Today is the birthday (1707) of Henry Fielding, English novelist and dramatist known primarily as the author of Tom Jones, written at a time when the English novel was in its infancy. He holds a significant place in the history of law enforcement, and, with his half-brother John, founded what some have called London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners.
Fielding was born in Sharpham in Somerset, and educated at Eton College, where he established a lifelong friendship with William Pitt the Elder. When Fielding was 11, his mother died. A suit for custody was brought by his grandmother against his father, Lt. Gen. Edmund Fielding, whom she deemed irresponsible. The settlement placed Fielding in his grandmother’s care, although he continued to see his father in London. In 1725, Fielding tried to abduct his cousin, Sarah Andrews, while she was on her way to church. To avoid prosecution, he fled. In 1728, he travelled to Leiden to study classics and law at the university. However, lack of money obliged him to return to London and he began writing for the theatre. Some of his work was savagely critical of the government of the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 is alleged to be a direct response to his activities. The particular play that triggered the Licensing Act was the unproduced, anonymously authored, The Golden Rump, but Fielding’s dramatic satires had set the tone. Once the act was passed, political satire on the stage became virtually impossible, and playwrights whose works were staged were viewed as suspect. Fielding therefore retired from the theater and resumed his career in law in order to support his wife, Charlotte Craddock, and two children, by becoming a barrister. Fielding’s lack of business sense meant he and his family often endured periods of poverty, but he was helped by Ralph Allen, a wealthy benefactor, on whom Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones was later based. Allen went on to provide for the education and support of Fielding’s children after Fielding’s death.
Fielding never stopped writing political satire and satires of current arts and letters. The Tragedy of Tragedies (for which Hogarth designed the frontispiece) was, for example, quite successful as a printed play. He also contributed a number of works to journals of the day. From 1734 until 1739 he wrote anonymously for the leading Tory periodical, The Craftsman, against Walpole. Fielding’s patron was the opposition Whig MP (and his boyhood friend from Eton) George Lyttelton. Lyttelton followed his leader Lord Cobham in forming a Whig opposition to Walpole’s government, called the Cobhamites (who also included Fielding’s other Eton friend, William Pitt). In The Craftsman, Fielding articulated the opposition’s attack on bribery and corruption in British politics.
Fielding dedicated his play Don Quixote in England to the opposition Whig leader, Lord Chesterfield, and it was published on 17th April 1734, the same day writs were issued for the general election. He dedicated his 1735 play The Universal Gallant to Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, a political follower of Chesterfield. The other prominent opposition newspaper, Common Sense, was named after a character in Fielding’s Pasquin (1736) and was founded by Chesterfield and Lyttelton. Fielding continued to air his political views in satirical articles and newspapers in the late 1730s and early 1740s. He became the chief writer for the Whig government of Henry Pelham.
Fielding took to writing novels in 1741, irritated by Samuel Richardson’s success with Pamela. His first big success was an anonymous parody: Shamela. This satire follows the model of the famous Tory satirists of the previous generation, such as, Jonathan Swift and John Gay. Fielding followed Shamela with Joseph Andrews (1742), an original work supposedly dealing with Pamela’s brother, Joseph. His purpose in this book, however, was more than parody, for he intended, as he announced in the preface, a “kind of writing which I do not remember to have seen hithereto attempted in our language.” In this new kind of writing, which Fielding called a “comic epic poem in prouse,” he creatively blended two classical traditions: that of the epic, which had been poetic, and that of the drama, but emphasizing the comic rather than the tragic. Another distinction of Joseph Andrews and of the novels to come was the use of everyday reality of character and action as opposed to the fables of the past. Although begun as a parody, it developed into an accomplished novel in its own right and is considered to mark Fielding’s debut as a serious novelist. In 1743, he published a novel in the Miscellanies volume III (which was the first volume of the Miscellanies): The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great, which is sometimes counted as his first, as he almost certainly began it before he wrote Shamela and Joseph Andrews. It is a satire of Walpole that draws a parallel between him and Jonathan Wild, the infamous gang leader and highwayman. He implicitly compares the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves being run by Walpole, whose constant desire to be a “Great Man” (a common epithet for Walpole) ought to culminate in the antithesis of greatness: being hanged.
His anonymous The Female Husband (1746) is a fictionalized account of a notorious case in which a female transvestite was tried for duping another woman into marriage. This was one of a number of small pamphlets, and cost sixpence at the time. Though a minor item in Fielding’s œuvre, the subject is consistent with his ongoing preoccupation with fraud, shamming and masks. His greatest work, Tom Jones (1749), came next. If you don’t know it, read it. The hallmark of the book is its presentation of English life and character in the mid-18th century (akin to Hogarth’s art). Every social type is represented, and through them every shade of moral behavior.
