TOM JONES by Henry Fielding

by paulcunningham2014

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As regular patrons of the Globe, Fleet-street will attest, Henry Fielding likes the sound of his own voice and the thrust of his own wit; and we like him none the worse for that. So, it seems only in course that this new offering, Tom Jones, a prosai-comic-epic in four volumes, withal it concerns the folly of judgement, is firstly and mainly about Henry Fielding.

Fielding, not Jones, is the principal character here, and he regales us with a deal more commentary than plot. There are few incidents related that are not then sifted through, either for gold or grit, which may or may not be there. Further, he offers salutary views on his own trade, viz.: writers must be possessed of 1.natural genius; 2.formal learning; 3.worldly experience; and their remit is to invent good stories and tell them well. This list of perfections, though simple, is commanded by very few; and here we come to Fielding’s grievance, which he iterates hard and often, and which is that those rightful lords of literature, the authors, have lately been usurped by started-up critics; or, as Fielding terms it, the clerks have become the legislators. He misses no opportunity in assaulting the imagined critics of his book, damning them for reptiles here and frustrated hanging judges there; which is exactly the kind of venting that got him barred from the Bedford Arms.

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A critic, yesterday

Busy readers might ask why Fielding is picking fights when he could be getting on with the story; but he has a larger point to make, which, as before-mentioned, concerns judgement, or rather the folly of it. In case of Tom Jones, he claims to have formulated “a new province of writing” in which he is sole practitioner and arbiter, and which thus stands outside the reach of criticism. Tom Jones, in fine, can not be judged by anyone other than Henry Fielding, because only he understands it. I make no doubt that this particular logical fortress can be stormed; but the general notion bears entertaining, and is stoutly supported by elements of the novel.

Case in point: Mr Allworthy, the noblest and wisest of the diverse cast, though he is a Justice of Peace and a beacon of moderation, is yet shown unfit to judge men. His failing is that he does not not know all; thus he can not command justice, and he condemns Tom Jones for a wrong he has not done. Even if sin could be proven, Fielding protests that judgement is not our office, since a man may commit a bad act without being a bad man.

This is all very worthy and Christ-like, though I doubt Fielding’s heart is in it; this in view of him, in his own capacity as Justice, lately hanging a peruke maker for being drunk within spitting distance of a riot. He knows as well as I that judgement is not chiefly about justice, or getting it right, and that in the words of the ancient law: foolish pity ruins a city.

Where Tom Jones triumphs is as a portrait of the English in our times. Detail is packed upon detail, miniature upon miniature, to a point at which the reader feels the whole nation has been laid before him on a trencher. If you care to know what the “well-loved” squire’s tenants say about him in the village, or what etiquette to take at a masked ball in Grosvenor Square, read Tom Jones. If you wish to understand why town and country folk differ so much as to form parties, and why the common man sees party rage as secondary to his own livelihood, read Tom Jones. If you would feel better for knowing that doctors understand nothing but how to prevaricate, and that parsons are only in it for the money, then read this book, and thank Henry Fielding.

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Henry Fielding

In point of the story itself, we simply follow Tom Jones, a bastardly foundling, through his genteel upbringing, his fall from Eden, his travels and vicissitudes, then his coming into a fortune. Tom is a holy innocent, barely a character at all, who bobs heedless as a cork on the waves of a scheming world, until the clockwork plot lands him back where he began, though more elevated and with a wife. This romance is the engine of the story, and is so treacle-sweet as to make a chamber-maid grimace. Not what might be expected from Captain Hercules Vinegar, the two-handed regulator of Gin Lane; but we all have to earn a crust.

Tom Jones is printed in four volumes by A. Millar, over-against Catharine-street in the Strand, and it cost me about five weeks, off and on.

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