Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding (67 down 33 to go)

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

There is in true beauty something which vulgar souls cannot admire

This is the first time I’ve read The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling or Henry Fielding. The novel, often referred to simply as Tom Jones, is from the Enlightenment period and is considered a comic novel, a picaresque novel, and a bildungsroman. It is the third-person narrative telling the tale of Tom Jones, who is abandoned at the estate of a wealthy squire in early to mid 18th century England. It is considered part of the Western Canon of literature.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Elsewhere I have described Tom Jones as being rather Dickensian, but this is a bit unfair to Henry Fielding as he preceded Charles Dickens by a full century. It would be more appropriate to describe Dickens’ writings as Fieldingesque. Dickens was certainly influenced by Fielding, claiming to have read Tom Jones as a child. Dickens’ own alter-ego read Tom Jones in the novel David Copperfield and Oliver Twist is particularly reminiscent of Tom Jones. Perhaps the greatest proof of Dickens’ admiration for Fielding though, is that Dickens named one of his children Henry Fielding Dickens.

It is not surprising then that I enjoyed Tom Jones, as I am a fan of Dickens.

The tale begins with the introduction of Squire Allworthy, an aptronym if ever there was one. The squire, a wealthy country nobleman and widower, is the embodiment of grace and virtue and is admired by peers, servants, and people of every class. He has no children and shares his home in Somerset with his sister Bridget.

Enter Tom Jones. Upon returning home from a London business trip, the squire discovers the abandoned child in his own bed. Given what I’ve already told you of Squire Allworthy, you can probably guess what follows: the squire takes custody of the child, names him Tom Jones using the surname of the suspected mother, and raises him as his own. He grows to love and be loved by young Tom.

The Squire’s sister marries and has a child, who becomes the squire’s presumed heir. Although the squire loves Tom, it is clear he does not intend to supplant his true blood relation, though he does intend to make generous provision for Tom.

There is also a love story. Tom develops a passionate, but hopeless infatuation with Sophia, the beautiful and virtuous heiress of a neighboring nobleman. Tom’s lack of title and legitimate parentage, make a match virtually impossible even though Sophy returns Tom’s affection.

From what I’ve told you about the Dickensian feel of this novel, you might guess that Tom becomes the victim of ambition and jealously. He is unjustly, but convincingly defamed to his benefactor and is cast into the world with little means and less hope. His ruined condition dashes the already slim chances he had of winning Sophy.

Tom encounters Partridge, a man whose own fate is similarly ruined and intricately intertwined with his own. In fact, the squire and others suspect Partridge to be Tom’s father. However, Tom is not aware of this suspicion. Partridge becomes Tom’s companion and one true, though sometimes troublesome, friend. The two have numerous adventures and are a bit reminiscent of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. From time to time there is a glimmer of hope that all is not lost, but each time, things turn out worse than before. Tom is often his own worst enemy. He is by all accounts a very handsome young man, and he commits several peccadillos with older women. Sophy learns of these infidelities, further dashing Tom’s hopes. Eventually Tom is arrested, falsely accused of the murder of a jealous husband.

All seems truly lost.

But, if Dickens learned from Fielding, perhaps Fielding learned from Shakespeare – the truth will out.

Slowly the tide begins to turn for Tom. The jealous husband unexpectedly lives and asserts Tom’s innocence. Other long concealed secrets come to light, some known to the reader, others quite startling. After several unexpected twists Tom is exonerated, villains are exposed, and other victims besides Tom are restored. Justice is finally served, but there is still little hope for Tom and Sophy. I’ll spare the spoiler, though it shouldn’t be hard to guess.

I only have two minor complaints with this novel. First, it is very wordy. That’s not a very precise criticism and it would be difficult to explain without being wordy myself. Fielding often says in a full paragraph, or two, what could be said in a single sentence. I think this is at least in part, characteristic of 18th and 19th century English prose. I might make the same observation of Dickens or Austen, but while I enjoy the elegant dialogue in their novels, the narrative tends to be a bit more to the point. Whereas even Fielding’s narrative is very elaborate, formal, and intricate. It certainly contributes to the great length of this novel, which in my opinion is longer than necessary.

My second complaint is partially related to the first. Fielding uses this wordiness, and the first 1000 pages to get Jones into trouble – and then barely 100 pages to get him out. To be honest Jones’ vindication came too quickly, too easily, too completely.

But I’ll overlook both these points, in favor of one rather brilliant achievement. Tom Jones is described as a picaresque novel – an engagingly roguish hero. That’s certainly apt. The first time Tom jumped into bed with another woman, after he had professed an exalted love for Sophy that was unequaled in the annals of romance, I was pretty disgusted with him. He was fickle and cavalier, and utterly unworthy of Sophy’s love. Fielding, in his role as the narrator, warns the reader that very good people at times commit great blunders, and they should not be judged in the whole by an action that is but a part.

Yeah right. Well, yeah, that is right but I was not prepared to forgive Tom.

But in the subsequent wordy chapters, Fielding gradually convinced me of Tom’s worth. I could easily believe he could make Tom likeable, but I would have doubted he could ever make him admirable.

And yet, he did. And you, reading this – are probably not convinced. Read this wonderful, wordy, novel and decide for yourself.

Excerpts:

There is in true beauty something which vulgar souls cannot admire

…for we never choose to assign motives to the actions of men, when there is any possibility of being mistaken. – narrative

True it is, that philosophy makes us wiser, but Christianity makes us better men. Philosophy elevates and steels the mind, Christianity softens and sweetens it. The Former makes us the objects of human admiration, the latter of Divine love. That insures us a temporal, but this an eternal happiness. ~ Narrative

The author who will make me weep, says Horace, must first weep himself.

His smiles at folly were indeed such as we may suppose the angels bestow on the absurdities of mankind. ~ Narrative regarding Squire Allworthy

The narrator, and characters, make references to numerous works of literature or authors including:
Homer, Virgil, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe.


Film Adaptation: I watched two versions: 1997 A&E / BBC 5 hour television mini-series was pretty good, but I expected to prefer the 1962 film with Albert Finney as Tom and Susannah York as Sophie.  It won the Academy Award for best picture after all and four other Oscars, and five more nominations including Best Actor for Finney. I am apparently no film critic, but I thought it was rather awful. As usual in my experience, BBC does a better job with Fielding, Austen, Dickens.

2 comments:

  1. I have been dreading this book but you have assured me if I push through th wordiness I will find an entertaining classic!
    Thanks for the great review!
    I see 84% done....there is light at the end of the tunnel!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, push on. It's worth it. 84% is for my Classics Club Challenge, not the overall 100 novel quest. That stands at 67%

      Delete

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