Tom Jones

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

by Henry Fielding

I just spent three and a half weeks reading this book (interspersed with five much shorter J fiction books) and now am having trouble finding what to say about it. I suppose the first thing is to note why. I think it’s the longest book I’ve read since Moby Dick or Don Quixote. Both which I might read again someday- this one? probably not- although it was engaging, it’s also very tedious in parts. It had been on my TBR list for quite some time- as one of those books I always felt I ought to read, just to know where the phrase originated- you know, somebody being called a regular Tom Jones. Well, now I definitely know!

Tom Jones was a foundling- an illegitimate child that somebody convinced this country squire’s maid to literally put in his bed. When he found the baby in his sheets he had compassion, and kept the boy to raise alongside his own son. The two were quite a contrast- the true son very proper in his manners and behavior, but when things came down to it, obviously he didn’t care a fig for anyone but himself. Whereas Tom has an amiable, carefree personality, getting into trouble with his “wild” conduct, but then stoutly refusing to betray a friend, and when older often taking it in his own hands to assist those fallen on hard times- when everyone else turned away. His great fault was a liking for pretty women- he couldn’t resist their advances it seems. Even though he professed to truly love only Sophia, daughter of a neighboring wealthy man. Some hasty judgement of Tom’s misconduct got him kicked out of his adopted father’s house as a young man, then he travelled aimlessly.

Meanwhile Sophia (to make a long story short) refused to marry the man her father chose for her. Tom as a “bastard” was seriously frowned upon by the family. Sophia’s father locked her up in her room (more than once), later she managed to run away. She aimed to find Tom but they nearly crossed paths and missed each other several times. There’s many dalliances at inns and in stranger’s houses, with lengthy conversations over meals and so many side characters or travelling acquaintances determined to tell their life stories to Tom (and thus the reader). Unbelievable how long-winded some of them were! Chapters where I felt like I was just wading through piles of words.

So why did I keep reading? It was amusing! And surprisingly easy, how well-told, how the conversations just flowed by- I found myself turning page after page. Intrigued to find how very much the same human nature is, even now two hundred and seventy years later! People doing good when you least expect it, women conniving against each other, arrogant men casually ruining the livelihood of others, men being bribed to give false testimony, restaurants substituting cheap fare, you name it. At the same time a rich glimpse into what daily life was like back then: some things so very different. Like how terrifying it was to travel after dark. Or how devastating a simple illness could be- there’s one chapter where a man goes to bed with a mere headcold, suffering from a low fever- and people in the household immediately start squabbling over his will, assuming he’s going to die. I know some of it is exaggerated, but still!

About halfway through this long book, I started thinking: what was his point? Did Fielding just want to tell a good yarn? Maybe to point out that social status didn’t make anyone better than others. That all people are a mix of good and bad characteristics. There were plenty of cases in this novel where highborn, respected people turned out to be really devious or unkind, just better at hiding it because no one suspected. Or where lesser, scorned folk proved to have kinder hearts and forgiving natures. I thought at first the author wanted to point that Tom couldn’t escape the evil of his birth- that since he was born out of wedlock he’d have loose morals himself? Of course that’s silly, but also it turns out in the end that Tom is of noble birth after all! There was a misunderstanding earlier about who his parents were. I found that kind of annoying, but also hilarious how people instantly revised their opinion of him- even though they’d known him all along. He didn’t change, just their idea of him did, based on one small fact that didn’t even matter. To be fair to Tom, he did swear to change his ways at the end, to quit dallying about and be faithful to Sophia, but I wonder if he’d really be able to do that.

There’s so much I’m leaving out here. How can I do justice to such a full lengthy novel in this little space? Even though I have never read a Jane Austin novel, I’ve made a few attempts and can easily see now how Fielding’s work inspired her. And I must mention again, it’s remarkable how readable this is, a few centuries later, in spite of the fact that nearly the entire story is told and not shown. A writing method which I usually find tedious or dull, not enjoyable! It’s just so well done here. Even though the author intersperses himself for pages upon end, too. Describing how hard it was to make a a living as a writer, or his response to public criticism, or how he gathered his skill from observing real-life circumstances, not just reading books himself (though he makes many nods to both classics and his contemporaries, a lot of them I was wholly ignorant of so the 43 pages of explanatory endnotes came in handy- yes I read most of them. I kept two bookmarks in this volume, one at my reading spot and one at the corresponding page in the endnotes!) Then there’s bits like this (following an explanation of a particular failing in human nature):

As this is one of those deep observations which very few readers can be supposed capable of making themselves, I have thought proper to lend them my assistance; but this is a favour rarely to be expected in the course of my work. Indeed, I shall seldom or never so indulge him, unless in such instances as this, where nothing but the inspiration with which we writers are gifted can possibly enable anyone to make the discovery.

Insulting his own readers? But much later there’s this, which made me laugh out loud:

We would bestow some pains here in minutely describing all the mad pranks which Jones played on this occasion, could we be well assured that the reader would take the same pains in perusing them; but as we are apprehensive that after all the labour which we should employ in painting this scene, the said reader would be very apt to skip it entirely over, we have saved ourself that trouble. To say the truth, we have, from this reason alone, often done great violence to the luxuriance of our genius, and have left many excellent descriptions out of our work, which would otherwise have been in it. And this suspicion, to be honest, arises, as is generally the case, from our own wicked heart; for we have, ourselves, been very often most horridly given to jumping, as we have run through the pages of voluminous historians.

Myself, I think I would have liked reading the detailed descriptions rather than the author’s examination of their fallout, but that’s all as well. I’m prone to skimming long books myself, and probably did so more than once in this tome.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
916 pages, 1749

4 Responses

  1. Wow…your patience is amazing. This one is a real blast from the past for me. I read it sometime in the last couple of years of high school…probably for all the wrong reasons…and don’t remember a whole lot about it more than 50 years later. I do remember my English teacher being flabbergasted that I was reading a doorstop of a book like this one without having to do it, but I must have found it intriguing enough to keep turning the pages. I do know that it, in a roundabout way, led me to reading some other classics that I ended up enjoying more than this one.

    1. Yes, exactly- something about it just kept me turning the pages. And you’re a true reader! I made my way through a few unassigned chunksters in high school myself- Ivanhoe was another one- and enjoyed them even if I didn’t at all understand or retain it all.

  2. I haven’t read this one so thoroughly enjoyed your review of it. I’d never thought of reading it to be honest but will consider it now. I would like to read a couple of chunky classics next year, starting with The Count of Monte Cristo and Our Mutual Friend. My last effort was Moby Dick which was about a year ago and I did intend to try something else sooner than this!

    1. One to finally mark off my list. Would be glad to hear what you think of it, too, if you read it anytime soon! Next of classics I’ve been meaning to get to, is Gone with the Wind. I think it will feel a relatively easy read after this one.

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