Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

[This is a journal in 9 sections, each covering two ‘Books’. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

9 July 2015
Books 1 and 2
Did Fielding set out to be provocative? Definitely. This came along a few years after Shamela, his satirical re-imagining of Richardson’s far too sanctimonious Pamela. There’s plenty of false sanctimony in Tom Jones, but even if Fielding presents it neutrally – he often does – we know he’s inviting us to see through the hypocrisy. Fielding didn’t invent the art of saying one thing while meaning the opposite, but he seems to have brought it to a kind of perfection in this novel. If he tells us a character is good or decent, we know it’s time to run for cover.

The one exception is Squire Allworthy. He isn’t perfect, but he tries to be. Which a) opens him to the envy and slander of others – to look after a baby placed in his bed rather than send it out to the meagre charity of the parish is bound to cause gossip – and b) makes him susceptible to the cunning and other low motives of others. When several people swear that an innocent man is the father of the foundling Allworthy doesn’t have enough insight – i.e. he doesn’t have as much insight as Fielding flatteringly ascribes to his readers – to gauge why they might be saying such things. The man’s wife is his chief accuser, swearing in a fit of pique that her husband has confessed… and Allworthy simply can’t imagine that she might be making it up. It’s not the only time that Allworthy gets it wrong, and we’re only a tenth of the way into the novel yet.

I’ve already hinted at Fielding’s relationship with his readers. In the 1740s, still in the early days of the novel, the rules could be rewritten with each new production. Fielding relishes the opportunity to play endless games with the form. He can write an essay about what a novel is, or isn’t – which is what he does in the chapters that introduce Books 1 and 2. In Book 1 he’s setting out the ‘bill of fare’, just as any good landlord would do. In Book 2 he is showing us ‘what kind of a history this is; what it is like, and what it is not like.’ He presents an affable persona, a man of the world – very definitely a man – who assures us he simply wants to offer a good service to the paying customer. He will provide learned digressions, usually in the form of metaphor-strewn pastiches, and he is almost fawningly considerate of our needs. ‘Reader, take care. I have unadvisedly led thee to the top of as high a hill as Mr Allworthy’s, and how to get thee down without breaking thy neck, I do not well know.’ He manages.

I should tell you the plot. Allworthy finds the child and calls the housekeeper, described in the chapter’s subtitle as ‘decent’. She is one of those people – we meet plenty of others – whose main concern is to do with punishing the unknown mother: ‘I should be glad to see her committed to Bridewell, and whipt.’ As for the child: ‘I would have it put in a basket, and sent out and laid at the churchwarden’s door. It is a good night, only a little rainy and windy; and if it was well wrapt up, and put in a warm basket, it is two to one but it lives till it is found in the morning.’ When she realises this is the opposite of what Allworthy wants, she pretends she’s been with him all along. A widower, he will bring up the child as his own – with the willing help, he is sure, of his sister Bridget. Soon it is discovered that the mother is one Jenny Jones. Allworthy doesn’t punish her, but reads her a lecture over four full pages (count them) that our genial author warns in advance contains ‘such grave matter, that the reader cannot laugh once through the whole chapter, unless peradventure he should laugh at the author.’ He likes to pretend to keep it light.

Jenny confesses, and Allworthy guesses, correctly – he’s fine with honest people – that she’s brought the child to his house to give it the best chance in life. He sends her far enough away for her to leave her ruined reputation behind. Unlike most in the 18th Century, Allworthy doesn’t only blame her for what’s happened – he punishes the supposed father in Book 2 – but otherwise this is hardly a book for women. When Fielding addresses his readers, it’s men he is talking to. The series of scenes during which a the wife of the accused man goes from jealousy to reconciliation to such rage that the poor man thinks she’s having some kind of fit and calls for help. Bad move: the blood on her face – his, scratched from his cheeks – becomes evidence of his mistreatment of her. She tells them it’s a good job they can’t see the other things he’s done to her. Women, eh?

The other thread is the marriage of Bridget. A doctor, one of Allworthy’s protégés – it isn’t clear how many people choose to live off his generosity – does his brother a favour by telling him about her. He comes to stay, and Fielding describes what comes next in terms of courtship and acceptance. We know what’s really going on, of course, and the campaign of ‘Captain Blifil’ works like a charm. They marry without telling Allworthy, and the doctor thinks it will sweeten the pill if he pretends to have bad news to break to him. Allworthy has no problem with their decision, trusting them both – so now the good captain can secretly turn on his brother for his mean-spirited intervention. The doctor leaves and dies soon after ‘of a broken heart’.

Eight months later a son is born. It is ‘to all appearances perfect’ despite being born ‘a month before its full time.’ Fielding presents this absolutely straight, knowing exactly what the reader will piece together. Captain Blifil isn’t the first character in this novel to hide behind a pretence of pious motives, and we’ve already had more than one clue about it. In the early days we’ve seen how keen he is to quote from scripture, for instance relating to ‘the sins of the fathers’, that encourage condemnation of others – already a big theme in the novel, it seems. It is Allworthy’s role to quietly offer a more forgiving interpretation. Very soon, Bridget can’t stand her husband and Fielding lets us see exactly what motivates him: ‘he looked on a woman as on an animal of domestic use, of somewhat higher consideration than a cat, since her offices were of rather more importance; but the difference between these two was, in his estimation, so small, that, in his marriage contracted with Mr Allworthy’s lands and tenements, it would have been pretty equal which of them he had taken into the bargain.’

Fielding has demolished him so thoroughly he can do what he likes with him now. Captain Blifil’s job is done – he’s fathered a child who will, it is already clear, inherit Allworthy’s estate – so Fielding can get rid of him. (Allworthy insists the child will be brought up with the foundling, to whom he has given his own name, Thomas.) Fielding can have a bit of fun now, turning it all into a burlesque of death and mourning at the captain’s expense. The subtitles of the last two chapters in Book 2 sum it up: Chapter viii. — A receipt to regain the lost affections of a wife, which hath never been known to fail in the most desperate cases; Chapter ix. — A proof of the infallibility of the foregoing receipt, in the lamentations of the widow; with other suitable decorations of death, such as physicians, &c., and an epitaph in the true stile.

I’m enjoying this.

15 July
Books 3 and 4
Book 3 is mainly about Tom and Blifil. Book 4 is mainly about Tom and sex. I’ll come back to those, because I want to talk about something else.

I don’t think there could have been a Dickens without Fielding. Or maybe I just mean that Dickens took the novel back to its roots in the mid-18th Century, before novelists aimed to create a believable, realistic-seeming world. Characters, usually with names that are somehow appropriate (like Allworthy, and now Thwackum), move around in a virtual space of the novelist’s invention. Their behaviour approximates to that of human beings – the more sympathetic the character, the more fully rounded – and Fielding always scrupulously ascribes proper motives and responses. But really, it’s clear the author has some other purpose in mind than the creation of an entirely plausible world.

Fielding constantly reminds us of the artificiality of his own novel’s construction – I doubt whether any novelist before him played quite so many games with the form. He warns us about a serious section coming up, or one he pretends the reader might find offensive, or will apologise in advance for resorting to a particular style in order to render a scene. Or, just as often, he will use techniques from other kinds of writing entirely. This was an era of philosophical and religious debate, and London was full of tracts pamphlets put out by anyone with an opinion. At other times he’s simply having a conversation with us, or writing a leisurely article in one of the new gentlemen’s magazines. If we want to picture a particular character, well, he or she looks like such-and-such a figure in that famous engraving by Hogarth that everybody’s seen by now.

