Henry Fielding. (17071754). The History of Tom Jones.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
III. By Austin Dobson
LIKE Don Quixote, Tom Jones is the precursor of a new order of things,the earliest and freshest expression of a new departure in art. But while Tom Jones is, to the full, as amusing as Don Quixote, it has the advantage of a greatly superior plan, and an interest more skillfully sustained. The incidents which, in Cervantes, simply succeed each other like the scenes in a panorama, are, in Tom Jones, but parts of an organized and carefully arranged progression towards a foreseen conclusion. As the hero and heroine cross and re-cross each others track, there is scarcely an episode which does not aid in the moving forward of the story. Little details rise lightly and naturally to the surface of the narrative, not more noticeable at first than the most everyday occurrences, and a few pages farther on become of the greatest importance. The hero makes a mock proposal of marriage to Lady Bellaston. It scarcely detains attention, so natural an expedient does it appear, and behold in a chapter or two it has become a terrible weapon in the hands of the injured Sophia! Again, when the secret of Jones birth is finally disclosed, we look back and discover a hundred little premonitions which escaped us at first, but which, read by the light of our latest knowledge, assume a fresh significance. At the same time, it must be admitted that the over-quoted and somewhat antiquated dictum of Coleridge, by which Tom Jones is grouped with the Alchemist and dipus Tyrannus, as one of the three most perfect plots in the world, requires revision. It is impossible to apply the term perfect to a work which contains such an inexplicable stumbling-block as the Man of the Hills story. Then, again, progress and animation alone will not make a perfect plot, unless probability be superadded. And although it cannot be said that Fielding disregards probability, he certainly strains it considerably. Money is conveniently lost and found; the naivest coincidences continually occur; people turn up in the nick of time at the exact spot required, and develop the most needful (but entirely casual) relations with the characters. Sometimes an episode is so inartistically introduced as to be almost clumsy. Towards the end of the book, for instance, it has to be shown that Jones has still some power of resisting temptation, and he accordingly receives from a Mrs. Arabella Hunt, a written offer of her hand, which he declines. Mrs. Hunts name has never been mentioned before, nor, after this occurrence, is it mentioned again. But in the brief fortnight which Jones has been in town, with his head full of Lady Bellaston, Sophia, and the rest, we are to assume that he has proposes and is refusedall in a chapter. Imperfections of this kind are more worthy of consideration than some of the minor negligences which criticism has amused itself by detecting in this famous book. Such, among others, is the discovery made by a writer in the Gentlemans Magazine, that in one place winter and summer come too close together; or the strange specimen of oscitancy which another (it is, in fact, Mr. Keightley) considers it worth while to record respecting the misplacing of the village of Hambrook. To such trifles as these last the precept of non offendar maulis may safely be applied, although Fielding, wiser than his critics, seems to have foreseen the necessity for still larger allowances:
Cruel indeed, says he in his proemium to Book XI., would it be, if such a Work as this History, which hath employed some Thousands of Hours in the composing, should be liable to be condemned, because some particular Chapter, or perhaps Chapters, may be obnoxious to very just and sensible objections To write within such severe Rules as these, is as impossible as to live up to some splenetic Opinions; and if we judge according to the Sentiments of some Critics, and of some Christians, no Author will be saved in this World, and no Man in the next.
Notwithstanding its admitted superiority to Joseph Andrews as a work of art, there is no male character in Tom Jones which can compete with Parson Adamsnone certainly which we regard with equal admiration. Allworthy, excellent compound of Lyttelton and Allen though he be, remains always a little stiff and cold in comparison with the veined humanity around him. We feel of him, as of another impeccable personage, that we cannot breathe in that fine air, That pure severity of perfect light, and that we want the warmth and colour which we find in Adams. Allworthy is a type rather than a charactera fault which also seems to apply to that Molieresque hypocrite, the younger Blifil. Fielding seems to have welded this latter together, rather than to have fused him entire, and the result is a certain lack of verisimilitude, which makes us wonder how his pinchbeck progressions and vamped-up virtues could deceive so many persons. On the other hand, his father, Captain John Blifil, has all the look of life. Nor can there be any doubt about the vitality of Squire Western. Whether the germ of his character be derived from Addisons Tory Foxhunter or not, it is certain that Fielding must have had superabundant material of his own from which to model this thoroughly representative, and at the same time, completely individual character. Western has all the rustic tastes, the narrow prejudices, the imperfect education, the unreasoning hatred to the court, which distinguished the Jacobite country gentleman of the Georgian era; but his divided love for his daughter and his horses, his goodhumour and his shrewdness, his foaming impulses and his quick subsidings, his tears, his oaths, and his barbaric dialect, are all essential features in a personal portrait. When Jones has rescued Sophia, he will give him all his stables, the Chevalier and Miss Slouch excepted; when he finds he is in love with her, he is in a frenzy to get at un and spoil his Caterwauling. He will have the surgeons hearts blood if he takes a drop too much from Sophias white arm; when she opposes his wishes as to Blifil, he will turn her into the street with no more than a smock, and give his estate to the zinking Fund. Throughout the book he is qualis ab incepto,boisterous, brutal, jovial, and inimitable; so that when finally in Chapter the Last, we get that pretty picture of him in Sophys nursery, protesting that the tattling of his little granddaughter is sweeter Music than the finest Cry of Dogs in England, we part with him almost with a feeling of esteem. Scott seems to have thought it unreasonable that he should have taken a beating so unresistingly from the friend of Lord Fellamar, and even hints that the passage is an interpolation, although he wisely refrains from suggesting by whom, and should have known that it was in the first edition. With all deference to so eminent an authority, it is impossible to share his hesitation. Fielding was fully aware that even the bravest have their fits of panic. It must besides be remembered that Lord Fellamars friend was not an effeminate dandy, but a military manprobably a professed sabreur, if not a salaried bully like Captain Stab in the Rakes Progress; that he was armed with a stick and Western was not; and that he fell upon him in the most unexpected manner, in a place where he was wholly out of his element. It is inconceivable that the sturdy squire, with his faculty for distributing Ficks and Dowses,who came so valiantly to the aid of Jones in his battle-royal with Blifil and Thwackum,was likely, under any but very exceptional circumstances, to be dismayed by a cane. It was the exceptional character of the assault which made a coward of him; and Fielding, who had the keenest eye for inconsistencies of the kind, knew perfectly well what he was doing.
Of the remaining dramatis personathe swarming individualities with which the great comic epic is literally all alive, as Lord Monboddo saidit is impossible to give any adequate account. Few of them, if any, are open to the objection already pointed out with respect to Allworthy and the younger Blifil, and most of them bears signs of having been closely copied from living models each is a definite character bearing upon his forehead the mark of his absolute fidelity to human nature.