Wordsworth Classics edition of Tom Jones
Penguin edition of Tom Jones, ed. Keymer and Wakeley
Dear friends and readers,
There are many editions available of Fielding’s Tom Jones, including translations (I know about the Italian and French). The film by Richardson and especially the scene where Tom eats at Mrs Walters and she eats back remains famous. And in this institute famous respected older masterpieces are what’s wanted. So when I offered a course in this book at American University’s Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning, a full room of people showed up, and most stayed on I was not surprised. I think many of the students were surprised at my approach to the text, and was told later by several the whole thing began to make sense say 6 weeks into the semester (so that’s some 600 pages in). I was surprised by my approach too.
You see in the summer I had been genuinely worried whether they would like it. After more than 25 years rereading it, I wasn’t sure I liked it. In an effort to help myself along I listened to a different dramatic reading aloud of the text than the one I had listened to years before by David Case (a great favorite with me). In this new one, by Ken Danziger, a reader who I had hitherto real respect for (as I had enjoyed listening to his renditions of other books), he enacted Fielding’s narrator as if he were slow-speaking (foolish) comic character in an eighteenth-century play — and as a consequence made the book excruciatingly tedious. I tried a couple others, including one by Edward Fox (a fine actor) but none worked so well as Case’s where he just moved through the text with a continual changing tonal irony, sort of opportunistically and unemphatically yet dramatic when doing the characters enabling the narrator then to vanish for a bit.
Well the 11 weeks turned out to be a journey of discovery for myself as I tried to help a group of adults truly understand and appreciate what this book had to say to its contemporaries and could say to us today. As an undergraduate I did realize that the Battestin neo-Protestant hagiographic account of Fielding and reading of Tom Jones as consistently Hanoverian-ethical and conservative was fundamentally unreal and obtuse, and when I watched the films, that it was neither an innocent sexual romp (that is how Richardson’s film is commonly misunderstood) or ethical sermon (the Reithian BBC people, meaning to educate, inform, and entertain us), but had not before tried myself to work out some other framing, some way to close read the text that took into account all its inconsistencies, sexual misogyny, and different kinds of discourses and details. Now I began to feel the way I had read the book and understood it was wholly inadequate. Each paragraph seems to require a close reading as if it were a poem.
I began therefore by talking about all the obstacles in the way of understanding the narrator, and those aspects of Fielding’s early life and life in the theater and private life apart from his remunerative activities after the Licensing Act which are clearly reflected in the book. I began to chose essays to share with the class as week by week I found we needed different lenses to close read the text together, each one providing slightly different framings by which to understand that part of the book and by extension the whole text in front of us. I used very recent ones starting with more historical background topics, say (from Stevenson’s book), to sociology and law (Simpson on rape cases and attitudes towards sex and women in the courts), and others reading the novel thematically, psychoanalytically, or as an attempt to put together from a new genre that conformed to the evolving conventions of naturalistic probability. Or just essays disagreeing on what was alluded to in an inset history or story or encounter and why.
Nonetheless, I’ve come to think the book when read adequately transcends its eighteenth-century features and to treat of its issues and problems comparably to our own can make us question or have to re-think our own norms today. I’m going to use this blog to tell some of this here. If you need reminding about Fielding’s story or characters, you can find other sites on the Net for this. I suggest anyone who does not know book, and wants to read on, set aside enough time for 100 pages a week, or watch the 1997 5 hour mini-series and then find time to read the book. I’m not sure I can tell about reading together over 11 weeks, turning pages of the novel. But I can tell about a few of the essays that helped me and the class understand the content of the book. So to begin with, three very different essays from across the term.
Wm Hogarth, Morning (alluded to by Fielding, as suggestive of what Mrs Bridget Allworthy looks like)
I’ll go backwards, beginning with the one that I read in the 10th week which gave a holistic account of the book through a history of what has been written and said about Fielding and his writing in the last 300 years by Robert Hume (Fielding at 300: Elusive, Confusing, Misappropriated, or (Perhaps) Obvious?”, Modern Philology). It took me the best part of a day to read (and I’ve no idea how many others in the class read it); I’d never read it before and think the sense it makes can be appreciated only after a hard slog through the book’s details. This essay made me feel better because Hume can be summed up as telling the reader how difficult it is to reach Fielding in Tom Jones. He feels that only recently have people been willing to describe the text frankly; a work of genius, one said to be so popular at one time, and as widely-read as the state of literacy and the ability of any group of people to pay for or reach a copy of the text, and called immoral, amoral, felt to be disquieting at the time and yet a serious book, is not supposed to be inconsistent, at core evasive, one which works by association, and was written spontaneously as it came to Fielding within the confines or discipline of this carefully-plotted story line.
Despite all Fielding’s efforts at construction (chapters within books, neatly set off inset histories), at calendared time, keeping to announcing probable space covered on foot, by horse, coach, with all characters mostly accounted for against probable diurnal fates, is chaotic, autobiographical (an author blind to himself), obsessive (all these carping critics attacking him), endlessly repetitive (how many times does he go over the arguments against and cruelties of coerced marriage?). The narrator is by turns deeply sceptical, subversive in all sorts of ways (as his contemporaries, among them Arthur Murphy who wrote a “Life and Genius” saw) — and then again sexually really so conventional. Hume says rather than see him as a swaggering frat boy we should recognize he’s an sexually insecure male hitting out at supposedly powerful women –- as when Lady Bellaston keeps Tom as a sexual plaything. Hume talks of how the character of Amelia is an attempt to get beyond the Sophia emblematic presentations. He even mentions the attribution problem where still texts by Sarah Fielding are in part or whole attributed to her brother (Ophelia is by some given to him) or text by him attributed to her (the Anna Boleyn narrative). Hume ends on the idea that we might regard Fielding’s most common impulse that the teacher; Fielding is teaching us, his mask teacherlyness.
So that’s for the book as a whole. Two other topics will do for tonight. Sex and money. Money first. We read James Thompson’s essay on how money worked in the 18th century, how it was created, its basis, how what was considered money (a medium of exchange) was changing (Patterns of Property and Possession,” Eighteenth Century Fiction). In this era there was a transition and jockeying between bullion, actual coins, gold and silver and paper money as well as paper credit. What he shows is that Fielding is a social and economic conservative when it comes to money: a bill of money is worth so much at the opening of the novel and it is still worth that at the end; objects do not lose and gain their value by circumstances. Black George does not grew rich on the funds after he gave found and secreted away the £500 Mr Allworthy meant for Tom; he gives the bill to Mr Nightingale (Tom’s friend’s father) who has not yet invested it when Mr Allworthy comes to visit him and sees it.
Thompson also shows how attitudes toward property, personal property and money reveals Fielding’s attitudes towards fundamental issues of all sorts. We see that money is a kind of instrument people use against one another and we do see how life itself, bodies, much else are subject to money. Thompson takes Battestin’s traditional view that at the close of the novel all is well as we return to Paradise Hall; a providential pattern is asserted, but in the notes he quotes other critics’ view that Fortune (or chance) is what rules this world, and there is much in the novel to critique what property has become: I read aloud Pope’s great lines:
Blest paper-credit! last and best supply!
That lends Corruption lighter wings to fly!
Gold imp’d by thee, can compass hardest things,
Can pocket States, can fetch or carry Kings;
A single leaf shall waft an Army o’er,
Or ship off Senates to a distant Shore;
A leaf, like Sibyl’s, scattered to and fro
Our fates and fortunes, as the winds shall blow, (lines 69-76)
We then zeroed in on one aspect of this early history of money: bank bills and the bill of exchange. A bank bill is a note which can be traded and exchanged. In the case of a bill of exchange there is a co-signer and the person it'[s made out to gets money from a bank. The co-signer is the person responsible for paying a bill. Why? since the money goes to the person who made up the bill. Bills of exchange were a way of borrowing money personally when you had no security, nothing the bank could take in lieu of the money borrowed – before credit cards. (it’s not good to think of it as a check because when we write a check we are supposed to have money in our bank to back it up). It’s a piece of paper, a note to a money-lender and get the specified amount of money from that lender minus that man’s profit, called a discounted. The phrase is the bill is discounted. The borrower without security has to get someone to ”accept” the bill before the money-lender will give him the money; it’s understood that accepter acts as collateral (something pledged as security, a car, a house, an expensive object worth money).
