their gentry and aristocratic counterparts, and both the aristocracy’s and plebeians’ sense of morality is often suspect. Ultimately, goodness and virtue, in Fielding’s world, are not the preserve of any particular class and all have their flaws. The hero Tom, for example, is a good man at heart but regularly cheats on his lover Sophia. Squire Allworthy is a good man who, being so naïve, is unable to see the evil that others do. Bilfil, Tom’s arch-nemesis, is outwardly virtuous but inwardly wicked. And the lower class ostlers and coach drivers whom the reader meets along the way are decent people but do attempt to fleece travellers for any minor deviation that they may need to take on their routes.

The Ending of Tom Jones

That the characters act in the way they do is all part of that ‘thing’ which Fielding attempts to explain to readers: Human Nature. Ultimately, Fielding argues that, from whichever class you come from, you don’t have to be perfect. A man can still be a gentle man even if he lacks a title and land, and even if he acts like a rake from time to time.

At the end of the novel, after a series of adventures and mishaps, it transpires that Tom is actually the nephew of Allworthy, who had been his de facto father all along, and he inherits Allworthy’s estate and lives with his wife, Sophia Western, on the Allworthy estate and have a son. Thus, he enters into the ranks of the landed gentry.


Henry Fielding died in 1754. He had numerous health issues such as gout, asthma, and liver failure. He decided to make a journey to Lisbon, Portugal, to spend time in the sun in the hope that his health might improve. His writings on this trip were eventually published as Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755). Critics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have either loved him or hated him. Of Fielding, Samuel Richardson said that

‘There is more knowledge of the heart in one of Richardson’s letters than there is in all of Tom Jones’.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was kinder, however, and remarked

‘How refreshing Fielding always is! To take him up after Richardson is like emerging from a sick-room heated by stoves into an open lawn on a breezy day in May!’

Camps of literary critics have always been divided between Richardson and Fielding, it seems. Yet no one could deny Fielding’s talent and importance. Reflecting on Fielding’s life, career, and death, Walter Scott said

‘Thus lived, and thus died, at a period of life when the world might have expected continued delight from his matured powers, the celebrated Henry Fielding, father of the English Novel; and in his powers of strong and national humour, and forcible yet natural exhibition of character, unapproached as yet, even by his successful followers.’

Further Reading

Bell, Ian A. Henry Fielding: Authorship and Authority. London: Longman, 1994

Boyer, Allan D. ‘Justice Fielding, the Novel, and the Law’, Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, 4: 1 (1992): 187–207.

Brewer, John. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. rev. edn. London: Routledge, 2013.

Hudson, Nicholas, ‘Tom Jones’, in The Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding, ed. by Claude Rawson. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 80–93.

Langford, Paul. A Polite and Commercial People. Oxford: OUP, 1989.

Lockwood, Thomas, ‘Henry Fielding (1707–1754): The comic epic in prose’, in The Cambridge Companion to European Novelists, ed. by Michael Bell. Cambridge University Press, 2012, 72–88.

Rawson, Claude, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Rivero, Alberto J. The Plays of Henry Fielding: A Critical Study of His Dramatic Career. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1989.

Rogers, Pat. Henry Fielding: A Biography. London: Harper, 1979.

Uglow, Jenny. Henry Fielding. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1995.

Varey, Simon. Henry Fielding. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. London, 1957.