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Outlines of English and American Literature
Henry Fielding
by Long, William J.


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.

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