I have read few novels as satisfying as The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. It’s not for nothing that this is considered one of the greatest (as well as one of the first) novels written in English. Although the ending is exactly what the reader hoped for and expected almost from the beginning, the path followed to reach it is not without its twists and turns, and there were many times when I wondered how Tom was going to get out of his current difficulty, even as I was enjoying his predicament. In an amazingly complex tale, all the loose ends are tied up and I’m still wondering how Fielding managed to keep track of it all without a spreadsheet.
A summary of the story itself is short. Squire Allworthy adopts the baby found in his bed, calling him Tom Jones. Various assumptions are made about the child’s parentage, but those who know the truth say nothing. As a teenager, Tom falls in love with the girl next door, Sophia Western, but he has no expectation of any money and knows that he won’t be able to make enough to keep her if they marry. Having been brought up as a gentleman, he’s not really fit to be anything else. Besides which her father would never allow the marriage, having his hopes set on marrying his daughter to Squire Allworthy’s nephew, and Sophia wouldn’t disobey her father. Tom won’t even ask for her hand, since he can’t give her the life she deserves. For various reasons, he’s cast out by his adoptive father and sets off to join the navy so he can die at sea. By way of numerous adventures, the main participants in the story find themselves in London, where a series of discoveries are made which bring the tale to a happy conclusion.
The novel isn’t just about Tom’s love for Sophia Western, nor is about uncovering the mystery of his birth, although both of these are important. The novel is full of secondary characters and their sub-plots, some of which are gone into in great detail. Some readers have accused Fielding of rambling, but there’s hardly a wasted word and no wasted character in over 600 pages. There are servants, landlords and landladies of inns, gamekeepers, highwaymen, landladies, hunting squires, soldiers, lords, ladies, uncles, cousins, fathers and sons. Fielding is wonderfully witty in the way he paints his characters. Even the uncle of Nightingale, Tom’s fellow lodger, who only appears on a couple of pages is carefully drawn, then the whole picture is subverted with the news of his daughter’s elopement, providing a rounded view of a man who thought he was in control of his small world, then discovers that he wasn’t.
The novel has everything: young love; deathbed confessions (at least two); mistaken identities (too many to count); misunderstandings (also too many to count); misleading and untimely letters; midnight flits; a highwayman; and a press gang. What it doesn’t have much of is mothers. Tom and Sophia both grow up without their mothers and the novel is almost over before a real mother-figure appears. Fortunately for Tom, she determines to mother him and plays a great part in sorting out his life.
One of my favourite things about the way in which the story is told is that Fielding often breaks into the narrative and talks directly to the reader, sometimes telling him that the story is about to go off on a tangent or that the reader will be surprised by what happens next. The most interesting of these interruptions is the last, in which he addresses someone who’s reading the novel after his death. Part of me thinks this is a case of immense pride – what made him think his novel was so good that people would be reading it in the future – and part of me thinks that Fielding was addressing me. I found this quite moving.
I regret immensely that this book has been on my bookshelf for more than thirty years and I’ve only just got round to reading it. I could have been reading it for the second or third time by now. I’ll probably laugh even more the next time I read it.
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.