Anyway. The son of Allworthy’s sister has grown up to be ‘Master Blifil’ – if he’s ever given a Christian name Fielding doesn’t tell us – and, from the start, he’s a monster. He uses the word ‘fib’ almost the first time he speaks, maybe Fielding’s cue to the reader to have another look at the name. It’s an anagram of ‘ill fib’ and, in fact, he’s lying as he denies having called Tom ‘a beggarly bastard.’ ‘Heaven forbid such naughty words should ever come out of his mouth!’ The boys are in their teens now, Fielding having done what he promised earlier, ‘to pass over several large periods of time, in which nothing happened worthy of being recorded.’ (He makes a great thing of this, even reminding the reader when he made the promise.) We’ve seen Tom big-heartedly taking the blame for a crime perpetrated by somebody else, and now we see how Blifil doesn’t stop at turning his ‘fib’ into another crime to be punished. He names the guilty man, knowing he will lose his job: ‘“he knows” (here he burst into a flood of tears), “yes, he knows, for he confessed it to me, that Black George the gamekeeper was there.”’

It’s all like this. Tom does something, usually with the best of motives, and Blifil puts the worst possible spin on it. He will cry, or pretend to be uneasy about dropping Tom in it, but he has ratted on Tom, and that’s all he cares about. By the time we’ve reached Book 4, Fielding can be sure we know exactly what Blifil is about: ‘Master Blifil, though a prudent, discreet, sober young gentleman, was at the same time strongly attached to the interest only of one single person; and who that single person was the reader will be able to divine without any assistance of ours.’ It’s in Fielding’s usual style: ‘prudent, discreet and sober’ might be laudable under normal circumstances, but we recognise this as a kind of literary sarcasm.

Blifil might be transparently insufferable but, of course, that doesn’t stop him taking most people in. Most importantly he takes in their tutors, Thwackum and Square. The nonsensical debates between these two caricature favourite religious or philosophical beliefs at the time. Thwackum is a bible-thumping bully, only interested in faith rather than good works. All Tom’s generous actions count for nothing with him because, basically, he doesn’t pretend to believe what Thwackum tells him. Blifil, on the other hand, is master of saying the right thing – really, a master of flattery – and his odiousness doesn’t appear odious to him at all. Square is a rationalist, a ‘Deist’, and for him ‘virtue’ in the abstract is a kind of goddess. Blifil agrees with everything he says as well – except when Thwackum is present. Then, he remains silent.

Allworthy is nearly always able to see through the prejudices of the teachers with regard to Tom. He can see his genuine generosity, as when he gives his own money, and even sells his horse, for the destitute former gamekeeper and his family. (I’ll come back to that, because it rebounds on Tom later, thanks to some opportunistic lying by – guess who.) But Allworthy doesn’t seem able to see Blifil for what he is. We’ve seen from the court hearing regarding the hapless teacher in Book 2 that Allworthy can be fooled by unscrupulous people, because he doesn’t seem to understand that there are people in the world who aren’t as good as he is. And, as I was saying before, Fielding isn’t presenting it as realistic.

There are other people around. Bridget enjoys the attentions of the two teachers, but isn’t taken in by them. However… as Tom grows up, he starts to interest her a lot – and this turns into another reason for the teachers to hate him. There are servants and people in the village, and we get their highly changeable views. And there are the female characters, especially (but not only) those in the gamekeeper’s family. But we only really meet them properly in Book 4.

By this time, Tom has been spending a lot of time at the house of the neighbour, Squire Western. He’s another comic grotesque, but his daughter is something else. Fielding makes a big thing of describing her in the Sublime style, and Tom behaves absolutely honourably towards her. The same doesn’t go for Molly. Except… Fielding makes it clear that she makes all the running: ‘In a word, she soon triumphed over all the virtuous resolutions of Jones … it was her design which succeeded.’ Is Fielding too easy on Tom? He lets us know, through one of those circumlocutions of his, that Tom is unlikely to have been the only one to have slept with Molly – so his reputation as a loveable rogue, one who never wittingly harms others, remains intact. And Bridget fancies Tom, of course – because where is the woman who doesn’t?

Is Molly’s pregnancy presented as one big joke? Fielding lets us think that she had it coming to her, especially as the baby might not even be Tom’s anyway. (I bet it turns out that somebody else is the father.) All the women around her – not only her mother and elder sister, but also the village women waiting for her outside the church – make the gossips we’ve met before seem positively respectable. The fight amongst the women is presented, in another set piece exercise in style, as a battle between Amazons…. Is this Fielding just being a typical male writer, or am I missing something? (I might be.)

Whatever. It looks as though Allworthy’s view of Tom is changing for the worse as we approach the end of Book 4. He has always believed in Tom until, late in Book 4, Blifil presents it to Allworthy that Tom was only generous to the family so he could have his way with Molly. Blifil has finally been able to get under Allworthy’s defences: his accusations ‘certainly stamped in the mind of Allworthy the first bad impression concerning Jones.’ It also stamps in the mind of the reader how premeditated Blifil’s campaign against Tom really is. We’ve had more than a taste of this before, after he bought the bible from Tom that had been a gift from Allworthy. He makes sure that Tom’s name is visible to the teachers, in order to present it in as bad a light as possible – clearly, Blifil’s main motive for buying it. That time, Blifil’s plan hadn’t quite worked: it transpires that Tom only sold the bible in order to give the the money to George’s family.

So. Tom’s on dangerous ground. Squire Western, Sophia’s father, likes Tom and can see through Blifil… but there’s danger here as well. Tom hadn’t been interested in Sophia while he was after Molly, so there was nothing for Western to worry about. But things are changing. Having been unaware of Sophia’s feelings for him, Tom has been careful not to show any of his feelings for her. But Fielding has let her understand in a set piece of a different kind. Honour, her maid, describes it: ‘he came into the room one day last week when I was at work, and there lay your ladyship’s muff on a chair, and to be sure he put his hands into it; that very muff your ladyship gave me but yesterday. La! says I, Mr Jones, you will stretch my lady’s muff, and spoil it: but he still kept his hands in it: and then he kissed it—to be sure I hardly ever saw such a kiss in my life as he gave it….’ And there’s more danger to come. In saving Sophia’s life after a fall from her horse at the very end of Part 4, Tom breaks his arm and is put to bed at Squire Western’s house. He’s not going to be able to avoid her now….

22 July
Books 5 and 6
He tries. To avoid Sophia. But, despite his best efforts – and Fielding does all he can to persuade us that Tom really is trying – circumstances conspire against him. And Blifil, who only makes occasional appearances, is also conspiring against him. He is finally able to present such a neatly calculated case against Tom – or Jones, as Fielding has called him since Book 4 – that Allworthy finally throws him out. It’s Blifil Triumphant: he might not have Sophia, yet – he lives in hope, because he has fallen in love with her inheritance – but by the end of Book 6 he’s got everything else he wants.

It’s brilliantly done. It’s still the same virtual world of Fielding’s invention – there’s fairy-tale in there, and allegory, and farce – so we don’t have to believe things really happen like this. But Fielding gamely presents it all as though everything in it is plausible. The actions and motives of every single character are accounted for and explained, and it’s so dazzling we’re either prepared to overlook the glaring implausibility of the plot or we’re simply carried along with its outlandish twists and turns. And there are the coincidences, the happy or unhappy accidents that get Tom out of a tight corner or plunge him into a worse fix than ever. And, strolling alongside all this, is the suave commentator, Fielding the arbiter not only of taste but of human nature and the eternal soul of mankind. It’s all an act, of course, but it’s as entertaining as the rest of it and we’re happy to go along for the ride. And, of course, sometimes it isn’t an act. Or it’s simply absurd. Chapter 1 of Book 5 consists of an argument, complete with classical and other references, for the inclusion of pointless chapters like this one. They make the rest bearable by comparison.

I should concentrate on the plot because that’s what Fielding does. We realise how many things have been set up previously, especially (but not only) in connection with aspects of character. It’s important for the plot, for instance, for Allworthy to be persuaded that Tom is an incorrigible villain. He is to listen to evidence from a man who is so clearly a sanctimonious, moralising fogy that nobody would ever take his views seriously. But the combination of that familiar gap in Allworthy’s personality – his inability to recognise either bullshit or bare-faced hypocrisy – and the way that Fielding never shows us the everyday lives and interactions of these people makes his error seem feasible. It doesn’t stop it being far-fetched, but Fielding is never averse to stretching credibility a little. Or a lot.

