Reflection of 18th Century England in Tom Jones

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Introduction: Novel of Manners

      As a novel of manners, Tom Jones reflects vividly and accurately the form of contemporary society of 18th century—the habits and customs, the actions and pursuits, the scenes and conditions of the time. This was not, indeed, entirely a novelty. For some while there had been in England an increasing tendency to make use of the familiar details of ordinary contemporary life to give verisimilitude to fictitious narratives. The tendency is illustrated by the numerous up-to-date touches introduced by Bunyan into his Pilgrim's Progress and Life and Death of Mr. Badman, by the realistic backgrounds of the characters-sketches in The Spectator, and by the artful accumulation of minute descriptive details in Defoe's imitations of veracious records. Richardson, again, depicted though somewhat meagrely, the outward life of his generation.

      As an illustrator of manners, however, Fielding made an immense advance. First, he pictured the social scene on a much larger scale than was attempted by Richardson, setting himself to represent not merely parts or sections of it, but so far as he could, the whole. And secondly, he infused into his pictures a brilliance of color such as we hardly ever find in Richardson's too pale and shadowy portrayals. The results are successful beyond all precedent. Without apparently taking much trouble to illuminate his subject, Fielding does actually make us see what the contemporary life was like in the kitchen of country inns, in the dining rooms of squire's houses, in cheap metropolitan lodgings, in the night cellars frequented by thieves, in the Haymarket masquerades and the Vauxhall pleasure-gardens, in the sponging-houses and the prisons, on the highroads and in the streets. It is a marvelous re-creation of the eighteenth-century English world. Well did Hazlitt declare that we get more light on the form of that vanished society from Fielding's novels than from masses of statistical and historical documents.

Fielding: An 'Economical' Artist

      In the employment of means for achieving his effects, Fielding practiced strict economy. As a rule he eschewed elaborate descriptions. He seldom delineated with any fullness the outward appearance even of his characters (though his books do contain a few instances of detailed portraiture). Still more rarely did he enlarge on the material environment. His backgrounds are very slightly sketched. Particular of scenery and decor are seldom specified. Those multitudinous picturesque details, with which Dickens embellished his narrative are not to be found in Fielding's novels. Yet, by graphic and suggestive touches, with severe restriction of all superfluities of description, he has managed to convey to his readers — at any rate to such as have been ready to co-operate with him by reasonable exercise of their own imagination—a remarkably distinct and vivid impression of the externalities of his time.

Wide Panorama of the Age

      Fielding was one of the great masters of the English novel. He chose to laugh at the ills of life rather than shed tears over them. As we read his novels, a vast panorama of English social life opens before our eyes. Here, we find cruel laws, bitter persecution of innocent people, numerous ills abounding everywhere—in the countryside, the wayside inns, the highways and byways of life. We find here rogues and scoundrels, beaus and bullies but also goad people like Adams, Allworthy, Sophia and Amelia.

      In Tom Jones, we find a picture gallery of the eighteenth-century English society. A large number of pictures are presented to us against the background of the vast panorama of life. Just as in the plays of Shakespeare we find a large diversity of characters and yet almost all of them can be differentiated from one another, in the same way in Tom Jones we find a variety of characters and yet none obliterates the other. Each character has an individuality of his own. Walter Allen rightly observes "Jones is only one character in an enormous gallery. All are marvelously differentiated."

      Fielding created abundant life in his novels. Descended from the aristocracy, he climbed down into the lowest, howling pits to describe life as it really was. He was not a caricaturist who heightened the lights and shadows in his work. His gospel was essentially human and manly, the Christian gospel of Parson Adams, though he was not averse to giving and taking a few blows in the arena of life. His work is massive four square, monumental like some old citadel, grey and weathered, but still strong and solid on its foundations. The touches of coarseness and brutality were inevitable m that period of English social life. We find traces of them in writers like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and even Milton. But the work is rich in its strength and vitality, and in its life-like quality.

