Wednesday 8 May 2019

Review: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ by Henry Fielding (Part One)

The first version of GrubStLodger was called and I attempted to make a ‘proper’ website. Later I discovered that my skills at arranging it were not up to the task and I chose to go with the simpler blog format. The first post on that original site was a review of Henry Fielding’s ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’. I have lost that original review and felt I needed one, so here it is.

‘Tom Jones’ is not only my favourite eighteenth century novel but probably my favourite novel of all time. For such a doorstop of a book, I’ve read it four times and enjoy it more on each re-read. 

It’s the story of Tom Jones, found as a baby on Squire Allworthy’s bed and brought up by him as a son. As he grows, he becomes a good-hearted boy but impetuous and naive. Through the course of the narrative, he has to gain wisdom enough to be worthy of a happy and settled life, frequently being led into scrapes by his own foolhardy nature and the snares of the sneakier people that surround him.

From my first read, nearly ten years ago, the general experience has been the same. The first third, where Tom is grows up in Somerset, is as close to perfect as a book gets and I gallop through it with ease and pleasure. The second third, where Tom has adventures on the road, is an enjoyable romp but not as immersive as the first. The final third, set in London, is an almost interminable succession of misadventures and mistakes which I find such a slog that when I get to the end, my pleasure is as much relief as it is satisfaction. However, the first part is so very good (and the second pretty good) that I can still excuse the third and rate the book as high as I do.

The novel is separated into eighteen books, which contain different amounts of time. These books are then separated into short chapters. This is a boon to me, as I love a short chapter, they make me feel like I am making progress and if they are short then it’s always easy to read just one more. The chapters are given useful titles that give a clue to the contents, such as;

“Containing five pages of paper”
“In which the reader will be surprised”
“A little chapter in which is contained a little incident” - which is followed by;
“A very long chapter containing a very large incident”
“Containing such grave matter, that the reader cannot laugh once through the whole chapter, unless peradventure he should laugh at the author”

I love these chapter headings, I could probably quote them all, particularly the ones that run towards the end of the book, teasing the reader about the upcoming denouement. They also serve to introduce the particular strength of the book, Henry Fielding’s controlled use of tone. Whereas ‘Joseph Andrews’ is too silly, ‘Amelia’ too serious and ‘Jonathan Wilde’ too arch - ‘Tom Jones’ manages to balance all the flavours perfectly.

At the beginning of each book, Fielding directly addresses the reader in a sort of curtain-piece. In these he pretends to wax lyrical, joshes the reader, instructs them in how to read a novel such as his and also describes his own writing style. At one point he describes the kind of person who can write such a novel as his, claiming they need genius, learning, a good knowledge of the world and a feeling heart. He manages to style this list of job requirements as both a buffoonish boast and an honest description. He also describes how, as an author, he needs to be engaged with what he is writing, saying;
“I am convinced I never make my reader laugh heartily but where I have laughed before him.”

The first third of the novel oozes, drips and seethes irony from every pore and barely one thing is said that is not intended as its opposite. He talks about, “the good natured disposition of the mob” and some giving “good advice” by means of blood-curdling threats. It’s not the cynical irony of later Fielding works but playful and fun. 

He’s also fond of the mock-heroic, the most famous part being the ‘battle’ in the churchyard written as a scene from ‘The Iliad’ but repeated time and time again in his elevation of all the tiny parts of people’s lives. Even his book introductions are mock-heroic, with his frequent expostulations on his own genius. 

As the book goes on, the playfulness drops a little as the plot takes more hold, but the playfulness never disappears completely and the often laugh-out-loud funny narrator often comes in to explain or contextualise events. There are those who will hate Fielding for the intrusiveness of his narrator but I find it one of the particular charms of the book.

Another criticism of the book was given by Samuel Johnson, who said that Fielding only understood people the way a person looking at a clock-face understands it. Compared to Richardson, he found Fielding to be shallow in his understanding of people and their characters. While it is true that ‘Tom Jones’ rarely enters the heads of it’s characters, preferring instead to talk of muscles in the mouth and expressions on the face, I found this to be far superior to RIchardson’s endless examination of every character’s motivations. Dickens was another great novelist who dealt principally with what he saw on the surface and managed to create numerous vivid characters that way. In one of his curtain-pieces, Fielding compares what he is doing to that of Hogarth (a good friend) and says that while he is creating vivid characters he does not want to step into caricature. A deep, insightful look at the people in the novel would rob it of much of its fun and vitality. 

Finally, I did think it strange that an author who started out as a playwright but doesn’t portray whole conversations but reports most of them with the occasional piece of direct speech to give a flavour. Given the conversation we do get, were I be able to go back in time and ask for a little more dialogue.

‘Tom Jones’ is a book I could talk about for pages and pages but my fingers are wearing down and the time is getting late, so next week I will talk about the other main reason I love this novel - the characters.

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