When Mr Allworthy signs the bank bill that he has agreed to supply the money for Mr Jones. Why did third co-signers do that? In a world where patronage, coteries, family networks supplied all jobs and promotion, pressure could be put on people outside these magic circles. You as acceptor – signer – have no control over who has it unless you have the money to buy it back. Mr Allworthy does. There was a business in buying such bills by people prepared to send in bailiffs and have the household and goods of the person who accepted the bill sold. By the 19th century. You may have co-signed for a son or daughter? So as the bill exchanges hands it is signed and Mr Allworthy can trace where it’s been and who is it comes from.
Thompson suggests Fielding distrusts and detests the way money had begun to be used. He uses the example of Jonathan Wild (an earlier novel) and what happens in Amelia — after Tom Jones. Wild is a successful exploiter: as the narrator puts it, “a prig [thief to steal with the hands of other people” (p. 168). Fielding also plays with the increasing dimensions of capital, its capacity to make money from money, so that Wild cheats a whole series of people one after another, profiting from each of them. Theft serves Fielding as a kind of laboratory economy, a miniaturization of an exchange system. It also serves as the ironic frustration of capitalist exchange, for theft is a zero-sum game, one in which money moves around, through various forms of thieving, cheating, and pick-pocketing, but the value remains constant (as in the card-sharking scenes in the man on the hill’s history). In microeconomic system, thieves prey upon one another in daisy-chain fashion, all cheating one another and negating each other’s effects. In Tom Jones we watch the movement of bills, but in Amelia we trace the journey of debts.
Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood) and Lord Fellamar (David Tomlinson) (1963 Tom Jones)
Then sex. Over half the articles I sent to the people in the class were about some aspect of sex so this will be the first of a few. We read a chapter from Laura Rosenthal’s Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in 18th century Literature and Culture on Tom as a prostitute (or kept man). Most of Rosenthal’s chapters concern female prostitution; she asks the question why does prostitution figure so centrally in restoration through 18th century literature, either literally or as metaphor? She says we can answer that question by substituting looking at prostitutes simply from the sexual degradation and status perspective to as figures of commerce; as people employed in one of those businesses you didn’t need patronage to enter into. They formed part of the changeover from a feudal hierarchical society to a commercial one. The body was a commodity, as something to be sold. Since marriage was coerced for money, it could be gathered up into this perspective: Mr Nightingale wants his son to sell himself to gain aggrandizement for the family.
She writes on Richardson’s Clarissa in Chapter 5; her piece on Tom Jones comes from chapter 6. She uses the word rogue in the 18th century sense (low born scoundrel), and says if we compare Tom’s stories to what we find in realities and in other stories, he is not at all a rake (usually elegant) but a paid stallion, and in the exchange with Lady Bellaston once he takes her money he is honor bound to have sex with her –- because she paid for it. Neither his gender nor privileged upbringing can protect his most intimate person from becoming a commodity, up for sale.
Key chapter and passages are several places, but most strongly in Book 13, chapter 9 where Tom is at Lady Bellaston’s beck and call. We watch Tom carrying on having sex with Lady Bellaston: she commands him to perform. Salient points I found valuable is the comparison between Molly, who is as low and smelly as they come; she wants sex with him for what she can get out of it, and in the end she gets a good deal of the £500 Black George tried to steal. Tom’s interaction with Mrs Walters is a woman who has come to survive by becoming a kept woman herself – we see its danger in her total lack of a safety net from Northerton. She enjoys sex with Tom as an interlude. In his third relationship Tom is supported by Lady Bellaston and his gorge really rises at it when it’s Nightingale who looks at him while he’s preaching and points out to him he’s fucking for wages himself. Who is he to talk? Nightingale’s solution is Tom should present himself as a fortune-hunter – in the book we have that type in Mr Fitzpatrick. Not very comforting. Tom writes her a letter asking her to marry him and she drops him.
