My progress in reading “Tom Jones” has been slow, but I am forging ahead.
I actually read the introduction, written by John Bender. It is 25 pages of background and biographical information. Most editors of old texts are obligated to write something about the book and its author, and Bender successfully completed this chore. To be honest, I don’t remember much about his introduction after sleeping 7 or 8 times since reading it. He did seem to know much about the era in which Henry Fielding lived and about the literary milieu of that time. I do remember he mentioned that Henry Fielding’s sister, Sarah, authored a novel, “The Adventures of David Simple.”
“Tom Jones” begins with Fielding’s dedication of the book to George Lyttelton. It was common practice in those days to dedicate literary works to friends and supporters. Lyttelton was a friend of Fielding, and authored several books himself. He built Hagley Hall, a famous house and estate in Hagley, Worcestershire. The dedication includes direct references to Fielding’s intent and methodology in the writing of the novel, and is interesting especially in light of the controversy that surrounded the book at the time it was published.
Book 1, Chapter 1 begins with Fielding’s “bill of fare to the feast,” an introductory that Fielding used to establish his role as author. “As we do not disdain to borrow wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either, we have condescended to take a hint from those honest victuallers, and shall prefix not only a general bill of fare to our whole entertainment, but shall likewise give the reader particular bills to every course which is to be served up in this and the ensuing volumes.” In other words, get used to the bills of fare.
Fielding opens his narrative with a description of the estate of Squire Allworthy, a wealthy and well-known man in Somerset, England. After establishing the bucolic atmosphere surrounding Allworthy’s residence, Fielding introduces us to Allworthy by placing a newborn male infant in his bed and having Allworthy find it upon his return from a long trip. Being wealthy means, of course, that Allworthy has servants. He immediately summons one, a Mrs. Deborah Wilkins, who is alarmed at the sudden beckoning to Allworthy’s chamber but, to be sensitive to his privacy, dawdles on the way to allow him time to clothe himself.
Unfortunately, Allworthy is so taken by the babe’s presence that he remains clothed only in a shirt. Poor Mrs. Wilkins finds him this way when she enters his chamber.
“It will not be wondered at, that a creature who had so strict a regard to decency in her own person should be shocked at the least deviation from it in another. She therefore no sooner opened the door, and saw her master standing by the bedside in his shirt, with a candle in his hand, than she started back in a most terrible fright, and might perhaps have swooned away, had he not now recollected his being undressed, and put an end to her terrors by desiring her to stay without the door till he had thrown some clothes over his back, and was become incapable of shocking the pure eyes of Mrs Deborah Wilkins, who, though in the fifty-second year of her age, vowed she had never beheld a man without his coat.”
Finally entering Allworthy’s chamber and beholding the tiny infant, Mrs. Wilkins cannot hide her shock and outrage at finding a parentless baby. Ordered to take care of the baby for the night, Mrs. Wilkins then unleashes a torrent of emotion.
“Yes sir, ‘says she,’ and I hope your worship will send out your warrant to take up the hussy its mother (for she must be one of the neighbourhood) and I should be glad to see her committed to Bridewell, and whipped at the cart’s tail. Indeed such wicked sluts cannot be too severely punished.”
Allworthy thinks that the mother, whoever she is, must have been looking out for the welfare of her child by leaving it in a place with the means to care for it. Mrs. Wilkins, however, is not swayed.
“For my own part, if it was an honest man’s child, indeed; but for my own part, it goes against me to touch these misbegotten wretches, whom I don’t look upon as my fellow-creatures. Faugh, how it stinks! It doth not smell like a Christian. If I might be so bold to give my advice, I would have it put in a basket, and sent out and laid at the church-warden’s door. It is a good night, only a little rainy and windy; and if it was well wrapped up, and put in a warm basket, it is two to one but it lives till it is found in the morning. But if it should not, we have discharged our duty in taking proper care of it; and it is, perhaps, better for such creatures to die in a state of innocence, than to grow up and imitate their mothers, for nothing better can be expected of them.”
After venting her emotions, Mrs. Wilkins discharges her duties, taking the baby and tending to its needs. Upon touching it and getting close to it, her demeanor softens and she becomes a bit more accepting of its presence.
The next morning, Allworthy presents the baby to his sister, Bridget, as a sort of gift. Bridget, unmarried at the age of thirty, is of course shocked at the baby’s presence in the household but is, somewhat surprisingly, not completely adverse to the idea of raising the child. “However,” Fielding tells us, “whatever she withheld from the infant she bestowed with the utmost profuseness on the poor unknown mother, whom she called an impudent slut, a wanton hussy, an audacious harlot, a wicked jade, a vile strumpet, with every other appellation with which the tongue of virtue never fails to lash those who bring a disgrace on the sex.”
Mrs. Wilkins is subsequently dispatched into the neighborhood to search for the baby’s mother. The search is apparently successful, as a young woman named Jenny Jones, under suspicion by a local woman contacted by Mrs. Wilkins, admitts to being the mother. I was not expecting such a quick resolution to the question of the baby’s origin. All we know about Jenny Jones at this juncture is that she is literate, smart, and likes to wear nice clothes. She is the talk of the neighborhood for these qualities, and that is what causes the suspicion that she is the baby’s mother. I expected that a woman in Jenny’s situation might have been more reluctant to admit the truth, based on the social stigma attached to such things in those days.
Jenny is summoned to an audience with Squire Allworthy. She appears on time and sits through a lengthy sermon on morals and goodness. Allworthy concludes with a request for the name of the baby’s father, which Jenny refuses to divulge. “But now, sir,” Jenny said, “I must on my knees entreat you not to persist in asking me to declare the father of my infant. I promise you faithfully you shall one day know; but I am under the most solemn ties and engagements of honour, as well as the most religious vows and protestations, to conceal his name at this time. And I know you too well to think you would desire I should sacrifice either my honour or my religion.”
Well, right on, Jenny! How could Allworthy insist that you break such vows and protestations? He could not!
I will read on.