      The greatest merit of Fielding consists in his pictures of life, so wide and varying, so comprehensive in their sweep and range. A whole vision of English life comes up before the eyes of the reader, astounding in its richness and variety. Here we adventure on the high roads of England, stay at wayside inns where amazing incidents happen; we travel to the towns and meet 'society'. We find ourselves among the lowliest of the low; we experience all the wealth and splendor of the English countryside. Strange adventures befall us here; we are waylaid and robbed, beaten and bludgeoned, and villains try to rob women of their wealth and virtue. It is a world of breathless activity, prodigal of adventure and incident.

Depiction of Typical English Life

      The life depicted by Fielding in his novels is contemporaneous English life. The scene in his novels is the English scene. Scott draws attention to this aspect of his work repeatedly, saying "The persons of the story live in England, travel in England, quarrel and fight in England." Raleigh pays a rich tribute to the genius and art of Fielding, while drawing attention to the English quality of his work "Fielding's novels are, in general, thoroughly his own and they are thoroughly English. What they are most remarkable for, is neither sentiment, nor imagination, nor wit, not even humor, though there is an immense deal of this last quality, but profound knowledge of human nature, at least of English nature, and masterly pictures of the characters of men as he saw them existing.....As a painter of real life, he was equal to Hogarth, as a mere observer of human nature, he was little inferior to Shakespeare, though without any of the genius and poetical qualities of his mind."

Description of Fashionable Society in London

     In using satire to ridicule the vices and follies of his contemporaries, Fielding is the direct successor of the last member of that "Triumvirate of wit"—Lucian, Cervantes, and Swift—to which he so often refers in his works. In his novels and in his periodical essays, Fielding often refers to the luxury of the times and the consequent general moral corruption among all classes of society. He ridicules especially the affectation of his contemporaries—their vanity and hypocrisy, the twin roots of affectation— and assails with direct invective their spiritual and moral degeneration. Believing example is stronger than precept in reforming human conduct, he likes to place before them examples, ridiculous, or odious of what they are to avoid; but his satire is more kindly than Swift's.

      It was against the vices of the fashionable that Fielding usually directed his criticism. On them he placed responsibility for the general degradation of the age. Fashionable society was undoubtedly somewhat corrupted, and Fielding took it upon himself to do what he could. Consequently, when we find a Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones or a Lady Booby in Joseph Andrews, we may be sure that she is intended to be something more than a mere ridiculous figure in the fictitious panorama which the author unrolls before us. Such characters he undoubtedly copied from the life of his times with the intention of depicting vice as an object of detestation; the picture is, however, most entertaining. When Fielding abandons the "true ridiculous" — a form of humor which does not depend upon indecency as an object of prurient enjoyment—for serious criticism, he is no less entertaining; for then he has something of the charm of Sterne in his vocational writings. We feel, however, that Fielding is not, in either case, writing for our diversion, but to "laugh mankind out of their favorite follies and vices." Lady Booby is to be regarded, therefore, as the caricature of a vicious type of woman, and Lady Bellaston as the characterization of a less ridiculous creature of the same type.

      We get a "taste" of London from the story of the Man of the Hill, even before Tom has reached the city. The society of London is morally degenerate. Typical of this society are Lady Bellaston and Lord Fellamar—a flirtatious debauched and cowardly scoundrels. Nightingale is a coward, morally speaking, though not exactly wicked. Duels are fought for one's honor. Corruption reigns supreme. Witnesses can be bought and evidence manufactured. The affectation of a polished, smooth and elegant exterior does not hide the vice, wickedness and rottenness underneath. All is "vanity and servile imitation. Dressing and cards, eating and drinking, bowing and curtseying make up the business of their lives."

      Novels of contemporary manners are not always reliable sources of information concerning the morals of an age; but we may be sure from what Fielding tells us in his Preface and in his essays that his pictures of contemporary society as we find them in his novels are reasonably faithful.

