HENRY FIELDING, a grandson of the Earl of Denbigh, and the son of Lieutenant-general Fielding, by his first wife, who was a daughter of Judge Gould, was born at Sharpham Park, near Glastonbury, Somersetshire, on the 22nd of April, 1707. The first rudiments of his education were acquired under Mr. Oliver, who is said to have been the original of Parson Trulliber, in Joseph Andrews. He was afterwards sent to Eton, where he applied closely to study, and had the reputation of being an excellent Greek and Latin scholar. On leaving school, he proceeded to Leyden, where he studied civil law for two years, at the expiration of which time, his father being unable to continue the necessary pecuniary supplies, he returned to London, at the age of little more than nineteen. Although his course of legal education was thus interrupted, he had accumulated a large store of solid learning; and, amidst his wildest subsequent dissipation, the love of reading and of literary intercourse never forsook him.
On his arrival in London, his brilliant wit, humour, and high relish of social enjoyment, soon brought him into great request with men of taste and literature, as well as with the voluptuous of less refinement. The dissipated habits which he thus acquired, speedily involved him in pecuniary difficulties; for, although his father professed to allow him £200 a-year, this allowance, as Fielding used to say, "any one might pay who would."
Under these circumstances he turned his attention to dramatic composition, and, in 1727, produced a comedy, in five acts, called Love in several Masques. The piece, which was favourably received contained much smart, and even witty dialogue; but none of that finished development of plot and character which he subsequently displayed in his classic performances. The same observations will apply to his next effort, The Temple Beau, also a comedy, in five acts, which appeared in 1729: the hero is of the Ranger class, (though it should be noted that the piece preceded the Suspicious Husband,) and is endowed with a good stock of wit and vivacity, but the grouping of the characters is straggling and inefficient. We cannot afford space for a separate mention of all Fielding's dramatic productions; they were mostly written between 1727 and the end of 1736; so that he produced about eighteen dramas, of various lengths, before he was thirty. Those that have longest kept the stage are, the Wedding Day; an alteration of his Tom Thumb; the Intriguing Chambermaid; the Virgin Unmasked; and two excellent adaptations from Moliere, — the Miser, and the Mock Doctor. His theatrical performances altogether amount to twenty-six, thirteen of which are comedies in three or five acts; all containing some sterling matter, though they cannot be commended as models either of delicacy or composition. It was his own observation that he left off writing for the stage when he ought to have begun; and, considering the extreme haste in which his pieces were put together, it is easy to account for his not holding a more distinguished rank among dramatists. It appears, also, that he had no overweening respect for the judgment of a theatrical audience. When The Wedding Day, the last of his dramas, was forthcoming, 1743, Garrick, who played in it, told the author, he was apprehensive that the audience would take offence at a certain passage, and therefore begged it might be expunged. "No," said Fielding, "if the scene is not a good one, let them find that out." The disapprobation of the house was aroused at the place the actor had anticipated, and he retired, chafing, to the greenroom, where the author was solacing himself with a bottle. "What's the matter, Garrick?" said he; "What are they hissing now?" — "Why, the scene that I begged you to retrench: I knew it would not do; and they have frightened me so that I shall not be able to collect myself again the whole evening." "Oh, curse them!" said Fielding, "they have found it out, have they?"
In his twenty-seventh year, Fielding married Miss Craddock, of Salisbury, a lady of great beauty, and whose domestic virtues appear to have afforded the materials from which he drew the exquisite character of Amelia. Her marriage portion was £1,500; and his mother dying about the same time, a small estate at Stower, in Dorsetshire, of £200 per year, devolved to him. Upon his retirement to this place, he commenced keeping an establishment far beyond his means, and in less than three years found himself in greater indigence than before, with the addition of a young family to support. He now, for the first time, determined steadily to pursue his legal studies, and for that purpose took chambers in the Temple, and soon made himself master of no inconsiderable snare of professional knowledge.
After his call to the bar, he attended the courts at Westminster, and travelled the western circuit; but his constitution being unequal to the active labours of his profession, he found himself obliged to renounce it, but not without having given some proof of his legal attainments, in the composition of two manuscript volumes on Crown Law. A great number of fugitive political tracts also came from his pen at this time, and the periodical paper, called The Champion, was mainly indebted to his abilities for support.
