The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling was published over 250 years ago, but the book remains as fresh, lively and provocative as if it had just been written. It’s a novel that mocks and satirises its own time. Rigid social hierarchies and high class manners are prodded and parodied for their hypocrisy and ridiculousness. High society matrons insist on proper observation of pomp and ceremony while swanning around town having scandalous affairs, using their wealth and social standing to lift up or tear down the lives and reputations of others on a whim. Women are marvellously liberated, at least in thought and spirit, if not in terms of actual control over their fates. Sophia, Harriet Fitzpatrick, Mrs Waters, Nancy Miller and Harriet Nightingale follow their hearts, indulge their passions and, with the notable exception of Sophia, enjoy sex outside marriage, and things turn out fairly well for all of them.
The prudishness of the Victorian era is yet to take hold, and ‘loose’ behaviours are very much in evidence. Tom Jones is the worst offender, tumbling about with Molly and Mrs Waters, and engaging in rather vaguely defined love making with Lady Bellaston, while his heart all the while is dedicated to Sophia (there is never any conflict of interest; Jones draws a very convenient line between love and sex). Mrs Waters is undeniably a rather wanton sort, although she blames circumstances. Mr and Mrs Fitzpatrick are both engaged in passionate affairs outside their marriage. And all of the supposedly virtuous aunts – Bellaston, Western and Allworthy – have taken handsome younger men to their beds.
These shenanigans are closely observed and loudly expounded upon by the colourful array of servants and tradesmen who gossip around the kitchen fire and in their mistresses’ ears. They spill secrets, conjure up outrageous fabrications, connive, backstab and plot. They provide continuous comic relief, and a great deal of frustration, stoking misunderstandings and laying false trails.
Our heroes, Thomas Jones and Sophia Western, are quite simply the most beautiful, warm-hearted, kindest, bravest and passionate young pair to grace the pages of fiction. Tom is admittedly a rather more inconstant lover than most women would wish for, but his immense charm allows us, and Sophia, to forgive all.
Other personalities are cleverly encapsulated in character names. Mr Allworthy is the epitomy of kindness, justice, forgiveness, and fairness (although he’s also rather prone to being misled by those less inclined to honesty than himself). There’s Mrs Honour, Sophia’s tongue-waging, inconstant maid; Mr Square, the self-righteous, pontificating philosopher; and Mr Thwackum, the heavy handed and deeply unjust schoolmaster. And then there are the Blifils, a truly odious father and son. Thankfully Blifil senior’s appearance is limited to a comic sketch of his detestableness, before he is dispatched from life and the novel. Blifil junior, in contrast, is a slimy little creature that lurks throughout the story. But all his spite and self-promotion are unravelled in the end, and he gets his come-uppance.
Don’t be put off by the enormous size of this book – it’s a page-turner. Admittedly, the narrative is prone to going off in multiple directions, and there are dozens of characters rampaging through its chapters. All plot lines do however lead back to Tom and Sophia, most characters reappear with another key piece of the puzzle, and everything fits into place in the end. Like a soap opera that hooks you in night after night, flitting from one scene to the next but never slackening pace, Tom Jones will keep you guessing, grinning, and hoping for that fabled happy ending.
Thackeray thought Tom Jones and Fielding utterly delightful: “As a picture of manners, the novel of Tom Jones is indeed exquisite: as a work of construction, quite a wonder: the by-play of wisdom; the power of observation; the multiplied felicitous turns and thoughts; the varied character of the great Comic Epic; keep the reader in a perpetual admiration and curiosity.”
Criticisms and Interpretations, William Makepeace Thackeray, from The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century
Dr Johnson, on the other hand, detested the novel and its author. Boswell, Dr Johnson’s biographer, records: ‘Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, "he was a blockhead... he was a barren rascal." And on another occasion, ‘I alluded rather flippantly, I fear, to some witty passage in Tom Jones: he replied, "I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it… I scarcely know a more corrupt work."’
Life, II, 173-174
Lord Campbell, champion of The Obscene Publications Act 1857, declared in that year that, re-reading Fielding and Smollet, he had been startled to find that “Their coarseness is much greater than my recollection of it could have imagined.”
The Year of the Wombat: England 1857, Francis Watson