But in Books 5 and 6 Fielding really concentrates on Tom and Sophia. Again, everything we see is recognisable from what we’ve seen before. Tom, aside from his own particular flaw – his ‘animal spirits’ – always behaves with an impeccable sense of what is right. In a universe in which almost every other character is an archetype of sometimes farcically bad behaviour – there’s an echo of mediaeval morality plays in there as well – Tom is the only one who never fails to put others first. He always tries to do the honourable thing and he is never, ever self-serving. In his own way, he is as much an archetype as the others, the one incorruptible man in a crowd of mean and petty-minded humanity. He has to be. By the time he is wrongfully ejected from Eden – the reader might remember, just, that Allworthy is the master of Paradise Hall – it has to feel like a crying shame.

Those animal spirits. Fielding is as careful in his presentation of these as he is with everything else. ‘I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book,’ said Samuel Johnson, according to the blurb on my paperback copy. It’s harder for a modern reader to understand such a judgment than it might have been in the 18th Century. Fielding is provocative in his sexual frankness: Tom has definitely had sex with Molly and, disastrously, he definitely tries again in Book 6. It happens when he is drunk with joy after Allworthy recovers from an illness that was never as bad as the doctor pretended. This is witnessed by Blifil, who stores it up to use later in his character-assassination of him. He brings in other evidence, all of it deriving from the impulsiveness of Tom’s behaviour that is always, in fact, an aspect of his big-heartedness. Thwackum, no mean boxer himself in his youth, is covered in bruises inflicted on him by Jones. He is very happy to show these to Allworthy – who is never told, of course, that Tom was simply trying to keep Thwackum from naming and shaming the woman he was with. Blifil states that Tom was drunk on the day when Allworthy was in most danger from his illness; he doesn’t say that this was the same day that it became clear Allworthy was out of danger, and Tom was celebrating. None of the others – including Blifil himself – showed any positive emotion at all.

Earlier I was asking whether Fielding is too easy on Tom with regard to his sexual behaviour. Maybe he is, and the chapter in which we learn not only that Molly is not carrying his child but that she is currently in a sexual relationship with Square lets him off the hook entirely. But it’s something else that Fielding, through Blifil, can now turn into a big driver of the plot. Blifil lies about his sexual behaviour which, in fact, is serially monogamous. And Tom’s appetites, which Fielding only pretends to abhor, contrast with those of Blifil the cold fish. When Blifil is faced with the prospect of marrying Sophia he is astonished because has never, ever thought of such a thing either with her or any other woman. He is only interested in her money.

(Tom finds out about Molly and Square when he goes to visit her. She is the only woman he has ever had a relationship with – not something that Blifil cares to mention – and he wants to help her. And there she is, in bed, with Square crouched behind a cloth hanging in her room. Tom is in the room because Molly’s sister, jealous of the way the local Lothario has turned his attention away from her and on to Molly, sends him up there ‘with a malicious smile’ on her face. It’s one of those little indications to the reader that even one-dimensional minor characters have motivations that carry the plot forward. And the womaniser, Will, is the father of Molly’s child: another loose end tied up.)

The main story in these two Books is to do with Tom and Sophia’s growing love for each other once Molly is out of the way – and the way that their attempts to be discreet lead to the misunderstandings that themselves lead, directly or indirectly, to Tom’s exile. From the beginning, Tom knows that there is no future for him and Sophia. He has no inheritance beyond the few hundred pounds a year that Allworthy settles on him when he thinks he is dying, and considers it would be treachery to his friend Squire Western to attempt anything at all. Western, unsurprisingly, is the most traditional of landowners and the most traditional of fathers. He likes Tom, but has never, ever thought of him as anything beyond an excellent hunting and drinking companion. Tom and Sophia seem instinctively to know this long before plot developments make it clear, and things reach the stage where Sophia is so determined to hide her feelings that she tends to ignore Tom in company and turn her attention to Blifil.

It’s time for a moment of farce – but this time, unlike the discovery of Square in Molly’s room, it has catastrophic consequences. Western’s sister, fresh from fashionable London, fancies herself not only as a political strategist but also an expert in the ways of love. Fielding has already let us know that she has no personal experience of it: ‘her pursuit of it was never diverted by any affairs of her own; for either she had no inclinations, or they had never been solicited; which last is indeed very probable….’ And she gets it entirely wrong. She sees Sophia’s interest in Blifil, knows that no woman in London would either show her true feelings or hide them so blatantly: she decides it’s a double bluff, and that Sophia really is in love with Blifil. Aagh.

Things move fast. Western is overjoyed at the prospect of the two estates being joined – Fielding is satirical about the political analogies drawn by both him and his sister – and insists that the two lovers meet immediately. This leads to two clever set pieces. The first is when Mrs Western tells Sophia that she has seen through her ruse, and congratulates her on her choice… and so on, for some time. (Did Fielding invent the comic misunderstanding based on the reluctance of one of the speakers to use the name of the person he or she is talking about? Probably not.) The aunt is terribly proud of her astuteness – which contributes to the intensity of her rage when she does eventually mention Blifil’s name and Sophia puts her right. She insists on the meeting Western has arranged – he’s even been to see Allworthy, who accepts what he hears about Sophia and Blifil with only a little surprise – otherwise she will tell him about Sophia’s love for Jones. The meeting is arctic in its cold silence. But Blifil thinks that this is how young women always behave during the first formal meeting, and tells Allworthy that the signs are good.

It doesn’t last. Western, when his sister tells him the truth – she considers that Sophia has reneged on the terms of the agreement when Tom gets to speak to her – does what he does best. Apoplectic rage, threats to cut Sophia off without a farthing whilst Tom, his long-term partner in all he loves best, is vermin… and so on. It’s Blifil’s chance to move in for the kill. Western has presented it all to Allworthy as a conspiracy by Jones, and Blifil has carefully stored up his evidence for just this moment. Jones, too upset by what has happened – he has, with permission, been speaking to Sophia when Western bursts in – is unable to string together any coherent defence.

Allworthy sends him away with nothing but an amount of money to set him up to pursue ‘some honest livelihood’. When he mislays the unopened package, Black George, having already pocketed the £500 it contained, helps him to look for it. Later, when George is given sixteen guineas to pass on to Tom from Sophia he does so, driven by his conscience – and by the consideration that if he doesn’t, he might get found out. Not a pretty place, this post-lapsarian world of Fielding’s.

31 July
Books 7 and 8
These are the longest Books in the novel – and, aside from the first half of Book 7, very little happens. Or… Fielding decides to show that he’s not only good for a well-turned plot, because he can do philosophical debate as well. If this is a post-lapsarian world – and we’ve known it is, ever since the housekeeper first suggested putting out the foundling to save Allworthy’s reputation – well, how should we live? Not like Allworthy, a poor judge of others according to his current record. And, up to Tom’s exile, not like anybody else either. Tom and Sophia try to do the right thing, usually, but all they get is trouble.

We’re with Tom for all of Books 7 and 8, except for (most of) the first half of Book 7. These are about Sophia, and contain the kind of well-plotted farce we’re familiar with. She’s still a prisoner despite her aunt having persuaded her brother to give up the idea of locking her in her room. Western and his sister behave exactly as before, and things reach a crisis. Western is going to force Sophia to marry Blifil within three days – cue Fielding’s wry comments on the way that ‘loving’ fathers will inflict this misery on their distraught children, on pain of total dispossession – and Sophia seems trapped. Blifil has paid another call, and Fielding lets us know that he’ll be very happy to have such a woman as Sophia in his bed. He is indifferent to how she feels about it, and blithely lets Allworthy understand – without ever actually telling a lie – that she will not be marrying against her will. Fielding comments sarcastically on how such circumlocutions might fool other people, but anyone who understands God would see how futile they are. God seems to be on Fielding’s mind a lot in these middle sections of the novel.

