Henry Fielding was born in 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 the King's Army - died penniless not long after. At the age of 12, he was sent by his maternal grandmother to Eton for schooling and 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 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, got married to a woman named Charlotte and 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 afterwards. In 1749, Henry published his most well-known work, the satire Tom Jones; he modelled the heroine after Sara Andrews, the girl he stalked when he was 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.
Henry, suffering from asthma, gout, and jaundice, moved to Lisbon, Portugal in 1754, hoping that the warmer weather would benefit his health. Accompanying him and the rest of the crew on this journey were four cats, including one small kitten. On July 11 of that year, he later related, the sails were out but the ship was not making much headway, when the little kitten fell out of the 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". Henry, watching the action, was surprised by the captain's concern, and did not expect that the poor kitten would be recovered.
The boatswain, however, had other ideas. He tore off his jacket and shirt, and dove into the churning water. He disappeared for a while beneath the waves, and then returned with the kitten, motionless and soaked, in his mouth. Climbing up the ladder, he laid the waterlogged feline out on the deck of the ship and let him dry in the sunlight. A crowd gathered around, but there were no signs of life from the kitten, and the captain - putting on a brave face, and telling those around him that he would rather have lost a cask of brandy or rum - resigned himself to fate, and 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 his consciousness and recovered completely, to the great joy of some of the sailors, but the dismay of the more superstitious ones, who believed that if a cat drowned, they would get a good wind for their travels. 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 cat on a hammock from the Sun newspaper, March 18, 2012.