Fielding married Charlotte Craddock in 1734 at the Church of St Mary in Charlcombe, Somerset. She died in 1744, and he later modelled the heroines of both Tom Jones and Amelia on her. They had five children together; their only daughter Henrietta died at age 23, having already been “in deep decline” when she married military engineer James Gabriel Montresor some months before. Three years after Charlotte’s death, Fielding disregarded public opinion by marrying her former maid Mary Daniel, who was pregnant. Mary bore five children: three daughters who died young, and sons William and Allen.
Despite this scandal, Fielding’s consistent anti-Jacobitism and support for the Church of England led to his being rewarded a year later with the position of London’s chief magistrate, while his literary career broadened. Most of his work was concerned with London’s criminal population of thieves, informers, gamblers, and prostitutes. In a corrupt and callous society, he became noted for his impartial judgements, incorruptibility, and compassion for those whom social inequities had forced into crime. The income from his office, which he called “the dirtiest money upon earth,” dwindled because he refused to take money from the very poor. With his younger half-brother, John, he helped found the Bow Street Runners, in 1749, which were, arguably, London’s first police force.
Both Fieldings did much to enhance judicial reform and improve prison conditions. Fielding’s influential pamphlets and enquiries included a proposal for the abolition of public hangings. This did not, however, imply opposition to capital punishment as such – as is evident, for example, in his presiding in 1751 over the trial of the notorious criminal James Field, finding him guilty in a robbery and sentencing him to hang. John Fielding, despite being blind by then, succeeded his older brother as chief magistrate, becoming known as the “Blind Beak of Bow Street” for his ability to recognize criminals by their voices alone.
In January 1752 Fielding started a fortnightly periodical, The Covent-Garden Journal, which he published under the pseudonym of “Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt. Censor of Great Britain” until November of the same year. In this periodical, Fielding directly challenged the “armies of Grub Street” and the contemporary periodical writers of the day in a conflict that would eventually become the Paper War of 1752–3.
Fielding then published “Examples of the Interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder” (1752), a treatise in which he rejected the deistic and materialistic visions of the world in favor of belief in God’s presence and divine judgement, arguing that the murder rate was rising due to neglect of the Christian religion. In 1753 he wrote “Proposals for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor.”
Fielding’s ardent commitment to the cause of justice as a great humanitarian in the 1750s (for instance, his support of Elizabeth Canning) coincided with rapid deterioration in his health. Gout, asthma, cirrhosis of the liver and other afflictions made him use crutches. His ill health led him to Portugal in 1754 in search of a cure, but he died in Lisbon, reportedly in physical pain and mental distress, only two months later. His tomb is in the city’s English Cemetery (Cemitério Inglês), which is now the graveyard of St. George’s Church, Lisbon.
“The Roast Beef of Old England” was originally written by Henry Fielding for his play The Grub-Street Opera, first performed in 1731, and I gave it full coverage here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/roast-beef-old-england/ The 18th century saw a number of changes in food habits and fashions in England, including an increase in the use of vegetables in dishes, the popularity of potatoes, and a great interest in Continental cuisines, especially French. “The Roast Beef of Old England” was written as a counterblast to this trend, touting good, hearty roast beef as proper fare for the English rather than all this foreign muck – bisques and ragouts and whatnot (rather like Burns’s praise of haggis). John Nott published The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary: or, the Accomplish’d Housewives Companion in 1723, and from it we catch a glimpse of changing food tastes in England. You can find a .pdf of the full text in facsimile here: https://ia802700.us.archive.org/14/items/cooksandconfect00nottgoog/cooksandconfect00nottgoog.pdf It is organized alphabetically based on the name of the principal ingredient discussed. The section on beef is curious because there is no mention of good old-fashioned roast beef, but plenty of recipes for fricassee, braised beef, stuffed beef rolls and the like. Times were changing.
Here is a recipe for an asparagus omelet:
- To make an Amlet of Asparagus
Blanch your Asparagus, cut them in short Pieces, fry them in fresh Butter, with a little Parsley and Chibols [green onions]; then pour in some Cream, season them well, and let them boil over a gentle Fire: In the mean time make an Amlet with new laid Eggs, Cream, and Salt ; when it is enough, dress it on a Dish ; thicken the Asparagus with the Yolk of an Egg or two, turn the Asparagus on the Amlet, and serve it up hot.
Despite lack of precise measurements, it’s an easy enough recipe to follow if you have some experience in the kitchen, and worth a shot. I normally make an asparagus omelet by frying some asparagus spears in butter, making an omelet, and then folding the asparagus in before serving. This 18th century recipe is not so very different except that the asparagus has a creamy sauce with it.