Sarah Fielding (1710–1768)
Matthew Risling, St. Mary's University, Calgary
Sarah Fielding was a professional novelist and biographer. She was significant in London’s literary community during the mid-eighteenth century and is notable for her collaborative style and innovative ideas on education. She worked with the likes of Jane Collier, James Harris, Sarah Scott, and Henry Fielding. Among her prominent supporters were David Garrick, William Hogarth, and Samuel Richardson. She was and is best known for her novel, The Adventures of David Simple in Search of a Faithful Friend (1744) and her pioneering work of children’s literature, The Governess; or, Little Female Academy (1749). Her books were popular among readers and critics during her lifetime, though she struggled financially.
Fielding was born in East Stour, Dorset, to Edmund Feilding (as he spelled it) and Sarah Gould. Feilding proudly traced his descent to the Hapsburgs, but despite his eminent lineage was in constant financial straits. Gould’s parents were Somerset gentry who did not approve of their daughter’s marriage. Their misgivings were apparently justified as Edmund spent much of his time away from his family squandering their money. Fielding grew up in Dorset with three older siblings, Henry (1707–54), Catharine (1708–50), and Ursula (1709–50) and three younger, Beatrice (1714–51), Anne (1713–16), and Edmund (1716–after 1755). She maintained a professional, and often affectionate, relationship with Henry throughout her life, but was particularly close with Catharine, Ursula, and Beatrice. Anne died tragically young, and Fielding appears to have lost contact with Edmund as an adult.
Fielding’s mother died in 1718. The children went to live with their maternal grandmother, Lady Gould, while their father resided in London. He married the widow Anne Rapha within the year, and from this marriage Sarah gained six stepbrothers, including the future magistrate John Fielding (1721–80). Incensed that Feilding had remarried so quickly, and to a Catholic, Lady Gould claimed custody of her six grandchildren. In 1720, she rented a house in Salisbury, sending Henry to Eton and enrolling the sisters in Mary Rookes’s boarding school nearby. Shortly thereafter, she sued Feilding for custody of the children and control over their property, which she won after an acrimonious dispute. All the children but Henry remained with Lady Gould until her death in 1733.
While in Salisbury, Fielding struck up a lifelong friendships with Jane Collier (1715–55) and her sister Margaret (1717–94). Jane remained an important figure in Fielding’s personal and professional life, co-authoring The Cry: A New Dramatic Fable (1754) and probably contributing the preface to David Simple, Volume the Last (1753). During her time in Salisbury, Fielding befriended another longtime collaborator, James Harris (1709–80).
Fielding returned to the family home in East Stour in 1737. However, Lady Gould’s son sold the estate two years later, allotting the Fielding siblings each a modest £260. Fielding began writing seriously after accompanying Catharine to Prince’s Court in Westminster. Fielding’s first publication seems to have been the fictional letter “Leonora to Horatio” in Henry’s History of Joseph Andrews (1742). She probably also wrote the fictional autobiography of Anna Boleyn, which appeared a year later in his Journey from This World to the Next (1743).
Her first solo effort was also her most successful. The Adventures of David Simple was published anonymously in May 1744, with two fictional letters contributed by Harris. A second edition, revised and with a preface by Henry, came out in July of the same year.
Unfortunately for Fielding, most of the proceeds went to the printer, Andrew Millar (1705–68). It is unclear how much he paid her for the work, but almost certainly less than the £83 he paid her brother for Joseph Andrews.
Henry’s wife, Charlotte Cradock, died in November 1744, so Sarah moved in with him at Old Boswell Court in London to assist with domestic labour. While in London, she befriended Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) who remained an important source of encouragement and professional support for the rest of his life.
In April 1747, Fielding published the Familiar Letters Between the Principal Characters in David Simple by subscription. Henry wrote the Preface along with five letters, and Harris contributed two more. A Dublin edition was released later that year, and a German translation followed in 1759. In November 1747 Henry married his pregnant cook-maid Mary Daniel, which appears to have contributed to existing household friction. Sarah moved out shortly thereafter.
She began selling subscriptions to her forthcoming Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia in June 1748. The book garnered considerable interest, with around six hundred subscription receipts, though it would not be published for nearly a decade. She also began a Book upon Education in October, which was never completed. The same year, she moved to Duke Street, Westminster to live with her sisters. In January 1749, she published The Governess, which is widely recognized as one of the first English children’s novels and was her most successful work after David Simple. A second edition followed in August, and it was later translated into German (1761) and Swedish (1790). That January also saw the anonymous publication of her Remarks on Clarissa, Addressed to the Author.
1750 marked the beginning of a tragic period for Fielding. Her eldest sister, Catharine, died that summer, as did her nephew, Henry. Ursula died a few months later, in December, and Beatrice in January. In 1751, Thomas Hayter, who had purchased the family property in East Stour, sued Fielding for debt on grounds that are now unclear. Fielding began living with Collier in Beauford Buildings, Westminster, shortly after Beatrice’s death. That February, Fielding published her dour Adventures of David Simple, Volume the Last (1753), for which she earned £58. In March 1754 she and Collier wrote The Cry. Fielding moved to Bath in May of that year for reasons related to her failing health. The next month, Henry moved to Lisbon, where he died in October. Collier died in the summer of 1755.
