Reviewed by Allyson Patton
By Henry Fielding
Available in many editions, both soft and hardcover
“To invent good stories, and to tell them well, are possibly very rare talents,” observed Henry Fielding in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Published in 1749, Tom Jones has been hailed as one of the great comic novels of English literature and author Henry Fielding’s masterpiece. Yet novel writing was not Fielding’s first vocation, nor his second. His first successes came as a playwright, and later as a jurist and journalist.
Born at Sharpham Park, Somerset, in 1707, Henry Fielding was a descendant of earls and the grandson of Sir Henry Gould. After an Eton education, Fielding studied law abroad before returning home to work as a playwright. During the years 1728-37, he penned some 25 satirical plays of drama, comedy, farce and burlesque to critical and popular acclaim.
As a young man, Fielding liked the good life, “good wine, good clothes, and good company,” according to another noted satirist of the time, William Makepeace Thackeray. He described Fielding as “tall and stalwart; his face handsome, manly, and noble-looking.” Fielding displayed little self-restraint in his personal life or in his writing. His plays lampooned the government and took aim at the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. As a result, the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 was enacted, and the subsequent censorship effectively ended Fielding’s career as a playwright.
With his theater career over, Fielding turned to journalism and the law and was called to the bar in 1740. Two years later, he published his first novel, Joseph Andrews, to modest reception. In 1748 he was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster, and a year later he won the same position for Middlesex. Then came The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, a picaresque novel in which Fielding tackles the subjects of class, marriage for love vs. marriage for money, greed, jealousy, revenge, forgiveness, reconciliation and the search for wisdom. He tells his tale over the course of nearly 900 pages of biting satire. The book went into four editions within its first year, and became a bestseller.
Tom Jones is told in 18 books, each with a narrator who lends cheeky commentary throughout. The narration is so cleverly done it almost seems like a conversation with an old friend. As in the epics of old, the hero finds conflict at home, hits the road and undertakes a journey fraught with pitfalls and adventure. The conflict becomes resolved, and the hero returns home.
This very long and involved tale begins with the master of Paradise Hill, Squire Allworthy, returning home from a journey to find a babe in his bed. He is told that a local girl, Jenny Jones, is the child’s mother, and the kindly and charitable Allworthy sends the disgraced girl away and agrees to raise the child as his own. He names the boy Tom Jones. The good squire’s rather rigid sister Bridget uncharacteristically takes to the child, even after she marries a vile man who is only interested in her inheritance. From this marriage, Bridget has a son named Blifil, a noxious fellow.
The years pass and Tom grows into a handsome and generous young man. He does many kind and selfless acts, without notice or reward, but he is sadly lacking in judgment, and his kindnesses frequently come at the expense of the law. By age 14 Tom “has already been convicted of three robberies…and was universally disliked.” Or rather misunderstood. His thievery was committed to help an impoverished gamekeeper. Also, his interest in the fairer sex leads him into a number of precarious situations.
Meanwhile Sophia, the worthy and delightful daughter of neighboring Squire Western, has fallen in love with Tom. Squire Western wants her to marry Blifil to unite the Allworthy and Western estates, and though Western likes Tom, he has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a mere foundling. For his part, Blifil wants to marry Sophia for her money and to trump Tom, who by this time has come to the realization that he loves Sophia.
Then Squire Allworthy becomes seriously ill. Allworthy, however, recovers, and Tom gets drunk to celebrate. Blifil lies and tells Allworthy that Tom believed the squire was about to die and was celebrating his impending inheritance. A disappointed Allworthy banishes Tom.
Tom decides to go to sea, and Sophia runs away from home. While on the road Tom meets up with the man everyone, including Allworthy, has come to believe is Tom’s father. As they travel together, they encounter a ruffian attacking a woman of middling years. Tom rescues the woman, a Mrs. Waters, who later seduces Tom at a nearby inn. Further on in the novel, it is revealed that Mrs. Waters is none other than Jenny Jones, and Tom has a very bad Oedipal moment of believing himself to have slept with his mother.
Meanwhile Sophia arrives, learns of Tom’s infidelity and heads to London; Tom discovers her discarded muff at the inn and, realizing that she knows of his affair, follows. There Sophia stays with Lady Bellaston, who becomes intrigued by Sophia’s description of Tom. Upon Tom’s arrival in town, Lady Bellaston arranges a meeting with him, and they begin an affair.
Lady Bellaston keeps up the charade until Tom and Sophia accidentally meet in her drawing room. Sophia and Tom reconcile, but Sophia maintains that she cannot displease her father by marrying Tom. Lady Bellaston, not fond of taking second place, arranges for a friend of hers, who has fallen for Sophia, to rape and then elope with the girl.
Just in the nick of time, as young Sophia is about to be violated, in bursts her father, who has followed them all. Allworthy and Blifil also arrive in London. Meanwhile, Tom gets tossed into prison for assault, and Sophia learns of his affair with Lady Bellaston. Sophia writes Tom and tells him she never wants to see him again, and Tom learns that Mrs. Waters is Jenny Jones, his supposed mother.
It is here that Tom has the epiphany that changes the course of his life. “I am myself the cause of all my misery. All the dreadful mischiefs which have befallen me are the consequences only of my own folly and vice.” Our hero is about as low as low can get, but things are soon to brighten.
While in London, Allworthy learns of Tom’s many acts of generosity and chivalry and uncovers Blifil’s lies. Furthermore, the squire discovers that Blifil had kept from him a letter written by Allworthy’s sister on her deathbed. In it, Bridget confessed that Tom was in reality her son and that she had paid Jenny Jones to take responsibility.
Allworthy banishes Blifil and names Tom as his heir; subsequently Tom is released from jail, Squire Western enthusiastically agrees to marriage between Sophia and the newly elevated Tom, and Sophia forgives Tom. They marry and return to the country, and Western gives them his estate.
And that is making a long story very short.
The comedy in Tom Jones can be low, as when early in the novel Tom retreats into a grove with another girl after daydreaming about Sophia: “Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one.” Yet it suits the characters and the story, which is incredibly complex, with a huge cast of characters, plot twists too numerous to relate and humor sharp enough to cut a finger.
Allegories run amuck and satire rages. The character names alone — Allworthy, Thwackum, Sophia, the girl’s maid Mrs. Honour — are literary devices. How Fielding kept it all straight boggles the mind. Yet as Thackeray observed: “Fielding, too, has described, though with a greater hand, the characters and scenes which he knew and saw. He had more than ordinary opportunities for becoming acquainted with life. His family and education, first — his fortunes and misfortunes afterward, brought him into the society of every rank and condition of man. He is himself the hero of his books; he is wild Tom Jones….”