The orbis terrarum of literary criticism has not had much difficulty in deciding that Tom Jones is, in something else than mere size, Fielding’s greatest work. If both Johnson and Thackeray seem to have preferred Amelia, enough allowance has been made in the General Introduction1

for any expression of the former, while the latter was evidently biassed at the particular moment. The characteristics of Amelia were well suited to contrast with and atone for the rather exaggerated delineation of Fielding’s Bohemianism which it had suited Thackeray to give; and, speaking to a mixed audience, he no doubt felt it easier to dwell on the later than on the earlier book. The extreme condemnation of Tom the hero as distinct from Tom the book, which is put elsewhere in the mouth of Colonel Newcome, is at least partly dramatic; and I am not sure that the indirect eulogy in Pendennis—that Tom Jones was the last book in which an English novelist was allowed to depict a man—does not make up for any censure expressed or implied elsewhere. It is, without the grandiloquence, nearly as lofty a eulogy as Gibbon’s. What that great writer said is universally known, and no comment on it is necessary, except a remainder that in many ways Gibbon’s tastes were rather Continental or cosmopolitan than English, and that he was by no means likely to be bribed by the intensely national flavour of the novel. Of late there has been a disposition to demur to Coleridge’s hardly less lofty eulogy of the mere craftsmanship shown in the novel. But Scott, a practised critic, a novelist of unsurpassed competence, and not always a very enthusiastic encomiast of Fielding, has endorsed it in the Introduction to the Fortunes of Nigel. After such names it is unnecessary to cite any others by way of authority, and we may pass to the direct consideration of the book itself.

Tom Jones, then, is a novel which differs from almost all other novels both in the range and the precision of its scale and scheme. Its personages are extremely numerous, and there is justice in the half-humorous protestation of the author, in reference to the apparent repetition in the two landladies, that they are “most carefully differentiated from each other.” Its scenes are extremely varied, and each has its local colour adjusted with perfect propriety. Of the actions and passions represented it is indeed possible for the advocatus diaboli to urge that, whatever their range and truth to nature within their limits, there is a certain want of height and depth in them. But this is only saying in other words that the middle of the eighteenth century was not the beginning of the sixteenth; that Fielding had not the tragic touch; and that though he was most emphatically a “maker,” he was not in the transferred and specialised sense a poet. Lastly, all these varying excellences and excellent variations are adjusted together in so cunning an arrangement of dramatic narrative, that some have found it absolutely impeccable, while few have done more than protest against the Man of the Hill, question whether we do not see more than we need of Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and ask whether the catastrophe is not, especially considering the very leisurely movement of the earlier scenes, somewhat hurried and huddled. As for the characters, exception, so far as I know, has not been seriously taken to any save on the score of art and nature to Allworthy and Blifil, on the score of morality to Mr. Jones himself. Some have indeed expressed their desire for something with more air and fire than the heroine; but there are always people who grumble thus. Let us try to sweep the negatives aside before attempting the affirmative.

I have already in the General Introduction attempted to disable the objection to the “Man of the Hill,” and I need say no more on that head except that he, like all his kind, is distinctly a hors-d’œuvre, to be taken or left at choice. Nor do the other objections to construction seem to me much more valid. The famous preliminary observations have had extended to them by severe judges the indulgence which I myself claim for the episodes, and while they cannot be said in any way to delay the action, they provide the book with an additional element of interest—an element with which, to the same extent and in the same intensity, no other novel in the world is furnished. As for the end, a certain “quickening-up at the finish” hath invariably been allowed, and even prescribed, to artists, and I do not know that it can be said to be greatly exceeded here.

It is, however, undeniable that the defects of Allworthy and Blifil appear at this point more than elsewhere, and indeed to some extent produce the effect complained of. And I shall further admit that these two characters, especially Blifil, seem to me almost the only spots in Fielding’s sun. For Allworthy we can indeed make some excuse—lame after its kind, for your excuse invariably claudicat. There is little doubt that Fielding was hampered and misled by his intention to glorify a particular person, his benefactor

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