Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)

Tom (Albert Finney) and Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) in the 1963 film of Tom Jones

Tom Jones (1749) was the most admired of eighteenth-century novels, at least by the English novelists of the nineteenth-century "great tradition", and it is still admired today (for example, by Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography). Yet it has not always proved easy to write about. This piece picks up from one of the classic essays, by William Empson in 1958 (it's on JStor).

In what I'm going to say there are spoilers from the outset, and I seriously urge you not to look at this if you're just embarking on a reading of Tom Jones. To prevent accidental contamination, there now follows a short advertising break!



On that afternoon [in May 2014] Germany generated 74 percent of its electric needs from renewable sources. (Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books)


Yet as Nordhaus himself points out, studies attempting to analyze how we might most efficiently reduce carbon emissions strongly suggest that just one of these margins should account for the bulk of any improvement—namely, we have to sharply reduce emissions from coal-fired electricity generation. (Paul Krugman, in the New York Review of Books)

I am quoting these snippets more for their intrinsic interest than because of their specific relevance to Tom Jones.

Maybe what I'm really thinking of is a current blogpost by Tim Parks (also in the NYRB) called Why Read New Books?  We should persist, he says, with the effort of reading gnarly contemporary novels because of the questions they pose about the life we're living in now.  When the reader of a modern novel feels that the author really "hits the nail on the head", it's part of a crucial conversation about how the world is now. Parks adds parenthetically:  "This won’t happen reading Fielding’s Tom Jones, where half the pleasure is: Wow, how different the world once was."

Still, Tom Jones does have some kind of relevance to the modern world, and that's where I come back to Empson's classic essay, in which he writes about Fielding's "double irony". He means the characteristic passages that are winkingly directed against (or for) both sides of a question. Empson speaks of Fielding's relativism and of his recognition that there are multiple moral codes within a culture, a complexity that can't be dissolved merely by deciding that one code is right and another wrong; here in its infancy, Empson claims, is the most essential insight that we can learn from reading novels.

That insight is painfully and urgently needed in a world that is drifting away from social consensus: where the people of right and left increasingly speak different languages, indeed are insulated (not least by the internet) from ever conversing with each other except by flame-war. A world where, for example, both climate-deniers and environmentalists react with shock and reductive dismissal to the idiocies of their opponents. I don't need to deny my own ardent environmentalism to recognize this as a terrible state of affairs.

Advertising break over. Back to Tom Jones.  


Sophia Western (Susannah York), Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) and Tom (Albert Finney) in the 1963 film.

Only the middle third of Tom Jones takes place actually on the road, yet it has generally the air of being a picaresque novel.  This pervasive air of insouciance conceals plotting that's both intricate and steely, as everyone knows.

The plot is of the "lost heir" type. We are so used to encountering the lost heir plot being done badly in later fiction (where it's all too often just a perfunctory wrap-up, the landed-property equivalent of a deus ex machina) that it's possible to rather overlook the interest of the revelations in the packed final pages of Tom Jones.

We understand, of course, that Mrs Waters is not Tom's mother after all, breathe a sigh of relief (thinking about that episode at Upton), and we're glad to know that Tom's now a rich heir and can wed his Sophia. Then we put the book down.

But this is to leave all the emphasis on the happy uniting of the two largest estates in Somersetshire.

Not everyone, by the way, has been so readily pleased by Fielding's "double irony". Raymond Williams, for example, called it a "genial, manipulative bluff". His point was that Fielding in the end thoroughly confirmed the values of the propertied classes.

And of course that's true, in a way. Fielding was a Tory and an Etonian, he came from an aristocratic family (he and everyone else supposed that it descended from the Hapsburgs, though this has since been shown to be an ancestral fraud). He did believe in landed property, though the squirearchy had its faults, of course, as affectionately satirized in Squire Western: his drunkenness, illiteracy, opinionatedness, domestic tyranny and good-hearted simplicity.

After reading almost a thousand pages to reach this point, most of us are ready for a rest. But actually it's interesting to turn the book over and read at least the first few chapters again, newly armed with the information revealed in its ending. Something like a new book emerges, and it's a considerably darker one. You might call it the story of Jenny Jones.


And first, of course, we must pause to admire Fielding's brilliant planning. It's clear from numerous glancing allusions in the opening pages that Tom's parentage was no afterthought; now we can appreciate the previously-overlooked references to Miss Bridget's "violent fit of illness" (I, 6), or to Jenny's attendance on the very night before the baby was placed in Mr Allworthy's bed.

