As I wrote here, Tom Jones is one of my favorite movies, and consequently (though not of necessity), it became one of my favorite novels. Tony Richardson’s 1963 adaptation is no doubt cinematically playful and innovative and sexy and fun, but it’s not like it was tarting up some wizened and grumpy old Mother Superior. The original novel by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) is equally entertaining; is, in fact, a flat out good time.
I was about to say “a good night at the theatre”, and in a sense it is also that, for that is where Fielding got his start as an author. This means that the typical path most people take to Fielding’s writing is kind of backwards. Culture is funny that way. We learn about the masterpieces first, and then later, if at all, learn what led up to them (which after all is necessary background for true appreciation). But most people never get to that part. In this case, the entire first leg of Fielding’s career is almost totally unknown nowadays; modern people regard him solely as a novelist, and not illogically so because he enjoyed so much lasting success in that line. But, nope: first, there was the theatre.
Fielding had studied classics and law in the Netherlands, but didn’t have enough dough to stay in school. So he began to write for London playhouses. He was only 21. Actually, Fielding’s best remembered play is known by many people indirectly. Known as Tom Thumb (1731), it (and not the fairy tale) is almost certainly the inspiration for P.T. Barnum’s whimsical branding of his famous little person Charles Stratton, given that he was billed as General Tom Thumb, and the character in the play is a military hero. (Thus singer Tom Jones became the SECOND famous celebrity to cop his professional name from a Fielding character). Naturally Fielding had gotten the name and concept for Tom Thumb from the old folk tale, although in his version Tom is a little person (a dwarf human), as opposed to two inches tall. I hope you have already deduced that Fielding’s play is not an actual tragedy but a parody of one, and therein lies an entry point of discussion about his style of comic genius, which mixed elements of burlesque (parody), political satire (ridicule of living political leaders), sex farce, and romantic comedy. His classical education inspired him to appropriate bits from the works of others, and sew them together in dazzling ways in a manner reminiscent of Rabelais. He saw himself as an heir to the Restoration’s comic dramatists, and he himself paved the way for others, such as Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan. He wrote over two dozen plays, most of which were produced between 1728 and 1737, and starred such still well-known actors as Colley Cibber and his son Theophilus. Some notable ones include The Mock Doctor (1732) and The Miser (1733), both of which were adaptations of Moliere; Don Quixote in England (1734, obviously a twist on Cervantes); and Rape Upon Rape (1730), which was adapted into a 1959 musical called Lock Up Your Daughters and an eponymous film with Christopher Plummer, Glynis Johns, and Susannah York. (That 1959 musical reminds me that the 1960 show The Fantasticks has that whole “Rape Ballet” number. I doubt it’s irrelevant. But what IS irrelevant yet I feel compelled to tell you anyway is that in high school I was in a production of The Fantasticks with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri and popular movie critic Sheila O’Malley. True, proveable fact!).
In 1737 (largely in response to Fielding’s ribald fun at the expense of important people), the Theatrical Licensing Act went into effect, removing the stage as a source of livelihood for Fielding, though he would continue to publish his plays. During this time of crisis when an important part of his income vanished, Fielding practiced law, and wrote political pieces for pamphlets and newspapers.
Then, in 1740 Fielding got a new lease on life when Samuel Richardson had a smash success with Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, a moralizing romance not unlike Defoe‘s 1722 Moll Flanders, although preachier. If you know Tom Jones, then you know something of Fielding’s sensibility. He hated what he perceived as hypocrisy and cant. He was the son of an army general, himself sort of an unreliable rogue, and there are elements of this in Fielding’s character. There is some autobiography in Tom Jones. He liked to chase women, and he was often down and out financially, though he was often helped out by wealthy patrons. One of these was the inspiration for the character of Squire Allworthy. At any rate, his response was a parody of Richardson’s novel with the hilarious name of Shamela (1741), which turned the whole thing on its head. Mad Magazine, eat your heart out! I do find it interesting that he started out by poking fun of one Richardson, and over two centuries later, another Richardson immortalized Fielding’s best known work on the screen.
