Trollope worried that when he died and got to heaven people would not want novels …. [my paraphrase from memory]
Dear friends and readers,
After much perplexity and in the midst of a daily engineered horrendous traffic jam (epic-romance proportions):
As I may have mentioned I submitted a proposal to teach Fielding’s Tom Jones at the OLLI at AU next fall and it was accepted. A 10 week course would mean introduction, context and then for 9 sessions 2 books a week, with different themes and other contexts brought in to frame the discussion:
Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. When Fielding died, a cousin quipped: “It is a pity he was not immortal, he was so formed for happiness:” the nature of happiness, and all the many obstacles to its pursuit, are what this big book is about. We will read it, see why in its era it was called “immoral;” how recently it was adapted into films filled with wild hilarity, sexual salaciousness, and subversive irony, and discuss its narrator and concerns like where power comes from, charity, and hypocrisy and the masks of social life. The full context will be Fielding’s life and careers (dramatist, political journalist, satirist, magistrate). Topics will include include crime and punishment, law and justice (poaching as disguised class war over property rights?), coerced marriage and rape; Hanoverians and Jacobites. Can you imagine a world without novels? This is one of the books that established the genre.
The curriculum committte was delighted. Some remembered the 1966 Tony Richardson Tom Jones still — or had heard of it. What’s liked is a great masterpiece everyone is said to enjoy. What’s to object? but then I began to listen to the novel in my car read aloud brilliantly by Ken Danziger — but with great care, exaggeratedly, over-the-top accents and comedy, and slowly to get the meanings of the words across. And I began to doubt the success of the project even before serious reading this summer of the book and on and about and other texts by Fielding had begun.
These courses or semesters of 8-10 weeks are for retired people, and are a sort of cross between voluntary college, seminar, reading group, and 3 terms of teaching has shown me they do the reading — or most of them do. They come prepared to like a book but if it’s foreign to them in some fundamental ways there’s problems.
Most of them are so used to realism, realistic characters. Their model is Dickens’s David Copperfield. Thomas Hardy, modern 20th century novels, middle brow. The language of these characters is not persuasively particular at all. The utterances are burlesques. Fielding’s (seemingly?) cavalier attitudes towards violence and sex did not seem propitious, much less acceptable — as when it’s a joke that the poverty-striken semi-criminal gamekeeper types, Blackgeorge quiets his family with a switch; or it’s supposed to be hilarious that our elegant gentleman hero Tom can’t resist the filthy “slut” Molly, not to omit the slurring and utterly discriminatory treatment of her. I bean to remember how rape was seen as a joke or something women fake. At one point I was listening with Yvette in the car with me and she looked thunderstruck at the caricature of Mrs Honor, Sophia’s lady’s maid, and the scenes where Squire Western is hideously cruel to Sophia and her impossible absurd “worldly” ignoramus aunt, Mrs Western — said Yvette how can he say that woman (Mrs Western) has a “tender heart?” The language is abstract and slow-moving, yet the ironies multifold, not obvious. I know while I like the opening of Richardson’s Tom Jones which captures pace, mood, stance of the narrator, and the famous hunt, I do not like women as sex kittens. I did love the 1997 movie though — as will be seen by my use of stills from it and a blog I wrote..
So, hastily I queried C18-l for advice, sources, books, ways to think anew about this book. I got good advice (think about cruel humor), books, like John Allen Stevenson’s The Real History of Tom Jones, one site where a teacher outlined how he or she handled the novel book by book.
All this okay for particulars — but how was I to get these people to care about these 18th century particulars. It’s for retired people, a sort of cross between voluntary college, seminar, reading group, and 3 terms of teaching has shown me they do the reading — or most of them do. They come prepared to like a book but if it’s foreign to them in some fundamental ways there’s problems.
And then as part of one of my many over-scheduled days, I found myself unexpectedly caught in a major traffic jam, only it was not being reported as a traffic jam where cars were all inching along, bumper to bumper and what should have taken me 40 minutes took me an hour and one half. I was on my way to Loudon Country Mason where I was to listen to a 2 hour session on taxes, investment for retirement strategies and the like.
