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:
One situation only of the married State is excluded from Pleasure; and that is, a State of Indifference; but as many of my Readers, I hope, know what an exquisite Delight there is in conveying Pleasure to a beloved Object, so some few, I am afraid, may have experienced the Satisfaction of tormenting one we hate. It is, I apprehend, to come at this latter Pleasure, that we see both Sexes often give up that Ease in Marriage, which they might otherwise possess, tho' their Mate was never so disagreeable to them. Hence the Wife often puts on Fits of Love and Jealousy, nay, even denies herself any Pleasure, to disturb and prevent those of her Husband; and he again, in return, puts frequent Restraints on himself, and stays at home in Company which he dislikes, in order to confine his Wife to what she equally detests. Hence too must flow those Tears which a Widow sometimes so plentifully sheds over the Ashes of a Husband with whom she led a Life of constant Disquiet and Turbulency, and whom now she can never hope to torment any more. (Bk. II, Ch. VII)
Here's Fielding's dripping-with-irony description of the marriage between Squire Western and his deceased wife:
He very seldom swore at her (perhaps not above once a Week) and never beat her: She had not the least Occasion for Jealousy, and was perfect Mistress of her Time: for she never interrupted by her Husband, who was engaged all the Morning in his Field Exercises, and all the Evening with Bottle Companions. She scarce indeed ever saw him but at meals; where she had the Pleasure of carving those Dishes which she had before attended at the Dressing. From these Meals she retired about five Minutes after the other Servants, having only stayed to drink the King over the Water [a Jacobite toast]. Such were, it seems, Mr. Western's Orders: For it was a Maxim with him, that Women should come in with the first Dish, and go out after the first Glass. Obedience to these Orders was perhaps no difficult Task: For the Conversation (if it may be called so) was seldom such as could entertain a Lady. It consisted chiefly of Hollowing, Singing, Relations of sporting Adventures, B—d–y, and Abuse of Women and of the Government. (Bk. VII, Ch. IV)
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:
Now that Part of his Head which Nature designed for the Reservoir of Drink, being very shallow, a small Quantity of Liquor overflowed it, and opened the Sluices of his Heart; so that all the Secrets there deposited ran out. (Bk. X, Ch. V)
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:
The Company having now pretty well satisfied their Thirst, nothing remained but to pay the Reckoning, a Circumstance often productive of much Mischief and Discontent among the inferior Rank of Gentry; who are apt to find great Difficulty in assessing the Sum, with exact Regard to distributive Justice, which directs, that every Man shall pay according to the Quantity which he drinks. This Difficulty occurred upon the present Occasion; and it was the greater, as some Gentlemen had, in their extreme Hurry, marched off, after their first Draught, and had entirely forgot to contribute anything towards the said Reckoning. (Bk. VII, Ch. XI)
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:
"Come, Sophy, once more let me beg you to be a good Girl, and gee me your Consent before your Cousin."
"Let me give him your Hand, Cousin," said the Lady. "It is the Fashion now-a-days to dispense with Time and long Courtships."
"Pugh," said the Squire, "what signifies Time; won't they have Time enough to court afterwards? People may court very well after they have been a-bed together."
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.