His Essays on Conversation, and on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men, the Journey from this World to the Next and the History of Jonathan Wild, were among the earliest fruits of his literary industry, and formed the principal means of his support whilst he was preparing himself for the bar.
In 1742, appeared his first complete novel of Joseph Andrews, which produced him both fame and emolument, though the latter was not sufficient to remove the embarrassments of one who could learn anything but economy. The loss of his wife, which he felt with an anguish that threatened the loss of his reason, added to his difficulties; and it was some time before he was sufficiently composed to continue his literary labours. These he resumed by engaging in two periodical papers, called The True Patriot and The Jacobite Journal, which he conducted in a manner favourable to the views of the existing government, who rewarded him with the office of a Middlesex justice. This was a situation at that time not altogether congenial to the feelings of a gentleman, but Fielding did much to increase its respectability by the manner in which he fulfilled his duties. Nor was his pen idle: he published many pamphlets respecting the prevention of crime, and the regulation of the police; and his Inquiry into the Cause of the late Increase of Robbers, &c. made a great impression at the period.
In the midst of these labours, he found time to complete his master-piece, Tom Jones, which, in the dedication of it to Littelton, he calls the labour of some years of his life. The plot of this novel is confessedly unrivalled, both for variety and consistency, and every page teems with observation and character; the author is animated throughout with a genuine love of goodness and hatred of hypocrisy. It has been said that the character of Jones is an encouragement to imprudence; but Allworthy, who is a man of prudence as well as benevolence, is evidently the model whom the author holds out for imitation; Jones never commits an imprudence without finding it involve him in distress; and is finally made happy, not by his vices or follies, which always keep him off his haven, but by the discovery of the treachery of his enemies. "I have endeavoured to inculcate," says Fielding, "that virtue and innocence can scarce ever be injured but by indiscretion; and that it is this alone which often betrays them into the snares that deceit and villany spread for them."
The novel of Amelia, which succeeded Tom Jones, (December, 1751,) although it may not display the intense glow of colouring and consummate skill in composition which characterize the former work, exhibits a delicious mellowness and pathetic power which are equally enchanting. Notwithstanding his ill state of health, and the time consumed by his magisterial duties, Fielding, shortly after the publication of Amelia, started a new periodical paper, called the Covent Garden Journal, which was published every Tuesday and Friday, and conduced much to public amusement for a twelve-month, when the writer's increased infirmities obliged him to abandon the undertaking.
He was now recommended to take a journey to Lisbon, which he reached in August, 1754, having written an interesting account of his voyage to that City, where he died about two months after his arrival, in the forty-eighth year of his age. He was attended in his last illness by his second wife, by whom he had four children.
The person of Fielding was tall, handsome and robust, and his constitution proportionably vigorous; but early dissipation, aggravated, probably, in his maturer years, by mental vexation and want of sufficient bodily exercise, brought him to a painful and untimely end. He was not one of those malignant deceivers who decry those virtues they have not had the fortitude to practice; but, like Steele, (to whom, both in character and genius, he bears a strong resemblance), he everywhere inculcates, directly or by inference, the duty and advantages of enlightened prudence; and is the indignant satirist only in branding selfishness, injustice, and hypocrisy. Although, perhaps, possessed of as strong animal spirits as ever glowed in a human frame, he was remarkable for conjugal tenderness and constancy, and equally exemplary in the discharge of his paternal duties. In religious principle he was a sincere Christian; and he had even contemplated an answer to the theological writings of Bolingbroke, and made considerable preparations for the purpose. As a writer, his faculties were not only vast, but admirably balanced: — taste and learning, invention and observation, wit, sense, feeling and humour, glow in his pages with united lustre; and, in spite of some superficial blemishes, both as a writer and a moralist, it may be safely pronounced that Henry Fielding ranks in the first class of the literary ornaments of his country. His chief defects are an occasional coarseness of language, and a proneness to excuse palpable deviations from rectitude of conduct, on the score of "goodness of heart," which he himself possessed in an eminent degree; but nothing seems to have been farther from his intentions than indecency of expression or immorality of sentiment.