Henry Fielding's Claim to the Fatherhood of English Novel

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      Sir Walter Scott called Fielding, in a famous phrase, "the Father of English Novel." He said that Fielding had "high notions of the dignity of art which he may be considered as having founded."

      Some have attributed this title to Richardson. A critic goes to the extent of saying that if Fielding was the father of English Novel, Richardson was its grandfather. W. J. Dawson offers this honor to Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. There are some writers who even confer this greatness on John Lyly, the author of Euphues or Sidney, the author of Arcadia or Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress and Life and Death of Mr. Badman. Walter Raleigh, for instance, calls Euphues "as the first original prose novel written in English." G. K. Chesterton even remarks humorously "If Chaucer is the father of English poetry, he is the grandfather of English Novel."

      The question of the fatherhood of the English novel need not, therefore, be a subject for debate or dispute. But one thing is certain that, if by the term English novel, we mean the English novel as it is known to most of us today, the claim of having originated it may not be grudged to Fielding. It was he who gave to the English novel a new conception of unity and breadth; gave to the English novel a new depth not to be found in the works of any of his predecessors.

      England had not produced, before him, any of those masterpieces in the sphere of fiction which bow posterity beneath the weight of their prestige. Fielding had thus the good fortune to enter upon an almost new 'genre' and having once encountered it, he immediately imposed his laws upon it. "Fielding has, with great justice, been called the Father of the English Novel, And his extraordinarily well balanced temperament presents the two aspects, very rarely found together, of great imagination and great critical power."

      Walter Allen writes thus in this connection "Sir Walter Scott called Fielding, in a famous phrase, the 'Father of the English Novel.' It was not meant as a scientific description and could be argued about endlessly, yet in two ways, it is certainly true. The form the novel took in England for more than a hundred years had its origin in Fielding, and in this respect, Smollett, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray and Meredith, all wrote in his shadow. But perhaps more important is that in Fielding the novelist becomes, for the first time, what a modern novelist has called 'the true historian of his own times' and by implication its critic."

Reason Attributing The Fatherhood of English Novel

      Fielding is thus considered the Father of the English Novel because his works, for the first time, reveal all those qualities and characteristics which we generally associate with the art of the novel. It is true that some of these characteristics appeared in the stray writings of some of his predecessors, but never before Fielding do we find their deliberate and full expression at one place and in one author. Fielding, for the first time, tries to understand their real significance and makes their proper use in his writings.

Fielding's Art of Characterization

      But it is a novel of character that Fielding's books preeminently excite our interest. Such a collection of human figures, so solid and real, so vital, so varied, is not to be found in the works of any earlier English writer, except Shakespeare. The delineation is masterly. In respect of the characters in these novels, a few main points may be recapitulated.

      Fielding's characters are amazingly alive. This is true not only of the major figures such as Parsons Adams or Amelia, but also of the vast majority of the minor ones. We can hardly believe that they are mere fiction. They are 'alive, full of blood, full of breath', as are real people. They impress themselves on our minds, as real people do, and continue to exist in our memories even when the events and incidents, with which they were concerned, have been more or less forgotten. That is, indeed, the supreme achievement of characterization.

      In some respects, these characters, notwithstanding their antique dresses and manners, are curiously modern. They exhibit many of the characteristics of present-day men and women. For instance, they know all about sex matters, and talk about them frankly, without timidity or mock-modesty. They have no illusions. They look out at the world cynically, finding in it no mystery and very little romance. It appears to most of them a nasty world, and they try to forget its nastiness by plunging into pleasures, frequently gross, though sometimes refined. If misfortune comes to them, they accept it stoically, without angry complaint or sentimental self-pity. They are not destitute of virtues; but (except in rare instances) they are of the earth. In all this, Fielding's people are strikingly akin to the people of our own age, and to those who are depicted in our most recent literature.

Fielding's Treatment of Plot Construction

      Fielding, a great novelist, was also a great master of plot. Murphy said that his plays were ill-constructed; but though his theatrical experience may not have taught him to construct a good plot for stage, it had undoubtedly taught him how to construct the plot of a novel. It will not be an exaggeration to say that no other novelist before Fielding has shown the same skill as an architect of plot as he has done. He is considered almost unique in the artistic conduct of a complicated plot. Walter Allen has correctly remarked, "Fielding was as superb a craftsman in his own way as Henry James."

Fielding's Realism

      Realism is the keynote of Fielding's work. He had a fierce hatred of all that savored of hypocrisy, which is seen at its most pungent in Jonathan Wild the Great. His lively, ironical pen has something of the power of Swift, but his mood is tempered by the warmth of his human sympathy. His prime interest is in the depiction of the everyday life of the ordinary man, and he is particularly striking in his descriptions of low life. Unlike Richardson, he has no heroes, and few out-and-out villains; his characters are men, with all men's weaknesses, and the range of his portrait gallery has not often been exceeded. His work has a masculinity of tone quite different from the relative bloodlessness of Richardson.

Picture of the Society in Fielding's Novels

      Fielding is the first realistic painter of life and society. There are, no doubt, realistic elements in the novels of his predecessors. For instance, Bunyan's dialogues are realistic. The basis of his characterization, too, is realistic. As already pointed out, Defoe gives us the illusion of reality, though not real life. Fielding is the first novelist to paint life on a wide canvas. His picture of life is very comprehensive; it includes almost the whole of society. His Tom Jones, therefore, is a true "prose epic". Besides, in his "prose epic", Fielding amply reveals human nature. Tom Jones sets an example of the realistic novel before Fielding's contemporaries and successors. The plot of the novel is, no doubt, artificial, but the life portrayed in it is a picture of real life.

