Henry Fielding is a literary legend; the 18th century author of the classic ‘Tom Jones’. In 1754, he witnessed a kitten go overboard.
Henry Fielding was born in Sharpham, Somerset, in April 1707.
His family was establishment; his father, Colonel Edmund Fielding, was a distinguished military officer, and his mother, Sarah, was the daughter of a prominent judge.
Fielding was educated at Eton, the pre-eminent institution for young gentleman of the era, where he kindled a lifelong love of literature. He also befriended other young men on the rise; George Lyttelton, the future Chancellor of the Exchequer, and William Pitt the Elder, future Prime Minister.
Fielding left school at 17.
As was common for someone of his social status, he then took some time off, paid for by a private allowance from his family. He travelled around Europe, completing some tertiary study in Amsterdam, and had several affairs, most notably with a wealthy heiress with whom he tried to elope.
He also began to write; in his early twenties he wrote a play, which went unproduced.
But his father’s fortunes declined, and by Fielding’s early twenties he was no longer in receipt of an allowance.
He returned to London and began to write for a living; initially producing short, populist plays for the thriving local theatre scene. While these were undistinguished, and are rarely performed in the modern era, they did allow Fielding to earn a living, and establish something of a literary reputation.
His other interest was politics.
His former school friends Lyttelton and Pitt were both in Parliament by this time, active members of the political party known as ‘The Whigs’. The Whigs were the rabble rousers of their day; believers in the constitutional monarchy, but agitating for reform, and for more power to be vested in Parliament.
Fielding supported their efforts with a regular series of articles in the London newspapers, usually written under an alias.
His playwriting continued, but now also took on a political bent. The plots became satirical and symbolic, the leading characters thinly drawn caricatures of the days leading political figures. Fielding’s popularity grew.
But what, you are asking, about the kitten? Well, we’re getting there.
In his thirties, Fielding branched out into novel-writing, starting with ‘Shamela’, first published in 1741.
For a child of the establishment, Fielding’s longer form writing had a surprisingly earthy quality, capturing the ribald humour and vernacular of everyday life. He was equally adept writing upper and lower class characters, and his prose had a unique, for the time, combination of comedy and drama.
His fourth book, ‘Tom Jones’, published in 1749, was a sensation.
‘Tom Jones’ is about the unlikely life of its titular character.
Young Tom is born into impoverished circumstances, and abandoned by both of his parents. He is un-officially adopted by a well to do family, who attempt to set him up in society, but they are constantly thwarted by Tom’s appetite for drinking, gambling and sex.
His guardians eventually disown Tom, and as a young man he sets out on an odyssey across Europe, to try to prove himself and make his fortune.
It is partly a road movie, partly a romance, partly a comedy, and mostly a social commentary. The plot is essentially a series of vignettes, many of them showing quirky and unlikely happenings. Its episodic structure has been imitated so many times since, it hard to believe it was ever an original idea once.
It is one of the first great books in English literature.
But what, you are REALLY asking now, about the kitten? Well, nearly.
The commercial success of ‘Tom Jones’ set Fielding up financially, and his writing efforts began to decline.
He now returned his attention to public service. Using his political connections, he had himself (and his half-brother John), installed as Chief Magistrate of London, in 1750.
The judiciary at this time did not operate as it does now. Magistrates were appointed by the state, with no oversight, and given free rein to enforce the law as they saw fit. The legal code was vague and open to interpretation, and few suspects could afford a lawyer.
True to his earlier self, Fielding set out to reform the system.
He agitated for the end of public executions, a fairer legal code, and for improved prison conditions. He also established the world’s first police force; ‘The Bow Street Runners’.
Named after the street where Fielding’s court was located, the Bow Street Runners began as six officers, trained in law enforcement by Fielding himself.
They were to gather clues, apprehend suspects, and patrol the streets of the area, keeping the peace. They were also bound by a strict code of conduct, and worked in the job full-time; municipal authorities had relied on part-time, and reserve police, or the army, for law enforcement previously.
The Bow Street Runners reduced crime in their area significantly, and the idea was adopted in other areas across London.
And now, finally, we have gotten to the kitten.
Fielding’s eventful life had taken a toll on his health, and he was forced to retire in 1754, aged only 47.
His afflictions included gout, asthma and cirrhosis of the liver. His doctors thought a warmer climate may help his condition, and so he decided to retire to Lisbon, on the coast of Portugal.
Fielding embarked by ship, in June 1754.
In transit, he witnessed a tragic event (all subsequent quotes from 'A Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon', by Henry Fielding):
‘While the ship was under sail, a kitten, one of the four feline inhabitants of the cabin, fell from the window into the water.
An alarm was immediately given to the captain, who was then on deck, and who received it with many oaths.’
Fielding, and you assume most of the passengers, figured that nothing would be done to save the kitten. He was in for a surprise.
‘The captain immediately gave orders to the steersman, the sails were instantly slackened, and all hands employed to recover the poor animal.
I was, I own, extremely surprised at all of this.’
Nevertheless, the chance of saving the cat appeared slim.
Dramatically, the boatswain then stripped down to his underclothes and dived into the ocean. He disappeared underwater, but then returned within a few minutes, baring the kitten in his arms.
He was helped back on deck and placed the kitten in a rough blanket.
But it seemed, he had acted in vain.
‘The kitten, now exposed to air and sun, showed no symptoms of life, and was despaired by all.
The captain felt his loss like a man, and resolved to bear it like one. He stomped away and began to argue with a Portuguese friar.
But I should think myself unpardonable if I did not give the conclusion; that within a few minutes the kitten suddenly recovered, to the great joy of everyone present, especially the captain, who quickly returned.’
The book I have is called 'Eyewitness to History.' I bought for $1 at a book fair, just recently.
It is a cheap paperback, but it is excellent; a collection of eyewitness accounts, collected from other books, articles, biographies, all over, telling first hand accounts of signficant historical events. Someone who witnessed the San Fransisco earthquake, in 1906, say, or the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Scanning the contents, there are like 200 articles, I was immediately drawn to 'Kitten Overboard'.
Henry Fielding arrived in Lisbon in July 1754. He died a month later, and was buried in the English cemetery there.