In vigorous contrast with the prim and priggish Richardson is
Henry Fielding (1707-1754), a big, jovial, reckless man, full of animal
spirits, who was ready to mitigate any man's troubles or forget his own by
means of a punch bowl or a venison potpie. He was noble born, but seems to
have been thrown on the world to shift for himself. After an excellent
education he studied law, and was for some years a police magistrate, in
which position he increased his large knowledge of the seamy side of life.
He had a pen for vigorous writing, and after squandering two modest
fortunes (his own and his wife's) he proceeded to earn his living by
writing buffooneries for the stage. Then appeared Richardson's Pamela,
or Virtue Rewarded, and in ridiculing its sentimental heroine Fielding
found his vocation as a novelist.
Burlesque of Richardson
He began Joseph Andrews (1742) as a joke, by taking for his hero an
alleged brother of Pamela, who was also virtuous but whose reward was to be
kicked out of doors. Then the story took to the open road, among the inns
and highways of an age when traveling in rural England was almost as
adventurous as campaigning in Flanders. In the joy of his story Fielding
soon forgot his burlesque of Richardson, and attempted what he called a
realistic novel; that is, a story of real life. The morality and decorum
which Richardson exalted appeared to Fielding as hypocrisy; so he devoted
himself to a portrayal of men and manners as he found them.
Undoubtedly there were plenty of good men and manners at that time, but
Fielding had a vagabond taste that delighted in rough scenes, and of these
also eighteenth-century England could furnish an abundance. Hence his
Joseph Andrews is a picture not of English society, as is often
alleged, but only of the least significant part of society. The same is
true of Tom Jones (1749), which is the author's most vigorous work,
and of Amelia (1751), in which, though he portrays one good woman,
he repeats many of the questionable incidents of his earlier works.
There is power in all these novels, the power of keen observation, of rough
humor, of downright sincerity; but unhappily the power often runs to waste
in long speeches to the reader, in descriptions of brutal or degrading
scenes, and in a wholly unnecessary coarseness of expression.