Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

Book # 975

REVIEWER: Kara


TJTom Jones is not only Henry Fielding’s masterpiece; it is also considered to be a key stepping stone in the development of the modern novel as a literary form. For this reason alone, it very much belongs on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. If you’re interested in the development of the novel, you’ll be fascinated by Fielding’s experiments and ideas which continue to be reflected in novelistic style even today. If you’re not, there’s still the creative and comic story of Tom Jones and Sophia Western.

Each of the eighteen ‘books’ that are part of this novel includes a preface, and Fielding most often uses these prefaces to explain his style decisions and what’s important to him in writing what he calls a realistic ‘history.’ These prefaces are sometimes funny, sometimes silly, very often argumentative, and always interesting. Fielding is spot on when he writes:

“In like manner, the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author’s skill in well dressing it up.”

One style choice Fielding makes is to depict and discuss both ‘high’ and ‘low’ life and characters in the novel. There are scenes among peasants in inns and on the highway, and there are scenes among the gentry in their homes and social gatherings. Fielding contrasts the two sometimes, but more often he sheds light on similarities:

“The great are deceived if they imagine they have appropriated ambition and vanity to themselves. These noble qualities flourish as notably in a country church and churchyard as in the drawing-room or in the closet.”

He also pokes fun, at fashionable notions or ideas that are ridiculous to him, as when Mrs. Western, in attempting to convince her niece to marry a man she hates, says:

“I have known many couples, who have entirely disliked each other, lead very comfortable genteel lives. Believe me, child, I know these things better than you. You will allow me, I think, to have seen the world, in which I have not an acquaintance who would not rather be thought to dislike her husband than to like him. The contrary is such out-of-fashion romantic nonsense, that the very imagination of it is shocking.”

In my opinion, Fielding’s most important contribution to the development of the novel is his relatively well-rounded characterization. Earlier writing tends to have characters who are either perfectly good or villainously evil. There is no complexity to them and, therefore, no reality. As a reader, I tend to hold excellent characterization as critical to my enjoyment of a novel – it’s well above plot for me, though of course I know that plenty of people feel the opposite. What Fielding chooses to do in his novel is to adhere to reality, to human nature, and only have characters who ring true as people:

“For we do not pretend to introduce any infallible characters into this history, where we hope nothing will be found which hath never yet been seen in human nature.”

Overall, considering his attempt is one of the first forays of this kind, I think he is relatively successful, particularly in the main character, Tom Jones, who is virtuous and kind-hearted, but also naïve and impulsive. In Sophia Western, the other principal character, Fielding is less successful. I think this has more to do with his prejudices towards women than anything else. Fielding’s thoughts on women, which I discuss more below, were liberal for his time but are certainly ridiculous now.

Fielding also tackles the issue of plotting in new ways. Earlier writings feature characters having adventures episodically and, for the most part, the ordering of these events doesn’t matter at all, the secondary characters in the scenes are interchangeable and often don’t reappear from one event to the next, and there is no real unity to the story. Here, however, Fielding develops a large cast of secondary characters, most of whom reappear throughout the novel. They know information or take part in scenes that are needed to further the plot. The whole novel is a progression from happiness to tragedy, and then back to happiness, rather than a series of discrete scenes.

While all these things are clear steps forward for the novel as a form, there are still lots of problems. The one that bothers me the most (and that still bugs me in plenty of contemporary novels) is the reliance on miscommunication and far-too-convenient near misses and twists of fate to further the plot and, especially, to tie things back together in the end.

Beyond all this work on the development of the novel, I also enjoyed Fielding’s ongoing commentary on religion and virtue, why they matter, and where they go wrong. For example:

“…both religion and virtue have received more real discredit from hypocrites than the wittiest profligates or infidels could ever cast upon them; nay, further, as these two, in their purity, are rightly called the hands of civil society, and are indeed the greatest of blessings, so when poisoned and corrupted with fraud, pretense, and affection, they have become the worst of civil curses, and have enabled men to perpetrate the most cruel mischiefs to their own species.”

Fielding sets up a dichotomy between religion and philosophy, which is physically embodied in two characters (Thwackum and Square) both of whom have their good points but also their faults. Ultimately, Fielding argues that choosing one over the other is problematic. The two together are needed:

“True it is, that philosophy makes us wiser, but Christianity makes us better men. Philosophy elevates and steels the mind, Christianity softens and sweetens it. The former makes us the objects of human admiration, the latter of Divine love. That ensures us a temporal, but this an eternal happiness.”

While Fielding has such interesting ideas about virtue and goodness, and their importance in making a person worthy of admiration, he ultimately succumbs to the sense that high birth is just as important, and very much an indicator of whether or not someone is virtuous. This made the ending of the novel a little disappointing, but I can’t fault Fielding too much for being a man of his time.

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April Update

7 books reviewed
138 books in total
863 books to go

April saw the review of Book #1 on the list: Never Let Me Go. This means we now have reviewed the very first book on the list, and the very last (Aesop’s Fables)…as well as a few in between.

Reviews for An Artist of the Floating World, Smiley’s People, The Little Prince, Absalom, Absalom, The 39 Steps and The Tree of Man mean we have reviewed 92 books from the 1900s. Given that this is the section with the largest number of entries, we do have a way to go, but this seems to be our most popular century to review!

Never Let Me Go is the only book from the 2000s that we reviewed in April (although it is the second Kazuo Ishiguro novel reviewed this month, along with An Artist of the Floating World), bringing the number of books reviewed from the 2000s to 18.

We have reviewed 20 books from the 1800s, three from the 1700s, and five from pre-1700s.

