Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding (d---- me)

This is my second go-round with Tom Jones. Of course it's splendid; I understand it's splendid. What modern writer, for example, has the brains to accomplish this? --

Hushed be every ruder breath. May the heathen ruler of the winds confine in iron chains the boisterous limbs of noisy Boreas and the sharp-pointed nose of bitter-biting Eurus. Do thou, sweet Zephyrus, rising from thy fragrant bed, mount the western sky and lead on those delicious gales, the charms of which call forth the lovely Flora from her chamber, perfumed with pearly dews, when on the first of June, her birthday, the blooming maid in loose attire gently tips it over the verdant mead, where every flower rises to do her homage till the whole field becomes enamelled and colours contend with sweets which shall ravish her most (Book IV, chapter 2).

My trouble is that I get bogged down, in Tom Jones, in the long middle chapters concerning the inn or inns at Upton. We begin well, otherwise. I understand that Tom is a foundling, a fine, decent, red-blooded English boy. Out in the country among his gentry foster family and neighbors, there are only a handful of characters to keep track of. There's his foster father, Squire Allworthy, and Allworthy's sister, and the boozing and hunting and really rather awful Squire Western across the fields. There's Squire Western's lovely daughter Sophia, and Western has a sister, too, the d----d b---- who is the plague of his life now that his d----d wife is dead. Then Allworthy's sister marries one Blifil and has a son, young Blifil, who grows up to be all that is snivelling, mean, and wretched. There are parsons, tutors, and maids, and we can't forget that in eighteenth century English usage a maid was an "Abigail," just as a youngest son could be a "Benjamin" even though his name might be Hal, and a single woman over a certain age was credited with the honorific "Mrs."

So far so good. There is nothing quite like eighteenth-century English prose, as a matter of fact, and what I find especially awe-inspiring about Fielding's use of it is precisely that it is so often unstuffy. If anybody taught him the rule that one never ends a sentence with a preposition, he forgot it or didn't care. If anyone taught him that one never mixes up persons in one's narrator, he forgot that, too, or didn't care. He writes with blooming confidence, almost at dictation speed, and if amid that arch, slightly hectoring but good-natured tone, and all the rolling Latinate periods, a sentence runs on something like "reader, we think it best to inform thee, as I have hinted before, that Fate had placed the youth in a situation he couldn't get out from," Fielding leaves it all at that.

Another extraordinary thing about Fielding's work -- watch me try to imitate his confidence, and fail -- is the conversations he records among his characters, including the lower orders whom the reader might assume in real life would not speak well. Possibly our own age has gotten so lazy with language, spoken and written, that we simply can't believe anyone ever kept his mind so engaged in his own discourse, and his neighbors', that he could reel off full thoughts in good grammatical structure as a daily, an hourly, habit. The maidservant, Mrs. Honour, is my favorite, especially when she is in a self-justifying passion: " 'I don't care a farthing! I speaks no scandal of any one; but to be sure, the servants make no scruple of saying as how her ladyship meets men at another place -- where the house goes under the name of a poor gentlewoman but her ladyship pays the rent; and many's the good thing besides, they say, she hath of her.' " These conversations are extraordinary also in the way they appear on the page: not for Fielding the obvious separation of lines of dialogue, speech by speech, a dozen new little paragraphs all down the paper. Instead, the characters' confrontations are treated as whole scenes, so the reader faces huge blocks of thickly printed text which can't be skimmed over. If you want to really know who is saying what to whom, you must read, and watch out for the quotation marks or you'll get confused.

So far, so good. Tom Jones, virtuous foundling, loves Sophia, and Sophia loves him. Her father finds out and locks her up, insisting she won't get out until she marries the wretch, young Blifil, who in turn has poisoned his uncle's, Squire Allworthy's, mind against Jones and so now stands to inherit all Allworthy's fortune. Jones is kicked out of Allworthy's house. Sophia escapes to the open road with her maid, intending to throw herself upon the mercy and protection of an aunt in London. We attend our characters to the midpoint of their journey, the inn, or inns, at Upton.

Of course Fielding has to separate his lovers in some way, but here at Upton I get bogged down. The middle fourth, or perhaps third, of the book is spent here, in what seems an endless series of marches and counter-marches, most of them at night, by which Jones and Sophia stumble from one inn to another, are kept carefully apart, and yet thrown in with more characters who will play big roles in their fate in the final part of the novel. The army is here, too, for it's 1745 and the last Stuart pretender to the English monarchy, Bonnie Prince Charlie, is lurking about or his "rebels" are. There are plenty of soldiers for the hot-blooded Jones to get in fights with, and Sophia is briefly mistaken for Jenny Cameron, famous mistress of the prince. In the middle of all this Jones meets the mysterious Man of the Hill, a recluse who tells a long story about his past misfortunes and then disappears.

