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The Real History of Tom Jones


John Allen Stevenson


Hardcover. x + 225 p. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 978-1403966438. £47.50 / $85.00


Reviewed by Laura Miller

University of West Georgia



John Allen Stevenson’s The Real History of Tom Jones investigates the connections between legitimacy in the novel and the debates over legitimacy that permeated English culture during the eighteenth century, including the conflicts surrounding the Jacobite rebellions.  Its six chapters explore a variety of source materials and cultural connections to the novel, resulting in a convincing portrait of a work whose questions of legitimacy resonate with broader questions about monarchy, hierarchy, rebellion, and restoration. The Real History of Tom Jones also elaborates on Fielding’s own identification with the material in the novel. At times, Stevenson considers the links between Fielding’s perspective and the character of Partridge. The book’s conclusion mentions that “the particular events for which [Partridge] serves as our witness are matters that Fielding himself saw, perhaps many times” [182]; these events, among others, inspire The Real History of Tom Jones.

The book’s first chapter, “Stuart Ghosts,” investigates the problematic character of the Man on the Hill, whose encounter with the protagonist might initially appear to be a digression that takes up a disproportionate percentage of the novel. The chapter sets the tone for a book that largely occupies itself with Tom Jones’s minor incidents. Stevenson finds that the Man on the Hill offers inconclusive evidence for the novel’s Jacobite perspectives. Although the Man on the Hill seems to criticize the Jacobites, he nonetheless remains intimately connected to their narrative, an exile of 88 years who evokes the exile of the Stuart family and the 1688 exile of James II. Tom, too, is an exile, which makes the novel’s Jacobite position even more challenging to decipher.

The second chapter explores the connections between Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage and the questions about legitimacy that run through Tom Jones. The work’s treatment of “Savage Matters,” as the chapter is titled, illuminates some of the clashes between Fielding and Johnson noted by other critics. Fielding knew of Savage’s history, and like Tom Jones, Savage had been a bastard of the aristocracy. Unlike Jones, however, Savage died in debtor’s prison, unacknowledged by his family. Stevenson identifies the first published evidence that Johnson disliked Fielding in Rambler #4, published about a year after Tom Jones. In addition to teasing out the connections between Johnson, Fielding, and the Savage source material, this chapter also asks “why might Fielding have been attracted to this material and what did he do with it?” [52]. Johnson and Fielding interpreted the dramatic aspects of Savage’s biography differently—one as tragedy and one as comedy—which may have accounted for their disagreement. Even though the parallels between Jones and Savage are not identical, Stevenson is likely correct to assert that “a reader, picking up Tom Jones in the winter of 1749, might find him or her self thinking, haven’t I read something like this recently?” [58].

The next chapter interrogates legitimacy with regard to historical property laws, including the contrasts between poaching and gamekeeping. The Game Law of 1671 relaxed monarchal controls over game and allowed for nobles other than the King to hunt [78-79]. Nobles then hired gamekeepers to protect the game on their lands from poaching, a phenomenon readers encounter in Tom Jones through the character of Black George. Gamekeeping was an unusual and challenging occupation, because it meant having the power to punish poachers, but not the power to hunt for oneself. A gamekeeper might be allowed to shoot a person but not a deer. George, who has access to game, and sells meat on the side illegally, is “marked by ambiguity, liminality, and instability” [93].  Stevenson shows that George uses literacy to devious ends: when George steals Tom’s bank notes, it is because he can read a bank note to know what it is. Stevenson finds the liminality of Black George links with Fielding’s own liminality because “both author and character are excluded by the absence of property from the worlds they aspire to join” [101].

George is not, however, the only character in the novel whom Stevenson ties to Fielding. The fourth chapter connects the trials in Tom Jones to eighteenth-century legal history, and begins to connect Fielding and Partridge. Although there is much concern with legitimacy and justice in the novel, only two actual trials are described in the novel. Stevenson focuses on the horse-thief’s trial in this chapter and its connection to the “patent irrationality and apparently arbitrary nature” of eighteenth-century legal proceedings, trials filled with variable decisions that were often contingent on complex social forces [108]. He finds that even though Fielding seems disconnected from Partridge, as the lone humane witness to the trial he describes, Partridge offers readers a “moment of identification with him,” and by extension with Fielding’s position [114]. Fielding himself was a magistrate, and shared some responsibilities with the judges in the novel. Stevenson reminds us why some judges had the reputation as “hanging judges” and others did not, because “in nonviolent crimes” such as horse theft, “discretion came most into play” and one’s fate could be decided arbitrarily [117].