But anyway. The day before the wedding, desperate measures are called for. Sophia decides she will run away at midnight, but she will need Honour the maid with her. Fielding looks on admiringly at how their scheme to get Honour sacked – it’s the only way her possessions will be safe – is as well thought through as any evildoer’s might be. He’s also keen for us to know that Sophia is as loving a daughter as any father could hope for, and she hates to hurt him. Having planned her escape to the last detail, and Honour having got herself dismissed in a set-piece exchange of insults with Western’s sister – for which Western would send her to jail if he could – Sophia changes her mind. Thinking of ‘the immense happiness she should convey to her father by her consent to this match’ she is ‘charmed with the contemplation of so heroic an action, and began to compliment herself with much premature flattery.’ But something catches her attention. ‘Cupid, who lay hid in her muff, suddenly crept out’ and the escape plan is back on. It might be my favourite double entendre ever. I’d been thinking that Sophia, like Tom, is too high-principled to be plausible. But never mind, when Fielding makes it as entertaining as this.

The rest of Book 7 and all of Book 8 are about Tom on the road. Or not on the road – most of the time he’s indoors, and sometimes he’s unconscious. There’s more bad behaviour from almost everybody around him. At an inn run by a self-serving and highly dishonest landlady he meets a troop of soldiers on their way to engage with the Jacobites. Tom, as unworldly as Candide (in Voltaire’s novel published the following decade, I discover), is all for joining up for King and the Protestant cause. The soldiers, with one exception, are bemused by this innocent, and an ensign decides to have some fun with him. He pitches some conventional insults about Sophia, whose name has somehow come up, and when Tom threatens him he throws a bottle at his head. Cue another of Fielding’s self-serving doctors, pronouncing on the seriousness of it… and so on. Like the landlady, he treats Tom like vermin as soon as he hears, wrongly, that Tom is a penniless wastrel. This information has been conveyed by the man who had guided Tom this far on the road. He, of course, is a good-for-nothing who doesn’t even know the way to Bristol, where Tom had wanted to join some ship sailing far away. Then there’s the sergeant who tries to rip him off, offering to sell a sword for £20 when he thinks Tom is still light-headed….

Is this all sounding a bit one-note? I was starting to get bored, and even the one likeable character, the brave and honest sixty-year-old lieutenant, has never got a promotion because – wait for it – his wife won’t sleep with the colonel like all the other wives. In other words, if you’re not corrupt in this world, you’re the victim of somebody who is. At least it seems there’s to be some light relief in a chapter whose subtitle promises ‘one of the pleasantest barbers that was ever recorded in history….’ But no. The barber reveals himself to be Partridge, the teacher wrongly accused of being Tom’s father, and he looks all set to be a Sancho Panza after offering to follow Tom anywhere. But really he just wants to get his old life back. He doesn’t believe Allworthy can really have thrown Tom out – he assumes, like everybody else, that Tom is Allworthy’s illegitimate son – and thinks Tom simply needs to return and all will be well.

Are we nearly there yet? Not at all. They eventually go on their way – Tom still wants to follow the soldiers – and are about to stay at an inn in Gloucester. But someone pours poisonous misinformation about him into the landlady’s ear – she, like Allworthy, is a good person who can be fooled – and he is no longer welcome. (Sigh.) Cue more aimless travelling, by moonlight on a freezing night in midwinter, with Partridge complaining. Fielding needs another episode – we’re half-way through Book 8 by now – and they see a light an isolated cottage next to hill. Partridge takes the old woman who answers the door to be a witch – he is the representative of the superstitious party, and is constantly made to look ridiculous – but she takes pity on them. She wants them out before her master returns from his nocturnal walk because he never has anybody in the house, and they are about to leave. Time for…

…an outrageously unlikely event as the old man is attacked by thieves and Tom is able to save him. So they are welcome in the house after all and soon, at Tom’s insistence, he begins the story of how he came to live like a hermit. The second half of Book 8 is all given over to his stories, all of them ending badly. In fact, he shows himself to be rather easily led into temptation, throwing over a comfortable life of study in order to take up with a gambler. What this man, with neither an honest bone in his body nor anything likeable in his character, is able to offer is anybody’s guess. But our storyteller follows him down the path of dissolution. After years of this, he is discovered by his father, who forgives him everything. But… but he’s an idiot. He goes back to his studies, but Gambling Man gets his teeth into him again. (There are pages of this stuff.) He has decided ‘the folly of mankind is as wonderful as their knavery,’ citing his extensive travels to where all landlords are the same, all guides are the same… and so on.

This is where the heaviest of the content comes in. The old man has studied all the ancient philosophers, and he found them satisfactory for a while. But he moved on, and now decides that only religion will do… but it doesn’t stop him believing that in all God’s marvellous creation mankind is a terrible mistake. Tom – and is this the point of it all? – does his best to persuade him that he’s wrong. But by the end of Book 8 he hasn’t changed the old man’s mind at all. Tom, according to him, hasn’t lived long enough to learn the truth. (I see that the conversation continues in Book 9. I’m not holding my breath.)

It’s a problem for a modern reader that things that seem crucially important to both the narrator and his characters feel marginal now. Not always – those discursive opening chapters often touch on things we might have thoughts about, like the dangers of judging too quickly (VII i) or the importance of consistency and plausibility in fiction (VIII i). Not that these are ever as solemn as that sounds: they’re sometimes the most entertaining thing in whatever Book they introduce. The same doesn’t go for the politics and religion the characters talk about in these Books. Tom, who really is a Candide-like ingénu in a lot of respects – having grown up in seclusion at Paradise Hall – is presented with what feels like a parade of options. Honour versus Christian forgiveness after the ensign has insulted Sophia’s name? (Honour.) Protestantism versus ‘Popery’? (No contest, and Partridge has to cover his tracks when he realises Tom isn’t a Catholic.) Classical philosophy versus Christian faith? A belief in the perfectibility of human nature, or not? (And we’re back to VII i, and the dangers of judging mankind according to the worst we see.)

Tom reminds me of Gulliver in Swift’s novel, published over 20 years before Tom Jones, forced into the ingénu role by the needs of the author. Gulliver has to say some pretty naïve things, but we go with it because it’s entertaining. Maybe the problem with Tom’s journey so far is that it’s just not entertaining enough. I wish things would speed up a bit – thirty pages of the old man’s stories are just too much.

7 August
Books 9 and 10
They do. Things. Speed up a bit. Tom’s journey doesn’t – for most of it he doesn’t get beyond the next inn, at Upton – but the farcical pace certainly does. If the plots of farces are based on comic and/or embarrassing misunderstandings – and I think that most of them are – then these chapters at Upton are one long farce. I’m enjoying it, because I imagine Fielding (or the omniscient, omnipresent narrator we meet in these pages) daring the reader to object to the next absurdly implausible development.

Those absurdities. Tom, for the second time in about twelve hours, is able to prevent a crime because, by complete chance, he just happens to be there. Also by chance, the would-be rapist and murderer is the very ensign, Northerton, who nearly killed him at the inn in Book 7. The woman is Mrs Waters, the not-quite wife of a captain in the same army unit and… I forget if she has other connections with the story so far. At the inn, the next absurdity is ‘the Battle of Upton’, following which everybody is friends again because of – this being an inn – the promise of money. (In one of his introductory chapters, Fielding rejects the potential criticism that this landlady is too exactly like the one we met in Book 7. He pretends, if I remember rightly, to claim that their similarity is actually realistic: landladies really are all like this, so that the good woman at Gloucester is the exception, not the rule.)

The next comic misunderstanding – and the next set-piece battle – follows the arrival of an Irishman looking for his errant wife. He is given wrong information after the maid, having been offered a big bribe, tells him what he wants to hear. (Money has been a great driver of farcical plots for a long time. 150 years before Fielding, Jonson was having Sir Epicure Mammon, mentioned in one of these Books, being soundly fleeced in The Alchemist.) The battle comes when the Irishman crashes into the room where Tom is sleeping with Mrs Waters. Fielding has got him into her bed after some paragraphs of comedy definitions of what does and doesn’t constitute heroic behaviour. Eating isn’t unheroic, so Fielding can pretend that Tom’s single-minded wolfing-down of his meal, to the exclusion of even Mrs Waters’ blatant play for his attention, is ok. The next bit, where he lets her tumble him into her bed (he’s good at letting that happen, as we know) is less easy to justify…. So instead, Fielding remonstrates with critics who expect every hero to be perfect.

