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Book review: <i>Tom Jones</i> by Henry Fielding

So you know those old penguin paperbacks? Y’know, the doorstopper-like novels of the Austens of the nineteenth century world? The Brontes with their page on page of women in bourdoirs waiting for suitors to marry them, so excited by the “suitability” of the match that they are constantly “ejaculating?” (Seriously, all Austen heroines ejaculate an average of 74 times throughout any novel!)

Well while Austen, Bronte, Bronte, Dickens, Trollope, even George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell get their fair share of readers, nobody these days seems to read their earlier predecessors... like Fielding for instance. While the nineteenth century novel, particularly the ejaculatory domestic novels (read: boudoirs, suitability, sensibility, ejaculation... and despite my tone, I am quite a fan) has no end of fan boys and, particularly fan girls (... you know, that girl in your lit class who wears a straw hat and takes high tea?) the eighteenth century novel is, in fact, much less widely read (sadly). Being admonished for being too allegorical, not realistic enough, not concerned with the sort of realism purported to be the hallmark of a good novelist, Fielding has copped a lot of flack. And yet, left and right, people praise the postmodern novel for its metafictive sense of itself, of its own status as a literary production, whilst assuming that realism and flat-footed representationalism was all that was afforded the novel before modernism. That was certainly pronounced in the nineteenth century, or as I have called, ‘the age of ejaculation’.
Mr Fielding (let’s call him Hank) both draws upon and undoes the idea of allegory by openly announcing the intended message and didactics of his book (with no pretention to be anyone but himself, ‘the author’) before preceding to undercut this ‘author-ity’ through the narrative events and vicissitudes of his characters. This subtle and comic technique leaves the reader reeling and thoroughly undercuts the prevailing attitudes of the time about debates as far-reaching as the meaning of human nature, of sin and of the class system.

So sensational was this wry critique in its time that Tom Jones was criticized by figures as far afield as Dr Johnson and blamed for several earthquakes felt in London in the early 1760s. Whilst the shocking moral implications of the book will no doubt be lost on we modern readers, nonetheless, the book’s sense of humour will appeal to the more discerning reader who likes a clever chuckle, finds Dylan Moran hilarious and refuses to watch sit-coms with canned laughter. In other words, in literary history, I would advocate a mud wrestling match between good ol’ Henry and David Schwimmer... I know who I’d back.

In short

Title: Tom Jones
Author: Henry Fielding
Publisher: Modern Library, New Ed edition
ISBN: 0812966074
Year published: 2002
Pages: 1024
Genre(s): Classic literature, Comedy
Review Type: