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Tom Jones | Context


Tom Jones as a Prototype

While Tom Jones was not the first novel ever written, nor the first written in English, it is considered by most critics to be a milestone in the development of the genre. Henry Fielding claimed to be "a founder of a new province of writing." He borrowed from picaresque tales—which are stories about dishonest but likable characters—romances, classical epics, poetry, history, and religious texts, but he created something entirely new. He consciously called attention to himself as an author and crafter of prose in introductory chapters, moving from high style to low style and from mock epic to serious philosophy; he integrated ingenious metaphors and elegantly crafted prose sentences with idiom, slang, and salty language. These were groundbreaking techniques for that time.

Fielding also shows himself to be a master of irony and double entendre as well as a master plotter. The hero's journey is divided into three stages. The first six books take place in the country as Tom Jones grows to manhood and faces a crisis. The next six books cover his wandering period, in which he encounters many adventures. The last six books bring him to the city (London) in which he suffers a serious reversal of fortune, consolidates his lessons, and learns some wisdom. Finally, despite its comedy Tom Jones is a serious moral tale that interrogates the hypocrisy of society and shows a path through the dark wood. No doubt Fielding was instrumental in elevating a relatively new genre to the level of high art, and this work became a model for many novelists who followed him.

Notes on the Text

The fourth printing of Tom Jones came at the end of 1749; this version, used by the Penguin and Norton editions, capitalizes most nouns, italicizes names, and uses British spelling as well as old-fashioned spelling of some words. This guide has put all quotations into American English.

Capitalization was regularized in the 16th century for words at the beginning of sentences and for proper names. By the 17th century titles and personified nouns were capitalized. By the 18th century, following continental practice, capitalization was extended to important nouns and then to most nouns. By the end of that century the grammarians had scaled back on this practice until they arrived at today's rules.

Some editions of Tom Jones, including the Penguin edition, include an appendix for "The Man of the Hill." This is alternative text that appeared in Chapters 14 and 15 of Book 8 in the third printing. A variant of about two-and-a-half pages makes a harsher argument against the Jacobins and omits the remarks on the failings of Europeans. Henry Fielding changed this section of the novel back to its original form in his fourth printing, but the appendix is included for readers' information.

Catholics versus Protestants

In the background of the novel is the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the failed attempt of the Catholic Stuarts to take back the throne of England. Great Britain was entirely Catholic until the 16th century, when in 1534 King Henry VIII, angry that Pope Clement VII would not grant him an annulment from his wife, Catherine of Aragorn, broke from the Catholic Church and created the Church of England. Henry ended up having six wives in his quest for male heirs. After his death in 1547 he was succeeded briefly by his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, who died in 1553, and then by his daughter Mary, a Catholic and the daughter of Henry and a Spanish Catholic queen.

From Elizabethan England to the Glorious Revolution: Elizabeth I, a Protestant, held the throne from 1558–1603, after which it was returned to Catholic James I, a Stuart from Scotland. From then on a power struggle continued between the Catholic Stuarts and the Protestant interests, represented by various factions. Three more Catholic monarchs sat on the throne until the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Protestants overthrew James II and put William and Mary on the throne. This is the civil war that the Man of the Hill takes part in. In all, five attempts to put Stuarts back on the throne were made in the 60 years following the Glorious Revolution.

The Hanovers: The Protestants in the Hanover line began ruling England in 1714 with King George I. Since England did not want monarchs with Catholic bloodlines, a German who was a distant relative of King James I was chosen as king in 1714. In addition to religious differences between Catholics and Protestants, there were political disagreements. Catholic rule was associated with the divine right of kings and tyranny, while Protestant rule became aligned with constitutional monarchy and limits placed on royal power.

The Uprising of 1745: In 1745 George II was on the throne, although Robert Walpole was the power behind him. The Stuarts had made an unsuccessful attempt to take back power in 1715; then, as Tom speaks with the Man of the Hill, another uprising is in progress in 1745, led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart of Scotland (also called the Young Pretender). Charles conquered Scotland and then moved onto Derby, England; he was stopped by the Duke of Cumberland in December 1745 on English soil but not entirely defeated until the English invaded Scotland and defeated the Stuart forces at Culloden near Inverness, in April 1746, in a bloody retaliation. When Sophia and her cousin stop at an inn, she is mistaken for Jenny Cameron, the supposed mistress of Charles Edward, but in fact the real Jenny was between 40 and 50, had not gone to the war, never met the prince, and kept the estate of her brother while he was away at battle. The French never did invade England in 1745, although at some point the rebels thought that help might come from France.

