Five Fascinating Facts about Henry Fielding
Trivia about a pioneering English comic novelist
1. Fielding was largely responsible for the Licensing Act being passed, which would exercise huge control over British theatres for over two centuries. Fielding wasn’t in favour of the Act – which decreed that all plays being performed in public theatres in the UK must be read and passed by the Lord Chamberlain – but nevertheless played a key role in the formation of it. A series of stage satires penned by Fielding, mocking King George II and Robert Walpole, first de facto Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, led Walpole to push for theatre censorship. He was successful, and the Licensing Act came into force.
2. Fielding founded the Bow Street Runners, precursors to the modern Metropolitan Police Force. After his career writing satires for the stage was curtailed by the Licensing Act, Fielding resumed his work as a barrister and magistrate, and, with his younger half-brother John Fielding, he established the Bow Street Runners as a way of keeping order in London. The Runners – seen as forerunners to the modern-day police – were established in 1749, the same year that Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones, was published – a huge picaresque novel detailing the adventures of its titular boy, a foundling.
3. Fielding’s sister, Sarah Fielding, was also a successful writer. What’s more, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749) has a claim to being the first English novel written for children.
4. Fielding helped to start the ‘Paper War’ of 1752-3. In 1752, Fielding started a fortnightly periodical, The Covent-Garden Journal, published under the pseudonym Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt. Censor of Great Britain. The publication attacked the ‘armies of Grub Street’ (hack-writers, in other words). This attack sparked the Paper War which lasted into the following year, and saw many leading periodical writers of the day – including fellow novelist Tobias Smollett and ‘mad poet’ Christopher Smart – attacking each other in pamphlets and other publications. Fielding, a keen contributor to other publications, also wrote for Tory periodicals under the pseudonym ‘Captain Hercules Vinegar’. (Fielding had met the future Prime Minister of Britain, William Pitt the Elder, while at Eton, and the two remained friends.)
5. Henry Fielding wrote his first novel because he was disgusted by a novel written by Samuel Richardson. Upon reading Richardson’s excessively moralistic novel Pamela (subtitled ‘Virtue Rewarded’), Fielding turned to novel-writing, beginning with a work which parodied Pamela, titled Shamela. True to his satirical roots, Fielding’s novel was a ‘sham’ retelling of Richardson’s novel.
Image: Portrait of Henry Fielding via Wikimedia Commons.