The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 13. Tom Jones
Within four months of his Westminster appointment, that is, in February, 1749, there appeared in six duodecimo volumes The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. When Fielding began to write his masterpiece, there is no evidence to show. The years preceding his appointment as magistrate seem to have been years of pecuniary, as well as of other troubles, relieved by the generosity of Lyttelton, and of Ralph Allen of Prior park, Bath. In the letter dedicating Tom Jones to Lyttelton, Fielding acknowledges his debt to both these friends, and says that the character of Allworthy is taken from them. The book, then, was probably written slowly (it took, Fielding says, “some thousands of hours”) in the intervals of other occupations, during sickness and trouble; and the circumstances only make the achievement more surprising.
Fielding had called Joseph Andrews a comic epic poem in prose; the title is better deserved by Tom Jones. His debt to the great epics is patent in such passages as the fight in the churchyard, where he indulges in open burlesque. A greater debt becomes evident when a perusal of the whole book shows the coherence of its structure. The course of the main theme is steadily followed throughout; and to it all the byplots, all the incidents in the vast and motley world which the story embraces, are carefully related. It is true that the art is lower at some points than at others. Into Joseph Andrews, Fielding introduced two independent stories, those of Leonora and of Mr. Wilson, which are excusable only on the ground of the variety obtained by the insertion of scenes from high life. Tom Jones contains its independent story, that of the Man of the Hill; and, though this story forms part of the book’s theme, its introduction violates the laws of structure more forcibly than could be the case with the earlier and more loosely built novel. The episode of the widow, again, which occurs in the eleventh chapter of the fifteenth book, is so grave a fault in construction that even the need of proving that Tom could say no to a woman scarcely reconciles us to believing it Fielding’s work. But, in spite of these and other blemishes us form, Tom Jones remains the first English novel conceived and carried out on a structural plan that secured an artistic unity for the whole. It set up for prose fiction a standard which nearly all its great writers have followed, and which is to be found practically unchanged in Thackeray.