By Martin C. Battestin with Ruthe R. Battestin

Routledge. 738 pp. $45

THIS well-researched biography gives us a "new" Henry Fielding -- disconcertingly different from the traditional good-humored one. Like most great novelists, Henry Fielding (1707-54) was born on a social cusp, between classes. His mother's family, the yeoman Goulds, had latterly produced trustworthy merchants and men of law. Henry's father, Edmund Fielding, on the other hand, was related to noblemen who (mistakenly) believed themselves descended from the Hapsburgs. The aristocratic Edmund displayed an aristocratic carelessness in running through both wives and money. Only the redoubtable Lady Gould, Henry's grandmother, ensured the protection of some property for Edmund's children by his wife Sarah, the novelist's mother, who died just before Henry's 11th birthday. Lady Gould sued Edmund for custody of his children (one son and five daughters); legal disputes followed, with charges and counter-charges, including the accusation that the badly tended child Henry committed incest with a sister. The Battestins are unable to rule out the possibility of incest between Henry and one or more sisters.

That the child Henry was surrounded by women may account for his later persistent belittling of female intellect and abilities, yet women were the people he most trusted. Henry entered the proud male enclave of the "public" school at Eton, a privileged association of which he was to boast -- but in his second year he ran away and back to his grandmother. His father remained elusive and uncaring. A military man, Edmund Fielding at his zenith was Governor of Jersey, but what money he had he spent or gambled away. The father's impecunious state prevented the son from establishing himself in the social regions in which he felt he belonged by right of the father's bloodline. When Henry was struggling to support a wife and children, Edmund was temporarily wealthy (after the convenient death of a third wife) and obviously dying. Henry hoped for a rich inheritance, but the patriarch foiled him again by marrying once more.

Henry Fielding was forever striving to enter some social world of magical power and authority to which he was entitled, but from which he was frustratingly debarred. The romance-plots of his novels, stories of displaced children reinstated, have an allegorically autobiographical basis. Unlike the genial Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones, however, Henry Fielding the displaced child was most unwilling to accept fate cheerfully and wait for providential rearrangements. The man the Battestins depict is a man in a perpetual state of rage.

The Battestins obviously regret that the Henry who emerges from the data is very different from the sunny, wise, and benevolent gentlemen in whom admirers of Tom Jones (1749) wish to believe. The Henry Fielding his contemporaries knew was not very gentlemanly. His bad temper was notorious. He was once charged with assault, for beating up a man who said that Fielding did not intend to pay his creditors (a statement well-grounded in probability). Fielding could dish out criticism -- even savage satire -- but he could not take it. When in 1748 Samuel Foote, the comic dramatist, described Fielding as "a dirty Fellow . . . a Quid of Tobacco in his Jaws, that runs up and down . . . begging Money," the infuriated Fielding in his own periodical conducted a trial of Foote and pronounced a "Judgment" not weakened by subtlety: "that you . . . be p-ssed upon . . . and I do, with the utmost Scorn and Contempt, p-ss upon you accordingly."

Yet Fielding was a remarkably "dirty Fellow," even by the relaxed standards of Grub Street. Numerous descriptions record his snuff-stained clothes and the streams of chewing-tobacco juice running down his chin. And he often was "begging Money." Henry imitated Edmund Fielding in reckless spending, and gambled away the proceeds of his writing. Henry's lack of funds was never the result of imprudent generosity. The only instance of generosity adduced by his biographers is his marrying his servant Mary Daniel (housekeeper and caretaker of the children of his first marriage) when she was pregnant by him. This is not a piece of very high-flown benevolence, and might be an act of expedience. Even the poor Daniels family could be pressed into helping out the Fieldings (the demands later posed by Fielding's last illness seem to have helped drive his mother-in-law to such desperation that she cut her throat in the privy).

Extravagance can be an endearing trait, but Fielding's perpetual overspending seems related to the anger of the displaced child who feels he deserves better than he receives. The anger close to the surface also emerges in Fielding's abusive language. In an age in which profanity was not under-practiced, Fielding was proficient. His cursing was as well-known as his dirtiness and his love of eating and drinking to excess. "Bedaub'd o'er with Snuff, and drunk as a Drum" is how one fellow Grub Streeter describes him, adding, "This Gentleman is so self-conceited that he quarrels with everyone that shews him a Fault." The more one looks at the Fielding his contemporaries knew, the more one realizes that the old smoothie, the polite Author of Tom Jones, is Fielding's most ambitious invention, an elaborate fiction.

As a young dramatist and manager of his own company in the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, Fielding developed his own form of Aristophanic topical drama, often satirizing Robert Walpole, the domineering prime minister. Fielding's play The Historical Register stimulated Walpole and his Parliament into passing the Licensing Act, which subjected drama to strict censorship. Having ruined his own career in the theatre, Fielding took up a career in the law, increased his journalistic output, and began writing novels. IT WOULD BE agreeable to present Fielding as a theatrical David, slinging bravely away at the Goliath Great Man. But the truth is murkier. Fielding changed his political coat several times, and had hopes of Walpole, who had elevated corruption and bribery into political arts. The Battestins say that Fielding "had few unnecessary scruples about hiring out his talent as a writer to whoever would pay him . . ." He would have made a great speechwriter. More dubious morally than Fielding's acting as a freelance is his willingness to use his writing for blackmail -- soliciting and accepting money to suppress a work. This he undoubtedly did. Nothing in his lfe is more repellent than his public flirting with Walpole in periodical essays that broadly hint at his willingess to be bought -- or bought off.

Walpole's supporters accused Fielding of ingratitude. Gratitude was not his strong point though he had occasion for it. No friend seems to have gone unimportuned for money. The last illusion the Battestins cling to is that Fielding had a "simple gift for friendship." The Fielding in their pages, however, entered into shifting associations to serve various objectives. His relations with others often turned into hostility, and were always based on some kind of self-interest. In Amelia he analyzes what we now call male bonding very critically, but perhaps he was a man who never really "bonded." He told James Harris that he should feel flattered at having a letter from a man who hates writing letters: "I can never give Man or Woman with whom I have no Business (which the Satisfaction of Lust may well be called) a more certain Token of a violent Affection then by writing to the . . ." Yet he had much "Business" with the urbane, polished and wealthy Harris, who had a great deal to give, including contact with patrons and, of course, money. Harris offered even more than these. In studying Harris, and in writing letters to him, Fielding caught the tone for the author of Tom Jones.

Fielding's last career as a magistrate (once he was reconciled to the government) was a solution of sorts to his needs, including his want of income. With commendable integrity he refused to take bribes from local criminals, as other magistrates did; he could, however, hope for the continued patronage of the Duke of Bedford. The magistracy gave him a social power hitherto denied. The job had a peculiar fitness to his temperament as one of the few vocations for which anger is a respectable talent. Raging against dens of iniquity, fulminating at felons, Fielding was in his element. His last published writings were two angry pamphlets on crime prevention and on the treatment of the unemployed poor. His solutions (sudden private executions, gigantic workhouses) seem as bad as the ills they are meant to cure.

The mega-workhouse was a fantasy of the dying Fielding. His death, the Battestins suggest, resulted from cirrhosis of the liver. They see his suspiciousness and rage on his deathbed at Lisbon as the effects of mortal disease, but it seems sadly in keeping with Fielding's past temper that some of the last words from his pen should be raging denunciations, this time of his wife and of her companion Margaret Collier, formerly his own friend, now "the most artful wicked B---- in the world." His wrath is not just a rage against the dying of the light, but an expression of what Pope would have called "the Ruling Passion."

Margaret Anne Doody, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is the author of a life of Frances Burney.