Working on Tom Jones reminded me of how much I love the mid eighteenth century.
Really, I couldn’t have chosen a better book. It was as if Fielding had left the bits for someone to fill in!
Wait a minute…
1749 was an important year for publishing. We think we’ve seen revolutions in publishing? So have previous centuries. The eighteenth century came hard on the heels of one of the most licentious, permissive times ever. Reading the exploits of Lord Rochester, Sefton and their cronies in the Restoration court, not to mention their ringleader Charles II makes even the modern reader a bit uncomfortable. Actually, a lot. So there was a reaction, but not in the pursed-up way the Victorians responded to the Regency excesses. More a drawing back, a wish to return to the normal, the accepted.
People often overlook the way that religion, specifically Anglicanism, was so important to Georgian society. It was threaded into their lives, and if you didn’t go to Church on Sunday, there had to be a reason why. The vicar was an important member of local society, the Lords Spiritual an important part of the legislative process.
Fielding takes the presence of God in his life for granted. True, by this time some people were beginning to question that, but most did not. I was reminded of it when I read through the frankly bawdy and comic “Tom Jones.” God is just there. Not the hypocritical, aloof deity of the Victorians, but a more earthy, understanding God.
I was reminded of many other things, too. 1749 marks the publication of Tom Jones, but it also marks the year the novel “Fanny Hill” came out. While not a masterpiece, it certainly made an impact! When it came out early in 1749, there was an absolute furore, being condemned by society, and even denounced from the pulpit. To appease the masses, the author of “Fanny Hill,” the elusive and fascinating John Cleland, released a bowdlerised version later that year.
So did Fielding write “Tom Jones” as much bawdier than it was? As magistrate of Bow Street, the center of London’s nightlife, he’d have known and been familiar with any number of sexual practices. While much of “Tom Jones” is set in the countryside, with a lot of sex in the open air and bucolic pleasures aplenty, the characters also spend time in London, and right at the beginning Squire Allworthy goes to London on some mysterious business, which I try to flesh out for the modern reader.
Fielding’s attitude to sex is complex. On the one hand he married his maid after he got her pregnant, but he condemned the women’s prison Bridewell as an academy for prostitutes, and he refused to send any of the women who came before him on immorality charges there. He was practical, and he knew these women had to make a living somehow, but he also knew that other forms of vice and lawbreaking went along with it. And he wasn’t a prude, by all accounts.
The more I studied “Tom Jones,” the more convinced I became that there was plenty of room to put in what Fielding had left out. My main problem was to write in the style of Fielding, but that was one of my main reasons for taking on the project. I’m working hard on Part Two now, where Tom really comes into his own!
And if I may be self-indulgent, I have a free story out at Kindle today and tomorrow. So pick up “Irresistible You” for free!
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