Monday, 7 August 2000

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)

Edition:  Everyman, 1998
Review number: 565

Tom Jones was inspired by Richardson's Clarissa; Fielding wanted to compete with the new depth of its characters. To modern readers, Tom Jones (and Fielding's writing in general) is far more readable than anything by Richardson. Fielding is a less limited writer; his tone is satirical rather than serious; and he doesn't constrain himself with an epistolary structure. The biggest barrier to enjoyment of Tom Jones is its enormous length (eight hundred pages divided into eighteen books); even in the eighteenth century criticism was made of its inclusion of incidents unnecessary to the plot, such as Tom's meeting with the Man From the Hill.

The plot is fairly basic and romantic. Tom Jones is a foundling, brought up by the rich and virtuous Squire Allworthy, causing his nephew and heir Mr Blifil to feel hatred and jealousy. As a teenager, Jones falls in love with Sophia Western, daughter of a neighbouring squire, but a roving eye and the calumnies of Blifil lead Allworthy to banish him. At the same time, Sophia runs away from her home to escape a match arranged by her father with the odious Blifil. Comic complications ensue, and everything is sorted out in the last four pages.

Though there is humour in the situations, such as the outraged husband trying to surprise his wife with a lover but going to the wrong room in an inn, most of the amusement is produced by Fielding's ironic commentary on events. It may be longwinded at times by modern standards (the entirety of the first chapter of each book is given over to it, for example), but it certainly works well most of the time.

In this edition, there are many notes. Most will be helpful to almost any reader - for example, few will realise without them that most of the Latin tags applied (and misapplied) by Jones' servant Partridge are not evidence of learning, but are taken from popular textbooks of the time. However, some of the notes are useless. To be told that Socrates was a Greek philosopher of the fifth century BC will not be useful either to those who did not know this nor to those who did.

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