Fielding finally published The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia in May 1757. A second, corrected, version came out in May 1758. Later that year, she and Harris collaborated on the “An Essay on the Life and Genius of Henry Fielding,” which they intended as a preface to a collection of his works. However, Millar’s Works of Henry Fielding Esq. (1762) rendered theirs redundant, and the “Essay” was never released.
In 1759 Fielding published The History of the Countess of Dellwyn, for which Millar paid her sixty guineas. A Dublin edition came out in 1759 and a German translation in 1761. Fielding may have contributed to the moralistic, though often suggestive, Histories of Some of the Penitents in the Magdalen-House, which was published anonymously in 1759. She may also have written a series of verses “To Miss Salusbury” in early 1760.
Fielding published her final novel, The History of Ophelia, in March 1760. It garnered a second English edition in 1763, German editions in 1763–4, 1767, and 1772, and a French edition in 1763. An illustrated edition with engravings by Richard Corbund was published in 1785. Fielding worked with Harris once more on her final publication, Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates. With the Defence of Socrates (1762), for which she returned to the subscription model. A second, corrected, edition was printed in 1767.
It was only towards the end of her life that Fielding became financially stable. Family friend and patron of the arts, Ralph Allen died in 1764 and left Fielding a legacy of £100. Lady Barbara Montagu died the next year, bequeathing Fielding £10 yearly and another £10 for housing. In 1767, Elizabeth Montagu issued an annuity of £10 to be received at Christmas.
By 1766, Fielding’s health was in serious decline. She appears to have moved into lodgings at Bath with Sarah Scott. Montagu and Scott planned to establish an all-female community in Buckinghamshire, like the one proposed in Scott’s novel Millenium Hall (1778), and they hoped Fielding would join them. However, she was too ill to do so. Fielding died on April 09, 1768 and was buried in St. Mary’s Church in Charlcombe. Her friend John Hoadly erected a monument to her in Bath Abbey.
Christopher D Johnson, A Political Biography of Sarah Fielding (London and New York: Routledge, 2019).
Clive Probyn, “Sarah Fielding,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Peter Sabor, “Introduction,” The Adventures of David Simple (University of Kentucky Press, 1998).
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
FIELDING, SARAH (1710–1768), novelist, third daughter of Edmund Fielding by his first wife, and sister of Henry Fielding [q. v.], was born at East Stour, Dorsetshire, 8 Nov. 1710. She published her first novel, ‘The Adventures of David Simple in search of a Faithful Friend,’ in 1744. Her brother contributed a preface in the second edition in the same year, and he wrote another three years later to a collection of ‘Familiar Letters between the principal characters in David Simple and some others.’ This originally appeared in 1747, and contains five letters by Henry Fielding (pp. 294–351). A third volume was added to ‘David Simple’ in 1752. She joined with Miss Collier (daughter of Arthur Collier [q. v.]) in ‘The Cry, a Dramatic Fable,’ Dublin, 1754. She wrote also ‘The Governess,’ 1749; ‘History of the Countess of Dellwyn,’ 1759 (see Notes and Queries, 6th ser. ix. 54, 77); ‘Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia,’ 1757; ‘History of Ophelia,’ 1785; and ‘Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates; with the Defence of Socrates before his Judges,’ 1762, translated from the Greek, in which some notes and possibly a revision were contributed by James Harris of Salisbury [q. v.]
Some letters between Miss Collier, Miss Fielding, and Richardson (from 1748 to 1757) are given in Richardson's ‘Correspondence’ (ii. 59–112), where there are references to the ‘Cry’ and the ‘Governess.’ Richardson reports to Miss Fielding in 1756 the remark of a ‘critical judge of writing,’ that her late brother's knowledge of the human heart was to hers as the knowledge of the outside of a clock to the knowledge of its ‘finer springs and movements of the inside.’ A similar remark of Johnson's about Richardson and Fielding almost suggests that he may have been the ‘critical judge’ who afterwards made a new application of his comparison. Fielding himself, in the preface to ‘David Simple,’ ventures to say ‘that some of her touches might have done honour to the pencil of the immortal Shakespeare;’ and in his other preface reports the saying of a lady, who, so far from doubting that a woman had written ‘David Simple,’ was convinced that it could not have been written by a man.
This enthusiasm was not shared even by contemporaries. Miss Fielding appears from Richardson's letters to have been poor. It is said (Kilvert, Ralph Allen, p. 21) that Allen allowed her 100l. a year. A Mr. Graves, from whom the statement comes, dined with her more than once at Allen's in 1758. She appears to have been living at Ryde during the Richardson correspondence, with Miss M. and Miss J. Collier. In 1754 ‘the waters’ (of Bath?) have cured her as far ‘as an old woman can expect.’ She was buried in Charlcombe Church, near Bath, on 14 April 1768. John Hoadley [q. v.] erected a monument to her in Bath Abbey Church, with some verses and inaccurate dates.
[Nichols's Anecdotes, iii. 385, ix. 539; Richardson's Correspondence, vol. ii.; Austin Dobson's Fielding, p. 193.]