If you’re the sort of reader who takes literary arguments seriously, you’d better grab the Alka-Seltzer bottle before reading on - because this little essay may give you a headache and a stomach ache at the same time.
I’m going to try to convince you that perhaps the world’s greatest romance novel was written 250 years ago by a hard-drinking, brawling lawyer. And written not only by a hard-drinking, brawling lawyer - but by a (gasp) guy.
The novel is Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, it’s my all-time favorite book.
But am I crazy to call it a romance novel?
I mean, Tom Jones (written in 1749) is on everybody’s short list as the greatest comic novel in the English language. It’s also a serious contender for the title of first true novel in English. But a romance novel? Written by one of the 18th Century’s most macho, guy-kinda-guy guys? Not to mention one of the century’s top legal minds?
"Not bloody likely," you’ll say.
Maybe not. But hear me out.
Part of my argument is really a bit of a trick — I’m claiming Tom Jones as the first romance novel because it was right on the cusp of the transition between the classical romance, and the newer literary form, the novel. Long before Nora Roberts, romances were sentimental, sometimes comic idylls, set in the countryside and featuring shepherdesses, mistaken identities, misplaced members of the nobility and (often) implausibly happy endings. The closest thing to a classical romance any of us is likely to see today is one of Shakespeare’s comedy.
The newfangled thing called the novel, on the other hand, began somewhere around 1750 and is still going strong. It emphasized city settings, economic realism, middle-class characters and (as often as not) grimly tragic conclusions.
In Tom Jones, Fielding split the difference, and gave us one of the most convincingly happy books ever written. His hero may start out wandering through a pastoral paradise - but once he finds (and loses) true love, he needs to defeat not only stormy nature, but thieves, pickpockets, crooked lawyers, hired thugs, and the 18th-century equivalent of political extremists as he battles his way back into his beloved’s arms. And the book’s happy ending (which Coleridge praised as part of one of the three “most perfect plots ever planned,” depends as much on a purloined legal document as it does upon the secret of a noble birth.
That combination of romance and novel is, I think, one reason why Tom Jones seems such an incredibly rich, full saga.
I mean, this book's got it all: the brawling, lusty (and handsome!) hero; the tender-hearted (but strong willed) and beautiful heroine who takes off after him; the crafty and seductive rich older women (lots of them, actually); the treacherous brother . . . . the hotheaded father . . . . the steely-eyed assassins . . . the . . . holy smokes, I think I'll go reread it, myself.
Okay - I’m calming down. Let’s return briefly to our theme. I think the main reason for Tom Jones's eternal charm is that, while, like the very greatest novels, it paints an immense canvas of all human life - from the super-rich to the desperately poor, and from paragons of virtue, to real skunks - it places romance of quite a modern sort at its very heart.
From the minute Fielding introduces our hero with the immortal description -
". . . it was the universal opinion . . . that he was certainly born to be hanged."
- we know we are in the presence of the original lovable bad boy.
Of course, Tom’s far more lovable than bad. He is too impetuous (and much too fond of women), but he has a heart roughly the size of the British Empire (in those days, not circa 2001). In his beloved Sophia, though, Tom has very definitely met his match. She’s the embodiment of every feminine virtue, but tough enough to fly out the door, and to start down muddy 18th-century roads filled with muggers, highwaymen and rapists, in order to regain her true love. Fielding’s book may offer the vast setting and machinery of an epic, but it’s the very human passion of Tom and Sophia which drives the story, and keeps us turning the pages.
Clearly, Fielding understood romance at the most personal level. A younger son of an aristocratic country family, he eloped with the great love of his life after a four-year courtship. Forced to make his way in the rough-and-tumble of booming London, he practiced law and writing simultaneously to make enough money to support his young wife, and he stayed faithful to her until she died in his arms ten years after their marriage. He was sentimental enough that nearly all critics see Sophia as his tribute to his late wife, and all his life, he kept a fondness for the quiet countryside of his youth - but as a London magistrate, he regularly went up against the roughest characters in the city. At least once, he faced down an angry mob with a pistol in either hand: that episode helped inspire him to create the first modern police force in Europe. It may have been his strange combination of brain and brawn, of tender romantic passion and analytical legal intelligence which qualified him to write what I’m calling the greatest romance novel.
And that’s my case. I may not have convinced you that Henry Fielding wrote the first and greatest romance novel - but I hope I’ve at least reminded you that he wrote one heck of a book. Tom Jones is by no means an easy read for today’s audiences. Still, if you find its 800 pages daunting, there are two enjoyable, easy alternatives: the feature film version, starring Albert Finney, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1963, and the A&E miniseries from 1997. Both are widely available in well-stocked video rental stores, as well as from Amazon.com.
Well, there you have it! Whether or not you’re convinced, I hope at least I’ve persuaded you that Tom Jones is one of those classics that really are worth another look. Get the book, or rent the movie or the miniseries. I think you’ll have a lot of fun!
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