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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
The outspoken eighteenth-century man of letters, Samuel Johnson, wrote to a woman who had read the novel Tom Jones:
I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it: a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work.
That's an unusual judgment about a landmark book in the history of world literature, but it's a sample of the kind of passionate response- both favorable and unfavorable- Tom Jones has inspired since it was published. Its author, Henry Fielding, was born on April 22, 1707, in Somerset, in southwest England, the area where his hero is born and raised. Unlike Tom, Fielding had no doubts about his aristocratic lineage. His father was a lieutenant general who had fought against the forces of the great French king, Louis XIV. His mother was the granddaughter of Sir Henry Gold, a baron of the exchequer.
But if the Fieldings' social position was secure, their financial situation was shaky. Like most aristocrats, the young Fielding grew to have expensive tastes. Unlike many, he had no way of affording them. For much of his life, he would be like Tom Jones, frequently standing in some lavish drawing room talking to nobility, while wondering how he would pay his own rent. First educated by tutors, he was then sent to Eton, the finest English boarding school. But where other young men of his background and intelligence would have continued on to Cambridge or Oxford University, he didn't, probably because his family could not afford the tuition. Later, he broke off his legal studies at the University of Leyden, in Holland, for the same reason. He made the most of the education he did receive, though, picking up the dazzling familiarity with classical authors that he displays so artfully in his writing.
In 1734 Fielding eloped with Charlotte Cradock. The model for Sophia in Tom Jones, Charlotte was his great love- the one, he declared, "from whom I draw all the solid comfort of my life." Like Sophia, she was both beautiful and an heiress. The newlyweds settled happily in rural Dorsetshire, but within a year they were back in London, having run through most of Charlotte's fortune.
Meanwhile, Fielding had taken up writing plays. According to the great twentieth-century playwright George Bernard Shaw, Fielding was "the greatest dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespeare, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century." Most critics, however, don't find his plays so praiseworthy. Mostly light and satirical, some obviously dashed off to make money, they served best to train Fielding's comic and dramatic gifts- gifts that reached their height in Tom Jones.
Fielding's career in the theater ended suddenly. In 1737, England's prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, a frequent target of the playwright's satires, passed a law that effectively barred Fielding from writing for the stage. His livelihood destroyed, the struggling husband and father was forced to resume the legal career he'd abandoned earlier. But he continued to write, and soon he found a new target for his pen.
That target was one of the first English novels ever written, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, published in 1740. Pamela tells the story of a maid who fends off her master's romantic advances so he'll propose marriage instead. It was an enormous success, and not just for literary reasons. Education, once an exclusive privilege of the rich, was spreading to the middle and lower classes. Shop-girls, bargemen, and carriage drivers were learning to read. They weren't interested in the literature taught to the aristocracy: Latin poems, Greek philosophies, or stories about kings and emperors. They wanted heroes and heroines they could identify with- heroines like Pamela.
Fielding understood the reasons for the popularity of Pamela, but he still found the book and its author foolish and sentimental, and viewed their success with amusement and exasperation. He attacked Pamela twice. His first effort was a hilarious satire, Shamela, published in 1741. (It's not known for certain that Fielding was Shamela's author, but he is the prime suspect.) Two years later, he published the tale of Pamela's virtuous brother, Joseph Andrews.
A funny thing happened, however, while Fielding was writing Joseph Andrews. The book, which he began as a satire, took on a life of its own. In the end it became not just an attack on Richardson but a great work in its own right. Fielding became, with his rival, one of the pioneers of the novel. Joseph Andrews was also Fielding's practice ground for an even greater work, his rich and massive masterpiece, Tom Jones.
Tom Jones was written in the most difficult circumstances. Unable to support his family solely by writing, Fielding had to juggle both a literary and a legal career. He did it honorably; eventually appointed justice of the peace, he shunned the bribes and privileges that usually accompanied the office. Though an aristocrat, he worked with tireless devotion to help London's poor. He presided over a busy police court and founded a forerunner of Scotland Yard (the London police force). With a friend, the artist William Hogarth, he fought the rampant alcoholism which the recent introduction of gin had brought to England. Meanwhile, his personal life was in turmoil. In 1744 his beloved wife, Charlotte, and a daughter both died, plunging him into depression. He also developed painful gout. Yet throughout these trials, he kept writing.
Tom Jones was published in 1749, and it was an immediate, enormous success. The entire first edition of 2000 copies was sold out before the date of publication. Some readers disliked it as much as Samuel Johnson did later; they called it "truly profligate" and "offensive to every chaste reader." But that didn't discourage sales. Three more editions sold out in the first year.
There are a number of reasons for Tom Jones' success, and for the fact that it is still so widely read today. Fielding was a master of storytelling. The nineteenth-century poet and critic Samuel Coleridge called Tom Jones "one of the most perfect plots ever planned." Fielding keeps numerous plots and subplots going at once, and makes them collide in fascinating ways. His experience in the theater helped him give the novel a dramatic structure, full of sharp, lively scenes. Fielding's comic gifts provide his readers with brilliant satire as well. And he makes ample use of his broad classical education, elevating the novel to what he called a "comic epic-poem in prose."
Although some readers have criticized Fielding's work for not presenting an intimate portrayal of emotion and mood, Fielding provides this sense of intimacy in his own way. The narrator in Tom Jones is one of the friendliest, most personable companions in literature. He's someone you'd love to have dinner with. He amuses you with his wit, dazzles you with his intelligence, warms you with his hospitality. After you've read his great novel, you feel as though you've been on a carriage ride with one of the best traveling companions you could find.
In short, in Tom Jones, Fielding wrote a book that is important both as a great novel in its own right and as one of the works that established the novel form. As the critic Martin Battestin writes,
Tom Jones is at once the last and the consummate literary achievement of Fielding's age.... The place Henry Fielding's finest novel holds in "the great tradition" of English fiction is quite secure. Not just as the mirror of... an age or as the... influence behind such different writers as Jane Austen and Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot... but as a work of art in its own right. Tom Jones has been the subject of more stimulating critical attention than any other novel of its period.
Fielding's years of exhausting legal and literary work took their toll. Though, according to his cousin, Lady Montagu, he "knew more happy moments than any prince on earth," he struggled against depression and exhaustion. He never really recovered from the loss of his wife, though he married Charlotte's maid several years after Charlotte's death. His health damaged, he left with his family for the more congenial climate of Portugal. He died in Lisbon on October 8, 1754.
Fielding was an aristocrat and a gentleman, widely praised for his wit, charm, and generosity. One of his greatest gifts to the world was his writing. It is a gift you will find richly displayed in his greatest work, his masterpiece, Tom Jones.
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