Henry Fielding

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Fielding, Henry,

1707–54, English novelist and dramatist. Born of a distinguished family, he was educated at Eton and studied law at Leiden. Settling in London in 1729, he began writing comedies, farces, and burlesques, the most notable being Tom Thumb (1730), and two satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for 1736 (1737), which attacked the Walpole government and provoked the Licensing Act of 1737. This act, setting up a censorship of the stage, ended Fielding's dramatic career and turned him to the less inhibited form of the novel. In that genre he achieved his greatest success, beginning with his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), which started simply as a burlesque of Samuel Richardson's sentimental novel Pamela but developed into a great comic creation. He followed with Jonathan Wild (1743), the history of a superman of crime, which has been called the most sustained piece of irony in English. His masterpiece is Tom Jones (1749), a novel recounting the wild comic adventures of the good-hearted though highly fallible foundling, Tom Jones. In Tom and his guardian, Squire Allworthy, Fielding presents his concept of the ideal man, one in whom goodness and charity are combined with common sense. Because of its memorable characters and episodes, the brilliance of its plotting, and the generosity of its moral vision, Tom Jones is considered one of the greatest of English novels. Amelia (1751), his last novel, is a somewhat sentimental story about a young wife's devotion to her feckless husband, in which Fielding exposes numerous social evils of his day. Fielding had begun his serious study of law in 1737 and in 1740 was called to the bar. After spending several years as a political journalist, he was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster in 1748 and for Middlesex in 1749. A fearless and honest magistrate, he worked arduously in the administration of justice and the prevention of crime. Broken in health, he resigned his office in 1753 and the following year sailed for Portugal, where he died. His last work was the amusing journal Voyage to Lisbon (1755).


See biographies by W. L. Cross (3 vol., 1918, repr. 1963), F. H. Duddon (1952, repr. 1966), and J. Uglow (1995); studies by M. Johnson (1961), R. Alter (1969), R. Paulson, ed. (1962 and 1971), P. Lewis (1987), and A. J. Rivero (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Fielding, Henry


Born Apr. 22, 1707, in Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury, Somersetshire; died Oct. 8, 1754, in Lisbon. English writer. The leading representative of English literature during the Enlightenment.

A member of an old aristocratic family, Fielding attended Eton College from 1719 to 1727 and then went to Holland to study at the University of Leiden, in the faculty of languages and literature. From 1737 to 1740 he studied law at the Middle Temple in London; in 1748 he became justice of the peace of Westminster.

Fielding began his literary career as a poet and playwright. In 1728 he published a satirical poem, The Masquerade, under the pseudonym Gulliver. His theatrical works, which include farces, comedies of morals and manners, ballad operas in the style of J. Gay, and political comedies, are marked by a singularly satirical tone. They were always highly topical. Examples are The Temple Beau (1730; Russian translation, 1954), The Coffee-House Politician, or The Judge Caught in His Own Trap (1730; Russian translation, 1954), and The Tragedy of Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1731). The targets of his satire were venality and the decline of morals in society and private life, which he exposed almost as zealously as J. Swift. Less severe, however, in his conclusions, Fielding often preferred conventional, happy endings. In his choice of dramatic technique, he owed much to classicism and to Molière, for he was, to a large extent, a rationalist; he gave his characters names that appeared to suit them, and invariably contrasted his heroes with their opposites in traits and behavior. In some of his political comedies—namely Don Quixote in England (1734; Russian translation, 1954), Pasquin, a Dramatick Satire on the Times (1736; Russian translation, 1954), and The Historical Register for 1736 (1737; Russian translation, 1954)—Fielding openly criticized the government of R. Walpole. As a result, a law was passed in 1737 that provided for the censorship of plays. Its immediate effect was to end Fielding’s career as a playwright.

Fielding thereupon turned to novels. His first novel, The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743; Russian translation from German, 1772–73), shows the influence of the playwright in its abundance of dialogue and stage situations. Like his plays, it is a realistic representation of the grotesque, didactic in tone, and filled with current political allusions. In his epic novels, which he defined as “comic epic literature in prose,” Fielding introduced significant innovations in the art of prose writing. Two such novels are The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742; Russian translation from German, 1772–73) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749; Russian translation from French, 1770–71).

In the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, conceived as a parody on the smug and narrow puritanical morality of S. Richardson’s Pamela (Fielding allegedly wrote another parody of that work, Shamela Andrews), Fielding departed from his original plan, producing instead a panorama of English provincial life during the 18th century in the form of a picaresque novel. The main character is essentially a subordinate figure. In his characterization of Abraham Adams, a masterful portrait of an impractical, eccentric, though thoroughly earthly parson, Fielding shows himself to be a realist in the tradition of Cervantes. In Tom Jones he examines closely the idea of the positive hero. While allowing Tom Jones ample opportunity to err and even to commit outrageously improper acts, Fielding sets the stage for the ultimate victory of the good side of his hero’s character.

Fielding, who possessed a profound knowledge of the English way of life and remarkable wit (as noted by M. Gorky in Istoriia russkoi literatury, 1939, p. 38), filled his treasury of satirical creations with petty, tyrannical landowners, sanctimonious parsons, and amoral aristocrats, all colorfully portrayed. In his novels he gave prominence to his prolix judgments on realistic art, presenting them in the form of disquisitions addressed to the reader.

By the time he wrote his last novel, Amelia (1752; Russian translation from French, parts 1–3, 1772–85), Fielding had grown increasingly pessimistic regarding society and its ills. Some of his works contain motifs that prefigure sentimentalism. Included in his literary legacy are articles that appeared in the several journals Fielding edited periodically.

Fielding, who made a tremendous contribution to the development of European realistic art, may in many respects be regarded as a precursor of G. G. Byron, W. M. Thackeray, C. Dickens, and G. B. Shaw. Well known since the 18th century in Russia—where even some of the writings of his sister, Sarah Fielding, and of T. G. Smollett were at one time ascribed to him—he exercised considerable influence on N. V. Gogol.


The Works, vols. 1–12. Edited by G. Saintsbury. London, 1928.
Novels, vols. 1–10. Oxford, 1926.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv., vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1954. [Introductory article by S. S. Mokul’skii.]


Alekseev, M. P. “Satiricheskii teatr Fil’dinga.” In Iz istorii angliiskoi literatury. Moscow-Leningrad, 1960.
Elistratova, A. A. Angliiskii roman epokhi Prosveshcheniia. Moscow, 1966.
Levidova, I. M. Genri Fil’ding: Biobibliograficheskii ukazatel’. Moscow, 1957.
Cross, W. L. The History of Henry Fielding, vols. 1–3. New Haven, Conn., 1918.
Dudden, F. H. Henry Fielding: His Life, Works, and Times, vols. 1–2. Oxford, 1952.
Watt, I. The Rise of the Novel. London–Berkeley–Los Angeles, 1962.


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