HENRY FIELDING by Pat Rogers

HENRY FIELDING

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KIRKUS REVIEW

With so little really known of Henry Fielding's private life while he labored as playwright, novelist, and magistrate (about 35 extant letters), there's not much a casual biographer can do but cut, paste, speculate, and fill in the lively Augustan backgrounds--all of which 18th-century expert Rogers (Univ. of Bristol) has done with some style and shrewdness. He may begin with a rather grand schematic notion of Fielding's dual nature: ""we shall witness the contest between a roue and a scholar, a reformer and a prodigal, a classicist and a show-business huckster. . . ."" But, in the event, as Fielding's career twists and sometimes goes shady, Rogers can do little more than look on with puzzled interest. Out of a tranquil provincial upbringing somehow emerged an intermittent student and town-wise rake who, at 22, plunged into the feuding, political world of Pope, Cibber, and London theater; Rogers neatly outlines the factional crossfire, with Fielding suddenly in the middle of it as an anti-Walpole satirist (Tom Thumb, the Great Mogul troupe) who ""made the theatre count in national life as it has rarely done""--so much so that Walpole's Licensing Bill soon shut him down. Thus out of a job at 30, Fielding turned to law, while continuing as a pamphleteer against the Jacobite Pretender and for Walpole (a move which Rogers declines to whitewash--it was ""less on account of ideology than in order to pay his bills""). Then--the novels, in which Rogers notes the plausible life-parallels but warns: ""the naively optimistic, perpetually cheerful Fielding is a delusion. . . he was capable of producing sublime comedy whilst his own life took a grim or tragic course."" (Family deaths, progressive gout, financial strain.) And finally, there is Fielding's career as a magistrate mired in raucous, awful London crime and poverty--and Rogers' social-historical expertise supplies texture and balance: he puts Fielding's liberal but astringent views on poverty and punishment in period perspective, and he has an open mind about the many scandals and charges of judicial malpractice. (No whitewash here, either.) But overall Rogers is a sympathetic portraitist, lamenting Fielding's demise at 46, wishing we knew him better; a distant, rather slippery view, then, but free of the stodginess you'll find in the more substantial Cross (1918--the standard bio) and Dudden (1952).

Pub Date: Oct. 30th, 1979
Publisher: Scribners