Henry Fielding's Journey

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding was born in Somerset, England, 1707 to an aristocratic family which soon found itself out of money and out of luck. His mother died when he was ten, and his father, a General in King George's Army, died penniless not long after. At the age of 12, his maternal grandmother sent him to Eton for schooling, where he learned the art of writing, with an eye toward the satirical. In the summer of 1725, he and James Lewis, his servant, were involved in a brawl over Sara Andrews, a 15-year-old heiress with whom Henry was infatuated. Two months later, he convinced James to help him abduct Sara on her way to church along with another man named Andrew Tucker; they failed, and while the constables captured James not long after, Henry drew up some leaflets ridiculing Andrew and his family, posted them up about town, and then ran away.

Over the years, Henry wrote many stories, married a woman named Charlotte, had three daughters, attended school in the Netherlands and England, and worked at various times as a theater manager, newspaper editor, and judge. After Charlotte died, he then married his second wife, Mary, who was six months pregnant with their son William at the time; they ended up having four more children in the years that followed. In 1749, Henry published his most well-known work, the satire Tom Jones, modelling the heroine after Sara Andrews, the girl that he stalked as a teenager. He continued to work as a judge, and was responsible for some sweeping reforms of law enforcement, including founding the Britain's first professional police department.

In 1754, Henry, suffering from asthma, gout, and jaundice, departed his home in order to move to Lisbon, Portugal, hoping that the warmer weather would benefit his health, accompanied by his wife and eldest daughter.  One he reached the shipyards, the atmosphere soured; he was so bloated and immobile that he had to be lifted aboard by use of a chair rigged with pulleys, and as he was being carried to his cabin, a gauntlet of sailors jeered and taunted him without mercy, and the captain himself impressed himself upon Henry as a repulsive lout.  

On July 11 of that year, he later related, the ship was not making much headway despite the sails being fully deployed, when a small kitten, one of five cats accompanying Fielding and the crew, fell out of a window and into the Atlantic Ocean. Someone shouted that a kitten had washed overboard, and the captain cried out an alarm. The sails were dropped, the ship was immediately wheeled about as the captain of the ship, greatly concerned, frantically guided the ship around to pick up its tiny "man overboard". The captain's concern pleasantly surprised Henry, but he did not expect that the poor kitten would be recovered.

The boatswain, however, tore off his jacket and shirt, and dove into the churning water. After disappearing for a while beneath the waves, he returned with the motionless kitten in his mouth. The sailor climbing up the ladder and laid the waterlogged feline out on the deck of the ship to let him dry in the sunlight. A crowd gathered around, but there were no signs of life from the kitten; the captain put on a brave face, and remarked to those around him that he would rather have lost a cask of brandy or rum.  Resigning himself to fate, he then went below decks to resume a backgammon game he had started earlier with a Portuguese friar.

Against all odds, Henry later wrote, the kitten regained consciousness and recovered completely, to the great joy of some of the sailors; the more superstitious ones believed that the drowning of a cat portended a good wind for their travels, and for that reason expressed dismay at the kitten's surprising recovery. Henry survived only for a few months in Lisbon, succumbing to his myriad health problems, but the kitten lived to enjoy a full life, probably as a shipboard mouser.

Links and Sources:
"Henry Fielding (1707-1754)" on The Dorset Page, retrieved March 18, 2012.
"Henry Fielding (1707-1754)" on Books and Writers, retrieved March 18, 2012.
Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, by Henry Fielding, published in 1755, available on the web here.
Engraving of Henry Fielding is in the public domain, and is on Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of 18th century sailing ship from Maritime Connector.
Photo of cat on a hammock from the Sun newspaper, March 18, 2012.

"Henry Fielding's Journey" © 2015 by James Husband.