Jenny's story is told all in the wrong order. Straightened out, it looks like this.

Jenny is young but not pretty (I, 6; II, 3) She is evidently very poor, because for four years she has been a maidservant to the Partridges (themselves poor). She turns out to be a gifted student, so Partridge at first enjoys granting her ardent request to be taught Latin, then comes to dislike her as she outdoes him. Eventually, Mrs Partridge wrongly suspects her of an affair with her husband and dismisses her (II, 3); she returns home to her mother. Here Miss Bridget approaches her, at first employing her as a servant "to read to her". Miss Bridget is going to have a baby, the  fruit of an illicit love-affair with a young chap (Mr Summer) who has subsequently died of smallpox.  Jenny Jones is handsomely paid to attend the birth (with her mother), to take the child to her own home, to bring it to Allworthy's bed when he returns from his business trip, and finally to confess the child as hers (I, 6): "[I] thought myself, by her generosity, nobly rewarded, both for my secrecy and my shame" (XVIII, 7).

This is one of two points in Tom Jones where Fielding shows us the business decisions of poverty. The other one is Black George's theft of Tom's bank-notes; an offence for which Tom pardons him in absentia, though against Allworthy's advice. Fielding explains very well that George could feel friendly and sympathetic to Tom at the same time as robbing him; situated as he was, the opportunity was just too good to pass up. As for Jenny, she makes, perhaps, a bad bargain. The neighbourhood certainly do not forgive her for her "shame". Mr Allworthy subjects her to a severe sermon (I,7), but kindly arranges to remove her to a more distant neighbourhood to escape the consequences of her ruined reputation. He strongly advises her to turn over a new leaf, and gives her a chance to do so, "if her own inclinations should ever hereafter lead her to chuse the road of virtue" (I, 9).

Of course she had never chosen otherwise, but when we next hear of her (about a year later), she has decamped with a recruiting officer (II, 6). (Hence Partridge is falsely condemned of fathering the child, Jenny being dismissed by Allworthy as a slut and her hypothetical evidence of no account in Partridge's defence.) Jenny says later that she was deceived by promises of marriage and, from her own reading on the subject, believed herself married in the eyes of God; which prompts Allworthy to a sexist reflection on why it's better for lower-class women to have no learning at all than to so mislead themselves (XVIII, 8).

Jenny lives faithfully with this unnamed officer until his death some twelve years later. Finding herself a "stray sheep" prevented by the world's prejudice from returning to "the road of virtue" (XVIII, 8), she takes up with a certain Captain Waters and lives faithfully as his wife for "many" years. It is as Mrs Waters that she is known from now on (happily preventing her being identified by Partridge at Upton). Eventually, however, she contracts a dubious relationship with Ensign Northerton (IX, 7). Captain Waters being under orders, he parts with his "wife" at Worcester (temporarily, as they both imagine); she meets up with Northerton, now on the run, and generously aids him until he robs her and attempts to rape her - at which point, Tom comes to her rescue (IX, 2). She falls in love with Tom and they spend a night of passion at the inn at Upton (IX, 5), but she soon discovers and accepts that he is in love with someone else (IX, 6). On her now-resumed journey to Bath she passes easily enough into a liaison with Mr Fitzpatrick (XVII, 9), unaware that he already has a wife. She discovers this in London, after Fitzpatrick is wounded by Tom.

She hastens gaily to Tom (in prison) with the good news that Fitzpatrick is not dying, but is somewhat disappointed to find Tom so penitent and uninterested in making love to her. (Fielding beautifully delineates her moral "decline"; she has now become accustomed to her adventurous and irregular lifestyle.) After meeting Dowling (XVIII, 7) she learns who Tom is, and also that Mr Allworthy (as she supposes) is trying to get Tom condemned for Fitzpatrick's murder.

It's at this point that she writes Tom a letter (XVIII, 2). The letter contains a couple of ambiguous phrases contrived by Fielding to seem to be referring to the "incest" that Partridge (imagining her to be Tom's mother) believes has taken place at Upton. This can't be her real meaning, and it's perhaps a question how far Fielding troubled himself to work out that real meaning.  But presumably when she writes of "other crimes" she only means whatever lies behind Allworthy's supposed opinion of Tom as a thorough "villain" .

