Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

The more I read, the more confused I become about the novel pre-Jane Austen. Fielding’s Tom Jones (The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling) was published in 1749, and is of course “among the earliest English prose works to be classified as a novel” (Yardley, Washington Post). Or here: “Tom Jones was Henry Fielding’s greatest work. The first piece of English prose to be considered a novel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised it as ‘one of …'” (blurb for John Osborne’s Tom Jones screenplay). And yet Fielding complains in Tom Jones about the prevalence of novel reading, citing in particular the works of Aphra Benn (1640-1689), and Defoe said much the same in Moll Flanders (1722).

Wikipedia (here) provides a definition which I like:

A novel is a long, fictional narrative which describes intimate human experiences. The novel in the modern era usually makes use of a literary prose style. The development of the prose novel at this time was encouraged by innovations in printing, and the introduction of cheap paper in the 15th century.

The reference to paper and printing, three centuries prior to Fielding and Defoe makes a lot of sense, and given that schooling for the children of the poor (in Great Britain) was provided as far back as the 1600s, ‘light’ reading was probably quite widespread, and before there were (many) novels there were probably ‘popular’ biographies and histories. Aphra Benn’s novels arose out of her work as a playwright, and the same is true of Fielding. Though he calls this work a ‘history’ – and it is the history of one character – I’m sure the use of melodrama, farce and dialogue reflect his work for the stage.

Of course, I discussed all this stuff just a month or two ago in my preamble to Moll Flanders, for which I apologize, but I’m just trying to get sorted in my own head how the novel ‘suddenly’ came into being.

Part of our discussion around Moll was that although Defoe ostensibly set her in the C17th, the background to her adventures is clearly Defoe’s own lifetime 50 or 100 years later. There is not a lot of historical background in Tom Jones, especially early on, but Fielding makes clear that the story is contemporary. The Hanovers are on the English throne (George I (1714-27), George II (1727-60)) and by the time Tom is 20 the rebels (Jacobites) are marching south from Scotland (1745) to meet up with the French Army (which is rumoured, incorrectly as it happens, during the course of the novel to have landed) – the same march which forms the latter part of Scott’s Waverley.

The novel is broken into 18 ‘books’ – covering about 30 hours of reading – each book with a prefaratory first chapter which Fielding kindly gives us leave not to read, and then a number of chapters carrying forward the story. Even without these first chapters, which would make an interesting work of literary theory on their own, the author’s voice is pervasive, as was seemingly often the case at the time. In line with the conceit that this is a ‘history’, the author comments on his characters’ behaviour and speculates on what might happen next while admitting that he doesn’t know for sure.

So, once more the wadholloway synopsis without recourse to the actual written word (though I’d better use Wikipedia to make sure I get the names right). Wealthy bachelor landowner Allworthy comes home to his estate in Somerset to find an infant boy in his bed. The servant – self educated in Greek and Latin, though that doesn’t appear to play any part in the plot – of the local teacher admits to being the mother and is quietly packed off while Allworthy agrees to raise the boy child, Tom Jones, as his own.

It is characteristic of Fielding’s antecedents as a dramatist that characters whom we see heading off stage are soon back in another guise, and this is true of both the servant and the teacher (who loses his school and is the most likely candidate for Tom’s father, though there are plenty who suspect Allworthy).

Allworthy’s spinster sister marries, has a child – master Blifil – is widowed, and eventually dies herself, so the two boys, Tom, handsome, manly and impetuous, and Blifil, virtuous and sly, are brought up together under the tutelage of the violent pastor Thwackum and the ineffectual philosopher Square, who stay on as companions to Allworthy after the boys are grown up.

Tom falls under the influence of Allworthy’s neighbour Weston, your standard boisterous, hard drinking, fox-hunting squire (and it’s a pain putting up with his constant shouting), a widower with a beautiful daughter, Sophia whom Tom for a long time barely notices. Not until he has knocked up the gamekeeper’s 16 year old daughter – on whom Fielding puts most of the blame, which is a bit distasteful. I’m not sure what happens to the baby.

The remainder of the novel concerns Sophia’s love for Tom; Tom’s propensity for jumping into bed with someone else each time it looks as though it’s going somewhere; Tom’s growing awareness of his love for Sophia; Sophia’s absolute despisal of Blifil whom Allworthy and Weston decide she should marry to unite the properties; and Blifil’s conniving, with Thwackum, to put Tom in the worst possible light with his foster father.

Tom is banished from home, loses all the money, £500, which Allworthy has given him (it’s picked up by the gamekeeper, Black George, who makes other appearances throughout the story, mostly as Tom’s friend and beneficiary), adopts the surgeon/barber of a neighbouring village, Partridge – who we know is the school teacher, above – as his servant/companion, and heads off on a series of adventures. He briefly joins up with the soldiers on their way to fight the rebels; rescues a lady, sleeps with her, is discovered by Sophia who has run away from home to avoid marrying Blifil; gets in a fight with an officer whose wife has run away, and whose wife turns out to be Sophia’s cousin; is constantly imperilled by Partridge (mis-)telling all his secrets in the kitchen.

They all end up in London. Tom is adopted as a gigolo by a wealthy single lady. Sophia finds out and is disgusted. The fathers turn up with Blifil and Thwackum (and Black George) in tow. Somewhere in there Tom discovers Square in bed with Molly the gamekeeper’s daughter, I think to impress on us that Tom has no obligations to her.

As it all comes to a head, Partridge recognises the lady Tom slept with at the beginning of their flight, as Tom’s mother!

Finally, it is notable throughout that the servants and workers get as much of a voice as the gentry, something which the much more conservative Jane Austen, who followed on 60 years later, is often criticised for not attempting. And I was struck by the anti-marriage sentiment of both Fielding and Defoe, a theme I have documented in early Australian women but from which we have been largely insulated by a century of Victorian-era writing which tends to be over-influential on how we see our literary history.

Melanie, if your mate is ready for another C18th bedtime story, then this is it, but skip the Chapter Ones.


Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, first pub. 1749. Audible edition read by Bill Homewood. (There is also a reading on Librivox)