Chapter Five takes up the episode in Tom Jones in which the hero visits a gypsy camp, “a pedagogical imperative,” as Stephenson writes, “that it then denies” [131]. Fielding sets off the gypsy episode with elaborate framing, but what is framed, and why? Stevenson finds the episode centered on “superstition, criminal justice, and politics” [138]. He evaluates the systems of government and accountability described in the Gypsy King’s tale: a monarchy in which shame was ample punishment for wrong doing. The ability to feel and to be motivated by shame is, of course, meant to reveal English shamelessness, “a judgment on English society in a quite Swiftian vein” [136]. The gypsies are an important example within the plot of Tom Jones because their society, founded on theft in the text, has a justice system that relies on punishing shameful acts rather than the acquisition of another’s property, as the English system did. Tom learns from his experiences at the gypsy camp when he gives money to the highwayman he later encounters in the novel. Stevenson shows that the problematization of property illustrated in the gypsy camp echoes the criticism of the legal system evoked in the horse thief’s trial and the exploration of hunting and poaching in Chapter Three.

The sixth chapter, “Mirror Plots,” returns to the figure of Partridge, focusing on Tom and Partridge’s trip to London to see David Garrick play Hamlet.  Stevenson describes the parallels between the plot of Hamlet and the ’45, paying attention to Hamlet as a play with “a strong Stuart connection from the time of its first appearance” under James I [163]. He examines Partridge’s reference to the Gunpowder Treason Service section of the Book of Common Prayer, an unusually-timed allusion for Tom Jones that evokes a rich iconography of Stuart-sympathetic representations that can be tied to the novel’s allusions to the ’45.  The characters in Tom Jones, curiously, spend more of their time watching Partridge than the star, Garrick. This act of watching a member of the audience cites the play-within-a-play of Hamlet and links Stuart superstitions to Partridge, whose credulity in ghosts resembles affinity with the Stuart cause. In this and in other scenes with Partridge, the novel’s “sense of history will not stay confined in one interpretive box” [173]. Stevenson shows that Partridge is a particularly important figure because he is able to be present with Garrick’s performance. “While Partridge is undoubtedly afraid, he is not afraid to look; what he sees, and what his companions all turn their backs on, is history itself” [180]. Both the first and last chapter of Stevenson’s book address the connections between ghosts and the Stuarts; although it makes sense to place the chapter on Hamlet later in the book because it builds on sustained inquiry into the role of Partridge, the sixth chapter and first could benefit from a more sustained dialogue with one another.

A challenging interdisciplinary project because each chapter borders a different literary and/or historical context, The Real History of Tom Jones moves closely into a range of diverse topics, so its disjunctions are part of its design. Stevenson builds his argument as the book goes, the connections between history and the book’s seemingly minor digressions taking shape and developing nuance. Later in the book, Stevenson concludes that

Fielding’s sense of history is profoundly double. He wants to confound our polarizing tendencies, tendencies that lead us to see an emblem as aligned unambiguously with one political position or another. That does not mean here, no more than it did with Charles Stuart or the Man of the Hill or Black George, that Fielding is thereby searching for a compromise position or some happy synthesis of the available alternatives—Britain needs a monarch who is both absolute and elected, or whatever. Rather, he wants to expose polarities as a kind of intellectual trap. [156]

This kind of analysis exemplifies the book’s synthesis of its focused readings, in which Stevenson reveals lucidity within Tom Jones’s contradictions, while still permitting those contradictions to exist. The Real History of Tom Jones will expand the historical knowledge of its literary scholars, encourage eighteenth-century historians to read Tom Jones, and make a substantial contribution to readers’ understanding of the novel’s—and Fielding’s—occasionally incongruous perspectives.



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