The novel was still very much in its infancy as a form when Henry Fielding wrote ‘Tom Jones’. In this long and elaborate narrative, you can see Fielding working out some of the conventions and traditions that were still to be established. Fielding is a dominant and forceful presence throughout the novel, in contrast to Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’, published a year earlier, where the narrator tries very hard (but ultimately unsuccessfully), to disappear into the background. Each of the eighteen books which make up the novel are introduced by a chapter where Fielding discourses on anything that happens to take his interest, invariably little to do with the novel itself. During the substantive chapters the narrator constantly intrudes, usually tongue in cheek, commenting on the reader’s expectations, anticipating objections, warning of salacious or shocking content coming up, and generally commenting on the novel as it develops:
“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.”
The narrative style is discursive – Fielding is telling a relaxed tale over a few drinks, and fully intends to take his time:
“Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever.”
The pretence is maintained that this is a ‘history’ – indeed, the novel’s full title is ‘The History of Tom Jones, a foundling’ – but the reader is at no point under any apprehension but that all will end up well for Tom and his amour, Sophia.
The novel’s plot is said to be complex, but rambling would be a fairer description. Fielding is a fan of that standby coincidence to help resolve the plot complications he leads himself into. The novel opens with Squire Allworthy finding an abandoned baby sleeping in his bed. The baby’s presence in his bed – as opposed to in a cardboard box on the doorstep – sends a clear message that the mother is a member of his household, with easy access to his room, but Squire Allworthy is true to his name, and doesn’t pursue the issue with any interest, and accepts the presented fiction that the child is the son of a local village woman. Allworthy promises his sister Dorothy, who we (spoilers) eventually find out to be the boy’s mother, to raise the boy, and names him Tom. Dorothy goes on to marry and have a legitimate son, Master Blifil, who is brought up with Tom.
Years pass, and Tom grows into a promiscuous young man. He impregnates the local gamekeeper’s daughter, or thinks he does, although it later turns out the child is not his – fatherhood is an uncertain business in this novel. Tom then falls for the neighbouring squire’s daughter, Sophia, but being a bastard, and thus unlikely to inherit much from the squire, the match is never going to be sanctioned by their parents.
Sophia’s father, Squire Western, is intent on making Sophia marry Allworthy’s heir, Master Blifil, but she refuses. Where this exact situation in ‘Clarissa’ is the cause of great distress for the heroine, here it is treated as a source of comedy – Squire Western is a preposterous lunatic, and easily controlled by the women in his life. Sophia runs away, as does Clarissa, ostensibly to escape from her father’s influence, but principally to allow her to join Tom in his adventures. Tom has earlier been thrown out by Allworthy as a result of a plot by Blifil to paint him in a bad light, something Tom makes very easy for him by his sexual escapades. Thus the central part of the narrative, whereby Tom travels around central England in a largely pointless round of adventures centring on numberless inns and pubs, is established. At one point Tom joins the army briefly, thus introducing the novel’s backdrop of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, but no sooner is this introduced than like several other threads it is quietly dropped. The legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession is freely damned by Squire Western, but the subject is mainly used for humour rather than as anything of legitimate political or dramatic interest. Later, Tom sleeps with two older women and nearly kills a man in a duel, incidents which are the source for the novel’s reputation as a bawdy “romp”. Certainly the narrator does not pass judgment on Tom for his sexual indiscretions – there is much more an attitude of encouraging the sowing of wild oats.
Eventually, the novel is wound up quite hurriedly – the happy ever afters are arranged by the discovery of Tom’s parenthood, allowing him to become Squire Allworthy’s heir and thus a suitable partner for Sophia. Tom’s previous sexual misconduct is quietly overlooked.
Tom is a likeable well-meaning hero, always falling on his feet. There’s never really a moment’s doubt about the ending that is in store for him. The supporting cast is reasonably strong – some characters such as Allworthy are two-dimensional, but there are enough well realised people such as Squire Western, Tom’s sidekick Partridge, and Sophia herself, to maintain interest when Tom’s storyline is put on hold to allow others to catch up. But the relaxed method of story telling extends matters to a pointlessly long degree – at one point even Fielding seems to recognise that yet another inn, with an identikit landlady and set of customers, is beginning to be a bit repetitive. The bawdiness of the novel is said to have been shocking to eighteenth century readers – I wonder how true this actually is? Frank discussion of “country matters” thinly disguised behind euphemism – at one point Fielding describes Tom having long “conversations” with one of his conquests, where the wink, wink,nudge, nudge is audible – surely didn’t really shock an audience used to Congreve and Shakespeare? Perhaps that is the point – Fielding is finding a new audience for the novel here, one more used to the bawdiness of the theatre.