Country Life

      Fielding had made it clear in his introductory 'menu', that there would be contrast between the plain and simple country folk and the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford. He does not, however, oversimplify the contrast; the country life is not all a pastoral idyll. We encounter grotesques like Goody Brown (the comic amazon of the churchyard battle); we are reminded, seriously in Book III, chapter 9, and comically in the scene in Molly's bedroom, that the Seagrims live in poverty and squalor. If we are continually aware of the hearty openness of the sporting life, in this world of horses and guns and dogs—a world which supplies Squire Western's whole stock of metaphor—we are also reminded that the picturesque partridges and bears are protected by savage game laws, of which Black George goes in terror. The huge meals of roast beef (Tom eats three points at a sitting ), the four bottles of wine shared by Western and Supple, which send Western to sleep for half an hour before he calls for Sophia to play his favorite, old fashioned tunes on harpsichord — these are set against the cold, hunger, and nakedness of the country poor. Where Fielding allows himself the language of conventional pastoral, it is usually in a satiric context—either to underline the contrast between pastoral myth and country reality (as in the mock-heroic account of Jemmy Tweedie in the churchyard battle) or as preparation for an ironic deflation (as in the Book V, chapter 10, where the gentle breezes farming the leaves, together with the sweet trilling of a murmuring stream, and the melodious notes of nightingales form a scene 'so sweetly accommodated to love').

      There is a good deal of affectation and hypocrisy in the country, too. Nevertheless, one must not lean over too far backward; the country is clearly presented as being a better soil in which virtue can flourish. London and its values are menacing. The shadow of the city reaches forward into the middle part of the novel, where the Man of the Hill's story gives a premonition of its corrupting power; and when, in the closing books, Tom becomes embroiled in London he has, in a sense, to be rescued by the arrival of the good country elements, before returning at last with his Sophia to Somerset.

Poor Conditions of Doctors

      In Tom Jones, Fielding also narrates the poor condition of doctors who had little knowledge. As Fielding remarks: "To say the truth, every physician almost hath his favorite disease, to which he ascribes all the victories obtained over human nature. The gout, the stone, gravel, and the consumption, have all their several patrons in the Faculty; and none more than the nervous fever, or the fever on spirits, and here we may account for those disagreements in opinion concerning the cause of a patient's death, which sometimes occur between the most learned of the College; and which have greatly surprised that part of the world who have been ignorant of the fact we have above asserted. The reader may perhaps be surprised, that, instead of endeavoring to revive the patient, the learned gentleman should fall immediately into a dispute on the occasion of his death; but in reality, all such experiments had been made before their arrival his: for the captain was put into a warm bed, had his veins sacrificed, his forehead chafed, and all sorts of strong drops applied to his lips nostrils"

Working of Law and Justice in Fielding's England

      Tom Jones gives a vivid picture of the working of law and justice in the England of Fielding's days. It expresses the defective system of law and court. The judge was a law unto himself. Most of the judges were partial in their judgments and were affected by various factors, personal as well as impersonal. Partridge's trial, and Jenny Jones's banishment reflect the incompetency of law, in Fielding's time, to crush the criminals. Squire Western is ready to commit a maid to Bridewell, a correction house, merely for insolence. Allworthy is on the point of sending Molly to jail without sufficient evidence. It reflects the arbitrary and defective legal system.

Conditions of Contemporary Theatre

      Fielding remarks in the prefatory chapter of the Book IV: "Thus the hero is always introduced with a flourish of drum and trumpets in order to rouse a martial spirit in the audience, and to accommodate their ears to bombast and fustian, which Locke's blind man would not have grossly erred in likening to the sound of trumpet. Again, when lovers are coming forth, soft music often conducts them on the stage either to soothe the audience with the softness of the tender passion, or to lull and prepare them for that gentle slumber in which they will, most probably, be composed by the ensuing scene.

      "And not only the poets but the masters of these poets, the managers of playhouses, seem to be in this secret; for, besides the aforesaid battle drums, etc., which denote the hero's approach, he is generally ushered on the stage by a large troop of half a dozen scene shifters;

      "Our modem authors of comedy have fallen almost universally into the error here hinted at; their heroes generally are notorious rogues and their heroines abandoned jades, during the first four acts; but in the fifth, the former become very worthy gentlemen, and the latter, women of virtue and discretion; nor is the writer often so kind as to give himself the least trouble to reconcile or account for this monstrous change and incongruity. There is, indeed, no other reason to be assigned for it, than because the play is drawing to a conclusion; as if it was no less natural in a rogue to repent in the last act of a play, than in the last of his life; which we perceive to be generally the case at Tyburn, a place which might indeed close the scene of some comedies with much propriety, as the heroes in these are most commonly eminent for their very talents which not only bring men to the gallows, but enable them to make a heroic figure when they are there."

