Henry Fielding was born in 1707 into a family that was essentially aristocratic. His mother's father was a justice of the Queen's Bench, while his paternal grandfather was an archdeacon of Salisbury; in these two men there may have been something of the genesis of Fielding's bent toward the law, his great love of learning, and his firm sense of Christian morality. Fielding's father, Sir Edmund Fielding, a colonel of aristocratic descent, married Sarah Gould in 1706; it was a "runaway" marriage, and the sober Henry Gould excluded Sir Edmund from the estate which he left his daughter. When Sarah died in 1718, Fielding's father entered into a long battle with the maternal side of the family over the estate. What there was of the rake in his father was inherited by Fielding; their spirit is that of Tom Jones, whose isolation when young also reflects the early death of Fielding's mother and the ensuing divisions in the family. Both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones portray a young man on the move until he is brought to a secure standstill by the revelation of his true identity.
After attending Eton College, where he was exposed to the classical authors he came to love so much, Fielding joined his father in London and, in 1728, wrote his first play; nearly thirty more were to come from his pen in the next nine years. This was the period when the rake was to the fore in his character; the dismal account of Mr. Wilson's dissipations in London (Joseph Andrews, Book III, Chapter 3) represents a stern warning from an experienced Fielding about the dangers of city life. Before the city completely enveloped him, however, Fielding spent a short spell abroad at the University of Leiden in Holland. He returned to London in the fall of 1729. It was not a time of great theater, but there was much material for parody and satire, and Fielding exercised his talents with such verve, particularly in the political field, that in 1737 the harassed Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, introduced a Theatrical Licensing Act. Fielding wrote no more for the stage, but his novels are richer because of his experience as a playwright. The incidents of burlesque humor in Joseph Andrews, the concealment scenes in Tom Jones, and the authentic patterns and rhythms of dialogue attest to Fielding's theatrical background.
At a loss for a job, Fielding took up the study of law at the Middle Temple five months after the passage of Walpole's Licensing Act. With his outlet for playwriting quelled, Fielding had to support himself somehow, for he had married Charlotte Craddock in 1734, and they were always short of money. (Charlotte, critics believe, was almost certainly the model for Fielding's portraits of the ideal woman: Amelia, Sophia, and, from Joseph Andrews, possibly Fanny Goodwill and Mrs. Wilson.) From playwriting Fielding turned to journalism. From 1739 to 1741 he edited a satirically political newspaper, The Champion; the writing is quite admirable, and we can see a more serious Fielding emerging as the issues of the day come under his scrutiny.
In 1740, Fielding was called to the Bar, but success as a magistrate lay far in the future; at this time, chance joined hands with Fielding's rich experience as a dramatist and a journalist to change the course both of his own life and that of the novel; in 1740, Samuel Richardson published Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. The novel was an immediate success — with almost everyone but Fielding. Fielding objected to the discrepancy between the expressed morality of "virtue rewarded" and the sexual content in the novel. Perhaps because he was poor and had two young children to provide for, he decided to try and make some money with a parody of Pamela. Whatever the reason, in 1741, he published his riotous and bawdy An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. In it, Shamela is a fortune hunter who uses her virtue in a thoroughly lecherous and mercenary way. The theme is one of disguise and pretense, and it is just this theme which is continued in Joseph Andrews, published in 1742.
The years surrounding the publication of Joseph Andrews were hard ones for Fielding. The death of his father in June 1741, left him sorrowful, and none the richer, and in March of 1742 his favorite daughter died. In June 1741, Fielding also severed his connection with The Champion; his disaffection with the Patriots, as they were called, is perhaps reflected in his comments on "patriotism" in Joseph Andrews (Book II, Chapter 9). As a result of his literary and political notoriety, it was difficult for Fielding to get ahead in the legal profession, and his last two novels, Tom Jones and Amelia, occasionally reflect the anguish of a man who knows that he has brought wretchedness and poverty to the woman he loves. Yet if Fielding could not get money by practicing law, he did use the subject of law in his writing; Jonathan Wild, which was published in 1743, is filled with biting accounts of the grotesque malpractices in the system of criminal law. In 1744, Fielding's wife died and, for a time, Fielding's friends thought that he would lose his mind. But he took up his political pen again and wrote for the anti-Jacobite journal, The True Patriot. In 1747, he married Mary Daniel, who had been a maid to his wife and had shared his grief when Charlotte died. From this time, his fortunes began to brighten. In 1748, he was appointed Justice of the Peace for Westminster and, subsequently, he was made magistrate of all Middlesex, and in 1749 Tom Jones appeared. The concept of good nature which played such an important part in Joseph Andrews is also central to this novel. At one point, Squire Allworthy comments that Tom, despite his many misdemeanors, has a heart of gold: "I am convinced, my child, that you have much goodness, generosity, and honor, in your temper: if you will add prudence and religion to these, you must be happy." One is never quite convinced that Tom becomes either prudent or religious, but the happy ending illustrated that Fielding the artist is again practicing the positive outlook he advocates. Tom and Sophia are optimistically left to "preserve the purest and tenderest affection for each other, an affection daily increased and confirmed by mutual endearments, and mutual esteem."
This optimism is hardly the case with Captain and Mrs. Booth in Amelia (1751). Captain Booth's weaknesses are an echo of Fielding's own, while Amelia, with her tolerance, patience, and love, is probably another portrait of Fielding's first wife, Charlotte. At one point, Amelia, having made her husband a dish of hashed mutton for his supper, feels thirsty, but denies herself half a pint of wine to save sixpence, "while her husband was paying a debt of several guineas, incurred by the ace of trumps being in the hands of his adversary." Amelia is clearly a nearly perfect heroine and glows with a tender warmth against the grim descriptions of life in Newgate prison, where Captain Booth is committed at the beginning of the book. His rescue by Miss Matthews, an elegant courtesan, is a continual irritant, but Fielding eventually rescues the Booths from their domestic difficulties with the discovery that Amelia is an heiress. This turn of events, however, does not obliterate the harsh details of Newgate and London society which permeate the rest of the book. Henry Fielding's three best novels, it has been said, are all composed of a certain "fluctuation from assent to refusal."
Fielding's health was not good; he was terribly overworked and, in the summer of 1754, he went by sea to Lisbon with his wife and daughter. Though the voyage resulted in a diary published posthumously as A Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, the quest for good health was in vain; he died on October 8, 1754, at the age of forty-seven.