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'Tom Jones' in the Flesh : HENRY FIELDING, By Donald Thomas (A Thomas Dunne Book/ St. Martin's Press: $18.95; 436 pp., illustrated)

May 12, 1991|Carolly Erickson | Erickson's 10th book and sixth biography is "To the Scafford: A Life of Marie Antoinette."

Among the most colorful of English novelists, Henry Fielding, author of "Tom Jones" and "Joseph Andrews," sprawled across the first half of the 18th Century like a wayward Bacchus after a long debauch.

He was lecherous, often drunken, quarrelsome and at times brutally violent. His conversation was coarse, his company lively if argumentative. A thoroughgoing rake with a strong taste for buffoonery, he was at the same time handsome and robust, with an unflagging vitality that allowed him, as a student, to carouse all evening and then study "the most abstruse authors" for the rest of the night.

And, of course, he was a great novelist, one of the handful of writers who shaped English fiction.

Fielding's most recent biographer--Donald Thomas, professor of English at the University of Wales--is far less interested in Fielding the outsize character than he is in Fielding the public man.

"Few English writers were more involved in the public life of their times than Henry Fielding," Thomas writes. The targets of his fiction and his journalism were "a corrupt political system of patronage and preferment, (and) a society rotten with petty commercial greed and unprincipled sexual avarice."

Fielding's view of the world was a jaundiced one, according to his biographer. Like the Marquis de Sade, to whom Thomas repeatedly compares him, Fielding observed that virtue was usually punished and vice usually rewarded, at least in Hanoverian England. And since the novelist was "seldom far from the public arena of argument and abuse," he had ample opportunity to observe the meting out of punishments and rewards.

His personal experience was thorny enough to jaundice any man. The son of a down-at-the-heels soldier who beat him and who was only fitfully in funds, the young Fielding was sent to Eton and later to the University of Leiden in Holland, though his stay at both schools was brief. He was rowdy and ungovernable, yet quick to learn. He acquired an appreciation of the classics, and began writing comedies at a very early age.

The need to earn a living drove the young Fielding to write for the London stage, and he enjoyed a brilliant success, pouring out a baker's dozen of plays in only 2 1/2 years. Yet he invariably outspent his income, and was cursed, like his father before him, with the constant need to borrow money. His creditors hounded him, and at times he was a virtual prisoner in his lodgings, unable to go out except on Sundays when the law prohibited arrests for debt. Family life too brought its sorrows: the early death of his first wife and of several of his children, continued money shortages and Fielding's own increasingly poor health.

In his 30s, the playwright became a student at the Middle Temple, and, as a junior barrister, had to travel from town to town to attend the provincial courts. Riding was a torment to him, for his years of dissipation aged him prematurely and gout so damaged his circulation and disabled him that during his worst attacks he could not stand without help. Eventually arrested and imprisoned for debt, he languished in prison, surrounded by "darkness and disease, torture and rapacity, crowded bodies and stinking cells."

Thomas dutifully rehearses Fielding's literary labors, examining each work in turn. The biographer is neither a panegyrist nor an iconoclast; his approach is to ground each work in its time, place, and circumstances. This is an admirable approach, as far as it goes. Yet readers curious about the inner life of the prodigious Fielding will be disappointed. One cannot help wishing that Thomas had told us more about the sources of Fielding's phenomenally aggressive drive, the vital force that goaded him to produce such quantities of publishable prose and that spent itself in violence and debauchery.

At times, Thomas tends to view the restless, combative, prickly Fielding through a romantic haze, blurring his sharp edges. His prose is repetitious, and he allows his own rapturous descriptions of the English countryside to carry him away. The narrative bogs down after the first third of the book, and overwritten sentences mar its generally astute literary analysis.

Here is Thomas bidding farewell to his subject: "Before Atropos, daughter of Night, cut the thin-spun thread of life with her shears, the verge of memory held that world of the child's first summer, the shimmering flats of Wedore, the windbreaks of poplar and willow along the little watercourses, the tide-washed brilliance of a Western sea in the horizon curve of April sky."

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