The story of Jonathan Wild is founded upon the life of a notorious thief, informer and receiver of stolen goods who was hanged at Tyburn in 1725. Wild's actual career as tyrant of the London underworld is described in one of Defoe's pamphlets. Fielding used his name and notoriety as inspiration and advertisement for his book, but he wound around them a work of remarkable fiction. For his novel is a sustained essay in irony superimposed upon a realistic background of Georgian criminal life. By treating every villainous design of Wild's as if it were proof of greatness of mind, Fielding turns morality upside-down for the purpose of his satire.
Few novels have been written throughout in irony, and so it is not surprising that Jonathan Wild has sometimes been misjudged. Sir Walter Scott, for instance, whose Lives of the Novelists is generally a perspicacious book, remarks: 'It is not easy to see what Fielding proposed to himself by a picture of complete vice, unrelieved by anything of human feeling'. Scott must have read hurriedly, for Fielding makes his meaning abundantly plain, and also provides in the virtuous Heartfree family exactly the human relief required. The late George Saintsbury, on the other hand, who was the most encyclopedic of authorities on the English novel, considered that Fielding wrote no greater book. In a sense, Saintsbury was undoubtedly right; for although Fielding's other three novels offer a fuller and more sympathetic picture of human affairs, none tells a more lively and sharply pointed a story than Jonathan Wild.
Fielding's novel first appeared as the third volume of his Miscellanies, published by subscription in 1743—the first two volumes containing a selection from his minor writings: poems, plays and moral and political essays. The list of subscribers included many eminent names, among them William Pitt, Henry Fox, Lord Chesterfield and David Garrick. Fielding was then thirty-six years old, and well known as a satirical dramatist, pamphleteer and editor of weekly journals modelled on Addison and Steele's Spectator. His first novel, Joseph Andrews, had been favourably received in the previous year: it is a satire upon Richardson's Pamela—a sentimental and sometimes immodest novel about a