Henry Fielding, the eldest of seven children, was born on April 22, 1707, at Sharpham Park, in Somerset, England. He was the son of General Edmund Fielding, His mother, Sarah Gould Fielding, was the daughter of a judge. Their marriage had been highly disapproved of by Sarah's parents on the grounds that Edmund was too poor and could not even manage what little money he did have.
When Henry was two, his father ‘retired’ to an estate near East Stour in Dorset, where he was unsuccessful as a gentleman farmer and where Sarah Gould Fielding died when Henry was just ten years old.
Henry had been raised by his father to dislike Catholics, so it is ironic that when two years later his father remarried a woman to kept an eating-house she was an Italian
Henry's father and his maternal grandmother, Lady Gould, battled for custody of the children. His grandmother eventually sued for custody of Henry and his siblings, and won .
Edmund eventually died in a debtor's prison, leaving behind an estate valued at five pounds. Apparently his wife's parents were on to something. It should be noted that Edmund spelled his name Feilding in the belief that it was the more aristocratic form.
Under the influence of Lady Gould Henry was sent to school at Eton in 1719 where he reputedly enjoyed his time. Henry worked hard and made lifelong friends of his contemporaries Lyttleton, who later became a generous patron, and Pitt the Elder. Upon graduation in 1724, Fielding went to London were he was to spend the next several years as a man-about-town and writer.
In the summer of 1725 Henry was to be found in Lyme Regis, ostensibly for a holiday, but more likely to visit his distant cousin Sara Andrews, with an eye on her fortune and to win her as a wife. (Sara at the age of 15 had just become a rich heiress on the early death of her father.) Henry, accompanied by several friends and a servant named James Lewis was soon involved in a drunken brawl. On September 2nd he was brought before the town's magistrates on a charge of assault against Joseph Channon a servant of the town miller. Although the outcome is not known it is thought that the attack may have been at the instigation of Sara’s guardian Andrew Miller who had hopes that Sara would marry his own son John.
It seems that Henry was having some success in his pursuit of Sara, since he was still in Lyme two months later. On Sunday 11th November matters came to a head when Henry assisted by his servant attempted to abduct Sara as she was walking to church with Andrew Tucker and his family. The attempt failed and the same day Tucker laid a charge before the magistrates against Fielding and his servant for an attack on his person. His servant was soon captured, but Henry eluded capture by the constables and left the town the following day, but not before putting up a hand written poster ridiculing the Tuckers.
In 1728 his first comedy, 'Love in Several Masques', was staged. It was not a success, and at the age of 21 he left to study at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands where it was much cheaper than any of the London schools. Eventually, even Leiden was more than he could afford and about a year later he returned to England with all kinds of unpaid debts behind him. Henry began writing plays again, many of them ridiculing the society and politics of the time. Probably his best play, completed in 1731, was 'The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great'. It was a spoof of heroic stage plays that took themselves too seriously.
Henry still couldn't manage his money and was never well off. In 1734, aged 27, he married Charlotte Cradock of Salisbury, one of the beauties of the city. Charlotte brought a settlement of £1,500 to the marriage and with the money they planned to live in Dorset as ‘County’ folk. Thus in 1735 the newly married couple took up residence in a small manor house at East Stour, settled into their comfortable lifestyle and produced a daughter Amelia. In the process becoming extremely popular with there neighbours. However within a year due to a combination of Henry’s spendthrift ways and poor budgeting the Fieldings were stony-broke, the estate sold, and the penniless young couple left Dorset to return to London, taking with them Charlottes maid Mary Macdaniel.
In London Fielding became the manager and chief playwright of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. Even though he was rumored to be a terrible drunkard and something of a womanizer, Henry was a hard worker. He wrote several new plays a year, until the theatre was forced to close by the stage Licensing Act was of 1737 which provided that only plays licensed by the government could be performed. The act having been introduced largely as a result of Fielding's plays ridiculing the politics of the day.
By this time, Henry and Charlotte had two children needed another source of income. Henry took up the study of law and turned to writing for the newspapers, becoming editor of The Champion in 1739, and graduated as a lawyer in 1740. It was at this time that he developed gout, which was to get worse as he grew older.
Henry Fielding's novel 'Joseph Andrews' was published in 1742. It was a comic takeoff on Samuel Richardson's 'Pamela,' but the success of 'Joseph Andrews' was made less sweet for Henry by the death of his daughter, Charlotte and a serious illness which afflicted his wife.
'Miscellanies', published in 1743, included the novel 'Jonathan Wild', a mock biography of a criminal hero.
The death of his wife in 1744 was a great blow, exasperating his already bad health. He took comfort largely in the company of his daughter Harriet, his sister Sarah, and his wife's maid, Mary Daniel. Sarah had followed in her fathers literary footsteps and did some writing but none of it was very memorable; however her book for educating girls, 'The Governess, or Little Female Academy', was used well into the next century.
It was about a year before Fielding went back to newspaper writing, where he continued to work on various politically oriented newspapers and publish many political and satirical pamphlets, some of which the government actually approved of, and even distributed. These were often published anonymously, which unfortunately led to Henry being blamed for some atrociously mean pamphlets that he had nothing to do with.
In 1747 defying convention Fielding married Mary Macdaniel, who was around six months pregnant with their son William at the time. The following year, Henry was appointed a judge at Middlesex. Over the next few years, Henry's wife had four more children and Henry himself became increasingly angry with the state of the law and law enforcement.
'Tom Jones', Fielding's comic masterpiece and best known work was published in 1749. It was a novel for all time. The life and robustness of 'Tom Jones' were recreated in a 1963 movie, which featured perhaps the most sensuous meal ever filmed.
The heroine is Sophia Weston, and it is claimed that Fielding based this character on Sara Andrews, his ‘first love’.
Fielding's last novel ‘Amelia' was published in 1751. Allegedly a biography of his former wife Charlotte in which she is portrayed as the heroine. It was not up to his other work. Perhaps, because by this now he was a very sick man, suffering from asthma and jaundice in addition to his gout. The plot was contrived, the heroine conveniently inherits a large sum of money, and if indeed it was a biography, contained several factual errors.
Also in 1751, Henry published a pamphlet entitled 'An Inquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers, etc.,' which called for sweeping changes in the laws and in the way they were enforced. Today these proposals would not appear to be anything special but by 1753, several of these reforms had been put into practice and Henry helped break up several large gangs by offering money and immunity to those who turned in their fellow criminals.
Perhaps the most important result of his ideas was the reform of the police. It was as a direct consequence of this pamphlet that Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, was to form the Bow Street Runners, Britain's first professional police force.
Henry was directly responsible for improvements in record keeping, founding what was later to become the Criminal Record Office of Scotland Yard.
Due to ill health, Henry reigned as a Judge in 1752 and in the hope that a warmer climate would be beneficial he sailed to Lisbon in 1754. Unfortunately he had contracted jaundice, and this combined with dropsy was to cause his death on 8 October 1754 just two months after his arrival in Portugal. Published after his death, his final work, Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, has been described as a classic example of the horrors of traveling.