I spun up Tom Jones by Henry Fielding in the most recent Classics Club spin and immediately panicked, because this book is huge. I realised I was right to panic, when after a week of solid reading I was only up to page 120, with 660 pages to go. In all honesty, if I had realised how long the book was I would never have added it to my list.
However, perseverance eventually got me through and I can truthfully say that I enormously enjoyed my first Fielding novel.
I had no idea before I started reading that the book is a comedy and that I would particularly love the humour in this book. There are funny twists and turns throughout the plot and the characters often say and do hilariously silly things, but the best humour comes from directly the author, who has inserted himself and his opinions into the story as the narrator, although he is completely uninvolved in the story as a character.
As often happens to me when I read a book from another place or time, I initially struggled to become immersed in the story (I might have been worrying too much about how long it would take me to finish the book rather than concentrating on the plot) so I successfully applied my old trick of reading aloud until I caught the narrator’s voice and could hear it in my head. Henry Fielding’s narrative voice is extremely descriptive and he leaves nothing that goes through his mind during the telling of this story as anything less than fully explored. Each of the 18 sections which make up this book starts with a chapter in which Fielding discusses some idea or other, many of which are entirely unrelated to the story.
To the actual story. Tom Jones is the name of a foundling who was left in the bed of Squire Allworthy, the richest and most important man in his local village. Tom’s parentage and how he came to be in the Squire’s bed was unknown until Allworthy’s housekeeper made investigations and found that his most likely parents were a local schoolmaster and his (alleged) mistress. Allworthy, who is as good as his name suggests, arranges for the woman to go somewhere where no one will know her reputation and asked his sister to bring up the child as her own.
Tom is a happy, loving, honest boy who often got into what most people would call innocent mischief. He was brought up alongside Allworthy’s sister’s child, Bliful, who was the opposite in temperament of Tom, being deceitful, greedy and jealous of Tom. Tom’s reputation often suffered from Blifil’s lies, particularly with Allworthy and other members of their community.
At a young age, Tom fell in love with a local girl, Molly, who became pregnant. Tom had to face up to his own actions with Allworthy, but when it turned out that Molly had several other fellows on the hop at the same time, Tom had a change of heart and fell in love with the beautiful Sophia Western, his childhood friend. Sophia also fell in love with Tom, whom she had idolised since their childhood, however her father wanted her to marry Blifil so their estates would be merged.
When some unlucky and misconstrued events about Tom disappointed Allworthy, he sadly turned Tom away from his home (with a large sum of money) which started a series of adventures for the broken-hearted Tom, who genuinely loved his adopted father Allworthy.
Tom’s adventures and the people he met were hilarious. His adventures were mostly amorous and were helped along by the sweetness of his temper, combined with his angelic face and presumably his fine physique, which were irresistible to a great many of the women he met along his way. The consequences of Tom’s inability to say no to any of the women who wanted to go to bed with him were being caught out by Sophia, who had run away from home rather than marry Blifil, whom she detested. Sophia, while jealous of Tom’s lovers, was more angry with Tom for supposedly bandying her name around a variety of public houses than she was with him for his multiple love affairs.
The characters in this story are fantastic. They are all caricatures of their virtues and vices, for example, Sophia is impossibly good and beautiful and Squire Western, Sophia’s father, is a foul-mouthed bully who lived for hunting. He regularly declared that he loved Sophia more than life itself, but exposed his truest desires when he joined in with a passing hunt while searching for his missing daughter.
Black George, a gamekeeper, was beholden to Tom in numerous ways, yet could not resist stealing everything Tom had from him. Another servant was consistently insidious and untruthful in order to ingratiate herself with Sophia, while other characters were ludicrously cowardly, or frighteningly clever, or pious and hypocritical. All of the characters are presented by Fielding with humour and up to a point, affection.
I was very amused by a landlady who constantly and successfully needled her second husband by constantly referencing the wisdom of his predecessor by starting every sentence with “As my first husband used to say.”
Many of the character’s names were, like Squire Allworthy’s, indicative of their values and behaviours which reminded me of the fantastic character names used by Charles Dickens in his novels, for example, Mr Thwackum is an ominous name for a boy’s tutor…
I did not expect to find Tom Jones to be so funny. The story is also clever and thought-provoking and entertaining. I will read more books by Henry Fielding in future.
My only advice for anyone planning to read Tom Jones is to allow plenty of time to read the book (it took me a month) and find a good quality hardback version or read it on an electrical device, as holding a paperback book of this size open was a physical challenge.
Tom Jones was book thirteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.