Monday, November 20, 2017

Henry Fielding: 'The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling' (1749), Part I

Marriage a-la-Mode 2: The Tête à Tête by William Hogarth (1743)  (Wiki Commons)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754), The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. London: Andrew Millar, 1749. 

A discarded library copy provided me with the inspiration to read this lengthy novel with an eye for the language. As for plot, it's a rawer, more sprawling harbinger of future works, such as the novels of Jane Austen (1775-1817). The Modern Library version clocks in at 982 pages. 

I'm mostly interested in Fielding's usage of the English language, and how it relates to the 21st century, rather than the plot itself, which is fairly ludicrous. Fielding roams freely among all classes of society, and writes about women with almost as much ease as he writes about men.

What follows are some things that I find particularly interesting and noteworthy. 

The novel is divided into eighteen "books" (sections), each with its own chapter numbers starting with "i." References will be made to book number followed by chapter number; parenthetical page numbers correspond to the Modern Library edition published in 1985.  

Fun beginnings: Rascal, Wanton Husseys, Wretch, Trollops, Wenches, Villain (I: vii) (page 57). 

On Jealousy, one of the most terrible of emotions: "But it is with Jealousy, as with the Gout. When such Distempers are in the Blood, there is never any Security against their breaking out; and that often on the slightest Occasions, and when least suspected." (II: iii) (page 83). 

In between Fielding's time and now, the rules of capitalization (upper case lettering) became more standardized, though with the internet and texting, we may have moved back to Fielding's time again, as far as more random spelling, punctuation and use of capital letters goes.

". . . you may know a Man by his Companions . . . by attending to the Conversation at a great Man's Table, you may satisfy yourself of his Religion, his Politics, his Taste, and indeed of his entire Disposition: For tho' a few odd Fellows will utter their own Sentiments in all Places, yet much the greater Part of Mankind have enough of the Courtier to accommodate their Conversation to the Taste and inclination of their Superiors." (II: vi) (page 98).

In modern times, too, it's relatively easy to figure out a person's worldview and inclinations, simply by hanging out or otherwise interacting with them for a while; but, too, most sophisticated people will tailor their conversation to their audience. One can be more candid with a close peer than with a distant boss.

". . . I hope my Friends will pardon me, when I declare I know none of them without a Fault; and I should be sorry if I could imagine I had any Friend who could not see mine. Forgiveness . . . we give and demand in Turn. It is an Exercise of Friendship, and, perhaps, none of the least pleasant. . . There is, perhaps, no surer Mark of Folly, than an attempt to correct the natural Infirmities of those we love. The finest Composition of human Nature, as well as the finest China, may have a Flaw in it; and this, I am afraid, in either Case, is equally incurable; though, nevertheless, the Pattern may remain of the highest Value." (II: vii) (page 107).

As for doctors, things seem not to have changed much at all since the 1740s, besides a few major intervening scientific and procedural breakthroughs that provide them with more effective tools, if they are savvy enough to use them well.

Two doctors are debating what's wrong with a patient: "each delivered the Reasons for their several Opinions. These were of such equal Force, that they served both to confirm either Doctor in his own Sentiments, and made not the least Impression on his Adversary." Fielding continues: "To say the Truth, every Physician, almost, hath his favourite Disease, to which he ascribes all the Victories obtained over human Nature. The Gout, Rheumatism, the Stone, the Gravel, and the Consumption, have all their several Patrons in the Faculty; and none more than the nervous Fever, or the Fever on the Spirits . . . The Reader may, perhaps, be surprized, that instead of endeavoring to revive the Patient, the learned Gentlemen should fall immediately into a Dispute on the Occasion of his Death . . ."  (II: ix) (pages 112-113).

Next, there's a fight between Tom Jones and Master Blifil, when they are boys. Word gets out.

"When the Story became public many People differed . . . in judging the Conduct of the two Lads on the Occasion. Master Blifil was generally called a sneaking Rascal, a poor-spirited Wretch; with other Epithets of the like Kind; whilst Tom was honoured with the Appellations of a brave Lad, a jolly Dog, and an honest Fellow."  (III: v) (page 133).

"'La!' says I, . . . 'A Penny for your Thoughts . . .'" (IV: xiv) (page 207).

Today's Rune: Initiation.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

He lays down some wisdom there, particularly on friendship