Tom Jones was published over 250 years ago, in 1749, but remains as fresh, lively and provocative as if it had just been written. It’s a novel that mocks and satirises its own time. Rigid social hierarchies and high class manners are poked, prodded and parodied for their hypocrisy and ridiculousness. High society matrons insist on proper observation of pomp and ceremony, while swanning around town having scandalous affairs, using their wealth and social standing to lift up or tear down the lives and reputations of others, on a whim. Women are marvellously liberated, at least in thought and spirit, although not in terms of actual control over their fates. Sophia, Harriet Fitzpatrick, Mrs Waters, Nancy Miller and Harriet Nightingale follow their hearts, indulge their passions, and, with the notable exception of Sophia, indulge in sex outside marriage, and things turn out fairly well for all of them.
The prudishness of the Victorian era is yet to take hold (Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837), and ‘loose’ behaviours are very much in evidence. Jones is the worst offender, tumbling about with Molly and Mrs Waters, and engaging in rather vaguely defined love making with Lady Bellaston, while his heart all the while is dedicated to Sophia (there is never any conflict of interest, Jones draws a very convenient line between love and sex). Mrs Waters is undeniably a rather wanton sort, although she blames circumstances. The Fitzpatricks are both engaged in passionate affairs outside their marriages. And all of the supposedly virtuous aunts, Bellaston, Western and Allworthy, have taken handsome younger men to their beds.
These shenanigans are closely observed and loudly expounded upon by the colourful array of servants and tradesmen who gossip around the kitchen fire, and in their mistresses’ ears. They spill secrets, conjure up outrageous fabrications, connive, backstab and plot. They provide continuous comic relief, and a great deal of frustration, stoking misunderstandings and laying false trails.
Our heroes, Thomas Jones and Sophia Western, are quite simply the most beautiful, warm hearted, kindest, bravest and passionate young pair to grace the pages of fiction. Tom is admittedly a rather more inconstant lover than most women would wish for, but his immense charm allows us, and Sophia, to forgive all.
Other personalities are cleverly encapsulated in character names. Mr Allworthy is the epitomy of kindness, justice, forgiveness, and fairness (although he’s also rather prone to being misled by those less inclined to honesty than himself). There’s Mrs Honour, Sophia’s tongue-waging, inconstant maid, Mr Square, the self-righteous, pontificating philosopher, and Mr Thwackum, the heavy handed and deeply unjust schoolmaster. And then there is Blifil, an awful, spitting sort of a word, a name shared by two truly odious characters. Thankfully Blifil senior’s appearance is limited to a comic sketch of his detestableness, before he is dispatched from life and the novel. Blifil junior, in contrast, is a slimy little creature that lurks throughout the story. But all his spite and self-promotion are unravelled in the end, and he gets his come-uppance.
Don’t be put off by the enormous size of this book – it’s a page turner. Admittedly, the narrative is prone to going off in multiple directions, and there are dozens of characters flitting through its pages. All plot lines do however lead back to Tom and Sophia, most characters reappear with another key piece of the puzzle, and everything fits into place in the end. Like a soap opera that hooks you in night after night, flitting from one scene to the next but never slackening pace, Tom Jones will keep you guessing, grinning, and hoping for that fabled happy ending!