In other words, following the long debates and philosophical meanderings of Books 7 and 8, we’re back to the combative, droll narrative persona who never really went away. And if Book 9 is full of farcical mix-ups, Book 10 has Fielding determinedly pushing the boundaries of plausibility ever further. There are, it transpires, now two Irishmen at the inn – it’s on the main Holyhead to Bath coaching route so that’s ok – and they know each other. It later transpires, in the way that things transpire in this novel, that the wife that the one we’ve met is looking for is a niece of Western’s. (The marriage, predictably, led to her immediately being stripped of her inheritance.) Later still it also transpires that she really had been at the inn, but was able to escape in the confusion. Try to keep up.

Sophia has arrived earlier, unannounced – unannounced by Fielding, that is, who simply refers to a lady and her maid, not the first to arrive that night. This is explained later, as Fielding rewinds to her journey with Honour, who has accidentally met Tom’s guide as she waits for Sophia. He tells them which way he has gone, and Sophia decides to follow him instead of going to London. For reasons which Fielding carefully explains are not Tom’s fault – in other words, it’s useful for the plot – Honour dislikes Tom. Her disappointment at not getting the chance to go to London increases her resentment, and when she hears the story of his being discovered with another woman she tells Sophia all about it, with lurid embellishments. Sophia is mortified, and is about to throw away the muff that has come to represent all her loving feelings for him. Instead, Partridge persuades her (he’s often around like this to oil the wheels of the plot) to leave it on Tom’s pillow, with her name. She leaves, in high dudgeon. And…

…and other stuff happens. Soldiers have arrived, from the same unit as the ones Tom met in Book 7… but I can’t remember for the moment what they contribute to the plot beyond revealing some background details about Northerton and Mrs Waters. Western arrives, in pursuit of the daughter he firmly believes has planned to elope with Tom, and is pleased to lay his hands on at least one of them: ‘We have got the dog fox, I warrant the bitch is not far off.’ (Western really is a pantomime character, utterly devoid of any adult sentiment. Or is he just a five-year-old in an adult’s body, like a less mature Tom Hanks in Big?) It’s looking bad for Tom, standing there with the muff in his hand for all to see, and with a local magistrate conveniently available to try his case. Fitzpatrick tries to get on Western’s side by helping him locate Sophia, but it backfires – and the Squire doesn’t even know who he is anyway. The attempt to produce Sophia only produces Mrs Waters, and Partridge is able to confirm that it was he who found the muff, Tom having missed it entirely. Authors like Fielding need characters like Partridge. Case dismissed.

Separately, Western and Tom set off in pursuit of Sophia. Western has forgotten to take the muff with him, which is a good job: Tom ‘would have died on the spot rather than have parted with it.’ Most of the other characters we’ve met are in a coach heading for Bath, and… and that’s enough about the events at Upton. (It’s after this that Fielding warns us in a chapter subtitle that ‘the history goes backward,’ and he is able to tell us how Sophia got to the inn.)

[Later]
I’m enjoying it again. Fielding makes the reader work hard, as we attempt to gauge what he really means in amongst the drolleries and mock-serious engagements with those critics he refers to as ‘reptiles’. Every time he expresses an opinion I wonder, Does he really mean this? Is it a joke? Is it ironic? Does he mean the precise opposite? At different times it’s all of these, including the first: sometimes, heavily disguised, he’s telling us exactly what he means. Meanwhile he continues to insist on the utterly solid moral reliability of his hero and heroine. Sophia, when she arrives at the inn, behaves so without guile, and without the expensive egotism of the rich, that the landlady hates her. Tom, aside from the small matters of his hot-headed sense of ‘honour’ and his willingness to let highly-sexed women lure him to bed, is unfailingly (and, let’s face it, implausibly) principled, decent, and honest. On top of all this Fielding has created an outrageously unfeasible plot, at every unlikely twist of which he offers, straight-faced, a perfectly reasonable explanation. His imperturbable authorial persona is definitely my favourite character in the book.

17 August
Books 11 and 12
I only realised as I reached the end of these two Books, with both Tom and Sophia now in London, how carefully Fielding is structuring this novel. The first third of it was Paradise, albeit a highly imperfect version, and the ejection from it. The middle third is on the road, where both Tom and Sophia (especially Tom) meet a succession of people who offer different alternatives on how life might be lived. I don’t know what the final third will consist of, but it looks as if it’s going to be set in a metropolis that will be even more challenging than anywhere they have been so far. I can’t imagine that Tom is going to have an easy time there, and I’ll be surprised if the woman that Sophia is staying with is a model of perfect behaviour.

Book 11 follows Sophia all the way. She and her cousin, now Mrs Fitzpatrick, had left Upton separately and it’s only some miles down the road that they meet and recognise one another. They had spent a lot of time together when they were younger, in the dubious care of their Aunt Western. Harriet, the cousin, had been ‘Miss Giddy’ to Sophia’s ‘Miss Graveairs’, and I think this is Fielding’s warning to the reader to treat the tale that she tells Sophia with a degree of caution. Her seduction by a gold-digging scoundrel is so formulaic it seems to me that Fielding is putting us on our guard. It reminds me of the Man of the Hill’s first-person narrative of wronged innocence, and is just as likely to be a self-serving version of a truth that is probably far less clear-cut. Fitzpatrick is an almost pantomime villain – Harriet even finds a letter, years after the marriage, in which a tailor of all people suggests marriage to the younger bitch because she has more ready cash than the older, her aunt – and she ends up a prisoner in the dilapidated Irish mansion.

We’re not sure her story is false, of course – we know all about a different tyrant and his willingness to lock up the young woman who disobeyed him – but alarm-bells ring as she approaches the end of it: ‘an accident happened.—I—at a time when I began to give way to the utmost despair——everything would be excusable at such a time—at that very time I received——But it would take up an hour to tell you all particulars.—In one word, then (for I will not tire you with circumstances), gold, the common key to all padlocks, opened my door, and set me at liberty.’ There are big clues here. Her hesitancy, shown in those repeated long dashes, and her unwillingness to tell how the gold suddenly appeared, are highly suspicious. Fielding even makes a joke about it, hinting that perhaps it appeared by supernatural means.

Eventually she explains: an updated version of a knight in shining armour has come to her rescue. At first sight this is just as much like magic as the original sudden appearance of the gold, and Harriet seeks to assure Sophia that he has no ulterior motive – it’s just the sort of kindly act he does all the time for the local damsels in distress. (I’m paraphrasing.) But then, outside of Harriet’s narrative, a different story emerges that leads to a coolness between the cousins. Harriet might be good at playing the part of the virtuous woman, making a big thing of refusing to stay overnight at the Irish peer’s London house. But Sophia has her own suspicions, and it is later confirmed by the peer himself that their plan had been to travel separately and meet in Bath.

I think this story, and its precise position in this middle third of the novel, tells us a lot about Fielding’s motive for including it. Everything about it is a kind of mirror-image of the story told by the Man of the Hill, right down to where it appears two ‘Books’ from the end of the section set on the road. (The earlier story had appeared two ‘Books’ after the beginning.) Both of them are told by narrators who appear increasingly unreliable, yet Fielding must consider them both important because he allows them to slow the main narrative to a standstill. And each time Tom, or Sophia, is unconvinced. People might do their utmost to justify their own behaviour, but our hero and heroine have what it takes to see right through them.

