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NA633112 - FIELDING, H.: History of Tom Jones - A Foundling (The) (Abridged)
Henry Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones, is the odyssey of “the healthy average life of the average healthy man”. Set at the time of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, it clearly shows Fielding’s revulsion for this political escapade by having its hero at one point volunteer to serve as a soldier against the rebels. This serves to fix the story in a clearly defined period, just as it is situated in carefully depicted places, for it is part of Fielding’s purpose to create a world recognisably real and tangible. This then allows him license to introduce improbable coincidences and last-minute revelations, such as one finds in old romances, without alienating the reader.
If Fielding did alienate certain readers at the time of the novel’s publication, it was not for contrivances of plot but for moral reasons. He was accused of discouraging virtue and undermining religion, ridiculous charges not altogether dissimilar to those levelled by those who were outraged by Monty Python’s Life of Brian film—especially those who never actually saw it. Likewise, one of Fielding’s severest critics, the novelist Samuel Richardson, resolutely refused to read the book.
But these negative voices were drowned out by those who responded to the great qualities of the novel. The entire first edition of Tom Jonessold out before the date of publication. Before the end of the year three further editions were demanded. It has never fallen out of favour since. Sir Walter Scott observed that it is “truth and human nature itself” and in our own day Kingsley Amis wrote: “Two hundred years have not dimmed Fielding’s realism. His humour is closer to our own than that of any writer before the present century”.
Fielding, born a gentleman’s son, was in his youth not unlike the hero of his novel, at least insofar as his love life was concerned. After leaving Eton and before making his way to London, he fell in love with a young heiress whom he tried to abduct and somewhat later he eloped with Charlotte Cradock, the model for Tom’s beloved, the beautiful Sophia Western. However, that was not until after he had established himself as a successful dramatist.
He was twenty-one when his first play, Love in Several Masques, a comedy in five acts, reached the stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and he managed to compose some twenty-five theatrical pieces during the following years, establishing himself as the most popular and inventive playwright of his day. (In more recent years, George Bernard Shaw’s opinion of Fielding the dramatist was that he was second only to Shakespeare.)
Fielding’s best known theatre work was the hilarious Tom Thumb, a travesty of the grandly rhetorical heroic tragedies of John Dryden et al, written in imitation of the dramas of Racine and Corneille. But his most effective works were two political satires which mercilessly mocked the government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Too effective were they in fact since they led to the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737. This meant, in short, stage censorship wielded by the office of the Lord Chamberlain, an institution which the nation only managed to release itself from as recently as 1967. What it meant to Fielding was the end of his career in the theatre.
He turned to the law and after a short interlude, inspired by Richardson’s novel Pamela, he produced a parody entitled Shamela, which mocked what Fielding saw as his contemporary’s humourless moralising. He developed this vein into a more fully realized novel, Joseph Andrews, where the hero is shown struggling to defend his honour, thus making fun of the manner in which Richardson depicts his heroine defending hers until finally she more or less blackmails her would-be seducer into marrying her before she will accept his advances.
Fielding went on to write two further novels, Jonathan Wild being the better known and regarded, before he produced, at the age of nearly thirty-two, the incomparable Tom Jonesin 1749.
The avowed aim of this great flowering of his genius is “to make good men wise, rather than bad men good”, using as example the central figure of Jones himself, a person incapable of meanness but often wanting in that good sense which might ensure him greater happiness. His experiences lead him via the path of folly to that palace of wisdom to be found in the arms of Wisdom herself, Sophia, who, however, is no mere symbol but is as wonderfully alive and fully realized a character as the energetic and exuberant Tom himself.
Even in such a cynical age as our own, few readers will not rejoice in the conclusion of the story where goodness is rewarded and malice confounded. A happy ending seems, as it were, unavoidable from the outset but Fielding’s skill is to keep us in suspense until the very end, Tom’s woes deepening and his hopes waning to the brink of disappearance so that it seems as though he must fail in his quest.
There is so much to enjoy in Tom Jones but surely one of the principal delights is the ever-present author himself. The humour varies from mock-heroic similes to witty asides and ironic comments upon his characters’ actions but it is always genial.
As for those characters themselves, the greatest creation must be Squire Western, the irascible but essentially goodhearted country gentleman, barbarous and loudmouthed but somehow loveable. His sister, the redoubtable Mrs Western, in some ways seems to foreshadow the formidable Lady Bracknell. Then there are the kindly poltroon Partridge, the sly deceitful Blifil, the well-meaning Mrs Miller, the preposterous Lord Fellamar, designing Lady Bellaston…a gallery as various as any reader could wish.
In 1963 a film version reached cinema screens and was awarded four Oscars. Not exactly subtle in its attempt to capture Fielding’s comic vision, it deserved its success as much for bringing new readers to the book as for entertaining cinema audiences. It now looks rather dated whereas the novel is as fresh today as when it was first presented to a grateful public.
Notes by Maurice West
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
SOLER Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 1
SOLER Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 2
SOLER Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 3
SOLER Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 5
Music programmed by Sarah Butcher
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