On this day 1707, the great novelist Henry Fielding was born. I think of him as the English Cervantes. Their first loves were the theater, they fell into writing novels almost by accident, and they lived much of their lives in and out of poverty. They also shared a very sharp wit. Of course, there are various important differences. Fielding was more successful in his own life, but died young. Cervantes really only found success at the end of his relatively long life.
Fielding was mostly a satirist and social critic. He was especially fond of attacking the government under Robert Walpole. In fact, it is speculated that the censorious Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 was enacted especially for Fielding. With little hope of getting his plays produced, Fielding went back to practicing law. Soon after, he started writing novels, initially just to lampoon the melodrama of the day.
This, of course, led to his masterpiece The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. It tells the story of Tom Jones, a bastard who is abandoned by his mother and taken in by a wealthy squire. In the end, it is revealed that Jones is actually the squire’s nephew. And there is much hilarity in the middle. You should really read it. That Penguin Classics edition I just linked to is free on the Kindle.
Fielding was also very liberal minded. Mostly because of his beating up on the Wings and the Jacobites, at the end of his life, he was made (along with his brother) London’s Chief Magistrate. And he did a very good job. He created what is probably the first police force there. But more important, he was responsible for reforming the judicial system and improving prison conditions. There are a lot of people in modern America who are distinctly disinclined to care about such matters.
Happy birthday Henry Fielding!