Suspect versions of the truth are becoming a big thing now. In the middle of Book 12, containing Tom’s own journey to London over the same three days that Sophia is making hers, a character appears that we’ve twice met before. This is Dowling, the lawyer who brought news of the death of Allworthy’s sister (and Blifil’s mother) in Book 6. Fielding doesn’t mention his name then, but he does the second time, when he meets Tom by chance at an inn. This second time he is contrasted with a ‘vile petty-fogger’ who, ‘calling to mind that he had not been sworn, as he usually was, before he gave his evidence,’ tells lie after pointless lie about Tom’s villainy. The landlady is happy to swallow these whole, but Dowling, who had been impressed by Tom earlier, makes no judgment beyond observing that he ‘never heard any ill character of him’ before this.

In Book 12, Dowling seems ready to give Tom the benefit of the doubt when they meet again. Dowling praises not only Allworthy but also Blifil – which allows Fielding to give Tom a useful opportunity to revisit the main details of his life at Paradise Hall. He gives a summary, over several paragraphs, of exactly what he knows about Blifil’s ‘villainy’: ‘he hath taken an advantage of the openness of my own temper, and hath concerted the deepest project, by a long train of wicked artifice, to work my ruin, which at last he hath effected.’ This is all well and good, but coming in this particular section of the novel, I’m wondering why on earth Dowling should believe Tom’s story. But, after Tom has told him everything, from his birth onwards, and having always spoken in the most open and honest way about how Allworthy really owes him nothing, Dowling ‘really felt a very strong impulse of compassion for him.’ But then – and it isn’t the only time he does this – Fielding asks us to file it away for later: ‘we may possibly take some other opportunity of commenting upon this, especially if we should happen to meet Mr Dowling any more in the course of our history.’

There’s a lot more weighing up of people’s presentation of themselves on this final leg of Tom’s journey. He travels further, and meets more people, than in any previous section. And Partridge comes into his own not merely as a necessary mover of the plot, but as a real foil to Tom. At a practical level, he always wants to take the easy option – to stay and eat, to watch the puppet-show, to stay a night and catch up on sleep. But it’s on the moral battlefield – it really does sometimes seem that way – that Tom’s qualities shine out by contrast with Partridge’s thoughtlessness and venality. And that’s the point. Partridge, for instance, is all for Tom not only to keep the purse that Sophia had dropped, but to spend the £100 in it. Tom is disgusted by the idea of such dishonesty, regarding it as simple theft. Later, Partridge wants the amateur highwayman to be punished to the full extent of the law, whilst Tom listens to his sob-story and sends him away with a gift for his family. This case isn’t so clear. We wonder if the man is exploiting Tom’s generosity just as Black George had done in Book 3. Fielding drops a big hint about his promise not to commit any more crimes: ‘whether he kept his word or no, perhaps may appear hereafter.’

And between these two incidents there’s the set piece of Tom’s meeting with the king of the gypsies. Tom is as free of prejudice as he is of all the other vices (except one), and he treats the man with as much respect as he would an aristocrat. Tom is impressed by the gypsies’ way of punishing wrong-doers through shame – and this time the reader isn’t left in any doubt of Tom’s good judgment. As though by chance, a gypsy tries to dupe Partridge into recompensing him for his seduction of the man’s wife. But the king sees through the couple’s scam, and they are to be punished: for the man, a month of wearing the cuckold’s horns and for the wife a month of being labelled (forgive me) a wh–re. The whole episode becomes an exploration of government unfettered by cant and hypocrisy – and, in passing, Fielding can muse on the impossibility of having absolute power vested in one ruler. Fine.

So Fielding is setting up both Sophia and Tom up as the joint possessors of an almost unassailable moral sense – whilst continually confirming that they are too innocent for the post-lapsarian world they still encounter at every turn. It sounds corny, but the journey in these middle six chapters (7-12) is symbolic. Both Tom and Sophia have left behind a childhood existence which, somehow, has taught them to be absolutely honest and morally upright. But their moral strength doesn’t really help them. Sophia seems more mature, but both she and Tom are used and abused by people who see them as a soft touch. For Tom, Allworthy seems to have been a marvellous role-model – except he, too, is always taken in by people who have an ulterior motive. Sophia has no role-models at all; it seems to be simply a part of Fielding’s scheme that she was born with a fully-formed sense of right and wrong.

But that isn’t all that he does in these Books. He seems determined to worry away at every last aspect of storytelling itself. I can’t be the first person to be struck by the metafictional features of a novel that was written over 200 years before the term was invented. (Its first recorded use was in 1960. And no, I’m not the first. Even Wikipedia includes Tom Jones in its list of metafictional works.) My favourite, very short example comes in Book 11. After introducing it as a piece of ‘pretty writing’, the narrator gives us a fairly long paragraph describing how the servant class gets things ready for the kind of people who are the heroes of novels: ‘Those members of society who are born to furnish the blessings of life now began to light their candles…’ and so on, for eight more lines. This is followed, without pause, by a shorter paragraph: ‘In simple phrase, the clock had no sooner struck seven than the ladies were ready for their journey; and, at their desire, his lordship and his equipage were prepared to attend them.’ It’s a perfect imitation of all that we usually get in novels.

Meanwhile, as he has done from the start, Fielding offers us a very particular kind of fictional world. These middle chapters are a self-conscious, coincidence-driven, jokey adventure that takes the picaresque – just as Fielding takes on other forms at other times – and remakes it as something new. Tom isn’t the incorrigible rogue of those tales – although plenty of people think he is – and if his adventures on the road have all the random, episodic features of the picaresque there’s always a serious moral core.

It could hardly be more different from another novel published only two years before. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa set the standard for the kind of plausible, psychologically realistic novel that became the dominant form for almost every novelist since. If unexpected coincidences happen in the ‘plausible’ plots that are now the norm in serous fiction, we expect the author to at least acknowledge the fact. If they happen in this playful kind of novel – those of Dickens come to mind again – the author makes no apology at all. In fact, he/she is more likely, like Fielding, to celebrate the implausibility as though daring the reader to object.

So. This isn’t the psychologically realistic novel that modern readers expect, as Fielding uses broad strokes to present characters who are not at all fully rounded. Even main characters are one-dimensional, like Western (primitive, like a baby) and Blifil (self-serving ego on legs). It’s like the puppet shows that Partridge (or somebody) talks about, not based on a clever Restoration play like the one in Book 12 but on the old Morality Plays that used to tour the country. Figures like ‘Gluttony’ or ‘Virtue’ would get their just rewards, and the Devil would carry the wicked down to Hell. The audiences of those plays and shows didn’t expect realism, they expected entertainment, virtue rewarded and wickedness punished. The readers of psychologically realistic novels expect those things too, of course, if much more subtly presented. Tom Jones presents features of Morality Plays in a much more raw form.

19 August
Books 13 and 14
This novel really is dividing into three neat sections. London is a place where morality is turned upside-down. Not much change there, then: in Somersetshire, only Allworthy behaves like a Christian; on the road, what Tom encounters is routine cheating and a determination to believe the worst of everybody; what he gets in London is… the same really. But in London, ‘the world’ – that is, the same old bunch of titled or rich people who spend every day in each other’s wearisome company – are judge and jury. If you don’t conform to their version of acceptable behaviour, you’re history.

Tom finds himself deep in ‘conversation’ – a euphemism Fielding enjoys so much he uses it at least three times – with an older woman he believes it would be dishonourable of him to refuse. (It’s Sophia’s aunt, Lady Bellaston, the one she’s now staying with.) In other words, he’s still the innocent, but still suffering from the oversupply of ‘animal spirits’ that we first learnt of in Book 3. And there’s his other, less plausible quirk of personality – his seemingly innate ability to set out irrefutable moral positions, and to behave at least as generously and selflessly as Allworthy. In one thread, Tom helps the family who are relatives of the genuinely worthy landlady of his boarding house. This sets him up for her as the pinnacle of generosity, and the fact that the family is that of the incompetent highwayman he helped in Book 12 is just the icing on the cake. (Does Fielding lay it on a bit too thick? You decide.)

