Tom Jones was perpetually in delicate situations. As Henry Fielding remarked in one of his digressions,” It is not enough that your designs, nay, that your actions are intrinsically good; you must take care that they appear so.” Tom was slow in learning this lesson. From the moment he is introduced, we expect trouble. “We are obliged to bring our hero to the stage,” Fielding lamented, “in a much more disadvantageous manner than we could wish; and to declare honestly, even at his first appearance, that it was the universal opinion of all Mr. Allworthy’s family that he was certainly born to be hanged.”
We learn at our first encounter with Tom that he is a confirmed thief. And as we progress into the narrative, we observe our hero acquiring more serious vices with something approaching Faustian facility. He has three mistresses, one of whom pays him for his services. Ultimately, however, our hero is happily married, well established, and has acquired “a discretion and prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts.” …
Goodness fascinated Fielding. It did most eighteenth-century writers: “The Vicar of Wakefield” by Oliver Goldsmith is a novel concerned with little else. Indeed, the goodness of men preoccupied an eighteenth-century novelist as much as the loneliness and alienation of the individual does today. In many ways, it is the constant theme of Fielding’s books, as much a part of his last two masterpieces , “Tom Jones” and “Amelia” , as “Jonathan Wild” and his other writings.
The humanity that Fielding knew lived in a brutal, depraved, drink-sodden, debauched jungle. As a barrister he had spent months with the human flotsam and jetsam that washed in and out of the courts of justice. When in 1749 Fielding at last received a plum of patronage for his years of political propaganda, it was the post of stipendiary magistrate at Bow Street, London; and day after day he had to sit in court dealing with people of the most vicious quarter of London. Fielding knew all too well the human vultures who preyed on the weak, the stupid, the gullible, and the feckless.
G.M. Godden :The last great cause of crime which the Enquiry considers, and with much learning and detail, is the condition of the poor. Here Fielding’s views on our modern problem of the unemployed may be read. And here occurs a splendid denunciation of
the ’House of Correction’ or Bridewell of the period, a prison for idle and disorderly persons where ”they are neither to be corrected nor employed: and where with the conversation of many as bad and sometimes worse than themselves they are sure to be improved in the Knowledge and confirmed in the Practice of Iniquity.” The most impudent of the wretches brought before him, Fielding tells us, were always ”such as have been before acquainted with the Discipline of Bridewell.” These prisons, from which the disorderly and idle came out, ”much more idle and disorderly than they went in,” were, says Fielding, no other than ”Schools of Vice, Seminaries of Idleness, and Common-sewers of Nastiness and Disease.” …
Fielding’s daily experience was of the dregs of human society. His knowledge of human corruption was perhaps wider, if not deeper, than that of any novelist who has yet lived. In this world, Fielding quickly realized, the ruthless, the tough, the men of power and money, could all too easily win: they could bribe, kidnap, even kill, and more often than not, get away with it. Life in eighteenth-century England was very uncertain; the whirligig of Fate turned fast, and its effects could be cataclysmic. Neither society nor the law offered much protection. Arson and robbery, as well as kidnappings, duels and murders, grew to monstrous proportions, so monstrous that Fielding felt compelled to direct public attention to this vast increase in crime in his excellent pamphlet, “An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers ( 1751) .
Yet, in the midst of this despair, Fielding came across a few, rare human beings whose goodness proved indestructible. who bore the outrageous blows of fortune with stoical fortitude, who retained, in the midst of violence and vice, an unsullied innocence. No matter how ill the world treated them, they remained good in its deepest human sense- charitable, forgiving, compassionate, honest- not gloomy and foreboding like Job but buoyant and resilient with hope. Such beings were rare, but htey fascinated Fielding quite as much as the world of vice and cruelty through which they made their pilgrimage. These natural innocents, however, were not the only human personalities to capture Fielding’s sympathy and imagination in the violent world of eighteenth-century England.
They were the rare and wonderful creatures who fortified his faith in human nature- Parson Adams, Squire Allworthy, Mr. Heartfree- such men existed in Fielding’s world, and Fielding felt nothing but admiration for their characters; but his appetite for life was too strong, his sympathies too broad, to reject the rest of mankind.
aaaIn “Jonathan Wild” Fielding painted the portrait of a human monster who moved through the jungle of London’s underground with the certainty of a leopard: killing without compunction, raping where he could not seduce, missing no chance of a swindle or a theft, even picking the Ordinary of Newgate’s pocket as he was about to swing into eternity. Wild wallows in his evil, yet with such gusto, such wolfish appetite for life, that he becomes almost forgivable, almost heroic.
