Putting the history of the novel together is an endeavour that rewards and frustrates the reader. And this month I’ve actually experience both sensations. Frustration when I gave up Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy halfway through in exhausted disgust at the incessant digressions and ramblings of the narrator. And reward when, days before this shameful event, I finished Henry Fielding’s uproarious novel Tom Jones.
The 18th century is correctly considered a seminal century in the development of the novel, and my slow-moving incursions into its literary treasures bear that out. Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Hugh Walpole and all the influence the Gothic novel had on the 19th and 20th century – it’s fascinating to see the this new medium called novel emerge and affirm itself. Even in Sterne’s novel, for all the unpleasantness it made me feel, I can see its shadow looming over many 20th century novels. Fielding’s novel is quite conventional by comparison, but then I’m a reader of conventional tastes, perhaps that’s why it appealed more strongly to me.
As with so many novels from this period, I think my interest in Tom Jones began in the pages of Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, one of the best guides to the history of the novel I’ve ever read. In fact there are many similarities between Fielding and Kundera, namely a preoccupation with erotic themes, a mixture of low and high comedy, and an erudite, digressive, omniscient narrator fully in control of his characters and the plot. Kundera, who also admires Sterne greatly in his essays, doesn’t imitate his extreme abolition of plot but seems to have found in Fielding’s balance between narrator and storyteller the perfect equilibrium.
Tom Jones is a very easy novel to describe. There’s a squire, Mr. Allworthy, who finds an abandoned baby in his bed one night, presumably some poor woman’s bastard, and he decides to raise him as his own son. Of course Tom is not of noble stock and this causes many difficulties when he falls in love with Sophia, daughter of Squire Western. Due to his malevolent cousin Blifin’s schemes, Tom is thrown out and he shares in many adventures on his way to London, where he reencounters Sophia and discovers that, for the sake of a happy ending, he’s not a bastard after all but the son of Mr. Allworthy’s decease sister. And this would have been a pretty flimsy novel if Fielding hadn’t laboured it so much.
It’s ironic that after stating that I didn’t like Tristram Shandy, the thing I most enjoyed in Tom Jones was the intrusive, digressive narrator. The difference is that this narrator complements the story rather than trying to replace it. He’s like a forerunner of José Saramago’s omniscient narrator, sarcastically commenting on the action while it unfolds. It’s one more voice, not the only one. It’s also amusing that this narrator treats the reader with the utmost delicacy. “Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any farther together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself better judge than any pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no ways concern them; for till they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead to their jurisdiction.” Each of the eighteen books composing the novel is prefaced by a chapter where the narrator discourses on the medium of the novel, or what he calls ‘prosai-comi-epic writing’. I wasn’t convinced when he declared him ‘founder of a new province of writing,’ since Fielding was obviously familiar with Don Quixote, but Tom Jones is different enough from Moll Flanders and Gulliver’s Travels to impose itself as something absolutely new on English letters. As such the narrator considers necessary to educate the reader through micro-essays on the art of novel-writing illustrated and expanded upon by the action itself.
It must also be said that the narrator’s convivial spirit makes his voice a pleasure to read. Right at the beginning he reassures the reader that he will ‘find in the whole course of it nothing prejudicial to the cause of religion and virtue, nothing inconsistent with the strictest rules of decency, nor which can offend even the chastest eye in the perusal. On the contrary, I declare, that to recommend goodness and innocence hath been my sincere endeavour in the history.” This right before he starts a novel involving bastards, prostitutes, and many sexual frolics between Tom and a slew of women. To be fair, he’s correct in saying that the novel seeks not to upset morality since Tom slowly matures into a respectable, virtuous man devoted only to his true love, Sophia. Or as the narrator puts it:
Our modern authors of comedy have fallen almost universally into the error here hinted at; their heroes generally are notorious rogues, and their heroines abandoned jades, during the first four acts; but in the fifth, the former become very worthy gentlemen, and the latter women of virtue and discretion: nor is the writer often so kind as to give himself the least trouble to reconcile or account for this monstrous change and incongruity. There is, indeed, no other reason to be assigned for it, than because the play is drawing to a conclusion; as if it was no less natural in a rogue to repent in the last act of a play, than in the last of his life (…)
But the 700 pages of the novel take a long time to get to the novel’s moral, namely that “there is more pleasure, even in this world, in an innocent and virtuous life than in one debauched and vicious.”
