Saturday, February 25, 2012

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

Somewhere along my journey through English fiction I had conceived this notion that the mid to early eighteenth century novelist and playwright, Henry Fielding, was a sort of proto-Austenian writer, but more irreverent, even scandalous, and entirely worth reading. There was something about Fielding and Austen that I had forgotten, something interesting in that it concerned the opinion of one writer on the output of another. At any rate Fielding’s works were in currency while Jane Austen was reading and writing, so I believed there might have been an influence. (For those still in doubt, I am a die-hard Austen fan).

I had also read Ian McEwan’s Atonement and of course Cecilia talks of Henry Fielding to Robbie, but whether the brief mention was positive or critical, I could not have told you, for I am that kind of speed-reader. But the name had been filed somewhere… to be mined when a suitable occasion presented itself.

And indeed an occasion of this sort, that although never consciously envisaged by me, and therefore aimed for, or at any event longed for, but still exhilarating when it came about, did occur, when I was at last given the opportunity to possess a copy of ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ by the self-same Henry Fielding, a well-thumbed copy yellowing with age, yet with all its pages intact and with the cover in good condition, all of which led me to suppose that the book had been a well-loved one. The story of how I serendipitously came in possession of this, if not consciously looked for, definitely sub-consciously looked out for tome, is as follows:

The reader may not be aware that in my student days I used to be a Table Tennis or (as I am accustomed to refer to,) TT player of some repute. Admittedly the game played by lady scholars at the Indian Institute of Management Kolkata was not of a high calibre; in fact if I do not misremember there was only one other young mistress of TT contemporaneous to me, and amongst the two us, I was unanimously ranked second. Now dear reader, I have laid the cards on the table, the bare facts are before you, and you will have to agree that however poorly I write or play TT, dissimulation is not a vice I am prone to. You would hence not have any reason to disbelieve me when I attest that while I was Player 2 of 2, I still played a mean game to use the vulgar parlance, and my spin serves and forehand chops could beat the a_ _ _ off many a strapping fellow.

Thereafter my life and more importantly my joints have taken many twists and turns and I am presently arrived in a condition where I would not wilfully take a TT bat, unless the TT bat was taken to me, which being an unlikely event, I have become to the TT table a stranger. How my erstwhile sporting career and my health problems should connect with my obtaining ‘A History of Tom Jones’ however, relates to a matter that I have kept you in the dark about.

I have a son; in fact I have had a son for eight years and a few months. There are some who may remark that by counting the months before I was brought into my lying in, that is to say the months when I contained him within my person, I should rightly estimate the time period as nine years. To these cavillers I would make the retort that if accuracy rather than convention were my objective, I would not be very far off the mark if I reckoned I had a son for only nine months, and then he was born. When I shared this insight with a few older mothers-of-sons in my acquaintance, they took leave (for the older generation is always more polite) to inform me that I was an ignorant twerp, that I should wait until the boy starts seeing other women before arrogating to myself motherly pangs of separation anxiety. Be that as it may, this boy of hardly eight summers, although possessed of all charms and graces that doting maters are easily and readily able to discern, has also acquired in his disposition something that, to use vulgar parlance again, smacks of attitude. He believes sincerely that dear mamma is a good cook, lavishing extravagant praise on my abilities even as I demur- for I would not purloin credit from my domestics especially when the menu has been planned by my husband and the recipe taken from a cookbook. Nonetheless, when I disclosed the true facts of the case to my son, he made the reply that since I was the one who combined the menu and the recipe and the instructions to the cook, my skills were laudable indeed. God bless the child, but while I have little appetite for the false encomiums that come my way, I find it exceedingly more uncomfortable to digest the unpalatable truth that he thinks nothing of my achievements in the field of sport. I imagine the fact that the husband is more inclined to physical effort while I sit all day reading has something to do with these misplaced opinions.

In any case I decided to correct the impression in his young mind by displaying my TT virtuosity. There was a Table Tennis Table provided by the management office of our condominium. What remained was the question of bats. In this matter dear reader, I was in for a surprise in Singapore. In a country that is but a dot on the map of the world, but a dot which prides itself in having garnered the TT Silver medal in the last Olympic games, that is to say a state that is a ‘force’ in the world of Table Tennis, I could find no utensils for the game- to speak plainly, there were no bats to be had for paper or plastic at any of the sporting goods outlets in the city. I persisted doggedly in my quest, until another fever seized hold of me, namely the zeal to acquire a satisfactory proficiency in the Chinese language. I will acquaint you with the particulars of this passion in a different forum; at the present juncture it would suffice to say that not a few months back, I embarked on a pursuit in order to further my language studies. I sought to peruse a book that traced the evolution of the Chinese script. Since this book was said to be available in only one store of a shopping complex- the Bras-Basah complex in particular, there I went, clutching a white chit with the name of the aforesaid bookstore scribbled on it in Chinese characters. Needless to say I stumbled into many a wrong shop before I arrived at my destination, but my aim in narrating this to you is not to bore you, although that may very well be an unintended by-product of my verbosity, but to enlighten you with the important discovery I made in the course of my search, namely, that TT bats are sold in every corner-store stationary shop in Singapore! This must surely account for the popularity of the game in Singapore and the unavailability of the requisite utensils in sports shops.