I wonder – is it the age of these entries that put us off, or their accessibility (both physically and literary)? Or is it more that we are simply attracted to the more recent works? Something to ponder, as eventually, we won’t be able to hide from the 1800s and earlier any longer!

Joseph Andrews – Henry Fielding

Book #981

Reviewer: Kara

Written in the 1740s, Joseph Andrews is Henry Fielding’s response to Samuel Richardson’s gigantic tome Pamela, which Fielding found ridiculous. Joseph is a virtuous footman who is saving himself for the pure and perfect Fanny Goodwill. Abraham Adams, the local parson, likes Joseph because of his virtue and because he reads good books. The story follows Joseph and Parson Adams on their wacky adventures – first trying to return home, then trying to get Joseph and Fanny married.

The novel is replete with situational comedy. Parson Adams is attacked by dogs, falls into the mud in a pig sty, has his parson’s garb completely destroyed, and is doused in pig’s blood. While he endures these indignities, Joseph is trying to protect Fanny from being raped and working to maintain his own virtue, despite offers from the likes of the wonderfully-named Lady Booby and Madame Slipslop. The end of the novel features a comedic and absurd situation of confused identities but in the end, as in Pamela, virtue is rewarded.

Anyone who has read Don Quixote will notice a lot of similarities. Fielding was profoundly influenced by Cervantes and openly attests to this in his own preface to the novel. Fielding wrote that his novel was written in the style of the “comic epic poem in prose” as exemplified by Don Quixote. Fielding extended the writing style by introducing the omniscient narrator. Joseph Andrews represents the first appearance of a narrator in a novel who is not actually a character, but purely a voice, there to know what the characters do not and, in this case, for satirical effect.

I find the history of Joseph Andrews that I’ve just described fascinating, but that is not why the book is on my top ten list of the greatest books I’ve ever read (and I mean ever!). It’s because I LOVE this story. It’s ridiculous, fun, zany, and absolutely hysterical.

It’s also very well-thought-out. Parson Adams is a wonderful character and a very unique and full creation. Fielding does an excellent job of making the reader love him while also repeatedly laughing at him. I will admit that the plot is, very occasionally, a little too convenient, but Fielding’s message – that hypocrisy and vanity are ridiculous – comes across perfectly through the satire.

If one thing is missing from Joseph Andrews it’s a solid female character. While the male characters remain three-dimensional throughout the absurdity and satire, the females do suffer. Madame Slipslop is merely hideous and the butt of many jokes, Lady Booby is vain and selfish, and Fanny is too good to be true and extremely weak. However, I’ve chosen to forgive Fielding for his 1700s attitude towards women because I truly enjoy his sense of humor and his early shaping of the novel genre.

The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe

Book #948

Reviewer: Ange P


The Mysteries of Udolpho
is described as a Gothic novel.  It is filled with villains, mysteries and castles.  It has lashings and lashings of melodrama.

It is important to remember that it was written over 200 years ago and that the audience had very different expectations of entertainment than we have today.  But, only twenty years after The Mysteries of Udolpho was written, so was Pride and Prejudice and the difference between the quality of the two could not be more distinct.

Ann Radcliffe seemed to be interested in three things:

  1. a theme of being satisfied with your place in life
  2. a plot that involved as many twist and turns as possible
  3. alpine scenery

Pages and pages of the 600 are dedicated to setting out the prerequisites to a happy life.  And this comes back to avoiding the temptations provided by big cities, being benevolent and living quietly without ambition.  The first 50 odd pages of the book sets out how Emily and her family have achieved this.  I found it repetitive and sickening.  The impression was quickly formed that Emily was the author’s ideal of womanhood.  I did not need it repeated ad nauseam.

The plot.  A lot happens in the plot.  A lot.  I’m not going to try to set out the plot in any detail.  At a very high level.  Emily meets the hero Valencourt; both her parents die; she comes under the guardianship of her Italian uncle who owns the castle Udolpho.  They travel to Venice and the Italian uncle tries to marry her off to a Count.  Then, suddenly, she is whisked off to Udolpho and confronted with a range of badly behaved men and a range of mysteries and trials that would shake the resolution of a lesser woman.  She manages her way through her tribulations with tears and fainting fits. Her troubles are increased when it becomes apparent that Valencourt is not worthy of her admiration and love.  Despite a lot happening, the only interesting part was in Italy, which is the central third of the book. The parts in France take several pages to say nothing at all.

Finally, the scenery.  I tried to remind myself while reading the scenery sections that the book was written during a time without TV’s, cameras or magazines, let along travel that was affordable to the masses.  Therefore reading descriptions of scenery was the only way that many people could experience it.  I estimate that 20% of the book is devoted to scenic descriptions.  It is overwhelming.

I knew before I started this book that Emily was a watering pot and not a modern woman.  Her main weapons are tears and her integrity.  Consistent with the theme of the book, the integrity enabled her to come out on top.   I couldn’t even detect a hint of intelligence.  She has an annoying habit of being vague rather than specific that repeatedly creates issues.  She also makes ridiculous assumptions.

Many of these bad habits are obviously plot devices.  This was probably my biggest criticism, that I found the writing clumsy.  I did not consider it to be a well written, well structured novel. Emily would find out things that weren’t revealed to the reader; or the solution to a mystery was completely unrelated to the main plot, just a simple solution to a mystery that didn’t actually contribute to the story in any way at all.  Disappointing.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t think that Mysteries of Udolpho deserves its place on the list. And I would only recommend it to people interested in literature of that period such as Jane Austen aficionados.