Meanwhile there are tropes that are familiar to any reader of fiction published in the next 150 years or more. There’s the young man who pays a great deal of attention to young women, and doesn’t realise, or doesn’t care, that she thinks this will lead to marriage. There’s the man prepared to marry for money, to join the others we’ve already met in this novel. In the first section, the two men prepared to do this are Captain Blifil and his son – whose main interest in the women they set their sights on is their money. On the road, we heard Mrs Fitzpatrick’s story all about the man who chose her rather than Mrs Western only because of her (not very large) fortune, which he spent within a year or two. In London it’s Nightingale, who has a room in the same house as Jones. He has had an affair with Nancy, the daughter of the house, based on love – but he has left her (not through choice this time) so he will be able to marry the rich but otherwise unappealing woman chosen for him by his money-grabbing father. (The overbearing parent who, like Western, is prepared to cut off his own child if he doesn’t get his way is another figure from stock. Also like Western, he’s so extreme he’s a caricature. Is he really as fearsome as he seems?)

Overarching everything is the opinion of other people in this little society. Like Jane Austen six or more decades later, Fielding is at pains to spell out how mistaken, in every possible way, this dictatorial consensus usually is. Everybody – including Allworthy, thanks to Blifil – thinks Jones is a seducer who is happy to ruin young women’s lives. He isn’t. Seducers are men like Will, the local Lothario in Somersetshire who got Molly pregnant, Northerton the murderous ensign and, in London, Nightingale. When Jones tells him he should do the ‘honourable’ thing and marry Nancy, who is now pregnant, Nightingale says he will be shunned by everybody for marrying a ‘wh–re’. (He actually uses the word.)

Fielding keeps reminding us that Jones’s moral stance is impeccable. He finds Nightingale’s behaviour repulsive, but rather than simply condemning him, he does something about it. He goes to see the old man to try to persuade him to change his mind. (Contrary to his own inclinations he tries the tactic, suggested by Nightingale, of pretending that the marriage has already taken place. It doesn’t work – although the old man’s brother likes the romantic appeal.) And while Jones is doing his best to find his way through a corrupt world, Sophia is coming under pressures in her aunt’s house. Sophia is better at this than Jones. As before, and despite living in the house of Lady Bellaston – who is happy to sleep with anyone – she remains a model of impeccable behaviour. Jones is more complicated. He has sex with Lady Bellaston because, ever the innocent, he thinks it’s the ‘honourable’ thing to do after she takes him under wing and offers him money. Then he is prepared to offer every bit of the money to the poor man whose family is dying of hunger. It’s never just words with him, but action as well.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the only action he’s capable of. His habit of having sex with any woman who wants it – and he’s so good-looking, plenty of them do – constantly gets him into trouble. At one level, this is just farcical. When Blifil and Thwackum discover him in the woods with Molly the resulting fight is a comic set piece; his being discovered with Mrs Waters in the inn at Upton leads to another farcical episode; and Lady Bellaston, hiding behind the furniture while Honour the maid tells him all about her loose reputation is a figure straight out of a stage farce. But… farce always turns into harsh punishment, because his behaviour is always discovered. Blifil turns the Molly episode into a seduction; the romp in Upton is utterly mortifying for Sophia when she finds out about it, and she leaves immediately, never wanting to see Jones again. And Lady Bellaston, we know, is a proud and jealous woman. I can’t see her reacting well either to her humiliation or to the love she sees between Jones and Sophia when they all meet accidentally near the end of Book 14.

There are still four ‘Books’ left, and I suspect Jones is going to be very severely punished for his sins before things start to come right. If they ever do.

29 August
Books 15 and 16
Is it only about the plot? Coleridge famously described it as one of ‘the three most perfect ever planned’, and I can see what he means. Things are getting more and more tangled, so that by the end of Book 16 it seems impossible that things could ever come right. Two men have different sets of determined people supporting them in their efforts to marry Sophia, although Lord Fellamar’s party is more worrying than Blifil’s despite Western’s bullying tactics. In Book 15, Jones has written Lady Bellaston an incriminating letter of proposal dictated to him by Nightingale as a stratagem to get her off his back. It comes back to bite him in Book 16 when she makes sure that Sophia gets to read it. So Sophia doesn’t want to see him again, and this time she seems to have given up on him for good. And, following an unprovoked attack by the idiotic Fitzpatrick, Jones has got himself into a sword-fight and dealt him such a wound that news of his death reaches him just before the end of Book 16. Now he’s in prison with the threat of death over him, and everybody thinks he is the worthless rake that Blifil has accused him of being from the start.

Book 15 opens with a chapter concerning definitions of virtue, and how certain characters might or might not display it. Fielding always keeps showing Tom’s virtues in action, and comedies don’t end with the death of the hero – especially one as attractive and well-meaning as Jones. These two Books are more about plot than anything else, as Fielding piles agony upon agony for Jones. Now I’m wondering not only how he is going to get out of jail, but how both Sophia and Allworthy, the two people in the world who hold his fate in their hands, are going to be convinced that he is innocent of all the crimes he seems to have perpetrated. The letter of proposal was real. The wound he inflicted on Fitzpatrick was real. How is Fielding going to get round those two little matters and reward the virtue and constancy that Jones has shown?

But I’m jumping the gun. I mentioned the prologue to Book 15, but I think it’s the first chapter of Book 16 that Fielding remarks that all these prologues are interchangeable. The reader might spend a moment wondering whether that might be true – what are they, exactly? – and then it’s over, and you’re being tumbled into the next preposterous complication of the plot. The preposterousness – and I suspect I’m repeating myself – is the point, as each new twist is solemnly presented, either before or after the event, as the natural outcome of one character’s jealousy, or another character’s greed… or whatever. Or the narrator will rewind to explain how a particular plot coup – an unexpected entrance, like Western’s in Book 15 that saves Sophia from being raped by Fellamar – came about: earlier… earlier somebody told somebody something, or bumped into somebody, or had a change of heart about something…. None of it matters, and all of it matters. The mechanics of it have to be seen to work, and it’s part of the entertainment that the narrator keeps pointing it out to us. Coleridge’s remark about the perfection of the planning is partly based, surely, on the way that Fielding shows his working for the reader to gasp at in wonder.

Elements of the plot. Fellamar’s attempted rape is Lady Bellaston’s idea. She has become the embodiment of the corruption of London society, and does everything in her power to persuade Fellamar that whilst some people would call it rape (she uses the word), in fact many society marriages come about in exactly this way. Fellamar is weak, and goes along with a plan he knows to be wrong – and he is succeeding until Fielding brings on Western both to save the day and to revive the plot thread of Sophia’s marriage to Blifil. In order to bring it about, Fielding has made use of another character, Mrs Fitzpatrick. She isn’t evil, but she’s desperate to get back into her uncle’s good books – Fielding is always this careful to explain people’s motives – so she tells him where Sophia is staying. Her plan doesn’t work in the way she had hoped, of course, because both Western and his sister are far too busy to even think about the woman who helped them. But Sophia is caught and, as before, held under lock and key. (Lady Bellaston’s motive is described as minutely as Mrs Fitzpatrick’s. She is furious with Tom for his treatment of her and because he prefers another woman. She hates Sophia not for her own faults, but because she has what Lady Bellaston does not: the love of the man who has rejected her.)

The next crisis looms for Sophia: Allworthy is on his way, with Blifil in tow. Fielding gives us time to baulk at the implausibility of this before rewinding, some time in Book 16, to explain the painstaking way that Blifil convinces Allworthy that it was only her infatuation with Jones that led to her running away, not her dislike of him, Blifil. Take it or leave it – I’m coming to believe that what Fielding is offering is a satirical pastiche of careful plotting. Which doesn’t stop it being carefully plotted, of course.