      The satire is obvious. We get a fairly accurate picture of the contemporary stage and the taste of the theatre-going people.

Condition of English Women

      In Fielding's age, English women started thinking of their equal status with men. They were no longer to act as blind slaves and followers to men. Their representative lady Mrs. Western tells her brother "How often have I told that English women are not to be treated like Circassian slaves. We have the protection of the world; we are to be won by gentle means only, and not to be hectored, and bullied, and beat into compliance." At another moment, she says, "Woman in this land of liberty cannot be married, by actual brutal force." Fielding writes, "The lowing heifer and the bleating ewe, in herds and flocks, may ramble safe and guarded through the pastures. These are, indeed, hereafter doomed to be the prey of man; yet many years they are suffered to enjoy their liberty undisturbed. But if a plump doe is discovered to have escaped from the forest, and to repose herself in some field or grove, the whole parish is presently alarmed, every man is ready to set his dogs after her; and if she is preserved from the rest by the good squire, it is only that he may secure her for his own eating."

      The fine young woman of fortune was like the doe—hunted from place to place, she rarely escapes from the clutches of some "devourer" or other. She is, in other words, a prey to the "hunters" in this society.

      Views regarding violation of chastity: It was considered that violation of chastity was to be a disastrous and heinous type of crime. In Tom Jones, Mr. Allworthy narrates to Jenny Jones: "I intend to administer you, I mean the violation of your chastity — a crime, however lightly it may be treated by debauched persons, very heinous in itself, and very dreadful in its consequences." Women who had lost their chastity, were degraded even in the eyes of the very person who caused that loss. It reflects a "man's world".

Conditions of the Highways

      Tom Jones reflects the social nations and conditions of England which are very lucidly narrated by Henry Fielding: "Robbers and villains were generally met on the roads and paths. It was very difficult for young women to pass through the forests or lonely roads in the night." In the plot also, we come to know that Mrs. Waters is rescued from the hand of a ruffian by Tom Jones; and Tom Jones himself is met with a robber on the road. The inns were scenes of rowdy behavior and unruly incidents. Fielding's picture of the English highways in the eighteenth century is vivid as well as authentic.

Inefficiency of Public Schools

      Fielding also mentioned the inefficiency of public schools in Tom Jones: "For this worthy man (Allworthy) having observed the imperfection boys were there liable to learn, had resolved to educate his nephew, as well as the other lad, whom he had in a manner adopted, in his own house, where he thought their morals would escape all that danger of being corrupted to which they would be unavoidably exposed in any public school or university." It was because of the defective working of the schools that the rich people used to engage private tutors for their children.

Political Conditions of Henry Fielding's Times

      Though Tom Jones does not have much of 'politics' in it, there is a reflection of the political scene in the novel. We encounter the army in which Tom seeks admission. It is the army sent to combat the rebels who sided with "Bonny Prince Charlie" in 1745. Sophia is mistaken for Jenny Cameron, the mistress of Prince Charlie. These are indirect reflections of the political scene in England at the time.

Gothic Style of Building

      Finding refers to the Gothic style of building which was prevalent in his times. As he remarks: "The Gothic style of building could produce nothing nobler than Mr. Allworthy's house. There was an air of grandeur in it that struck you with awe, and rivaled the beauties of the best Grecian architecture; and it was as commodious within as venerable without"


      Tom Jones presents a picture of several aspects of life in England in the eighteenth century. Fielding gives a vivid description of the manners and morals of his contemporaries. The novel is not merely the story of a foundling; it is the social document of a nation. Yet Fielding's art saves Tom Jones from becoming a mere 'period-piece'. He gives a universal validity to his action.


What value, if any, has Tom Jones as a social document?
Tom Jones is to be valued as a panoramic commentary on mid-eighteenth century England and not as a serious study of human nature. Discuss this statement.
"In Tom Jones the eighteenth century is embodied and not entombed " Discuss.
"Fielding has the undeniable merit of representing certain aspects of contemporary society with a force and accuracy not ever rivaled by any other writer." Discuss this dictum with special reference to Tom Jones.
Show that Tome Jones vividly reflects the contemporary English life.

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