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Fielding, Henry

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(British, 1707–54)

Born in Somerset of aristocratic parents, Fielding was educated at Eton and moved to London in his late teens. There he wrote some twenty-five plays whose dense political allusions (with particular attacks on Robert Walpole's government) ensure they are rarely revived. After the Licensing Act of 1737 London theatre was politically censored and Fielding turned his attention to editing the thrice-weekly Champion (1739–41) before becoming a magistrate and co-founder of Britain's first organized detective police force, the Bow Street Runners. Fielding's first and perhaps funniest novel, Joseph Andrews (1741), is a parody of Samuel Richardson's highly popular Pamela (1740). Taking the brother of the famously moralistic Pamela as its hero, it follows the misfortunes of the innocent Joseph and his unworldly companion, Parson Adams, as they travel through the predatory world of Georgian England. The pair's naïve and disastrous longing to do right produces one of the most farcical duos in English literature. Just as scrupulous in design, if more ambitious in scale, is Fielding's masterpiece Tom Jones (1749). Its rapscallion hero is first introduced as a baby, discovered in the bed of an astonished Squire Allworthy, who adopts the boy despite the hostility of the rest of his family. A panoramic comic novel, it depicts Tom's picaresque adventures, the frustrations and coincidences he encounters, and his devotion to the beautiful, apparently unattainable heroine, Sophie Western. With its refreshingly un-idealized hero and a narrator who is almost a character in his own right, the book has become a sharp, sardonic classic.

Charles Dickens, Laurence Sterne, Daniel Defoe, John Barth. See HUMOUR  RP

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