Sex, food and babies out of wedlock: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a foundling, published on 28 February 1749, is said to be one of the first novels in English.

Cervantes was Fielding’s acknowledged literary master. In Tom Jones Fielding takes Cervantes’ comic prose epic, Don Quixote, and turns it into a romance: its driving force is the apparently hopeless love of a foundling, Tom Jones, for the daughter of a neighbouring squire.

Fielding’s love story – wrapped in a panoramic portrait of English society encompassing town and country, rich and poor – influenced the English novel until the end of the 19th century. In chapter one he declares:

‘We shall represent Human Nature at first to the keen appetite of our reader, in that more plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragout it with all the high French and Italian seasonings of affectation and vice which courts and cities can afford. ‘

Here Fielding sets out his vision for the novel – of a story rooted in local particularities and extending outward to embrace every level of sophisticated urban life, told with irony and humour by an omniscient narrator – which would later be taken up by Charles Dickens, George Eliot and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Tom Jones opens with a country gentleman, Squire Allworthy, discovering a baby boy tucked between the sheets of his bed, whom he adopts and names Tom Jones. Tom grows into a dashing, hot-blooded young man who falls in love with Squire Western’s beautiful daughter Sophia. But, because of the gaping chasm between their social stations, their love is doomed. When Tom is thrown out of home and Sophia flees her overbearing father, they both end up on the road. The story unfolds across the English countryside, in pubs and inns, as Tom and Sophia alternately pursue and flee from each other on the way to London, where Tom eventually finds his true identity.

Sir Walter Scott called Fielding ‘the father of the English novel’. While Scott’s claim is debatable, Tom Jones was certainly one of the first novels in English – and Fielding was writing at a formative, defining moment in the history of this new literary form. A dramatist and lawyer, Fielding took up novel writing over his disgust at the sensational success of Samuel Richardon’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded.

Published in 1740, Pamela was the Bridget Jones’s Diary of its day. Written in the form of letters and journal entries, it tells the story of a young servant girl whose refusal to succumb to her master’s sexual advances is rewarded by her marriage to him. It sparked one of the fiercest literary debates in England, so dividing contemporary opinion that one commentator claimed it had split England in two – into ‘Pamelaists’ and ‘Antipamelaists’.

Among the numerous imitations and parodies of Pamela that appeared was an anonymous spoof attributed to Fielding (but never claimed by him) – Shamela, published in 1741. The following year, Fielding published Joseph Andrews (about Pamela’s brother) in which he directed his considerable wit and learning against what he believed to be Pamela’s shallow, sentimental morality – and against the general political and religious corruption of his day. And, as he later did in Tom Jones, Fielding used Joseph Andrews to set out his alternate view of what a novel should be.

Henry Fielding

Handsome and intelligent, Fielding was born in Somerset into a family with aristocratic ancestry. He was sent to Eton where he developed his lifelong love of classical literature so evident in Tom Jones:

‘The learned reader must have observed, that in the course of this mighty work, I have often translated passages out of the best antient authors, without quoting the original.’

Four years after leaving school, following a failed elopement with an heiress and a stint in the theatre, Fielding continued his classical studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, until a lack of money forced him home.

Back in London, Fielding became one of the leading playwrights of his day. Among his many successful satirical comedies was an adaptation of the folktale Tom Thumb, which was said to have made Jonathan Swift laugh for the second time in his life. But Fielding’s theatrical career came to an abrupt end in 1737 with Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole’s Licensing Act, which required the Lord Chamberlain’s approval for all new plays. This was directed largely at Fielding, whose play The Historical Register for the Year 1736 had fiercely lampooned Walpole’s government.

Thirty years old, Fielding now had a wife (Charlotte, with whom he’d fallen madly in love in 1734) and two daughters to support. To earn a living, Fielding studied law while writing a newspaper, The Champion: or British Mercury, from 1739 to 1741. But Fielding’s world fell apart when his elder daughter died and, soon after, in 1744, his beloved wife died in his arms. Fielding then moved to London’s Strand with his surviving daughter and sister Sarah (also a successful writer and novelist – more on her anon), and in 1747 married Charlotte’s maid.

In 1748 Fielding was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster and Middlesex and, with his younger brother Sir John Fielding, established in 1750 London’s first effective police force, the Bow Street Runners (named after the street in which Fielding’s office was located). Fielding continued to write and in 1749 published Tom Jones, which contains in its heroine Sophia Western a tender and glowing portrait of his late wife Charlotte.

The labyrinthine plot of Tom Jones – considered by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be one of ‘the three most perfect plots ever planned’ – is deftly handled by Fielding, whose theatrical experience shows in the novel’s rich dialogue, rapid scene changes and numerous moments of brilliant characterisation. These gifts are well displayed in his portrait of Squire Western – a fox-hunting aristocrat whose explosive temper and mercurial heart bring the novel violently to life, Basil-Fawlty-style, whenever he enters a room.

Although Tom Jones was an immediate success, selling 10,000 copies in its first year, it was criticised for its frank treatment of sex. The writer Samuel Johnson was famously offended by it, calling it a ‘vicious’ book and contending, ‘I scarcely know a more corrupt work’.

Fielding’s easy depiction of desire and wanton sex is very modern – except that he doesn’t allow his heroine Sophia the same sexual liberties he allows Tom. In his generous treatment of Tom’s struggle to reconcile his hearty sexual appetites (he finds most women utterly irresistible) with his heart’s undying love for one woman, Fielding shows his complex understanding of sexual dynamics and the experience of his own youthful adventures. For Fielding, sexual desire is enhanced by love ‘to a degree scarce imaginable’ to those who’ve only previously experienced the former.

In Tom Jones the force of Fielding’s satire is directed against the moral and political corruption of his day. The political scene was coloured by the last claims of the Stuarts to the British throne and the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 provides much of the political background to Tom Jones. It also prompted Fielding to produce two weekly papers which condemned the Catholic rebels.

This rebellion had its roots in the succession of James II, which had so preoccupied Daniel Defoe. James’s heirs – his son James III (‘the Old Pretender’) and grandson ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’ (‘the Young Pretender’) – both attempted to seize the British throne. James III’s aborted rebellion took place in 1715, against George I of Hanover, who in 1714 succeeded Queen Anne, James II’s last surviving Protestant child.

Following James III’s failure, hopes for a Stuart monarch were turned to his son, Charles. In 1745, the Young Pretender led a Scottish army in an attempt to seize the British throne. When France’s promised backing of the Catholic heir did not materialise, the Young Pretender’s rebellion failed in 1746. France’s commitment to support the Young Pretender is the French invasion so feared in Tom Jones, and the motley troops of British soldiers that Tom and Sophia meet along the way are mobilising to crush it.

The raunchy 1963 film of Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney and Susannah York, was a box office success and won four Academy Awards. Directed by Tony Richardson with a screenplay by playwright John Osborne (of Look Back in Anger fame), it’s noted for its stylistic idiosyncrasies such as its direct addresses to the audience and silent movie opening.

Tom Jones was made into a miniseries by the BBC in 1997.

In 1754 Fielding travelled to Portugal for the sun and died there two months later. His cousin Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote on his death: ‘It is a pity he was not immortal, he was so formed for happiness.’

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