Bastardy and Bridewell

Illegitimacy (being born out of wedlock) historically has been a stigma in most societies, including 18th-century England. Bastards could not automatically inherit property, for example, although they could be deeded property or left property in a will, as Mr. Allworthy is free to do for Tom Jones. Respectable people in the middle and upper classes would avoid marrying a bastard, although the presence of a significant amount of money could sweeten the deal. It was important to know where people came from, however, which is why it is helpful that Tom learns at the end of the novel who his parents were.

Before the 19th century the father of a bastard was legally responsible for maintaining his illegitimate child and could be arrested if he refused to do so. Public funds were used to support women and children without husbands. The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 made local parishes, or the areas around a parish church, responsible for providing money, food, and sometimes housing for the poor, and later workhouses were built to use poor people for profit. Women who depended on the parish could be punished for getting a bastard, however, with a year in a house of correction. Bridewell was established in 1553 as a house of correction for poor people and homeless children. Offenses that typically sent people to Bridewell were prostitution, minor acts of dishonesty, vagrancy, and having a child out of wedlock. Although both sexes could be punished, women invariably took the weight for the crime of bastardy. Bridewell is mentioned several times in Tom Jones, and Mr. Allworthy is preparing to send Molly Seagrim to Bridewell until Tom intervenes and claims paternity and responsibility for her unborn child.

Poaching Laws and the Black Act

The Black Act was passed in 1723 during the reign of King George I, establishing the death penalty for poaching animals in private parks or on private lands for cutting down trees, establishing gardens, or committing acts of vandalism on other people's property. The act was passed to address the growing poaching problem on royal lands. The act had the worst effect on Britain's poor, who poached out of desperation. The impetus for the act was the Waltham Blacks, a gang that blackened their faces before entering a park to poach. After they killed a gamekeeper it became a felony to be found wearing a blackened face, or any other form of disguise, in a forest or park.

The Black Act was established under the government of Robert Walpole, one of Henry Fielding's prime targets for satire, and illustrated the conflict between the haves and have-nots. Those without land said game animals belonged to everyone, since they were wild. Landowners, however, believed game on their lands was their property. The job of gamekeeper was to protect the animals from poachers. Arguments about who owned the game persisted after 1827, when the draconian Black Act was repealed. While it was still a crime to poach, stealing game could not incur the death penalty. Fielding portrays Black George as a scurrilous fellow, but the author seems to disagree with the severity of the poaching laws as evidenced in the fact that Tom, the moral center of the story, protects George from the squires who insist on having his name.


Impressment was the custom of forcibly taking men into the seafaring military and was common in England in the 18th century. The Royal Navy lacked recruits because of poor pay. Recruits were needed in wartime, and impressment became a type of involuntary draft for men between the ages of 18 and 55. Impressment was made legal under Elizabeth I, with the Vagrancy Act of 1597. Vagabonds (men with no fixed home) were a prime target for impressment, which allowed the navy to take homeless or disreputable men off the street and put them on ships. In 1740 the age limit was established and foreigners were exempted from impressment, although in practice the law was often disobeyed. While men could be taken off the street and impressed in Fielding's time, as exemplified with the planned abduction of Tom Jones, men were mostly impressed when members of the Royal Navy boarded merchant ships and forced experienced sailors into service. The British ended the practice of impressment in 1814.

Pennies and Pounds

In the mid-18th century 12 pence or pennies equaled a shilling, and 12 shillings equaled a pound (£). A guinea was the equivalent of 21 shillings, while a farthing was a quarter of a penny. In London a large loaf of bread might cost a shilling. Working-class wage earners would need about £40 a year to support their family, with a middle-class family needing about £100 and an upper-class family £500. Thus the £100 that Sophia loses is a lot of money, as is the £500 that Mr. Allworthy gives Tom for his start in life.

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