The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

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Tom Jones was written by Henry Fielding in 1749. Fielding came from an aristocratic family and went to Eton, but his father was a gambler and Fielding himself did not have much financial sense. After leaving Eton he started to study classics and law at Leiden and then left when he ran out of money. Before the 1737 Theatrical Licensing Act he earned a living by writing satirical plays for the stage. When staging political satires became a liability he went back to law, although he didn’t stop writing. His first novel was a parody of Samuel Richardson’s popular novel Pamela. In Tom Jones he tried to show that you could have comedy, realism and moral commentary in the same story.

Sir Walter Scott called Tom Jones “the father of the English novel.” In this context, a ‘novel’ describes real characters in everyday life, including their thoughts, feelings and motivations, as opposed to a ‘romance’ which describes a hero on a quest, having fantastical adventures. Walter Scott’s comment is rather unfair to the English writers who came before Fielding, such as Richardson and maybe Daniel Defoe. Notwithstanding the inevitable arguments about who wrote the first English ‘novel’, Tom Jones appears to have inspired later novelists in the realist tradition, among them George Eliot, Charles Dickens, who even named one of his sons after Fielding, and perhaps Mark Twain.

To very briefly summarise a convoluted plot, Tom Jones is born a bastard but is taken under the wing of Squire Allworthy. This positions him socially somewhere between the upper middle class and the working class. In my view at least, this makes him slightly more interesting than someone simply born into the middle class. The book is largely about the intended relationship between him and his sweetheart (but not lover) Sophia Western. Tom Jones gets into all kinds of scrapes, has sex with several women although never Sophia, and his tentative relationship with Sophia is disapproved of by Sophia’s father. We have bit parts for characters named Mr Thwackum and Mr Square. Yes, this is similar to the names that Dickens gave many of his characters and indeed Dickens was a big fan of Fielding’s work. But I found the first half of the book somewhat tedious, despite all the incidents involving Jones.

The story became more interesting to me in the second half after Tom leaves Somerset to travel to London. We see Tom in and out of different women’s beds and simultaneously trying to remain in Sophia’s good books. Then later we have the revealing of Tom Jones’s actual parentage (in a scene prescient of one of Agatha Christie’s detective stories).

Coleridge thought Fielding’s plot one of “the three most perfect plots ever planned”. Apparently, not that I noticed, the novel is structured symmetrically according to Aristotle’s principles: the beginning, middle and end each take six ‘books’. Furthermore, every action follows naturally from events that happen earlier in the story. Fielding makes sure he ties up all the loose ends in the final chapters and points out that all the wandering characters get money so they can settle geographically as well as emotionally and socially.

To my mind, resolving everything in this way seems contrived, especially compared to the later French and Russian realist novels which can have miserable endings. And the plot is not original. Or, at least, reading it more than 250 years later, it seems unoriginal. We have a main character who is no angel, who is poor but taken under the wing of a benefactor, going out into the world to have adventures and seek his fortune. Along the way he picks up a comic sidekick. By the end of his journey, the hero has found out what life is all about. It’s not quite the Hero’s Journey (as outlined by Joseph Campbell) but we’ve heard it all before.

Now, this is the stage at which I have to admit I didn’t read Tom Jones. I listened to the audio book. What is more, the audio book was an abridged version. This was not intentional but I’m not going to complain. So I missed all the commentaries on novel writing that Fielding includes at the start of each book in the novel. These are the commentaries that the author of the Shmoop notes says “helped inspire a whole group of British writers: the Realists.” Maybe I’ve missed out on appreciating Fielding’s contribution to the European novel by listening to the abridged version.

John Sessions read the book with feeling, especially in the terribly discomfiting scene with Lord Fellamar who has been encouraged by Lady Bellaston to rape Sophia. Nevertheless I kept feeling that the story would make a better film or play than a novel. The plot was reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s comedies of mistaken identity. It didn’t surprise me at all to later discover (as I mentioned above) that Fielding had worked as a playwright for a while. Robert McCrum, writing for The Guardian admits that he first encountered Tom Jones in the film directed by John Osborne and starring Albert Finney, saying that Tom Jones “might have been made for the screen.”

