Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”

September 5, 2007
New York, NY

In 1747 and 1748, Samuel Richardson published his novel Clarissa, which I read earlier this summer. In 1749, Henry Fielding published The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, which I just finished. It was a good three years for English literature. (The year 1748 also saw the publication of Tobias Smollett's Adventures of Roderick Random and David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.)

Clarissa and Tom Jones are very different novels, and not just because Clarissa is a tragedy and Tom Jones is a comedy. The two works have entirely different narrative strategies. Clarissa is a series of letters that reveal the characters' personalities in extreme and often agonizing depth. Although Richardson obviously wrote every word of Clarissa, he masquerades as merely the "editor" of these letters and stays very much in the background, only showing up in occasional footnotes to clarify something, or to point out a connection the lazy reader may have missed.

Fielding, on the other hand, is rarely absent from the pages of Tom Jones. The novel is divided into 18 "books" of about a dozen chapters each, and the introductory chapter of each book is a prologue in which Fielding discourses on the novel he's writing, his theories of aesthetics, and even the nature of prologues themselves. The narrator isn't omniscient; he mostly records only what a bystander might have seen and heard. Fielding's characters reveal themselves through their conversation and actions, but there is never an illusion that these are real people. It's not quite like the artifice of Thackeray — who pulls his characters out of a box of puppets at the beginning of Vanity Fair and at the end stuffs them back in — but it's close. Some characters disappear and then show up later in the novel in an unrecognizable form. Fielding manipulates his characters in whatever way he sees fit.

This is not to say that Clarissa is a superior novel to Tom Jones (although Clarissa definitely made a much deeper impression on me). Both works confidently satisfy the general purpose of novels — which is to tell us something about the human condition, or of human nature. Fielding is much aware of the flaws and foibles that come with being human, but he treats these characteristics as relatively unimportant in what makes a person truly good or bad. Tom's biggest fault is his naivete. He trusts everyone, and people often take advantage of him. He frequently gets into trouble, but Fielding lets us know that he has a good heart.

At the beginning of the novel, Squire Allsworthy discovers an abandoned baby in his bed. The mother is quickly found out but the father is not. Squire Allsworthy decides to raise the boy as his own despite the prejudices against bastards — "even at his first Appearance, that it was the universal Opinion of all Mr. Allworthy's Family that he was certainly born to be hanged." (Bk. III, Ch. 2) Complicating matters in the household is the marriage between Squire Allworthy's sister Bridget and a Captain Blifil that produces a son. The young Blifil and Tom Jones become rivals. Although the reader clearly sees Blifil as a weasel — and why else would he have such a ridiculous name? — he is strangely held in high esteem by everyone.

Tom Jones mostly involves the love between Tom Jones and the beautiful Sophia Western. Everyone else, however, thinks Sophia is too good for the bastard, and they try to keep the two as widely separated as possible. She is slated for a marriage to Blifil by her father, the Squire Western, who is crude, a bully, a drunk, and — perhaps worst of all in Fielding's eyes — a Jacobite. (Part of the novel takes place during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and Tom briefly becomes part of the army that put down the rebellion.)

The separation from Sophia is not entirely good for Tom — who has a love-the-one-you're-with philosophy — but we find ourselves forgiving even those transgressions. Much of the novel is propelled but our justified faith that Fielding is eventually going to wrap up all the loose ends of the sprawling plot and get these two lovers properly together.

In the interim, we a treated to a wealth of bawdy and rollicking comic scenes, with frequent observations in Fielding's wonderful 18th-century prose:

Here's Fielding's dripping-with-irony description of the marriage between Squire Western and his deceased wife:

There is almost no drinking in Clarissa. (Whatever else people say about the profligate libertine Robert Lovelace, they are always forced to admit that he is a sober man.) There is a great deal of drinking and drunken behavior in Tom Jones, with often predictable results:

Much of the action of Tom Jones takes place in inns and taverns, and Fielding obviously had first-hand knowledge of the problems with large groups of drinkers when the check comes:

Sophia Western is in a similar predicament as the title character of Clarissa: Both are being forced into marraiges to men they despise. "Women in this Land of Liberty cannot be married by actual brutal Force" (Bk. XV, Ch. VII), Fielding observes, but parents, relatives, and friends could exert a great deal of pressure (as they can now), and Fielding has much fun with the scenes of persuasion and the often unreasonable arguments involved. Here's Squire Western and Sophia's cousin Lady Ballaston trying to confince Sophia to marry Blifil without any further haste:

It is in the exploration of love and courtship, and the similarities and contrasts of attitudes then and now, that make reading novels such as Clarissa and Tom Jones particularly fascinating.

I read a hardcover of the Modern Library edition of Tom Jones, which retains much of Fielding's spelling and typography (such as italicized names and frequent capitalized nouns) and has extensive footnotes by Fredson Bowers, who explains many topical references, and provides very helpful discussions showing how the narrative relates to Fielding's Whig politics and Latitudinarian religious beliefs. However, a few of the notes refer to plates that aren't present and a longer introduction, which also isn't present. The copyright page reveals that the Modern LIbrary edition "was originally published in different form by Wesleyan University Press ... in 1975." ABE lists a number of copies of that Wesleyan University Press edition at low cost, and if I were to do it all over again, that's the one I would use.