Fielding was born in Somerset in 1707, into a well-connected family, but when he was three the family moved to Dorset. He was educated at Eton, leaving at 17 to take up the life of a gentleman. After an abortive elopement, and writing a play, he went to study at Leiden University, only to return to London when his father’s funds ran out. Settling in London, he became a successful playwright.
Fielding’s satirical style of writing, however, drew the wrath of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who engineered a law - the Theatrical Licensing Act - designed to put a stop to his plays. Subsequently, Fielding gave up on the theatre, and studied law. He married Charlotte Craddock in 1734, after another elopement, and they had several children, although only one survived to adulthood (but then died at the age of 23).
Fielding’s legal practice never took off, but he also continued to write satire, contributing to journals of the time. Then, a publisher took up a novel he had written, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, and another Joseph Andrews. In 1743, Fielding published three volumes of Miscellanies, works old and new, but, disappointed with his income from sales, he gave up writing for a couple of years. He was often crippled with gout; and Charlotte, too, fell ill, and died in 1744. Three years later, he married her former maid, Mary Daniel, who was pregnant. They had two sons that survived childhood.
Fielding was in the habit of starting up satirical magazines, and by 1748 one of these had found favour with the government - for propaganda purposes. As a consequence of being in political favour, he was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster and Middlesex, with his own courthouse and residence. Historians say he brought great dignity to the post, and, in fact, was one of the best magistrates to serve in 18th century London. It was he that formed the famous police corps, the Bow Street Runners, to deal with street crime.
In 1749, Fielding published The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, and it would be his most famous work, and become considered one of the great English novels (see The Guardian for example). Here is Encyclopaedia Britannica’s assessment: ‘With its great comic gusto, vast gallery of characters, and contrasted scenes of high and low life in London and the provinces, it has always been the most popular of his works. The reading of this work is essential both for an understanding of 18th century England and for its revelations of the generosity and charity of Fielding’s view of humanity.’
Fielding’s health continued to deteriorate, and in 1754 he set off by ship to Portugal in search of a better climate for his ailments, but he died in Lisbon two months after arriving, on 8 October. Further information is available from Wikipeda, Kirjasto, or The Dorset Page.
Fielding was not a diarist by nature, apparently, but, near the end of his life, he kept a diary during the voyage to Lisbon. This was first published, posthumously, in 1755, as The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, but has since been republished and reprinted. Various versions are freely available to read online at Internet Archive.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘this work presents an extraordinarily vivid picture of the tortuous slowness of 18th-century sea travel, the horrors of contemporary medicine, the caprices of arbitrary power as seen in the conduct of customs officials, and, above all, [Fielding’s] indomitable courage and cheerfulness when almost completely helpless, for he could scarcely walk and had to be carried on and off ship.’ Here are several extracts, including the very last words in his diary (7 August).
28 June 1754
‘By way of prevention, therefore, I this day sent for my friend Mr. Hunter, the great surgeon and anatomist of Covent-garden; and, though my belly was not yet very full and tight, let out ten quarts of water, the young sea-surgeon attending the operation, not as a performer, but as a student.
I was now eased of the greatest apprehension which I had from the length of the passage; and I told the captain, I was become indifferent as to the time of his sailing. He expressed much satisfaction in this declaration, and at hearing from me, that I found myself, since my tapping, much lighter and better. In this, I believe, he was sincere; for he was, as we shall have occasion to observe more than once, a very good-natured man; and as he was a very brave one too, I found that the heroic constancy, with which I had born an operation that is attended with scarce any degree of pain, had not a little raised me in his esteem. That he might adhere, therefore, in the most religious and rigorous manner to his word, he ordered his ship to fall down to Gravesend on Sunday morning, and there to wait his arrival.’
30 June 1754
‘Nothing worth notice pass’d till that morning, when my poor wife, after passing a night in the utmost torments of the tooth-ach, resolved to have it drawn. I dispatched, therefore, a servant into Wapping, to bring, in haste, the best toothdrawer he could find. He soon found out a female of great eminence in the art; but when he brought her to the boat, at the water-side, they were informed that the ship was gone; for, indeed, she had set out a few minutes after his quitting her; nor did the pilot, who well knew the errand on which I had sent my servant, think fit to wait a moment for his return, or to give me any notice of his setting out.
But of all the petty bashaws, or turbulent tyrants I ever beheld, this sourfaced pilot was the worst tempered; for, during the time that he had the guidance of the ship, which was till we arrived in the Downs, he complied with no one’s desires, nor did he give a civil word, or, indeed, a civil look to any on board.
The toothdrawer, who, as I said before, was one of great eminence among her neighbours, refused to follow the ship; so that my man made himself the best of his way, and, with some difficulty, came up with us before we were got under full sail; for, after that, as we had both wind and tide with us, he would have found it impossible to overtake the ship, till she was come to an anchor at Gravesend.
The morning was fair and bright, and we had a passage thither, I think, as pleasant as can be conceived; for, take it with all its advantages, particularly the number of fine ships you are always sure of seeing by the way, there is nothing to equal it in all the rivers of the worid. The yards of Deptford and of Woolwich are noble sights; and give us a just idea of the great perfection to which we are arrived in building those floating castles, and the figure which we may always make in Europe among the other maritime powers. That of Woolwich, at least, very strongly imprinted this idea on my mind; for, there was now on the stocks there the Royal Anne, supposed to be the largest ship ever built, and which contains ten carriage guns more than had ever yet equipped a first rate. [. . .]
Besides the ships in the docks, we saw many on the water: the yachts are sights of great parade, and the. king’s body yacht is, I believe, unequalled in any country, for convenience as well as magnificence; both which are consulted in building and equipping her with the most exquisite art and workmanship.
