Acerbic, whimsical, and eminently scrupulous –Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was no doubt quite an amusing gadfly in Augustan England. Like the namesake of his most famous satire, Tom Jones, Mr. Fielding was raised in Somerset and was adopted, albeit by his grandmother. He attended Eton College and became a playwright in London issuing blistering satires of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (he opposed Walpole despite an ‘unshakeable’ commitment to the Whigs). In fact, the Theatrical Licensing Act (1737) was a direct response to Fielding’s works. He often published his writings pseudonymously, concealing his namesake to protect his wife Charlotte Craddock and children from political retribution. The Fieldings often fluctuated wildly in and out of poverty, cushioned by a wealthy benefactor, Ralph Allen (who became the basis for the kindly aristocrat in Tom Jones, Squire Allready). In time, Mr. Fielding joined together with fellow satirists Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay as part of the informal Scriblerus Club of literary acolytes (Fielding’s nom de plume in the group was “Scriblerus Secundus”). He later turned to writing novels following Samuel Richardson’s publication of Pamela (1740) –in response, Mr. Fielding wrote a withering satire entitled Shamela (1741). He continued to write a variety of other novels in the spirit of Juvenal, Plautus, Chaucer, Cervantes (including Don Quixote in England), Molière, and Swift. In later years, his wife died and Mr. Fielding was controversially remarried to a pregnant maid. He became chief magistrate in London during which period he instituted a variety of humanizing reforms, however in doing so his health declined precipitously so he traveled to Portugal in search of medical care. While in Lisbon, Henry Fielding died in 1754. To this day his body is rests in Lisbon.
Mr. Fielding’s finest novel Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) is a cheeky picaresque comedy which is justly regarded as both a bildungsgroman as well as Henry Fielding’s magnum opus. Dedicated to George Lyttleton, a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, Tom Jones is an essential work precisely because it forces us to contemplate the frustrating experience of being human, an experience which finds us ceaselessly torn between our inherited nature when pushed up against the unpredictable rule of fortune. In the novel, the characters find themselves perpetually at the whims of powers far greater than themselves –each character’s willpower is often subordinated to the kindness of other character’s, inherited traits from their parents, or else ordinary human failings such as lust or greed.
However, one of the more delightful characters in the novel is the amusing yet polite, hand-holding narrator who spends considerable time leading us through meandering digressions, misquoting Latin phrases, and breaking the fourth wall by addressing his audience directly (he assumes the reader is an erudite, well-educated, upper-class literary critic). In his dedication, he notes the subject matter of the novel is nothing other than “human nature” thus Tom Jones comes to light as a quasi-philosophical novel.
The backdrop of Tom Jones concerns the aging but kindly country-Somerset-widower, Squire Allworthy, whose wealthy estate is in question since he has no heirs of his own. And what better way to examine human nature than through this lens? Inheriting riches has a tendency to reveal a person’s good nature (or lack thereof). It reveals certain limits to our nature, by promising the unearned ease that comes with wealth as Cephalus notes in Plato’s Republic. Various characters in the novel attempt to scheme their way into the elderly Squire’s good graces, but in the end it is the wayward Tom Jones –a foundling– who succeeds in inheriting Squire Allworthy’s estate, despite being a poor orphan who is occasionally beset by his own personal vices, in particular his unquenchable carnal appetite.
At any rate, Tom Jones finds himself hostage to either fortune or fate. Like Oedipus, he knows almost nothing of his own origins and this absence of certainty affects the way he behaves (there is also another Oedipal connection as Tom once falsely believes himself to have committed incest). His mother and father could be just about anybody. After years of scandal, crime, and promiscuity he finally reunites with his lost love Sophia (“wisdom”) and the truth of his own biological inheritance is revealed. Here we are forced to contemplate the true meaning of inheritance (both in terms of fortune and fate) –the sins of the father are one day visited upon his children. Tom’s fortune is the result of Squire Allworthy’s benevolence, while his fate is more intimately bound to his true mother’s identity –Bridget Allworthy– the Squire’s sister who had conceived Tom following a torrid affair with a local schoolmaster. Like Tom, we often look for a meaningful narrative about our birth in the hopes of being reassured that our life began with some sense of order and intentionality, however in Tom Jones life is haphazard, imperfect, frivolous, chaotic, unpredictable, whimsical, flawed, accidental –and the balance between fortune and fate is often tipped strongly one way or the other, with many children actually being conceived as a result of mere accident or lust, despite these being grand social improprieties. It should be noted, however, that the one refuge from this storm in Tom Jones is the steady and virtuous Squire Allready, a true country aristocrat.
For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.
The movie version of Tom Jones is pretty impressive and well worth a watch. It made Albert Finney a star, deservedly.
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