The 100 best novels: No 5
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
ow many readers, if they are honest, discovered some of the greatest novels through film or television? Gatsby? Pride and Prejudice? The English Patient? Dr Zhivago? I first got interested in Tom Jones having seen John Osborne's famous adaptation, starring the young Albert Finney as the eponymous hero. That's an exceptional film. Classics often don't make good films, or only do so – such as Oliver! – through a process of reinterpretation.
Tom Jones, however, might have been made for the screen. Never mind its numerous chapters and teeming cast of misfits and scoundrels, the central character is an attractively unbridled young man of fierce temper and unrestrained sexuality who pursues true love through contemporary Britain in a sequence of scandalous and hilarious adventures. Published in the mid-18th century, Tom Jones is a classic English novel that captures the spirit of its age and whose famous characters – Squire Western, the chaplain Thwackum, the scheming Blifil, seductive Molly Seagrim and Sophia, Tom's true love – have come to represent Augustan society in all its loquacious, turbulent, comic variety.
The secret of Tom Jones was to be intimately connected to its contemporary audience. By the 1740s, the English novel was attracting new kinds of reader and, in turn, new kinds of writer. Not only was there an explosion of print media and a booming middle-class audience, there were innovative novelists for whom this popular new genre offered the prospect of a decent living. Many would continue to starve in Grub Street, but some had begun to make money. Samuel Johnson, famously, sold his over-earnest romance, Rasselas, to pay for his mother's funeral.
Henry Fielding was typical of this new generation. Born in 1707, he was a wholly 18th-century man. With a classical education at Eton, family connections and a good career in the law, in which he is sometimes credited with laying the foundations of the Metropolitan police, he turned to fiction partly to fund an extravagant lifestyle and partly to engage with a stimulating contemporary audience.
Fielding was writing at a time of intense social and political change and took up his pen in response to the crises of the moment. Until the repressive Licensing Act of 1737, he had enjoyed a reputation as the author of satirical burlesques. When the Jacobite uprising (the '45) threatened the Hanoverian settlement, Fielding sprang to the defence of George II, and edited the True Patriot.
In hindsight, the English novel was an obvious new arena for his imagination, but it was literary rivalry that pushed him, in middle age, on to the path of fiction. In 1740, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, the tale of a young woman who becomes a great lady and finds true happiness by defending her chastity, was the London sensation of the season, an early bestseller. Fielding's response to Pamela was complicated. He admired its success, scorned its sententious moralising, and attacked it in an anonymous parody, Shamela (1741). Thriving on the competition with Richardson, Fielding next completed his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), which began as a further parody of Pamela before finding its own narrative voice. After this debut, following the dramas of the '45, Fielding began work on his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
For Coleridge, this long novel was, withOedipus Rex and The Alchemist, one of "the three most perfect plots ever planned". It was also highly original and deeply comic. Fielding broke away from Richardson's epistolary technique of "writing to the moment" to compose his narrative in the third person. This engaging picaresque tale about the adventures of Tom, a high-spirited bastard, rollicking through England, was an instant hit, selling some 10,000 copies at a time when the population of London was only around 700,000.
One conservative critic denounced Tom Jones as "a motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery", which can't have done sales any harm. Samuel Johnson, more measured, thought that such novels were a dangerous distraction "to the young, the ignorant and the idle…", offering merely "the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas". However, for better or worse, this mass audience represented the future of the genre, and inspired Fielding's opening credo, which was to provide "an entertainment" for public consumption. "The author", he wrote in his first chapter, should provide "a mental entertainment", where "all persons are welcome for their money". Quite so.
A Note on the Text:
Fielding had read parts of Tom Jones to friends and circulated privately printed episodes from the novel in the autumn of 1748. The official publication date was 10 February 1749, though Fielding's bookseller, Andrew Millar, began distributing copies a week earlier, playing the role of publisher in an age when such a profession did not exist. The first edition was exhausted at once; second and third editions followed on 28 February and 12 April. The fourth edition came at the end of the same year and it's this text that remains the basis for modern editions.
Three other Fielding books:
The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742); A Journey from this World to the Next (1749); Amelia (1751)