Do I need to summarise such a famous story? Tom our hero is a foundling, left in Squire Allworthy’s bed. He is brought up by the squire alongside Allworthy’s nephew Blifil, taught by Mr Square and Mr Thwackum, and grows up in the wild west country of England where he falls in love with a beautiful neighbour, Sophia Western. As is the way in romances of this kind various events and characters intervene to thwart the path of true love. The scene moves to London via a rather strange route through the English countryside, and culminates at the foot of the gallows in Tyburn – literally so in one of the film versions.
In the opening section, set in Somerset, Fielding targets the hypocrisy of Square – an atheist philosopher – and of the Reverend Thwackum. They favour Allworthy’s nephew Blifil, a selfish and unctuous child who flatters each in turn, over Tom, an exuberant character full of primal energy and innate compassion. Tom is the favourite of Squire Western, Allworthy’s drunken neighbour, who is great fun – a simple drunk with a soft heart for his daughter Sophia, and an obsession with the hunt. His honest down to earth qualities contrast with the hypocrisy of most of the rest – Square, Thwackum, young Blifil and Blifil’s father who has married Allworthy’s sister for little more than the cash she can bring him.
There are various happenings – sexual indiscretions, lies and betrayal. Jones finds himself disinherited by Allworthy as a consequence of young Blifil’s dastardly plots and deceits. The journey to London follows with some incident and lots of humour, though I did find the section about the man on the hill who lost his money and reputation gambling a little more tedious than the rest.
Arrived in London, Jones meets up with Lady Bellaston and others of the aristocratic set. Fielding is again ruthless and very funny in his satire; we meet other characters who are much more sympathetic – Nightingale and Mrs Miller amongst them. Throughout Jones shows himself to be strongly moral and caring, showing forgiveness, compassion, generosity and integrity in all his actions; despite this he manages to find himself in quite a few scrapes before the eventual denouement which I won’t uncover here. Suffice it to say that this is a comedy, a satire in which at times the names of the characters reveal their true nature, and not always as obviously as those of Allworthy and Thwackum. Black George Seagrim is only shown to be the black hearted creature he really is as the book draws to its close.
A few comments. Leavis has this novel as one of The Great Tradition: indeed the first great English novel, written I suppose by the first of the notorious Great White Males who dominate literature before the c20. I wonder how a more modern critic would respond to these characters who are so fixed in their time and their gender roles? In fact Sophia and her Aunt are strong women who fight for their independence, though the constraints of the comic genre mould the ending of the novel in a way that sees Sophia accede to her father’s wishes.
Tom Jones is clearly a book of the enlightenment. I found it interesting to read Fielding’s continual criticism of Partridge, who is superstitious and thus unenlightened. One of the delights of this book is the way that Fielding begins new sections of the novel with authorial intrusions in which he satirises the mores and literary achievements of his age, and in one of these he is especially supportive of its religious scepticism. Despite this the whole plot turns on the death bed confession of Square who casts aside his atheism for a very committed confession and repentance. I didn’t get the sense that Fielding criticised him for this – rather the opposite in fact.
The set scenes are amongst the best aspects of this novel – a wonderful “battle scene” set in the village church yard in which Molly Seagrim defends her reputation against her critics is a very amusing example of the mock heroic, whilst Fielding’s intrusions are great fun if you are at all interested in literary criticism.
I was interested in the journey Tom took, especially as I live in the West country. Tom is supposed to set off from Somerset, and head to London via Gloucester and Daventry. He joins with a group of soldiers travelling North to put down the rebellion – there is talk of a French Fleet at Dover. I think this must be the 1745 Jacobite rising. There are famous scenes in the inn at Upton on Severn. It did seem a circuitous route – and I would love to know more about it! I suppose that shows how much I like the book – I don’t normally look for the objective correlatives of the fiction I read.
This is not my first reading of Tom Jones. It’s a book you can return to frequently, and still enjoy. Equally it’s available in film and television versions: both the examples below are worth watching for the way they create the world of c18 England and bring the characters to life.