I recently finished reading Fielding’s chef d’oeuvre, Tom Jones, first published in 1749, and running to over 750 pages in the Norton Critical Edition—without the critical essays at the end. So by contemporary standards it’s a whopper, and that in itself may be why sufficient reason why so few people, apart from English Lit. students, have read it. (And have they? I suspect half of them merely skim it.) And yet, with some reservations, I very much enjoyed reading it, and benefited from the experience quite a bit. In this thumbnail review, I shall consider some of the reasons why people may shy away from it, and try to show what they’re missing.
First, it was written nearly three hundred years ago, so some will be wary of the ‘old English.’ Wrong: Fielding’s English is quite modern, with an occasional slang word you won’t know (which will be annotated if you have a critical edition). All nouns have the first letter capitalised, but you soon get used to that. Any moderately literate reader can handle it.
Second, Fielding is a dreaded dead white male—and not only that, but straight, too! Could he possibly have said anything relevant to us in our enlightened days of intersectional identity politics? As it happens, yes. He may not have much to say about transgender people, or ethnic minorities, since England had none of the former, and almost none of the latter in his day, but since he was a human being, and very bright, and a lawyer, with a good knowledge of human nature, and since he set out to write what was not only a comedy, but a morality tale, and a sort of fairy tale too, his themes are universal. His hero is a ‘foundling’, an illegitimate boy who is frequently despised because of his ‘low birth’, in spite of many sterling qualities. In fact Tom is the victim of dastardly plotting, principally by the jealous boy who is (so we think) the only legitimate heir of Squire Allworthy, who has taken Tom in. What’s more, Tom is in love with Sophia Western, the daughter of a neighbouring squire whose father rejects him because Tom stands to inherit nothing. So the dramatic question is: will innate virtue be rewarded, or the scheming of the street-smart, and venal, and utterly materialistic villain? With a little imagination, you could transpose the story into the present day. It’s true that the plot is complicated, and littered with coincidences, (as are many folk tales), but if you can suspend disbelief about the elements of the story, you’ll find that there’s much realism and psychological penetration in the portrayal of the characters, particularly Tom, who is a very flawed, and believable, hero.
Third, it’s just so damn long! Do you really have time to read books this long? Certainly you do. Let’s say it takes you three hours, or even four, to read 100 pages. That means you’ve got between twenty and thirty hours’ reading. Sounds a lot, but it’s no more than a couple of seasons of your favourite TV series, is it? What are you, a man or a mouse? A woman or a wombat? You can think of it this way, too: it’s no longer than three average novels. You can read three novels, can’t you? Right.
I hope I’ve already whetted your appetite, but in case not, here are some additional reasons for delving into Tom Jones. First, if you consider yourself a writer—and if you’re reading this, you probably do—surely you should read the first great novel in English? For that is what this is. All right, Cervantes invented the novel (and you should read Don Quixote too, it goes without saying), and let’s concede that there were a few novels in English before this: Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Moll Flanders, and a couple of Fielding’s own efforts. But when Fielding claims ‘I am, in reality, the Founder of a New Province of Writing,’ we believe him, and when he declares that he is thus ‘at liberty to make what Laws I please therein,’ and goes on to say that he regards his readers as his ‘Subjects, bound to believe (…) and obey’, we agree with a wry smile. In fact these sentences are from one of the essays which Fielding prefaces each ‘Book’ or section of the novel with. In them he reflects on human nature, on the novel, and on his characters, in what seems an extraordinarily modern, indeed almost postmodern, way. It’s no surprise that Sterne will write Tristram Shandy within ten years.
Next, with occasional tedious lapses (I said I had some reservations), it’s a rattling good read, wry, inventive, and full of the gusto for life that’s so typical of eighteenth century literature – and, for that matter, music too. So even if you think that the people of nearly three hundred years ago had nothing in common with us, you are likely to find the novel fascinating. But you might be surprised. Whereas some of our customs and habits have changed—we no longer fight duels (except in gang warfare, of course), or punish someone for having been born out of wedlock—still, much is familiar. Many people, especially in the middle and upper classes, still pair with each other for status and wealth, after all. The class system is still alive and well. Lots of people, even in America, are snobs. (If you doubt that, consider how popular the royal family are, even in the country that gained independence in 1776.) And we still believe in love—at least I do—and root for a plucky hero who never gives up, whatever the odds. But above all, you’ll find that the English of the reign of George II were surprisingly secular, in spite of their occasional protestations about their piety, and even the seemingly religious ones often behaved rather sinfully. And human nature hasn’t changed a jot. So to answer the question I posed rather disingenuously in the title: garbage or masterpiece? Garbage – definitely not. Masterpiece, then? I don’t think it quite qualifies for that epithet (though I’m notoriously hard to please.) But I do think that it’s the great novel of its century, the indispensable novel of the English Enlightenment—and vastly superior to the majority of prizewinning novels we’re told we must read today.