Meanwhile, back in Book 15, Tom is in the fix that leads to the stratagem of the marriage proposal: he needs to free himself of his obligations to Lady Bellaston, and Nightingale tells him that a proposal will make her run a mile. By this time Nightingale, who previously seemed the epitome of London depravity, is (almost) a reformed character. And it’s all Tom’s doing, with some help from Fortune, a convenient figure to whom Fielding likes to refer while doing all her work for her. We saw Nightingale being taken away by his uncle at the end of Book 14, possibly never to be seen again by the girl he’d made pregnant. But the uncle gets some bad news just as he’s making his nephew drunk – his own daughter has run off with the penniless man he definitely wouldn’t have chosen – and young Nightingale has enough sense to go home, sleep off his hangover, and marry next day.

I’m telling you all this because it forms part of the secondary thread running through these Books: For Nightingale, as for Mrs Miller, Tom is the pinnacle of kindness and virtue. We don’t only see the evidence of these through Tom’s actions. Mrs Miller’s conversations, especially with regard to her own family and to Allworthy, who is coming to stay, all give Fielding plenty of chances to have him say exactly the right virtuous-sounding things. This even comes out when Nightingale first suggests the letter of proposal, as Fielding brings to his unease to our attention. He hates any kind of double-dealing, instinctively has misgivings – which prove to be well-founded, of course…

… but not until about ten chapters later, at the end of Book 16. By this time, other schemes are well under way, and have led to difficulties for both Tom and Sophia. Lady Bellaston, despite the failure of the rape plot, hasn’t given up on her plan to punish Tom. In Book 16 she is conspiring with Mrs Western, who can see the attractiveness of Fellamar’s title and fortune and would like her niece to accept a proposal. We’ve already had the ridiculous comedy of the total mismatch between the way that the super-sophisticated Fellamar tries to flatter Western and the Squire’s complete puzzlement. (Earlier we had another comic scene in which an over-zealous subordinate of Fellamar’s arrives first to offer an olive-branch, and then to throw down a challenge when Western doesn’t understand a word he’s saying. He doesn’t seem to understand the challenge either.)

This is all getting too complicated. Or is it, really? Fielding needs to get Tom into a fix, so he introduces two more quasi-feasible plot elements: Lady Bellaston suggests that Fellamar could get him out of their hair by having him pressed into the navy; and Fitzpatrick, on the scene again and still looking for his wife, meets Tom coming out of the house where she is, having just refused her advances. (She’s the second woman he’s refused in Book 16. He’s a good lad now.) Fitzpatrick assaults him, they both draw their swords – and, as a final twist, the press gang are on hand to arrest him. It’s when he’s in prison, with the doctor pronouncing that the chances of Fitzpatrick surviving are virtually nil, that he receives Sophia’s letter. She has seen not only Tom’s letter proposing marriage, but has heard all about his sexual exploits – real and invented – in London. She’s had enough of him.

The way Fielding introduces plot elements in advance – like that letter of proposal that goes disastrously wrong or the newly revisited Fitzpatrick thread – makes me wonder how on earth he keeps so many threads going at once without them getting hopelessly entangled. Plausibility isn’t the issue – the farcical train of events remains as unlikely as ever – but, somehow, the coming together of all the different elements is constantly satisfying. If this were a different novel, Bellaston, Blifil and Fellamar would win and Tom would be toast. I’m glad it isn’t that novel, and await with interest how, in the 98 pages remaining in my edition, Fielding is going to turn everything upside-down. Again.

5 September
Books 17 and 18 – to the end
Book 17 opens with these lines: ‘When a comic writer hath made his principal characters as happy as he can, or when a tragic writer hath brought them to the highest pitch of human misery, they both conclude their business to be done, and that their work is come to a period. / Had we been of the tragic complexion, the reader must now allow we were very nearly arrived at this period…’

…but, luckily, there are still almost 100 pages left – time enough, we can be sure, for our author to put things right. He says he won’t, that it seems ‘a task indeed so hard that we do not undertake to execute it,’ and you can believe that if you want to. But we’ve seen how good he is at getting himself and his characters out of tight corners. If, while doing it, he can squeeze Jones into an even tighter one along the way – he promises there’s ‘a more shocking piece of news than any he hath yet heard’ – well, that just adds to the entertainment.

Coleridge, the one who described the plot as one of ‘the three most perfect ever planned,’ mentions Oedipus Rex by Sophocles as one of the others. Fielding can’t match its revelation in the final act that Oedipus has married his mother. Can he…? Yes he can, when Partridge tells Jones that he recognises Mrs Waters as Jenny Jones, who claimed the foundling to be her own child in Book 1. We remember Mrs Waters as the woman at the inn at Upton, half a novel ago, who spent a highly energetic night with our hero. Oh dear.

It’s during these final two Books that we understand what Coleridge meant. I was about halfway through Book 17 that I started to make a note of every new twist in the plot. I ended up with a lot of notes – not least about the way that Fielding uses details from much earlier in the novel whose significance we couldn’t have guessed at the time. The planning of this novel really is perfect. For instance, in order for the revelation of the supposed incest to work and for the even more sensational truth of Tom’s parentage to emerge, Fielding has to lay the foundations early:

• In Book 1, Allworthy’s sister Bridget only grudgingly accepts his plan to look after the foundling. In Book 18 this is revealed as a trick to throw everybody (including the reader) off-track. She is really the boy’s mother.

• Also in Book 1, Jenny Jones ‘admits’ to being the boy’s mother. In Book 18 she reveals the truth, and how careful they were to keep it from Mrs Wilkins, the gossipy housekeeper.

• As an act of typical kindness, Allworthy gives Jenny Jones enough money to move a long way away, to where her reputation is not in ruins. Twenty or more years later, in Book 9, Tom meets a woman he doesn’t know at an inn and spends the night with her. Fielding is careful to make sure that Partridge, who would have recognised her as Jenny Jones, does not meet her. The author is so pleased with the success of his trick he reminds us in Book 18 how clever it was:

‘If the reader will please to refresh his memory, by turning to the scene at Upton, in the ninth book, he will be apt to admire the many strange accidents which unfortunately prevented any interview between Partridge and Mrs Waters, when she spent a whole day there with Mr Jones.’ He goes on to pretend that this is no mere novelist’s trick, but just like reality: ‘Instances of this kind we may frequently observe in life….’ He makes the most of the revelations in Books 17 and 18 – we don’t get merely a casual impression of a well-crafted plot unfolding before our amazed eyes, because Fielding draws our attention to just how well-crafted it is.

And this is only one example. Another is to do with the small detail of how the news of Bridget’s death was brought to Allworthy’s house in Book 6, when the great man himself was very ill. The lawyer who brought the news, Dowling, is now being used by Blifil in his attempts to stack the evidence against Jones. (Dowling isn’t named in Book 6. Fielding fills in that detail when he meets Jones on the road in Book 12….) Dowling is forced to reveal not only how Blifil is trying to get Jones hanged by bribing the witnesses, but that when Allworthy was too ill to receive him he put into Blifil’s hands Bridget’s deathbed confession in which she reveals that she is Tom’s mother. In other words, Blifil knew Tom to be his half-brother twelve Books earlier, and made sure Allworthy never found out. It’s only now that his evil actions are coming back to bite him.

I love it. I found myself laughing out loud when, pale-faced, Partridge tells Jones who he was sleeping with at Upton. There was a time during the sections on the road when I wished Fielding would get a move on – which is exactly what he does once he gets his characters to London at the end of Book 12. By the beginning of Book 18 he’s showing off about it: ‘indeed, when thou hast perused the many great events which this Book will produce, thou wilt think the number of pages contained in it scarce sufficient to tell the story.’

He’s right. I’ve only begun to unpack a couple of threads, and haven’t even mentioned all the others. By the time Fielding has got Tom and Sophia happily married, he needs two whole pages to list all the other people whose lives he has put into proper order. We first met a lot of them in that crucial middle section of the novel at Upton, and several others shortly after Jones arrives in London. It’s only now that we realise how many threads he was weaving together at that point. And as for the corrupt ones… they live on, doing what they do – with Blifil, now living 200 miles away, even hoping to become a Member of Parliament one day if he can buy enough votes.

But, along with everybody else mentioned in the final sentence, all we want to is to ‘bless the day when Mr Jones was married to his Sophia.’

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