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On this day in history in 1707, was born Henry Fielding.
Fielding was a lawyer and an author, who created the first police force and invented the concept of the novel.
Henry Fielding was born on 22nd April 1707, at Sharpham Park, Somerset, to a respectable family, which traced its descent to a branch of the Habsburgs, and had sufficient lands to maintain a comfortable living. Fielding was educated at Eton College, where he amassed a considerable knowledge of the classics, before he was obliged to leave, at the age of 17, after a brief affair with a young woman.
As a young gentleman of leisure, Fielding had an affair with an heiress, produced a play at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, and moved to Leiden in Holland, where he resumed his classical studies at the university. Within two years, he was summoned home by his father, who declared that, due to a sudden and unexpected drop in the value of land yields, he was obliged to make economies, and that the first economy to be made was the young man’s allowance. Fielding, knowing something of languages and the art of writing, decided to earn his living as a playwright.
Fielding wrote brief, witty and satirical works targeting the corruption of the times. In all he wrote 25 works, the final being Historical Register, in which the Prime Minister, Walpole, appeared as one of the characters and was mercilessly ridiculed. Walpole took his revenge by pushing through Parliament the Licensing Act of 1737, by which all plays had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before production. From now on, no scurrilous commentary was permitted and furthermore, all writers were obliged to make sure that villains always came to grief within the text of a play or published poem, hence the origin of the expression 'poetic justice'. With censorship inbuilt into the law, Fielding’s carer as a playwright was over.
As an alternative profession, Fielding took up law and began to read for the bar, while continuing to edit and write for a periodical The Champion. When the author Samuel Richardson published the melodramatic work, Pamela, Fielding was so incensed by its banality and sentimentality, that he wrote a parody, Shamela, which he described as an epic poem, written in prose. The work combined the attributes of a burlesque, a satire and an ironic parody, in which the characters come to life due to their exaggerated eccentricities. In writing Shamela, Fielding had unwittingly created the novel.
Fielding went on to write Joseph Andrews, a more subtle work, which found some favour with the critics and the public. He was encouraged to produce a refined work which he did in the novel The History of Tom Jones, a work which combined all the attributes of what we now know to be the novel form. It is constructed around a romantic plot, with a hero and a heroine, and a gallery of characters, ranging from the lowest guttersnipe to the aptronymic Squire Allworthy. There are quick alternations between romance and comedy, a journey against obstacles in the manner of the ancient sagas, a backdrop of the English countryside and a denouement which brings together all the conflicting strands of the narrative.
Fielding’s work on his magnum opus was frequently interrupted by legal duties. In 1745, the Jacobite Rebellion, an attempt to overthrow the Hanoverian kings, had almost brought down the established state, and there was constant fear that another uprising was imminent. Fielding was pressed into service on account of his writing skills. He wrote a journal named The True Patriot, and a satirical weekly called The Jacobite's Journal, with an ironical slant. The impact of these publications was so great that the government regularly purchased copies wholesale and liberally distributed them in the London alehouses. From being the satirical opponent of the Prime minister, Fielding had turned to a trusted supporter of the government. He was rewarded by an appointment as justice of the peace for Westminster and Middlesex, with a courthouse in Bow Street.
While in this office, Fielding appointed a band of what he called thief-takers, who became collectively known as the Bow Street Runners, the forerunners of the Peelers and the modern police force. The organisation was immediately effective in the suppression of crime in London. In 1751, Fielding published another novel, Amelia, a sombre work which reflected his depression after the tragic death of his wife, and the work was not popular.
By 1752, Fielding was seriously ill with gout and in 1753, he decided to travel to Bath to take the waters. As this proved ineffective, he was advised to seek the sun, and accordingly travelled to the Continent. He arrived in Lisbon on 7th August 1754, where he found that he could no longer walk and was unable to return home. He died on 8th October 1754 and is buried in the British cemetery at Lisbon. Sir Walter Scott called Fielding the ‘father of the English novel’. Although he was not the first to write in what became known as the novel form, he was the first to establish the theory of the novel, and produce a work in the classic novel mode.
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. Wordsworth Classics.
Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews and Shamela. Oxford World's Classics.
Lewis, Peter Elfred. Fielding's Burlesque Drama.
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