The novel is concerned with virtue and goodness, but Tom hardly needs lessons on it. Since boyhood he’s shown to be brave, kind-hearted, and sensitive to the poor, earning him the devotion of many people in spite of his base origin. Tom possesses many weaknesses, but on the whole he’s a good boy. Even with the narrator’s warning – “We do not pretend to introduce any infallible characters into this history; where we hope nothing will be found which hath never yet been seen in human nature.” – Tom is free of criticism for the most part. The novel is less forgiving with characters guilty of hypocrisy, who presume to speak of religion and virtue but internally are vulgar and mean-spirited. Examples include Reverend Thwackum and the philosopher Square, the men hired by Mr. Allworthy to instruct Tom and Blifil. Whereas Tom is seen ignoring their lessons and edifying speeches on the virtuous spirit, and nevertheless grows into a fine gentleman, Blifil, who never misses a chance to earn their approval, absorbs their teachings lock, stock and barrel and turns into a nasty piece of work. Without anyone’s help Tom turns into a generous-hearted, responsible man, similar in personality only to his uncle, the fair and compassionate Squire Allworthy, perhaps as foreshadowing of their true kinship.
Another hypocritical character is the brash, energetic Squire Western, who loves to throw ‘heart curses’ at people, and has the hilarious habit of listening behind doors and bursting into a room in the worst possible situations. Living for his dogs, guns, horses, he’s also an admirer of wine and a doting father to Sophia, even though he wants to marry her against her will to Blifil, in order to join both estates. At first he likes Tom because he’s a bit like him, a bon vivant, and praises him as a ‘liquorish dog’ for chasing after ‘wenches.’ But then he discovers Sophia loves him and he does everything in his power, which fortunately isn’t a lot, to destroy the young man. Finally when he discovers Tom is really Allworthy’s nephew, he has another about-face. Squire Western is a buffoon, a fine specimen of comical relief. Just about every line he utters is abounding with humour. On Sophia only wanting to marry a man she loves, he says, “If she marries the man I would ha' her, she may love whom she pleases, I shan't trouble my head about that." His best scenes are at the end, in London, when Sophia starts being courted by one Lord Fellmar, evoking the country squire’s full contempt for the aristocratic class. "Why, then, to tell you plainly, we have been all this time afraid of a son of a whore of a bastard of somebody's, I don't know whose, not I. And now here's a confounded son of a whore of a lord, who may be a bastard too for what I know or care, for he shall never have a daughter of mine by my consent. They have beggared the nation, but they shall never beggar me.”
This hypocrisy and duplicity isn’t restricted to the higher class, though. When Tom is expelled from his uncle’s estate, he immediately loses the five hundred pounds Allworthy gave him as a farewell gift. Black George, a poor poacher Tom had previously helped, assists him in searching for the bank note, knowing full well that it’s in his pocket. Later on, when a moneyless Tom, is walking on the road to London, he comes across several characters who treat him differently according to what they perceive his social status to be. For Tom is a contradiction, a poor man dressed in elegant clothes and refined manners, causing confusion wherever he goes. This is best exemplified when he meets a Quaker, who makes small chat with him, mistaking him for a nobleman. When he learns that Tom is a bastard, his demeanour changes immediately. “The Quaker was no sooner assured by this fellow of the birth and low fortune of Jones, than all compassion for him vanished; and the honest plain man went home fired with no less indignation than a duke would have felt at receiving an affront from such a person.” The novel makes one thing crystal clear: being poor was hell in the 18th century.
My one grievance with the novel is that I hoped Fielding would be well enough ahead of his time not to make Tom Allworthy’s true kith and kin. After the liberal spirit of the novel, this sounds like a hasty retreat into class loyalty that runs against the themes of the novel. Otherwise it’s one of the funniest and best novels I read in 2013 so far.
This novel was read for the European Reading Challenge.