After Shamela, Fielding continued to blossom as a literary artist, essentially becoming one of the architects of the novelistic form as we now know it. His next, Joseph Andrews (1742) is probably his second-best remembered literary work. Called a “comic epic poem in prose” it continued his “mock heroic” style, which drew inspiration from satirists like Pope and Swift. He is also still taking aim at Richardson; Joseph Andrews is purportedly the brother of Pamela (coincidentally, Fielding actually had cousins named Andrews, one of whom he’d been enamored of, and even supposedly kidnapped). Then came Jonathan Wild (1773), an interesting satire which uses Defoe’s technique of drawing from a TRUE story, in this case one about a notorious criminal, giving it a flavor not unlike John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, or the many tellings of the legend of Sweeney Todd.
Similarly based on true events was the jaw-dropping The Female Husband or the Surprising History of Mrs Mary alias Mr George Hamilton (1746), based on an actual incident of a woman who masqueraded as a man to marry another woman, and her subsequent trial for fraud (in some later time authorities probably would also have thrown the book at her for her supposed “perversion” but there was no law on it at the time, so she was harshly punished for her deceit). This book is now studied by academics, making it another of Fielding’s books with an ongoing scholarly impact. Like Shakespeare, Fielding was very interested in masquerade, disguise and gender role reversal. I invariably think of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones as gender-reversed versions of things like Moll Flanders and Pamela, the “innocent” heroes being buffeted around by conniving schemers and just plain old bad luck. Their lusty spirits are treated by the author as natural and not evil; society’s attitudes toward them are portrayed as artificial, false, and unjust. I also find it fascinating and not irrelevant, that burlesque (i.e., the modern theatrical form) grew out of a) drag productions with women dressed as men in so called “Protean” parts, such as Mazeppa; and 2) all-female companies using the structure of minstrel shows.
After Tom Jones (1749), Fielding penned one more novel Amelia (1751), which though it is yet another “mock heroic” (its 12 chapters mimicking The Aeneid), it is an attempt to be more realistic and sympathetic towards his characters. The heroine of the title, presented as an intelligent and cultured woman, may be based on one of his own wives; and the character of her husband, on Fielding himself). It’s a sort of “What happens when Tom Jones and Sophy get married and settle down” type of scenario, drawing us closer to the domestic milieu of Jane Austen.
The last phase of Fielding’s life is every bit as fascinating as his time as a playwright and novelist, and somehow it’s not as well known, though it will blow your mind. Being as he was a lawyer at the bar, and having written many articles related to justice and the disposition of the poor in pamphlets and periodicals, including some he published himself, he was made Chief Magistrate of London (something like a judge). Having sympathy for wrong ‘uns, he had his own theories about criminal justice including being proactive in preventing it, addressing poverty and so forth, and having agents moving amongst the public, whose ongoing knowledge of the citizenry would help the designated officers quickly identify malefactors. Along with his blind brother John, Fielding was consequently to found and head up what many now regard as London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners. I learned about this from the highly fictionalized British TV show City of Vice (2008) which starred Ian McDiarmid as Fielding and Ian Glein (Resident Evil, Game of Thrones) as John. In which, yes, the author of Tom Jones…solves crimes.
A lover of rich living, Henry Fielding died in 1754 at the age of 47 while in Portugal for his health. He was afflicted with gout, cirrhosis of the liver, and asthma. Between this infirm guy and his blind brother, criminals of the day must have felt that they had little to worry about from the law, but they also must have been wrong, for John continued to run this proto-bureau of crime-stoppers until his death in 1780.
The Fielding brothers had four sisters, one of whom Sarah Fielding (1710-1768) was also a notable literary figure. Her works included a 1749 critique of Richardson’s Clarissa (like brother, like sister!), biographies of Cleopatra and Octavia (1757), a 1762 translation of Xenophon’s memoirs of Socrates, and The Governess, or The Little Female Academy (1749), which some scholars regard as the first novel for young people.
For more on early theatre history, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; and for more on screen comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.