'Tom Jones,' as Fresh as Ever

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones" is a classic of British literature, not merely in its own right but for the incalculable influence it has had in England, the United States and wherever else English is written. Published in 1749 as "The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling," it was one of the first English works of prose that we now call novels. Though it caused scandal and sensation, it soon was recognized as a masterpiece, and remains one to this day.

All of which is well and good, but when a book is as old as this one, the question inevitably arises: How accessible is it to today's reader? Is the masterpiece also a period piece, or does it offer to the reader of 2003 as much pleasure and enrichment as it did to the reader of 1749?

The short answer: Yes, it does. So at least my own second reading tells me, but it is "yes" with qualifications. Though "Tom Jones" is surprisingly modern in many ways, it seems quaint by contrast with books by authors who profited from Fielding's example, from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain to Saul Bellow. Though Fielding invented both a narrative technique and a genre -- or, more accurately, he transplanted the picaresque as invented by Miguel de Cervantes in "Don Quixote" from Spain to England -- his methods sometimes seem rather primitive today. To enjoy "Tom Jones" to the full, one must make every effort to read it with 18th-century eyes.

For starters, try to imagine the shock and delight with which England greeted this tale of an abandoned bastard "who was certainly born to be hanged." Samuel Johnson, not commonly known as a prude, wrote to a lady friend: "I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book . . . I scarcely know a more corrupt work." According to R.P.C. Mutter's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, in the spring of 1750, when "London experienced two earthquake shocks, there were also those who asserted, with varying degrees of sincerity, that 'Tom Jones' was in some way responsible." Offense was taken at Fielding's candid, ribald treatment of sexual manners, his sly innuendos and double-entendres, and more deeply at his view that amatory activity between consenting adults without benefit of marital vows is unobjectionable and perhaps even commendable. "Lookee, Mr Nightingale," Tom says to a friend, "I am no canting hypocrite, nor do I pretend to the gift of chastity, more than my neighbours. I have been guilty with women, I own it; but I am not conscious that I have ever injured any -- nor would I, to procure pleasure to myself, be knowingly the cause of misery to any human being." That may seem unexceptionable to today's reader, but 18th-century England was a cesspool of hypocrisy where sex was concerned, so it gasped in astonishment -- and then, of course, it laughed heartily and often, for "Tom Jones" is an irrepressibly funny book.

Fielding was 41 years old when it was published. He had written for the theater with some success until a crude attempt at censorship ended that career. He went on to become a lawyer, but writing was his calling. In 1741 he published "Shamela," a satire of Samuel Richardson's "Pamela," and followed it with "Joseph Andrews" in 1742. In 1744 he experienced an intolerable loss with the death of his beloved wife, but she served as inspiration for the incandescent Sophia Western in "Tom Jones," which he began to write a couple of years later. In the novel he says that Sophia "most of all . . . resembled one whose image never can depart from my breast, and whom, if thou dost remember, thou hast then, my friend, an adequate idea of Sophia." Fielding suffered terribly from gout, but soldiered on as writer and jurist, working heroically to reduce crime and strengthen the police. He died in 1754 at the age of 47.

So much has been written about "Tom Jones" that it would be pointless to subject it to lit-crit analysis. Instead my hope is to give some sense of what the novel feels like, and to suggest how a 21st-century reader can approach it. My suspicion is that "Tom Jones" is one of those massive literary edifices that most people have not entered. If you are one of these, I hope to persuade you to have a go at it.

My own first reading of "Tom Jones" took place sometime within the past 40 years, perhaps after I saw Tony Richardson's spectacular 1963 film adaptation. I remember little about my response to it, beyond laughing a great deal, falling in love with Sophy Western, delighting in the names Fielding had invented ("the reverend Mr Thwackum," Jemmy Tweedle, Nan Slouch, Esther Codling, Goody Brown), and following its tangled plot with astonishment.

One of the pleasures of having a sieve for a memory is that my second reading of a book is almost as fresh as my first. So I was just as surprised this time as I was many years ago when, in his preface to Book 2 of the novel, Fielding makes the bold declaration that "I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make whatever laws I please therein." It is surprising to today's reader to find a novelist speaking within his text about his methods, but the real surprise is to grasp, 21/2 centuries later, that Fielding knew exactly what he was doing. He was indeed making something new, a work of prose fiction that "my readers, whom I consider as my subjects, are bound to believe in and to obey." What seems familiar to us today was something no one had read in English before 1749. That doubtless helps explain why Fielding felt it necessary to begin each of the novel's 18 books with an explanatory preface. The reader who finds these boring or intrusive can skip them without much loss, just as the reader can skip the endless digressions in "War and Peace." Mutter says that one critic called the film adaptation "Fielding without the waffle," and it was to these prefaces that the critic referred. Eighteenth-century readers may have needed them as guideposts to this new territory they had entered, but today's readers do not.

