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TOM JONES (1749) by Henry Fielding
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The Independent Culture
Plot: Rich Squire Allworthy finds a baby boy in his bed, believed to be the product of a servant's indiscretion. Tom Jones grows up alongside Allworthy's mean-minded nephew and heir, Blifil. Tom teems with manly energy, Blifil drips with pious spite. Tom's good nature leads him to sex with Molly but towards love for Squire Western's daughter, Sophia. Unfortunately, she is betrothed to Blifil, whom she detests. Tom is eventually expelled from Allworthy's Eden as a result of Blifil's bad mouthing; Sophia runs away to avoid marriage. Tom follows Sophia to London, which turns out to be a murky haven of sin. He is falsely imprisoned, but eventually it is revealed that he is none other than the son of Allworthy's deceased sister. He inherits the estate, Blifil is given the boot, marriage to Sophia ensues.

Style: Fielding is a genially intrusive narrator. He points out the creaky mechanics of the plot while lecturing the reader on good breeding. This is a device to conceal the author's muscular intelligence and aesthetic virtuosity.

Chief strengths: Pervasive good humour. It is enriching to spend time in Fielding's company. Tom remains likeable and is an intelligently sustained character despite the loonier exigencies of plot.

Chief weakness: Apart from Tom, the characters have a tendency to turn into chipboard dummies.

What they thought of it then: Generally popular, though Boswell (a fan) noted Johnson's severe strictures: Fielding understood only the outer mechanics of character and knew nothing of ''the recesses of the human heart''.

What we think of it now: Critics tend to go on about the brilliance (or otherwise) of the plot and ignore Fielding's unfashionable critique of feminine writing.

Responsible for: The blokeish, social, didactic strain of English fiction from Dickens to Kingsley Amis.

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