We saw likewise several Indiamen just returned from their voyage. These are, I believe, the largest and finest vessels which are any where employed in commercial affairs. The colliers, likewise, which are very numerous, and even assemble in fleets, are ships of great bulk; and, if we descend to those used in the American, African, and European trades, and pass through those which visit our own coasts, to the small craft that ly between Chatham and the Tower, the whole forms a most pleasing object to the eye, as well as highly warming to the heart of an Englishman, who has any degree of love for his country, or can recognize any effect of the patriot in his constitution.
Lastly, the Royal Hospital of Greenwich, which presents so delightful a front to the water, and doth such honour at once to its builder and the nation, to the great skill and ingenuity of the one, and to the no less sensible gratitude of the other, very properly closes the account of this scene; which may well appear romantic to those who have not themselves seen, that, in this one instance, truth and reality are capable, perhaps, of exceeding the power of fiction. [. . .]
Sailing in the manner I have just mentioned, is a pleasure rather unknown, or unthought of, than rejected by those who have experienced it; unless, perhaps, the apprehension of danger, or sea-sickness, may be supposed, by the timorous and delicate, to make too large deductions. [. . .] This, however, was my present case; for the ease and lightness which I felt from my tapping, the gaiety of the morning, the pleasant sailing with wind and tide, and the many agreeable objects with which I was constantly entertained during the whole way, were all suppressed and overcome by the single consideration of my wife’s pain, which continued incessantly to torment her till we came to an anchor, when I dispatched a messenger in great haste, for the best reputed operator in Gravesend.
A surgeon of some eminence now appeared, who did not decline tooth-drawing, tho’ he certainly would have been offended with the appellation of tooth-drawer, no less than his brethren, the members of that venerable body, would be with that of barber, since the late separation between those long united companies, by which, if the surgeons have gained much, the barbers are supposed to have lost very little.
This able and careful person (for so I sincerely believe he is) after examining the guilty tooth, declared, that it was such a rotten shell, and so placed at the very remotest end of the upper jaw, where it was, in a manner, covered and secured by a large, fine, firm tooth, that he despaired of his power of drawing it. [. . .] I came over to his side, and assisted him in prevailing on my wife (for it was no easy matter) to resolve on keeping her tooth a little longer, and to apply to palliatives only for relief. These were opium applied to the tooth, and blisters behind the ears.’
5 August 1754
‘In the night at twelve, our ship having received previous visits from all the necessary parties, took the advantage of the tide, and having sailed up to Lisbon, cast anchor there, in a calm, and a moonshiny night, which made the passage incredibly pleasant to the women, who remained three hours enjoying it, whilst I was left to the cooler transports of enjoying their pleasures at second-hand; and yet, cooler as they may be, whoever is totally ignorant of such sensation, is, at the same time, void of all ideas of friendship.’
7 August 1754
‘Lisbon, before which we now lay at anchor, is said to be built on the same number of hills with old Rome; but these do not all appear to the water; on the contrary, one sees from thence one vast high hill and rock, with buildings arising above one another, and that in so steep and almost perpendicular a manner, that they all seem to have but one foundation.
As the houses, convents, churches, &c. are large, and all built with white stone, they look very beautiful at a distance; but as you approach nearer, and find them to want every kind of ornament, all idea of beauty vanishes at once.
While I was surveying the prospect of this city, which bears so little resemblance to any other that I have ever seen, a reflection occurred to me, that if a man was suddenly to be removed from Palmyra hither, and should take a view of no other city, in how glorious a light would the ancient architecture appear to him? and what desolation and destruction of arts and sciences would he conclude had happened between the several areas of these cities?
I had now waited full three hours upon deck, for the return of my man, whom I had sent to bespeak a good dinner (a thing which had been long unknown to me) on shore, and then to bring a Lisbon chaise with him to the sea-shore; but, it seems, the impertinence of the providore was not yet brought to a conclusion. At three o’clock, when I was from emptiness rather faint than hungry, my man returned, and told me, there was a new law lately made, that no passenger should set his foot on shore without a special order from the providore; and that he himself would have been sent to prison for disobeying it, had he not been protected as the servant of the captain. He informed me likewise, that the captain had been very industrious to get this order, but that it was then the providore’s hour of sleep, a time when no man, except the king himself, durst disturb him.
To avoid prolixity, tho’ in a part of my narrative which may be more agreeable to my reader than it was to me, the providore having at last finished his nap, dispatched this absurd matter of form, and gave me leave to come, or rather to be carried, on shore.
What it was that gave the first hint of this strange law is not easy to guess. Possibly, in the infancy of their defection, and before their government could be well established, they were willing to guard against the bare possibility of surprize, of the success of which bare possibility the Trojan horse will remain for ever on record, as a great and memorable example. Now the Portuguese have no walls to secure them, and a vessel of two or three hundred tons will contain a much larger body of troops than could be concealed in that famous machine, tho’ Virgil tells us (somewhat hyperbolically, I believe) that it was as big as a mountain.
About seven in the evening I got into a chaise on shore, and was driven through the nastiest city in the world, tho’ at the same time one of the most populous, to a kind of coffee-house, which is very pleasantly situated on the brow of a hill, about a mile from the city, and hath a very fine prospect of the river Tajo from Lisbon to the sea.
Here we regaled ourselves with a good supper, for which we were as well charged, as if the bill had been made on the Bath road, between Newbury and London.
And now we could joyfully say, “Egressi optata Troes potiuntur arena.”
Therefore in the words of Horace,
“ -–– hic Fines chartaeque viaeque.” ’