1749. ebook. 642 pages.
Recommended by: Eva
It’s been a while since I’ve read an 18th century novel. Most of my experience with them dates back to high school – Voltaire’s Candide, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year. So aside from a few truly old works like the 10th century The Pillow Book, my classics reading has mostly involved 19th century and 20th century books.
Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones seems decidedly different from the later 19th century English novels I have read. It’s a lot more earthy for one. There’s a notable scene where a young woman is jested by the village for wearing a fine dress to church, and her retaliation instigates an all-out brawl where bones from the graveyard are wielded as weapons.
The titular Tom Jones was left as an infant of mysterious origins on the estate of a kind country squire named Allworthy. Allworthy raises Tom almost as a son, and Tom grows into a good-looking rascal who means well most of the time. In particular, Tom is fond of the ladies and the ladies are fond of Tom.
This lands Tom in trouble when he falls in love with the neighboring squire’s angelic daughter, Sophia. This along with other circumstances causes him to be banished from his home and wander the English countryside, staying in a succession of inns. Sophia herself runs away from home to escape a forced marriage to a man she hates. Along the way, Tom meets a variety of people and a variety of scrapes. In the background, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion is underway.
Tom Jones is definitely a comic novel and Fielding is a playful writer. The ridiculousness and self-centeredness of humanity is on display, though free of misanthropy. The following quote is from a debate among guests at an inn about how much they should fear the success of the Jacobite rebellion and its Catholic supporters:
[The landlady:] “I know a great many papishes that are very honest sort of people, and spend their money very freely; and it is always a maxim with me, that one man’s money is as good as another’s.”
“Very true, mistress,” said the puppet-show man, “I don’t care what religion comes; provided the Presbyterians are not uppermost; for they are enemies to puppet-shows.”
I also enjoyed when Fielding riffed on more formal styles of writing:
Twelve times did the iron register of time beat on the sonorous bell-metal, summoning the ghosts to rise and walk their nightly round. – In plainer language, it was twelve o’clock, and all the family, as we have said, lay buried in drink and sleep…
Not gonna lie, I did find reading Tom Jones to be hard work most of the time. I’m not used to the 18th century prose and it sometimes required an increased concentration to sort out the meaning. Also, each “book” in the novel (of which there are eighteen) starts with an introduction. The introductions are basically mini-essays on topics that may or may not relate to the plot. In one introduction, Fielding rails against his critics, calling them little reptiles. That was entertaining, but not all of the introductions were. Fortunately, we have Fielding’s own permission to skip the introductions if we choose, and I did sometimes skim them, especially toward the end.
So it’s more of an appreciation rather than love that I feel toward Tom Jones, and also I like the expansion it brings to my literary experience. It’s a clever novel, though I would say it went on too long for my tastes.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Eva (The Charm of It) – “The whole book is such a romp, but just when you think Fielding couldn’t be sillier, he busts out some classical allusions to remind you of his credentials.”
intense sensations – “If you’re not sure what a personality looks like when it’s poured into a novel, you could read Tom Jones.”
Teresa (reviewer on Goodreads) – “I’m not saying it’s not well written or interesting BUT there is a lot of useless prattle that kind of drags the thing out in a most annoying fashion.”