The said store also sold used books, and the corner of my eye falling on a paperback volume containing the legend “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling in Six Volumes” that evoked from the corner of my mind- of which I have already made a mention of at the beginning of this article- certain thoughts that had been filed away, my learning that this copy could be purchased in exchange for a mere Five Dollars and my coming in possession of the book and commencing to peruse it was as one and the same thing- to be accomplished immediately and simultaneously.

You get the drift I guess, of the style of the book. Unless you have drifted off and surfed away elsewhere, for which I will have no one to blame but myself. ‘Commencing perusal’ and finishing the book were two different things. The Penguin edition that I have has 840 sepia-toned pages of fading print in Cambria Font 10. I would scorn to supply my readership with such mundane details when literary feats are on show, but given the style, I think it behoves on me to let people know what they are getting into. If you promise to read no more than five chapters a day, you will do well with the book for Fielding is brilliant and immensely entertaining.

The novel is set in Somersetshire and later London, and obviously concerns Tom Jones, a foundling raised by a benevolent country-squire in the teeth of local opposition. Jones grows up into a handsome and good-natured, though hot-blooded young man. He is surrounded moreover, by petty enemies and is eventually forced to leave home and seek his fortune. His adventures and his romance with Sophia Western, a beautiful neighbour, form the substance of the novel. Fielding uses a dominant authorial voice to tell us the story and he often addresses the reader directly while offering up his satirical observations, entertaining digressions and even some abuse! There is acerbic social commentary, biting wit, and in many instances, over-the-top slapstick humour. The book is scandalous and fun - if you are willing to wade through the language of the times.

As the romance between Tom Jones and his neighbour Sophia Western begins to captivate, the reader has to struggle against an impulse to speed-read and get to the story, for speed-reading spoils the pleasure to be had from this book. Fielding’s authorial third person voice is the real hero of the novel and if you were to pay only half heed to what he said while following the increasingly ridiculous antics of the rest of the characters, interesting for a while only in their outrageousness, you are cheating yourself of a great book and doing an injustice to the author. This was my fate. I will re-read at leisure one day.

‘Tom Jones’ surely made a splash when it came out, incensing and delighting different sections of the populace in equally great measures. (Sorry I cannot get the language out of my system!) Apparently it was even blamed for the earthquakes that had rocked London around the time of its publication. The point made was that ‘Tom Jones’ had been banned in France and that they had not suffered any earthquakes!

I am surprised that you quote from so vicious a book,” Samuel Johnson is said to have stated. For his part, Fielding appears to have been unapologetic and caustic, even writing a parody of Samuel Richardson’s ‘Camilla’ titled ‘Shamela’! He had a good marriage with a well-born, beautiful and virtuous lady on whom he is said to have modelled his young heroines, but on her death he married his wife’s maid who was pregnant at that time, disregarding existing conventions.

I was quite mistaken in what Austen and McEwan had to say about Fielding. In Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, we have the decidedly unlikeable character of John Thorpe stating that there haven’t been any good novels since Tom Jones- after saying he never reads novels if he can help it. Apparently, Jane Austen had reservations about Fielding and I do not wonder at this. From a feminist perspective I find it difficult to stomach a romance where the hero is so wayward. The acquiescence of so great a heroine as Sophia with the prevailing double standards of the time is troubling to say the least. In my book, if the Goose gets no sauce, neither does the Gander. And in this context I can only quote from Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ -

Ian McEwan in ‘Atonement’ compares Fielding favourably to Samuel Richardson (Austen admired Richardson) through Cecilia, but argues back through Robbie that Fielding compared to Richardson was psychologically crude. Cecilia’s thoughts of rebuttal remain unknown to us but we are all inside ‘Atonement’ at this point and would rather get on with that story…

Our verdict

• Recommend testing for allergies before ingestion.
• Do not try to swallow whole or you may choke on it.
• Strictly for savouring.

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