Concentrate instead on the characters, the humor, the labyrinthine plot and the deep moral conviction that is at the novel's core. First of course there is Tom, "a thoughtless, giddy youth, with little sobriety in his manners," who has, as his benefactor Squire Allworthy tells him, "much goodness, generosity and honor in your temper; if you will add prudence and religion to these, you must be happy." There is Sophia, who, "with all the gentleness which a woman can have, had all the spirit which she ought to have." There is the repellent Master Blifil, "sober, discreet and pious," the embodiment of hypocrisy, "capable of the basest and blackest designs," determined to scheme Tom out of his inheritance. There are the smug tutors Thwackum and Square, the lusty Molly Seagrim (and, far later in the tale, the lusty Lady Bellaston) and others too numerous to mention.

Above all there is Sophia's father, Squire Western, "a country booby" who "had not the least command over any of his passions; and that which had at any time the ascendant in his mind, hurried him to the wildest excesses." Chief among his passions are Sophia, food, drink and the hunt, though that may be in reverse order. Chasing after Sophia, who has fled his house rather than marry the odious Blifil, he complains bitterly: "Pogh! D -- n the slut. I am lamenting the loss of so fine a morning for hunting." Fielding drops bons mots left and right. Blifil's father he sizes up as "one of those wise men, who . . . choose to possess every convenience of life with an ugly woman, than a handsome one without any of those conveniences." A wealthy spinster is "neither young enough nor handsome enough, to attract much wicked inclination; but she had matrimonial charms in great abundance." Mr. Dowling "had not divested himself of humanity by being an attorney," indeed "an attorney may feel all the miseries and distresses of his fellow creatures, provided he happens not to be concerned against them." Then there is one country gentleman "desiring another to kiss your a -- for having just before threatened to kick his," about which Fielding observes that "no one ever desires you to kick that which belongs to himself, nor offers to kiss this part in another," and continues:

"It may likewise seem surprising, that in the many thousand kind invitations of this sort, which everyone who hath conversed with country gentlemen must have heard, no one, I believe, hath ever seen a single instance where the desire hath been complied with. A great instance of their want of politeness: for in town, nothing can be more common than for the finest gentlemen to perform this ceremony every day to their superiors, without having that favour once requested of them." For today's reader, that brief paragraph encapsulates several aspects of this extraordinary book: its humor, which can be earthy and ribald and sly; its modernity, since the behavior in question is a fine art among ladies and gentlemen of today's town and city; its somewhat antiquated but entirely accessible language; and its deep revulsion at hypocrisy. As a traveler remarks to Tom, all over the world one encounters "the same hypocrisy, the same fraud; in short, the same follies and vices, dressed in different habits."

Yet if Fielding is merciless in his exposure of hypocrites, quacks, poseurs, opportunists, social climbers and schemers -- every bit as merciless as William Makepeace Thackeray was a century later in "Vanity Fair" -- at its heart "Tom Jones" is a romance, a celebration of innocence and virtue. Tom and Sophy, who possess both in abundance, are rewarded by overcoming all the obstacles Fielding throws in their way and ending up in each other's arms. Not merely is it a happy ending, it is an apt one, for Sophy and Tom are given exactly what they deserve.

"Tom Jones" is a long book -- more than 800 pages -- and it took me a long time to read it. For one who has neither the time nor the inclination, there is an alternative. Though Richardson's film adaptation necessarily drops a number of secondary characters and subplots, lapses at moments into nudge-nudge, wink-wink smirking, and turns Tom's reprieve from the gallows into something quite different from Fielding's original, it captures much of the essence of the book in a mere two hours. It conveys the beauty and poverty of the countryside, the elegance and squalor of London, and the inane cruelty of the hunt; the musical score by John Addison is as witty as the novel itself; John Osborne's screenplay is a marvel.

Best of all are the actors. Albert Finney and Susannah York are lovely and engaging as Tom and Sophy, but the secondary characters are the real stars, in particular David Warner as a deliciously slimy Blifil, Peter Bull as the bloated Thwackum, Joan Greenwood as the vulpine Lady Bellaston and -- ta-da! -- Hugh Griffith as Squire Western. The last is a comic masterpiece. Wallowing in the haystack with whatever lass presents herself, drowning in vast oceans of strong drink, gnawing ferociously at gigantic chunks of meat, bellowing at his pigs, chickens and dogs -- Griffith is Squire Western right down to the toenail. Fielding would have loved him.

"Tom Jones" is available in paperback editions from Penguin Classics ($8.95), the Modern Library ($8.95) and Oxford World's Classics ($7.95). A Web search would provide many possibilities for reading it online for free.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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