Eventually we leave Upton and attend our hero and heroine to London. The hailstorm of new characters whom we had met -- landladies, ensigns, post boys, parlor maids -- now becomes a tornadic blizzard of even newer characters in "town." Lords, ladies, lawyers, husbands, wives (or not), Mrs. Miller and her daughters, Mrs. Miller's daughter's beau, Mrs. Miller's cousin who turns out to be the highwayman who had accosted Jones outside Upton, and all along Mrs. Miller has been well acquainted with Squire Allworthy plus I had forgotten to mention that all along Jones has been jogging along in the company of the delightful idiot Partridge, who had been expelled from Allworthy's employ twenty years earlier because he was reputed to be Jones' natural father.

When Fielding opens up a fresh plot twist by saying, "the reader will remember that this was the lady who had departed the inn just a few minutes before Sophia in the ninth book of this history," or something similar, well -- you know you have taken too long to read the tale. You have forgotten too much. You want to have done well enough by the master to be able to chime right in with the character who, almost at the end, sees the villainy that has dogged Jones' and his lady's footsteps, exclaiming with her " 'I see all! I see all!' "

And what do we see? Even before getting bogged down in Upton, it should occur to us that one of the themes of the story is deception. Over and over again, Jones especially is the unwitting victim of someone else's simple lie, someone's theft, someone's silent complicity in an injustice, someone's unwitting obedience to a nefarious plot. And yet Fielding himself thinks the theme is something different (although he does allow that "any human mind may be imposed upon," and there is nothing to be done about it). Way down at the bottom of the deep well that is Tom Jones, at chapter 10 of Book XVIII, the theme screams out at even the most forgetful and sleepy-eyed reader. Squire Allworthy says, " 'Prudence is indeed the duty which we owe to ourselves, and if we will be so much our own enemies as to neglect it, we are not to wonder if the world is deficient in discharging their duty to us, for when a man lays the foundation of his own ruin, others will, I am afraid, be too apt to build upon it.' "

True, but it's hard to know in what sense Jones has been imprudent throughout the story. His worst deeds seem to be that he sleeps with a lot of women while in love with the pure Sophia, but Fielding is no prude to be horrified at that. Sophia, naturally, is horrified by it, but then she is the picture of eighteenth-century female imprudence herself. How many well-brought up gentry girls simply left their homes and cast themselves upon the world to avoid an odious marriage, in an era when there was nothing for a woman of a certain class to do to survive except marry? Although Tom Jones is a light-hearted book, Fielding does hint at the brutality of the world he chronicled, the world that Sophia and Tom suffer (briefly) in. There is the long, strange story of the Man of the Hill, for one thing, which seems to be Dickensian in its moral purpose. And later Sophia's own protectress in London tries to arrange for her to be raped by a lord who wants her, so that she'll be too soiled to marry anything but that.

On the back of my paperback edition of this book, Coleridge is quoted as saying that "upon his word, he thinks Tom Jones, the Alchemist, and Oedipus Tyrannus the three most perfect plots ever planned." (The Alchemist was a play by Ben Jonson, written in 1610.) He's probably right, but following the master, Fielding, through the convolutions of Tom Jones will require, for me, more than two readings. Perhaps it requires an eighteenth-century mind -- a mind able also to make conversation in full sentences, nay paragraphs, with other people. I know that he has made no mistakes. I know that he has thought everything out, and quite a time it must have taken. I'm just d----d if I can see it all yet. And oh by the way, we've forgotten to acknowledge the work and wit that went into the introductory chapters of every single "book" in the book, in which Fielding unburdened himself of various ideas, on love, on critics, "On the serious in writing, and for what purpose it is introduced." He says that if these introductory chapters are too dull, we may skip them.

And oh by the way -- Henry Fielding was a professional playwright, then "went back to school" as we would phrase it, studying law and serving as a justice of the peace in order to earn a living after the Licensing Act of 1737 closed down a good many theaters. While pursuing this second career, he opened his third, novel writing. Joseph Andrews and Amelia are also his. All that, before the eighteenth century's health hazards caught up with him, killing him at the age of 47.

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