Henry Fielding led a harum-scarum life—as a country squire, theatre manager, playwright, lawyer, journalist, judge, tippler, and womanizer—before writing the comic masterpiece Tom Jones and then meeting his untimely death at the age of only forty-seven. Born April 22, 1707, to a lieutenant general and a judge’s daughter, he was placed in the custody of his maternal grandmother after his mother died when he was ten and his father landed in debtors’ prison. Schooled at Eton, he tried unsuccessfully when he was seventeen to elope with his cousin, then went to London and lived as writer and man-about-town. He wrote some unsuccessful comedies and at age twenty-one went to the University of Leyden in Holland, where tuition was cheaper than in England.
In 1734 he married Charlotte Craddock, who brought to the marriage a dowry of £1,500—the equivalent of £200,000-300,000 today. They retired to an estate in Dorset to live as country gentry and had a daughter named Amelia. In just over a year, Fielding’s spendthrift habits reduced them to poverty, and they moved to London, where Fielding sought to make a living as manager and occasional playwright at The Little Theatre and at The New Theatre. He enjoyed considerable success—one of his plays, Tom Thumb, reputedly made Jonathan Swift laugh for second time in his life. But Fielding’s political satires ran afoul of the law, and he was banned from writing for the stage.
By this time the Fieldings had two daughters and needed income, so Henry began to study law and also to write for various newspapers. In 1739 he became editor of The Champion, a political journal, and in 1740 obtained his law license. He also began to write novels, turning out Joseph Andrews in 1742 and Jonathan Wild in 1743. His elder daughter’s illness and death disheartened him, and in 1744 the death of his wife left him despondent and contributed to his failing health, which had been deteriorating for several years with frequent attacks of debilitating gout and asthma. He was greatly consoled by his wife’s sympathetic maid, Mary Daniel, whom he married in 1747 when she was six months pregnant.
Meanwhile, Fielding had become a criminal-court magistrate in London and also continued to write fiction, publishing the highly praised Tom Jones in 1749. In addition, he was instrumental in organizing the first London detective force, which evolved into Scotland Yard. Having also developed dropsy—a swelling of his abdomen that is symptomatic of congestive heart failure—Fielding was reduced to using crutches.
He resigned his judgeship in 1752 and in 1754 determined to move to Lisbon, in the hope that the warmer Portuguese climate would be beneficial. His dropsy was so severe that just before sailing, as he reports in his posthumously published Journal of Voyage to Lisbon, he called a doctor to the ship to drain his abdominal cavity of ten quarts of fluid. He and his wife reached Lisbon, but en route he had contracted jaundice, and he died there two months later, on October 8, 1754, at age forty-seven. He was buried in Lisbon’s British Cemetery.