We think of Fielding 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.
Article. 9736 words.
Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)
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