They cling to one another
What I learned from my timeout: I suddenly saw, I understood, “got” Tom Jones.– sort of gut level. It was getting there that did it. I was 25 minutes late and missed the opening which I had wanted to hear (about pensions and taxes on pensions): as I had driven along I realized the horrendous traffic jam I was in was the result of the way the local authorities have engineered the roads. They have taken E-Z passes which used to be for going through tolls without having to produce coins (paying ahead by credit card and topping the amount on your card up on-line) to being passes which allow people to use newly created separate pairs of HOV lanes where you pay more according to how far you go. The left over others (much narrower), three of them are now jam-packed. There are iron railings between these E-Z HOV lanes and the “regular lanes.” Since I had to turn left I began to worry how I would reach my exit. But of course just as I got there the iron railings fell away and then resumed after the unusual left-ward exit. The EZ passes which used to be just to pay tolls easily have been transformed into engineers of visible inequality. Then there are regulations for which kind of car can go where — or you get a ticket; you are photo-monitored everywhere. Your license is of course in cop’s computers if they come upon you; they can look all the information they need about you through that license. No one protested. People did not jump out of their cars to scream this is taking hours. No.
I thought to myself here we are in Tom Jones world. Fielding refers to the the absurdity of human nature, when he is showing continually versions of our moral stupidity, endless exploitation of one another, greed, avarice, complicity of some in their attempt to get just a small percentage of the take, to lord it over others on the smallest grounds. Hypocrisy, affection, charity, humanity, all those things people discuss when it comes to Fielding, the topics I listed (18th century ones) are just local manifestations of this traffic jam. Fielding run over right before me as the 1997 film begins. Continually what i happening in this book is all the people are making everyone else and themselves miserable — in order to one up one another, to gain an advantage. Male sexual appetite seems to be a matter of using up animal energy; not all males have it, and for many money is far more important. Fielding loves to have us see them having arguments in their heads about what is the safest and most expedient and advantageous (from the point of view of money, rank, immediate gain) step to take. Without any regard to common sense, humanity — which they are all pretending to all the time.
That is what Tom Jones is about. It’s the propelling idea and then all the antics, the performances, and few mostly good because naive and/or sheltered, growing up in private places (where social life does not impinge its common denominator survival struggle), where people who have been able to keep away from that highway, in well-padded retreats, with their books and brains in high-minded dreams, fell into place. You see when you are 19 as I was when I read Tom Jones as an undergraduate and did a paper showing the plot-design forced the characters to behave inconsistently, I didn’t think of the larger question. I accepted the book was a masterpiece and it was my task to explicate parts of it. Not what is this man on about for hundreds of pages?
The instructor (there for free as I do it too) did enlighten me, but not enable me the way I wish I could be — no one can probably. But I was struck by how she talked about the market and EU from the point of view of a complete lack of concern of how its policies affected ordinary people. How was it affecting money. What we didn’t want was inflation or high interest rates. Oh the recovery? it was just fine. The Greek people. Not to worry: their gov’t would step in line and international investment would be safe, stable, good yields. Her course fit into Tom Jones too; it was one of the polite rooms.
I hurried to the huge Northern Virginia Book Sale in a George Mason Library later in the afternoon. It’s on an open road (no highway), so no exclusions by EZ passes. I got there just as it opened for the first time in years. Booksellers everywhere glomming up books. In the first 4 minutes I found a beautiful copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to replace my ugly paperback doorstop with its blaring advertisements all over it. Hard-cover, sewn. Clutching it, I play my usual role in the world’s panorama too. I’ve bought a ticket for Wolf Hall Part 2 (on the stage) for when I come to NYC this May. One of the introductory chapters is a elaborate meditation on the Shakespearean insight that all the world’s a stage.
Jim loved satire — probably Clive James has some satiric passages in his earlier poems which “get” Tom Jones too. I just have continually to transfer the parallels, the metaphors and hope the older students will understand the book too..