She, also, of course, infers that Allworthy is still unaware that Tom is his own nephew; and so she hastens to precipitate all the eventual revelations in Book XVIII. Allworthy being thus undeceived by her, he in turn offers hope of her own reformation: "Mrs Waters fell now upon her knees before him, and, in a flood of tears, made him many most passionate acknowledgments of his goodness.." (XVIII, 8) But I believe her reformation had already begun, as soon as she discovered that her Upton lover was no other than the new-born infant she had once carried into Mr Allworthy's bed. She of course could not fear having committed incest, but I think the coincidence shocked her and that this is the true explanation for the passage in her letter about the Upton dalliance, "reflection upon which is like to embitter all my future life" (rather than regret for it leading to Tom's loss of Sophia, as Empson proposed).
As to those of lower account, Mrs Waters returned into the country, had a pension of £60 a-year settled upon her by Mr Allworthy, and is married to Parson Supple, on whom, at the instance of Sophia, Western hath bestowed a considerable living. (XVIII, Chapter the last)

There's a certain irony in that phrase, "As to those of lower account". It refers, primarily, to social standing. In this winding-up chapter, Fielding has already dealt with minor gentlefolk like Nightingale and Mrs Fitzpatrick, though they are relatively unimportant to the plot. The account of Mrs Waters begins his winding-up of the lower ranks; it is followed by accounts of Black George, Partridge and Molly.

But it's also a tacit admission that Tom Jones doesn't really do Jenny Jones justice; that her story, challenging to the settled values of the squirearchy, is one that Fielding knows, but can't find the space to fully explore. This imperfect but generous, intelligent and rather heroic woman is being dismissed, however happily for her financial security, into the arms of the distinctly unheroic Parson Supple.

Tom and Mrs Waters, from a series of erotic prints of literary scenes (before 1780)

[Image source: British Museum]


Mr Allworthy can't be held responsible for Jenny's later misadventures. Nevertheless an immediate-second-reading of the opening Books presents Allworthy in a distinctly less favourable light, mainly because we now know (as we don't on a first reading) that his judgments of Jenny and later Partridge are both entirely mistaken.

The kindly satire lurking in a passage like this now bursts into flame.

Scandal, therefore, never found any access to his table; for as it hath been long since observed that you may know a man by his companions, so I will venture to say, that, by attending to the conversation at a great man's table, you may satisfy yourself of his religion, his politics, his taste, and indeed of his entire disposition: for though a few odd fellows will utter their own sentiments in all places, yet much the greater part of mankind have enough of the courtier to accommodate their conversation to the taste and inclination of their superiors.  (Book II, Chapter VI)
The paragraph begins as if piling further eulogy on Allworthy. By the end, it reveals the life around him as a sham. If "you may know a man by his companions", then it seems rather a concern that the good Mr Allworthy's companions are such an unholy lot. The second half of the paragraph explains how this could happen: Allworthy's much-publicized goodness demands a show of good manners at his table; it's an invitation to hypocrisy. The penetrating magistrate, unfortunately, is easily imposed on. But it's only with the full understanding provided by Book XVIII that we realize to what an extent Allworthy's record as a judge in these early chapters is one of unrelieved failure. The innocent he finds guilty (Jenny, Partridge, Tom); the truly guilty, on the other hand, find in him a true friend, or something just as good. Everyone around him plays a part: the two Blifils, his own sister Bridget, Thwackem and Square, Deborah Wilkins... (The apotheosis of this sham world might be the astonishing epitaph on Captain Blifil (II, 9.))

These insights, not of course wholly concealed in the first reading, become noticeably sharpened in the second. Fielding's pervasive "double irony" creates the potential for something we might call double narrative.

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery. The only "authentic" portrait of Henry Fielding, painted by William Hogarth in 1762, then engraved by James Basire. Hogarth made the portrait eight years after Fielding's death; it was based on a silhouette supplied to him by Margaret Collier, a family friend. This was Fielding at 48, towards the end of his life (Mrs Collier went along on the voyage to Lisbon).

Info from Peter Jan de Voogd: Henry Fielding and William Hogarth: The Correspondences of the Arts, Volume 30, Editions Rodopi (Amsterdam, 1981), pp. 31-33.  De Voogd casts significant doubt on the common assumption that Fielding and "my friend Hogarth" had in fact been closely acquainted.]



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