I had high expectations for Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749), because Samuel Taylor Coleridge said “To take [Fielding] up after Richardson, is like emerging from a sick room heated by stoves, into an open lawn, on a breezy day in May.” Sounds like exactly what I needed after my 850 page excursion into the bowels of Clarissa. I was inclined to trust Coleridge, because someone who writes awesome poems probably has good taste in literature, right? Wrong! I found picking up Tom Jones after Clarissa to be like walking from a sick room heated by five stoves, into a sickroom heated by four stoves. It is slightly more enjoyable than Clarissa, because Fielding makes use of his sense of humor occasionally. He is not as relentlessly earnest as Richardson. However, the farcical scenes are embedded in so much filler that the overall experience of reading the book was not great for me.
Tom Jones is the story of a foundling bastard, who is taken in and raised by a kind, old aristocrat. He grows up to be, like, the hottest guy in England. He falls in love with the neighbor’s daughter and develops a rivalry with the nephew of the old aristocrat. Despite his pure, devoted love for Sophia, Tom sleeps with nearly every female character in the book. The love scenes are actually quite funny. Fielding’s ornate, exalted style clashes with the crassness of the rural rendezvous. There’s a bizarre amount of cat fights. I don’t think Fielding ever witnessed a cat fight, because he seems to believe that women’s clothing just falls apart if you claw at it a bit. In this time period women wore linen, wool or silk, none of which can be easily ripped. Nevertheless, the first blows in these fights invariably render the women bare breasted.
Moving on, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone complain that Thackeray’s habit of “inserting himself into the text” ruined Vanity Fair for them. You just can’t have a conversation about Thackeray without someone using that exact phrase. When I read Vanity Fair it didn’t bother me too much. It’s kinda funny to me that Thackeray takes so much heat for mentioning himself, when post-modern authors get praised for the same device. It’s brilliant when Vonnegut does it, right? That being said, Henry Fielding’s pervasive presence in Tom Jones ruined the book for me. He frequently pauses to explain his authorial decisions to the reader. For example:“We would bestow some pains here in minutely describing all the mad pranks which Jones played on this occasion, could we be well assured that the reader would take the same pains in perusing them; but as we are apprehensive that, after all the labour we should employ in painting this said scene, the reader would be very apt to skip it entirely over, we have saved ourselves the trouble. To say the truth, we have, from this reason alone, often done great violence to the luxuriousness of our genius, and let many excellent descriptions out of our work, which would otherwise have been in it.”
That quote also serves to illustrate another problem I have with Fielding: always using 100 words where 12 words would do. He often explains why he ends chapters where he does. This drove me crazy. I want to go back in time and tell him “Listen, end the chapters where you want to. Your readers aren’t so delicate that they need to be warned when a chapter is ending. If you want to leave out descriptions and conversations to prevent boring your reader, just do it. Don’t bore them by explaining that you are doing it.”
The most aggravating element of Fielding’s style is his need to stop and ruminate on human nature in abstract terms. ALL THE TIME. If a character tells a lie, Fielding inserts a mini-essay on honesty. If a character is ambitious, we get a lecture on ambition. So tedious. Personally, when I read a novel I like to do my ruminating on human nature myself. I don’t want the author to do it for me. The novel is divided into 18 books. The first chapter of every book consists of a little essay on blah blah blah (not gonna lie, I skipped all of them after the first three) and zero references to the narrative. In Book 5, Chapter 1 Fielding states that he is sure the reader won’t enjoy reading “these initial essays” and he didn’t enjoy writing them. So why on earth are they in there? Did they not have editors in 1749? I get that the book is intended to be a farce. So, perhaps he is mocking writers like Richardson. He did like to mock Richardson. He even wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela called Shamela. But what does he gain by writing a boring book to make fun of other boring books? Ultimately, you end up with yet another boring, excessively long 18th century novel.
You might like this book if:
- you are reading a brutally edited version
You might not like this book if:
- you try to read it.