These days we binge on TV box sets. When I was a teenager I binge-read the classics, using the excuse of A-level study, so earning me a place to do English at university (i.e three more years lounging on a sofa reading).
Books taught me about life – “sex and death” in Woody Allen’s definition. I saw how people coped differently and how thoughtful people can write about these tribulations with such skill. From Gravity’s Rainbow, to The Mill on the Floss, to Sons and Lovers, to John Le Carre’s underrated non-spy novel The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, I was shaped by what the books I read, and none more so than Tom Jones, or to give it its full title, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding, Esq.
Published in 1749, Tom Jones is one of the earliest proper novels in English made up of narrative, dialogue and the author’s voice. Fielding set aside the epistolary model of letters sent between characters, instead pioneering narrative structures which still dominate fiction.
The book is picaresque, taking its hero on a literal and psychological journey. It is a bildungsroman tracking the development of its main character from birth to maturity. Ending “when Mr Jones was married to his Sophia”, it is a novel of contract and transgression. On top of that, it is humorous, satirical and historical, set against the background of the Jacobite Rebellion. With the gallows and other causes of untimely death never far away, its twists of fate even look forward to the thriller.
Fielding was also a successful playwright and has the skill to contrive scenes which are laugh-out-loud funny. Unsurprisingly, as any paperback blurb will tell you, Samuel Taylor Coleridge rated it one of “the three most perfect plots ever planned”.
What I love most about the book is its humanity. Tom is likeable and generous-hearted but he is no moral exemplar. He’s usually up for mischief or a quickie but, as he explains, “I am no canting hypocrite… I have been guilty with women, I own it; but I am not conscious that I have ever injured any – nor would I.”
In the 1960s Tom Jones enjoyed a revival as an unlikely bible for the permissive society. A trio of British greats – John Osborne (scriptwriter), Tony Richardson (director), and Albert Finney (actor) – brought him to life in a hit film, best remembered for a lascivious oyster-eating scene. Next, on the advice of Gordon Mills his manager, the singer Thomas Woodward borrowed the name to become Tom Jones, Mr Sex Bomb.
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All this was in the spirit of Fielding’s creation unlike the po-faced and pernickety BBC TV serialisation in 1997.
Tom Jones the character is buffeted by circumstance. He is unintellectual and never in control of his own life, somewhat resembling an adult version of my other literary hero, A Bear Called Paddington.
Fielding the narrator shares Tom’s forgiving attitude to human weakness, while accepting that it can have the severest consequences. In his day job, Henry Fielding was a lawyer who, like his younger half-brother after him, became Chief Magistrate of London. Presiding in Covent Garden, not far from the flat where I am writing this, he donned the black cap and condemning miscreants to death. But he also founded the Bow Street Runners, an embryonic crime-fighting force. Both Fielding brothers campaigned for judicial and prison reform.
Other writings (including The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great) deal directly with the ambiguities of law and order. Tom Jones is an entertainment, not a didactic work. Social issues are glanced at in a passing phrase never hammered home.
What matters is the story and the characters. That I think is the mark of any great novel. But not many of them are warmed by Tom Jones and Henry Fielding’s cheerful lust for life.
Adam Boulton is the Editor-at-large of Sky News.