Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book XI

Why does Henry Fielding introduce contemporaneous politics into Tom Jones? What is gained by reminding us of Tom’s apparent contempt for the Jacobites? Published in 1749, Tom Jones was written against the backdrop of yet another final attempt at restoring the seed of James II which had been overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of William of Orange. Now, decades later, the “Young Pretender” Bonnie Prince Charlie had launched a foolhardy invasion of England which was quickly put down in 1745. He managed to escape, but the crown of England would never return to the head of a Stuart. It would not have been a terribly controversial for Henry Fielding to satirize the feeble uprising of the Young Pretender, however by grounding Tom Jones in a contemporary setting, Fielding reminds us that this is no high-minded epic mythology of the Homeric variety. Instead, Tom Jones takes place within a certain particular context, as if to remind us that the character of Tom Jones is a result of something peculiar to 18th century England.

At any rate, this chapter’s opening interlude offers new reflections on those “formidable Set of Men, who are called Critics” (365). The word Critic comes down to us from Greeks, signifying judgment not unlike a lawyer, however sometimes modern Critics appear as “common slanderers” -a class of most odious vermin. This latter type of slander is, in truth, an attack on a book’s author. Rules of the critics, just rules of the Christians, provide impossible standards for which none can be truly saved, in either this life or the next. Only a few critics have ever truly been judicious –namely Aristotle and Horace, or French critics like Dacier or Bossu.

Returning to the History, Sophia and Mrs. Honour flee the inn toward London when they realize they are being followed. It soon turns out to be her cousin Harriet Fitzpartick. Together, they arrive at another inn where Sophia is quickly mistaken for Jenny Cameron, one of the rebel ladies who traveled alongside Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie (sometimes called the “Young Chevalier”). However, the “politic” landlord soon learns that the Jacobites march toward London and thus he decides to hedge his bets and the landlady, impressed with Sophia’s courtesy for all classes of people, decides to convert to Jacobitism while believing Sophia to be Jenny Cameron. Mrs. Fitzpatrick then reminisces of her life in Ireland and tells Sophia her tragic story of a raucous marriage to Mr. Fitzpatrick and subsequent pregnancy, but the child died and then, depressed, she fled from Mr. Fitzpatrick who has been chasing her ever since.

Sophia starts to tell her story, while a pack of Jacobites marches past, and after losing one hundred pounds which was given to her by her father, Sophia seeks to part ways with Harriet Fitzpatrick (whom she suspects of merely scheming to acquire a new man) and Sophia calls upon a relation: Lady Bellaston. In the next chapter, we will return to the poor misadventures of our titular hero, Tom Jones, but for now we can rest easy knowing Sophia is in safe hands.

For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.

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