British and Irish Literature Henry Fielding
Thomas Keymer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0024


We think of Henry Fielding (b. 22 April 1707–d. 8 October 1754) above all as a pioneer of the novel genre: “the Founder of a new Province of Writing,” as he puts it in one of the best-known metafictional chapters of Tom Jones. Yet until Sir Robert Walpole’s Stage Licensing Act of 1737 cut short Fielding’s meteoric theatrical career, he was for a time the most prominent and original playwright on the London stage, conjuring up at breakneck speed a dazzlingly varied, experimental output of serious comedies, burlesque tragedies, irregular farces, ballad operas, and metatheatrical rehearsal plays. In a period that generated some of the most innovative and enduring periodical writing in the language, Fielding was also a prolific satirical journalist, his influence so feared by the authorities that he was bought off by the ministry on at least one occasion. Although he never produced the massive treatise on criminal law, “An Institute of the Pleas of the Crown,” on which he toiled during the 1740s (we have Tom Jones instead), he was a groundbreaking writer on legal and related social subjects, including poor relief, public execution, and the flawed mechanisms of prosecution. Toward the end of his life, as he fought a losing battle with terminal disease, he wrote a witty and plangent travel narrative, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. Eight years later, in 1762, a posthumous edition of Fielding’s Works laid claim on his behalf to a canonical centrality that his writing has maintained ever since. Though somewhat eclipsed in the later 20th century by a marked revival of interest in Samuel Richardson, the fellow novelist he identified in life as his great rival “for that coy Mrs. Fame,” Fielding has now returned to the heart of scholarly debates about the 18th century, especially at the intersections between literary study and law, and politics and social history.

General Overviews

Relatively few books about Fielding take on the full generic range of his output, in which context Varey 1986, Bell 1994, and Uglow 1995 stand out from other introductory studies for their generosity of coverage. Battestin 1985 and Hume 2010 offer authoritative essay-length overviews from contrasting critical perspectives, and Hunter 1975, with a powerful combination of subtle criticism and expert contextualization, has been among the most influential research-level monographs on Fielding. Rawson 2007, in the Cambridge Companions to Literature series, divides attention more or less equally between the fiction (five excellent chapters by leading scholars, including chapters devoted to Shamela and Jonathan Wild) and “Fielding’s achievements as a dramatist, journalist, political writer, and socio-legal thinker” (p. 2).

  • Battestin, Martin C. “Henry Fielding.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 39, British Novelists, 1660–1800; Part 1: A–L. Edited by Martin C. Battestin, 167–195. Ann Arbor, MI: Gale, 1985.

    Concise introduction to one of the most prominent critical approaches of the past half century, reading Fielding as an Augustan moralist who imports into the novel genre characteristic themes and forms of the classical tradition.

  • Bell, Ian A. Henry Fielding: Authorship and Authority. London: Longman, 1994.

    A lively introductory study that takes as its starting point the often-explicit analogies drawn between literary and political authority in Fielding’s writing.

  • Hume, Robert D. “Fielding at 300: Elusive, Confusing, Misappropriated or (Perhaps) Obvious?” Modern Philology 108.2 (2010): 224–262.

    DOI: 10.1086/657591

    Originally presented at the London tercentenary conference in 2007, this is a shrewd and energetic overview of current trends and debates in scholarship on Fielding.

  • Hunter, J. Paul. Occasional Form: Henry Fielding and the Chains of Circumstance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

    A landmark study, authoritatively contextualizing the range of Fielding’s output and cleverly interpreting its instabilities, in light of cultural change and social and political turbulence in the mid-18th century.

  • Rawson, Claude, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521854512

    The best place to start, though by no means merely introductory. There are strong individual chapters on the best-known works (Shamela, Joseph Andrews, Jonathan Wild, Tom Jones, Amelia) supplemented by state-of-the-art accounts of Fielding’s journalism and plays, and illuminating chapters on key social themes. Rawson’s own contribution, on Fielding’s style, is a highlight of the book.

  • Uglow, Jenny. Henry Fielding. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1995.

    A brisk and smart introduction in the British Council Writers and Their Work series, emphasizing the dialogue between sympathy and justice, benevolence and severity in the novels.

  • Varey, Simon. Henry Fielding. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Introductory study, giving due weight to Fielding’s later writings and to characteristic tensions and dissonances, formal and thematic, throughout his work.

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