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The 100 Most Influential Writers of All Time

The 100 Most Influential Writers of All Time

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(b. April 22, 1707, Sharpham Park, Somerset, Eng.—d. Oct. 8, 1754,

Lisbon, Port.)

Henry Fielding was a novelist and playwright who is
considered one of the founders of the English novel.

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Henry Fielding 7

He began his literary career as a playwright who wrote
satirical plays often targeting political corruption of the
times. The passage in 1737 of the Licensing Act, by which
all new plays had to be approved and licensed by the Lord
Chamberlain before production, ended this work. Fielding
then became a barrister but had little success. He probably
wrote Shamela (1741), a burlesque of Samuel Richardson’s
novel Pamela that he never claimed.
Fielding’s Joseph Andrews also satirizes Pamela, with
Joseph, Pamela’s virtuous footman brother, resisting the
attempts of a highborn lady to seduce him. The parodic
intention soon becomes secondary, and the novel devel-
ops into a masterpiece of sustained irony and social
criticism. At its centre is Parson Adams, one of the great
comic figures of literature. Fielding explains in his preface
that he is writing “a comic Epic-Poem in Prose.” He was
certainly inaugurating a new genre in fiction.
Journalistic work after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745
made Fielding a trusted supporter of the government. His
reward came in 1748, when he was appointed justice of the
peace (or magistrate) for Westminster and Middlesex,
with his own courthouse, which was also his residence, in
Bow Street in central London. Together with his blind half
brother, John Fielding, also a magistrate, he turned an
office without honour—it carried no salary—into one of
great dignity and importance and established a new tradi-
tion of justice and the suppression of crime in London.
Among other things, Fielding strengthened the police
force at his disposal by recruiting a small body of able and
energetic “thieftakers”—the Bow Street Runners.
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), with its great
comic gusto, vast gallery of characters, and contrasted
scenes of high and low life in London and the provinces,
has always constituted the most popular of his works. Like

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The 100 Most Influential Writers of All Time 7

116

its predecessor, Joseph Andrews, it is constructed around a
romance plot. The hero, whose true identity remains
unknown until the denouement, loves the beautiful Sophia
Western, and at the end of the book he wins her hand.
Numerous obstacles have to be overcome before he
achieves this, however, and in the course of the action the
various sets of characters pursue each other from one part
of the country to another, giving Fielding an opportunity
to paint an incomparably vivid picture of England in the
mid-18th century. The introductory chapters at the begin-
ning of each book make it clear how carefully Fielding had
considered the problem of planning the novel. No novelist
up until then had so clear an idea of what a novel should
be, so that it is not surprising that Tom Jones is a master-
piece of literary engineering.
Amelia (1751), a much more sombre work, anticipates
the Victorian domestic novel, being a study of the rela-
tionship between a man and his wife. It is also Fielding’s
most intransigent representation of the evils of the soci-
ety in which he lived, and he clearly finds the spectacle no
longer comic.

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