The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Throwing it back to the 18th century was a bit daunting at first. My serious beef with Tristram Shandy made me reluctant to get back on the hobby-horse (if you’ve read Tristram, that’s a hilarious allusion, by the way). But I soon psyched myself up to the task: the knowledge that this prominent 18th-century work would help me to understand and analyse the later work of the likes of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and my other 19th-century literary heroes softened the daunting prospect of opening page one of 889. If they read it, or could plausibly have read it, or would have known of it as a monumental, or rather infamous, work of the previous century, then so should I.

Imagine, then, my perplexed surprise when I actually began to enjoy this novel. Fearing to encounter incomprehensible innuendo and confusing in-joke-style satire (cough, Tristram, cough), my cautiously-extended antennae instead met with an exciting plot sequence, characters, expertly drawn and developed, who could engage my sympathy, and, best of all, a brilliant authorial voice whose witty prefaces to each new section were infrequent enough to avoid being obtrusive, but frequent enough to infuse hilarity and acute observation into this already engaging and entertaining novel.

I hang my head in shame, Jane Austen and her 19th-century contemporaries and successors were forgotten. (Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?) Emotionally invested and totally immersed in the world of Tom Jones as I was, I could only reflect on the significance of Fielding’s novel as a work, its impact on the canon, after the party was over, after my heart had been returned thoroughly warmed – in short, once I’d simply enjoyed the read.

And, thinking along those lines, its influence was obvious. Tom Jones shows how satire, social commentary, philosophy, and moralising need not be achieved at the expense of a good read. Fielding entertains his reader in the first instance, and teaches them a moral, holds a mirror up to their hypocritical society, criticises their misplaced Puritan zeal and its consequences, in the second. It’s brilliant because it incorporates a world view, it makes judgements, it takes a stand, but this is covert, subtle, tactful. It doesn’t encroach upon the story, and doesn’t compromise literature’s necessaity to engage. Yes, it has a purpose; yes, it espouses a message, but it can’t be viewed simply as a literary means to a political, social, or philosophical end. And this, I think, is a large part of the legacy of novels like Tom Jones, passed down not just to their descendants in the following century, but to their modern-day progeny. The best writers will promote their own agendas, will write to achieve a purpose, or to try and show society something about itself, will satirise or mock things which they’re making a point of objecting to, and will use literature as a tool to get a message out to the rest of the world – but whatever their individual concerns, whatever their own schemes, what will always unite the very best writers, is their ability to do all this whilst keeping the reader on side, engaged, entertained, and whole-heartedly admiring.

If it appears that my praise of Tom Jones is somewhat at the expense of Tristram Shandy, though I did find the former infinitely more enjoyable, I can’t deny the impact and (through gritted teeth) the ingenuity of the latter. Check out my review, where I conclude that it isn’t all that boring.

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