I generally like audio books because they emphasise the author’s vocabulary and style. This was missing when I listened to Tom Jones. I was aware of the humour but not very often of why Fielding had specifically chosen each word. It is possible that this was a fault of the abridgement but I wonder if Fielding focussed too much on his plot twists, satire and moral judgement to pay much attention to language. Tom Jones was also more like Don Quixote than Middlemarch or Madame Bovary in that, despite being written in third person with an all-knowing narrator, we follow the hero’s exploits without much explanation of their (or anyone else’s) internal thoughts and feelings.

I enjoyed Tom Jones, despite my reservations mentioned above. The novel deserves descriptions like “rollicking” and “comic masterpiece”. I can see that it was ground-breaking in the history of English novels. Perhaps my dissatisfaction with the plot arises from an absence of what Ruth Nestvold calls “a basic eighteenth century faith in the order of the world”. Perhaps I would have appreciated the book more had I been privy to the author’s interjections about his aims in writing the novel, and how he was achieving them. Tom Jones may not suit everyone but I recommend the book (or audio book, or one of the dramatised versions) to people who are interested in the history of English literature, and also to anyone who enjoys comedy, adventure, a bit of smut and will not be put off by eighteenth century settings or language.

 

 

 

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Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh

Scoop is also on the Telegraph list of 100 novels everyone should read. After the heaviness of several nineteenth century novels in a row, this was pleasantly lightweight both in word count and style. The novel is about a countryside columnist William Boot, who, by the error of the newspaper’s editorial staff, is sent off instead of his novelist cousin to cover a war in an East African country called Ishmaelia. Other journalists also descend on the country. Despite the lack of warfare, friendly rivalry between all the journalists concerned, and Boot’s naivety, he manages to get the ‘scoop’ of the title. He returns back to England a hero, whereupon his cousin gets all the credit and he is allowed to return back to the English countryside.

Gore Vidal said of Evelyn Waugh that he wrote “prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American.” His humour is subtle, at least compared to childish toilet gags such as Australian writer Andy Griffiths produces. I mention this because my sons had been put off by the black and white period photo on the front of my copy. I tried and failed to explain Waugh’s humour to them but can only hope that they will read the novel for themselves. Perhaps when they are older and less prejudiced about cover images they will also be better able to appreciate the satire in the book, including the wonderful sentence from Boot’s countryside column: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.”

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There are too many jokes to mention but I loved the images of William Boot’s country family with their elderly Nannies ensconced in various locations, the newspaper editors thinking that they must serve countrymen salmon and cider, Boot arriving in Africa with rather excessive baggage, and the journalists all being taken out of town to a muddy site with a made-up name because they have been told that is where the action is.

Do read this book. It may have been written in the 1950s but is just as incisive and relevant today.

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Madame Bovary review

[I read the Penguin Classics 1992 edition of Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated into English by Geoffrey Wall.]

This is the first novel on the Telegraph list  that I feel nervous about reviewing, and I have delayed publishing this review but haven’t come up with any flashing insight or sparkling prose to justify the delay. I know that reviews are always personal responses to the book, but in this case I am unqualified to comment on the setting (alternately 19th century rural France and Paris, which are portrayed in stark contrast) or Flaubert’s style. The novel was packed with allusions and references which went right over my head. I do have some understanding of post-revolutionary France, but not enough of Rabelais, Hugo and Balzac. Perhaps had I read or studied any of them previously it would have given me a better basis on which to appreciate Madame Bovary.

The novel Madame Bovary, first published in 1856, concerns Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife who reads romances and despairs of her banal life in the countryside. She commits adultery, and secretly goes into debt, both in attempts to escape her life.

The story was Flaubert’s first novel and was published as a serial. Flaubert was put on trial because of the scandalous nature of his story.  Michele Roberts, in the introduction to the edition I read, comments, “We cannot, of course, respond exactly as Flaubert’s contemporaries did to his masterpiece; great upheavals in our intellectual, political and sexual lives have subsequently intervened.” If published now, I suspect a novel like this would be considered disappointing rather than shocking. The novel contains no explicit descriptions of intercourse, just allusions, and has little physical description of the heroine apart from her ankles and her hair, although her clothes receive a great deal of the author’s attention.