Fielding could never resist gusto. He was a very sick man by the time he came to be a novelist, and this, no doubt, gave him a heightened sense of the value of instinctive life, its richness and its satisfactions. Certainly, these two preoccupations- his obsession with goodness and his delight in gusto- are the driving forces, and what supports the tension in his masterpiece, “Tom Jones” .
Heroes, notwithstanding the high Ideas, which by the means of Flatterers they may entertain of themselves, or the World may conceive of them, have certainly more of Moral than Divine about them. (Fielding, Tom Jones 9.5; 1.509)
. . . so did this bowl of rack punch influence the fates of all the principal characters in this “Novel without a Hero,” which we are now relating. (Thackeray, Vanity Fair 93)
Even before Thackeray’s debunking of the central role of the fictional hero in Vanity Fair, the variety of heroes in British fiction was more subtle and often less obvious than many readers recognized. Henry Fielding may have written the first “novel without a hero” in Jonathan Wild (1743), and concluded his career in fiction with another, of a very different order, Amelia (1751). From his first foray into fiction with Shamela (1741), Fielding continually experiments with the concept of the hero, writing novels with and without heroes over a century before Vanity Fair would specifically call attention to the issue. And he clearly uses as a structural basis of his works the counterplay between “literary” and “real life” heroes. ( Larry Laban )
The Enquiry concludes with offering some more immediate palliatives for the diseased state of the body politic, in the removing of actual ’Encouragement to Robbery.’ First among such encouragements Fielding places the fact that ”the Thief disposes of his goods with almost as much safety as the honestest Tradesman”; and he urged the need of legislation to prohibit the amazing advertisements by which our ancestors promised to give rewards for the recovery of stolen goods ” and no questions asked .” Such advertisements he declares to be ”in themselves so very scandalous and of such pernicious Consequence, that if Men are not ashamed to own they prefer an old Watch or a Diamond Ring to the Good of [the] Society it is a pity some effectual Law was not contrived to prevent their giving this public Countenance to Robbery for the future.”
And, under this head, he advocates legislation either for the regulating of pawnbrokers, or for the entire extirpation of a ”Set of Miscreants which, like other Vermin, harbour only about the Poor and grow fat sucking their Blood.” The subsequent legislation by which prosecutors were recompensed for loss of time and money, when prosecuting the ’wolves in society,’ may be added to the measures forseen if not actually promoted by Fielding’s enlightened zeal. And in nothing was he more in advance of his age than in his denunciation of that scandal of the eighteenth century, the conduct and frequency of public executions. It has taken our legislators a hundred years to provide the swift, solemn and private executions urged by Henry Fielding, in place of the brutal ’Tyburn holiday’ enacted every six weeks for the benefit of the Georgian mob.
Another matter demanding legislation was the great probability of escape afforded to thieves by the narrow streets and the common-lodging houses of the day. Of the latter, crowded with miserable beds from the cellar to the garret, let out, at twopence a night the single beds, and threepence the double ones, Fielding draws a picture as terrible as any of his friend Hogarth’s plates. And he concludes ”Nay I can add what I myself once saw in the Parish of Shoreditch where two little Houses were emptied of near seventy Men and Women,” and where the money found on all the occupants (with the exception of a pretty girl who was a thief) ”did not amount to one shilling.” In all these houses gin, moreover, was sold at a penny the quartern. Housed thus, in conditions destructive of ”all Morality, Decency and Modesty,” with the street for bed if they fall sick (”and it is almost a Miracle that Stench, Vermin, and Want should ever suffer them to be well”), oppressed with poverty, and sunk in every species of debauchery, ”the Wonder in Fact is,” cries Fielding, ”… that we have not a thousand more Robbers than we have; indeed that all these wretches are not thieves must give us either a very high Idea of their Honesty or a very mean one of their Capacity and Courage.” And, leaving for a moment legislative
reform, Fielding delivers a vigorous attack on the national sluggishness of public spirit which helped to render robbery a fairly safe profession.