Tuesday 8 October 2013

"Love and scandal are the best sweeteneers of tea": The Life of Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding (Sharpham, Somerset, England, 22nd April 1707 – Lisbon, Portugal, 8th October 1754) 

Henry Fielding

Enough of monarchs and royals for a while, it is high time we made the acquaintance of a famed name of Georgian literature. The best claret is open, grandmother Gilflurt has been safely dispatched for a promenade in the park and I am privileged to welcome Henry Fielding, a man whose work was bawdy, satirical and often controversial. In between travelling, writing and creating a general stir, he even found time to establish the Bow Street Runners, London's very first police force.

Fielding was the first of seven children born to Colonel Edmund Fielding and his wife, Sarah Gould Fielding, the daughter of a judge who had disapproved deeply of the marriage. Never a great one for managing his finances, Colonel Fielding decided to give up the military life in favour of agriculture when his son was just an infant though he was never as successful as he had hoped to be. Sarah died when young Henry was just 10 years old and after a protracted legal battle he and his siblings were passed into the custody of his maternal grandmother, leaving Colonel Fielding to meet a sad end in a debtor's prison after he lost what remained of his estate to a dishonest financial broker. Dispatched to Eton College, Fielding proved himself a gifted student and formed abiding friendships with boys who would go on to be influential figures.

Henry Fielding

Upon his graduation in 1724 the young man went to London where he enjoyed something of a gadabout existence and formed an attachment to the wealthy Sara Andrews of Lyme Regis. Set on marriage, Fielding courted Sara until disaster struck and, involved in a fight with a fellow admirer, he was hauled before the town magistrates. Not to be deterred, Fielding made a botched attempt to abduct Sara and was left with no choice but to flee the town, finally admitting defeat in this particular pursuit. 

Casting about for something else to do with his days, in 1728 Fielding oversaw the unsuccessful staging of his first comedy, Love in Several Masques, at the Drury Lane Theatre. With his dramatic and romantic aspirations similarly thwarted, he left England behind to take up study at the University of Leiden, remaining there for just over a year before he fled the Netherlands and a growing pile of debt to return to England. During his time away he began to develop his signature satirical style, taking merciless aim at the Walpole administration and on his return to England, he found that his farces were suddenly exactly what the public wanted. In 1734 he married Charlotte Craddock, with whom he would have five children, though only one would survive to adulthood. He and Charlotte were devoted to one another and she inspired leading ladies in more than one of his works. 

By now a manager at the Little Theatre in Haymarket, Fielding continued to enjoy theatrical success and acclaim. Audiences lapped up his savage comedies and he became hugely influential, certainly contributing to the introduction of the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737. With the Act, Fielding found his particular themes outlawed and retired from the theatre, taking up a career as a barrister. However, he was soon editing a journal, The Champion; or, British Mercury, with many of his articles showing an anti-Jacobite stance, a theme that would continue throughout his journalism.

Henry Fielding by William Hogarth
Henry Fielding by William Hogarth

The writer had inherited his father's financial acumen and provided himself with a secondary income stream by writing satirical stories and articles. Time after time his shots at Walpole and his government hit the mark, his works selling as quickly as they could be printed and this was the case for his first novel, the anonymous An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, published in 1741. With Charlotte's death in 1744 Fielding was overcome with grief and he returned to London to live with his sister Sarah, who was also a novelist, and his maid, Mary Daniel. He and the pregnant Mary married in 1747 and the man who had once tried to abduct an heiress found himself engulfed by scandal again, though if Fielding cared, he hardly showed it. The couple adored one another until Fielding's death and faced the gossips of London without shame.  

Regardless of the mockery and disdain of his peers, Fielding's professional achievements were rewarded when he was named as London's Chief Magistrate and in 1749 he and his half-brother and fellow magistrate, John,  were behind the creation of the Bow Street Runners. As passionate about reform as he was about mocking Walpole, Fielding championed judicial reform and the often horrendous conditions in London prisons. 

Henry Fielding's tomb
Henry Fielding's tomb

This same year he published the book which is arguably his most famous, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. This work was hugely successful, capturing the public imagination with its comedy, adventure and romance. However, by now the writer's health was failing and he was increasingly disabled by gout, reliant on crutches. Perhaps mirroring the personal challenges he was facing, his next work, Amelia, was far less farcical, examining the relationship of a husband and wife as they deal with the tribulations of life.

Whilst on one hand Fielding appeared to be a pillar of the establishment, on the other he possessed a devilish streak and in 1752 he established The Covent-Garden Journal, a controversial paper in which he could air his opinions. By now in declining health he travelled to Portugal to seek a cure with his family, but his efforts were unsuccessful and Fielding passed away in Lisbon. 

The story of the author's last trip was published in his charming and evocative last work, Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, a bittersweet coda to a life lived to the full. The magistrate, playwright, author and reformer was buried in the city's English Cemetery, his name deservedly immortalised by the works he left behind.


Anonymous said...

shared and tweeted, thanks, M

Catherine Curzon said...

Much obliged!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post.

Mari Christian said...

Most enjoyable account of Fielding's adventurous life. "Shamela" was of course a satire on the highly moralistic Richardson's "Pamela". Thank you Catherine. my life is enriched by your daily posts.

Catherine Curzon said...

My pleasure!

Catherine Curzon said...

That's so kind; thank you!