Madame Bovary laid the path for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (published sometime in the 1870s) and other books where the female protagonist follows their desires rather than fitting in with accepted social customs. It is also considered to be one of the best examples of literary realism and inspired many contemporary and subsequent authors to write in this style. The book marked a turning point for Flaubert himself, who had previously written in the Romantic style and wrote the novel as a response to a challenge from his friends.

Flaubert documents details of everyday life in 1840s France, from the appearance of Emma’s different dwellings, to the entering of accounts in ledgers, plus other descriptions that are more symbolic than representative. For example, early in the book is a prominent and bemusing description of a rather unique hat that Charles Bovary wears as a boy in boarding school. I hope I grasped the symbolism in this passage, but I am sure I missed the importance of many other passages in which he chooses to focus on certain details to the exclusion of others.

I had to read the introduction to my edition before I noticed that Emma Bovary rarely spoke, and was framed in terms of her relationship to the men around her. I confess that I expected her to be more in control of her life. I knew that the story was about a woman committing adultery, and I was surprised to read that her first affair, with Rodolphe, was entirely planned by him. Although she enters into it willingly, she is clearly seduced rather than being the seducer.

It seems that Emma is more in control when she is in the middle of her second affair, with the clerk Leon. By this point in the novel both Emma and Leon have become strong enough to act on their feelings towards each other. But it is the kind of control where one is behaving destructively and refusing to acknowledge the consequences. Emma deludes herself that she is managing to escape her boring life, and one of the consequences of her delusions is to sink further into debt. Like a Greek tragedy, her behaviour only hastens her fate. Just before the sad ending of the book we read of her rushing around trying to get someone to bail her out, and even Leon refuses to help her.

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Illustration d’Albert Fourié pour le livre Madame Bovary de Flaubert, gravé à l’eau-forte par Eugène Abot et Daniel Mordant. Albert Fourié [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Emma, as Madame Bovary, is not only the title of the book but the main character and we are given unparalleled insight into her feelings and thoughts. We may not even sympathise with her – she can be impractical, selfish and cruel – but we understand her motivations. Flaubert is said to have commented, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Clearly this is not an autobiographical novel but it is implied that he is writing Emma to share his frustrations in love and maybe also his own romanticism. He also has more to say about the repression of women than many modern-day authors. Sophie Barthes, who directed a 2015 movie adaptation of the novel starring Mia Wasikowska, said that “I think Flaubert had a very strong feminine sensibility. I think he felt for women at that time who couldn’t work, couldn’t divorce and are trapped for life.” (Susan King for the LA Times)

Charles Bovary is drawn right from the start as somewhat lacking and we are invited to laugh at him, not just because of the ridiculous hat. This one scene shows us what his character will be like in the rest of the book. He works hard but he is not particularly intelligent and he does not fit in. Before he marries Emma he has to put up with being married to a much older woman. After his wedding night with Emma he is the one portrayed as if he is the one to have just lost his virginity, not her. We are set up to understand why Emma might be dissatisfied with her life as his wife.

Leon is another of the main characters and we see him change through the book. He begins as a nervous, shy clerk, strongly attracted to Emma but unable to act on his feelings. They are drawn to each other partly because he loves the same kind of romantic books as Emma does and also longs to escape the country. When she meets him again he is living in Paris and has grown into a confident young man who has had several lovers.

Monsieur Homais is a character who is thrust in our face. He is not very educated and he is firmly middle class but he wants to improve his lot. Both the novel’s readers, the Bovarys and the readers of various regional newspapers cannot escape his pronouncements on everything and nothing. The last line of the story tells us that he has received the Cross of the Legion of Honour. Flaubert would have been unfaithful to his aims if he had made M. Homais somehow be punished for his behaviour. Instead he is showing us that the selfish, mediocre and undeserving people often achieve more than the kind and passionate.

If you read the book yourself then you will be able to pick up the themes pretty quickly, or if you don’t, there are always revision sites like Shmoop or SparkNotes to help you. I recommend this novel, despite my misgivings mentioned earlier. I am glad that I read Madame Bovary, especially as the reading corrected my impression of what Emma Bovary’s character would be like. I found it far easier to read than Moby Dick. Just don’t read it expecting a ‘Sex in the City’ raunch-fest and don’t necessarily expect to feel too much sympathy for Emma Bovary, either.

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