Looking at the book from the standpoint of sex, commerce and power – Tom Jones is about sex, no doubt about it, but sex intelligently seen. The city may harbor Lady Bellaston but it gives Mrs Miller her opportunity to support herself; Mrs. Fitzpatrick escapes imprisonment and spousal abuse through cosmopolitan keeping. She is desperate for her aunt and uncle to forgive and take her in and give her respectability and safety but when they will not she finds an alternative. While Mrs Walters appears to be downwardly mobile, Mrs Fitzpatrick and Mrs Miller are going up – as long as Nancy remains off the market. Mrs Miller is intensely concerned lest her house be known as a “house of ill repute:” there is a fine line between boarding houses and brothels. And the way Tom is behaving with Lady Bellaston is allowing her house to be used as a brothel.
But before we dismiss Mrs Walters the one contract that holds in the book is between her and the spinster Mrs Bridget Allworthy. The outcome of the book depended on their promise and contract whereby a woman offers to present herself as having become pregnant outside marriage to enable the other to keep her illegitimate baby under her blind and rigid brother’s nose. Mr Allworthy continually scolds lower class people (Partridge) and women for having sex outside marriage: he predicts dire things; he says it dehumanizes them, they become animals. Only through having sex secretly or for money can they survive. Blifil is able to get Mr Allworthy to throw Tom out because one of the accusations is he is after Sophia; it’s okay for Tom, the foundling, to be after Molly, but not Sophia. (We see farcical sympathetic versions of stallionhood.) Rosenthal suggests a close correspondence between a novella of the period called The Matchless Rogue and Tom Jones. Tom works his way out and up because he is the bastard nephew of Mr Allworthy; the result of a fragile sexual contract kept by Mrs Walters and Mrs Allworthy. Rosenthal makes sense of Mrs Miller too. Sexual contracts are the basis of this society just as much as money and property but you have to be on the right side of the sexual contract if you are low in class.
Marx analyzed the relationships of people for the first time to show how it’s dependent on property, who owns what controls who can do what; well there are equally important books about the sexual contract: until 1870s or so men related directly to the cash and property nexus, women only through their relationship with men; the core of their lives is still a sexual contract with the man having a great advantage.
I added that Carole Pateman’s way of seeing society’s basis as a sexual contract with men connecting directly to the state and one another and society and women connecting only through men can enable us to see women’s position in all this. Fielding’s text shows us men do not have the big advantage they may think not even sexually.
John Sessions as Henry Fielding, counting his characters off on his fingers (1997 Tom Jones)
I’ll end this second blog on Tom Jones by saying I told this group of people I took a post-modern approach to Tom Jones – as I try to do to most of what I reach or teach. Post-modern may be defined as a set of ideas or practices that reject conventional mainstream values as having much effect on what happens in the world or what people do; that also eschew conventional means of presenting stories and films, any kind of art. An important facet is a questioning, sometimes disavowal of Enlightenment assertions about what is progress and the rightness of European ideas of civilization. These mainstream values are to stand here and preach about say vanity or pride or whatever is the lesson supposedly taught. What’s the reality of the way the world operates and how does this author or his art work relate to it.
Accordingly, here is one of the great moral lessons of the book. The narrator enunciates it directly upon Tom’s ejection from his (adopted) father’s house
Wisdom, in short, whose Lessons have been represented as so hard to learn by those who never were at her School, only teaches us to extend a simple Maxim universally known and followed even in the lowest Life, a little farther than that Life carries it. And this not to buy at too dear a price.
Now, whoever takes this Maxim abroad with him into the grand Market of the World, and constantly applies it to Honours, to Riches, to Pleasures, and to every other Commodity which that Market affords, is, I will venture to affirm, a wise Man; and must be .so acknowledged in the worldly Sense of the Word: For he makes the best of Bargains; since in Reality he purchases every Thing at the Price only of a little Trouble, and carries home all the good Things I have mentioned, while he keeps his Health, his Innocence, and his Reputation, the common Prices which are paid for them by others, entire and to himself.
From this Moderation, likewise, he learns two other Lessons, which complete his Character. First, never to be intoxicated when he hath made the best Bargain, nor dejected when the Market is empty, or when its Commodities are too dear for his Purchase (Penguin TJ, ed Keymer, Bk 6, Ch 3, pp 251-52.
Don’t pay more than you can afford for that ticket; when negotiating do not come near collapse from drink, and don’t get depressed because you will often be powerless.