Fielding—the First Theorist

      Fielding is the first theorist to frame rules governing the novelist's art. His predecessors had vague ideas about the nature and form of the novel. In the seventeenth century, the novel in the hands of Bunyan can hardly be differentiated from romance. Defoe’s portrayal appears, on a superficial view, to be realistic. And yet it is not a realistic portrayal of life. By means of his technique of description in minute details, Defoe creates the illusion of reality. In the eighteenth century, Richardson probes the feminine heart and gives us a minute analysis of feminine feelings, but he hardly paints the life around him. It was, therefore, essential that someone should frame theories regarding the nature and form of novel, so that every novelist might not be a law unto himself.

      It is true to say that Fielding's theories do not have universal application, for all novels are not comic epics in prose. Still, Fielding made the first attempt to define the nature and scope of the novel. He framed canons to judge the merits of a novel. Also, he helped the novelists to know precisely their own business. By framing his theories, Fielding set the critics and novelists thinking about the form and scope of the novel. He is the first of a long line of theorists who have laid down principles regarding the art of the novel.

Fielding's Humour

      Fielding's humor is boisterous and broad to the point of coarseness and a kind of over-fed jollity. But it is frank and open with none of the stealthy suggestiveness of Richardson. In dealing with this aspect of Fielding's work (an aspect frequently repulsive to the more squeamish tastes of the moderns), we must make allowances for the fashion of his time, which united a frankness of incident with a curious decorum of speech. He had also in him a freakishness of wit, the excess of his grosser mood which led to fantastic interludes and digressions in his novels. For instance, in describing the numerous scuffles among his characters, he frequently adopts an elaborate mock-heroic style not quite in accordance with later taste. Fielding's comic characters, such as Partridge, the humble companion of Tom Jones, are numerous, diversified, and exceedingly likable and lively.

Fielding's Narrative

      Fielding is breezy, bustling, and energetic in his narrative. He shows us life on the highway, in the cottage and among the streets of London. Coleridge truly said that to take up Fielding after Richardson is like emerging from the sick-room onto the open lawn.

Fielding, A Moralist

      Fielding thought of himself as a moralist. He aimed to rebuke hypocrisy and to show that those who are often thought ridiculous or immoral, often have more real goodness of heart than the supposedly 'good'. Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews, is a truly good man. Yet he often cuts a ridiculous figure and is very badly treated by the world. Tom Jones is heedless, prodigal and licentious, but Fielding constantly stresses his chivalry, warmth of heart, and generosity'; Amelia is a perfect woman, yet she is not supremely beautiful as is Sophia in Tom Joins, and life treats her very shabbily indeed.

Fielding's Style

      A word must be given to his style. He breaks away from the mannered, artificial style of the earlier novelists, and gives us the good "hodden grey" of his own period. His style has a slight touch of archaism in the use of words like 'hath' but otherwise it is fresh and clear. His use of dialogue and conversation is of a similar nature.

Fielding's Originality in English Fiction

      Fielding is thus the great original in English fiction, and one way or other, more than half of English novelists, for more than a hundred years, are packed away in him. Richard Church says "Scott, Hazlitt, Lamb, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, Dickens and Thackeray, George Eliot and Meredith, these are few of the great figures in literature who are his debtors."

      Fielding has influenced the English novel in three respects-characterization, plot construction and the introduction of the comic element. Very largely, the English novelist's conception of character, as it existed until seventy or eighty years ago and as it still survives in a few isolated pockets of reaction, was derived from Fielding. Most of his characters like Adams, Mrs. Slipslop, Squire Western, and Colonel Bate crop up time and again in slightly changed garbs in later fiction. Besides this, the characteristic plot of much of nineteenth-century fiction with the whole outfit of missing heirs, mistaken identities, stolen children, forged wills and the rest, was derived from Fielding. Episodes and characters have been borrowed from him freely enough. The Vicar of Wakefield, Tristram Shandy, Quentin Durward, Pendennis, Barry Lyndon - each of these, among hundred others, shows clear traces of die study of Fielding. Fielding's laughter has also, remained in the English novel.

Fielding's Influence on the Later Novelists

      Among the novelists who were very much influenced by Fielding, the most important ones are Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray and Meredith. Sir Walter Scott is more particularly struck by the ample and sure constructions of Tom Jones and of Amelia. Jane Austen borrowed from him her description of daily life and manners. Her novels are like miniatures of his great pictures. Jane Austen also learned from Fielding the secret of flawless plot construction. With the two great Victorian novelists, however, the vein of Fielding's inspiration reappears in all its wealth. Dickens, who was, perhaps, more attracted by Smollett, nevertheless confesses the extent to which Fielding had influenced him. Thackeray had much of his genius, much of his power of seeing human nature beneath the robes of peers or the rags of a beggar, but he lacked the large-hearted geniality of his master. In reality, there is not much difference between the vanity and hypocrisy, which Fielding recognizes as the two great sources of the comic, and the snobbery against which Thackeray wages war.


      Historically, Fielding is of the greatest importance. The later novelists learned everything from him. Moreover, as an interpreter of his time, he is unrivaled. He tells more of the eighteenth century than most historians because he makes his world live through his vivid imagination. Artistically, his novels are valuable because of his vitality, his wise appraisal of human nature, and his excellent mind. He had an unusual sense of balance, an inexhaustible sense of humor, and a warm and generous heart.

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