Henry "Feilding" Fielding (1707-1754)

Henry Fielding was born at Wedmore, England on 22 April 1707, the first child of Edmund Fielding1 and Sarah Gould Fielding. Their marriage had been highly disapproved of by Sarah's parents on the grounds that Edmund was too poor and couldn't even manage what little money he did have2 but Sarah would listen to none of that. They had seven children before Sarah died3. When Henry was twelve, his father remarried, an Italian woman who was rumored to be a Catholic who kept an eating-house4. Henry had been raised (by his father, ironically enough) to really dislike Catholics, so you can imagine the atmosphere around that house. Henry's maternal grandmother eventually sued for custody of Henry and his siblings, and won. Surrounded by females and one much younger brother, Henry grew up wild and willful, not to mention prone to brawling5.

At 21, Henry went to the continent to attend the University of Leiden in Holland, because it was much cheaper than any of the London schools. Eventually, though, he couldn't even afford Leiden and had to go back to London with all kinds of unpaid debts behind him6. London was good to him, though...between the ages of 22 and 30, Henry managed to make quite a good living as a writer of farces and comedies7 for the London stage. His play, The Tragedy of Tom Thumb, was a huge success, but Henry still couldn't manage his money and was never well off. In 1734, aged 27, he married a woman named Charlotte Cradock8, who found her way into two of Henry's novels as a character.

Though he was rumored to be a terrible drunkard and something of a womanizer, Henry was at least a hard worker. He wrote several new plays a year, until the censorship laws hit in 17379 and closed down the playhouse he worked for. By then, Henry and Charlotte had two children and Henry needed another source of income. He decided on a law career, and entered the Middle Temple as a student in November 1737. He became a lawyer in 1740; quite an achievement, actually, because a law degree usually took six or seven years to earn. He started out as a circuit judge on the large Western Circuit, but was soon unable to continue due to his rapidly failing health10.

Unfortunately, his whole family was in poor health. His daughter Charlotte died in 1741, aged 6; his wife Charlotte died two years later. Henry's finances had improved slightly, though. He received £200 for the publication of his first novel, Joseph Andrews, which was enough to keep him out of debtor's prison11. He continued to work on various politically oriented newspapers and publish political/satirical pamphlets, some of which the government actually approved of, and even distributed. These were often published anonymously, which was unfortunate, as it led to Henry being blamed for some atrociously mean pamphlets which he actually had nothing to do with12.

In 1747, Henry married his dead wife's maid, who was around six months pregnant with their son William at the time. The following year, Henry was appointed a judge at Middlesex13. Over the next few years, Henry's wife had four more children and Henry himself became increasingly angry with the state of the law and law enforcement. In 1751, Henry published a pamphlet14 entitled An Inquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers, etc., which called for many sweeping changes in the laws and the execution of those laws. Now, this may not sound like much, but by 1753, several of these reforms had been put into practice. Henry helped break up several large gangs by offering money and immunity to those who turned in their fellow criminals, so of course several of them did turn in their fellow criminals. Even more important, it was because of Henry's ideas that the police force was professionalized in the form of the Bow Street Runners15.

In 1752, Henry had resigned his judicial post due to his ill health, and in 1754 he sailed to Lisbon in hopes that a warmer climate would help him out. Unfortunately, he had contracted jaundice, and between that and his ever-worsening dropsy, the climate was of no help. He died two months after his arrival, on 8 October 1754. His posthumously published work, Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, is a classic example of the horrors of travelling.

  1. Edmund spelled his last name Feilding because that was the more aristocratic form. His cousins were the Earls of Denbigh and that went straight to his head.

  2. Edmund eventually died in a debtor's prison, leaving behind an estate valued at five pounds. Apparently his wife's parents were on to something.

  3. This didn't help Edmund's finances because Sarah's father had arranged his will very carefully.

  4. This was three strikes against her. (Her only acceptable quality was being female.)

  5. He calmed down as he grew older. He switched to suing people and only occasionally hired others to brawl on his behalf.

  6. Like father, like son. Henry always managed to live just outside his means, though he was never as bad as his father.

  7. Here are some of the characters he created: Harry Luckless, Bookweight, Judge Squeezum, Captain Merit, Lord Richly, Mother Bilkum, Puzzletext, Colonel Promise, Squire Tankard, and Mrs. Slipslop.

  8. Henry wrote lots of rather bad poetry to Charlotte, but she married him anyway.

  9. Many people blamed Henry's plays for the passage of these laws, because he continually attacked Walpole, the current Prime Minister in his work. Certainly Walpole was not amused, but I think it's unfair to give Henry ALL the blame. It wasn't his fault the Prime Minister wasn't a good sport.

  10. Henry suffered from gout and dropsy. He was a bit young for gout, but his earlier excesses in the realms of alcohol and food brought it on early. If you want to look them up, dropsy is now called edema. Gout is still gout, though it's no longer fashionable.

  11. He'd already been there, and let me tell you, he did NOT want to experience THAT again.

  12. One newspaper, the Daily Advertiser, announced that Henry was in fact dead and that there was an imposter writing all this nasty stuff. To make this remark even funnier, please read the section on John Partridge under Jonathan Swift.

  13. This was ordinarily a very lucrative sort of job, but Henry was honest and thereby missed out on £200 or so per year.

  14. Lest I forget, he also published Tom Jones in 1749 and a novel called Amelia in 1751. The plot was contrived (the heroine conveniently inherits a large sum of money) and contained several factual errors. You can bet Richardson pointed THAT out loudly and often.

  15. The city watchmen (a very disorganized organization) had severe problems catching and keeping criminals because the criminals were generally younger, stronger, and better armed.

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