Today in fiction
On Feb. 28, Abel runs at dawn.
-- "House Made of Dawn" (1968)
By N. Scott Momaday
From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1749 Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones" was announced in London's "The General Advertiser":
"THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES,
-- Mores hominum multorum vidit --
By HENRY FIELDING, Esq;
It being impossible to get Sets bound fast enough to answer Demand for them, such Gentlemen and Ladies as please, may have them sew'd in Blue Paper and Boards, at the Price of 16s. a Set, of
A. Millar over against Catharine-street in the Strand."
By official publication date, copies of the book had been in circulation for weeks and become the talk of the town -- thus the ad, although some have suspected the printer of trying to create rather than satisfy demand. Those who found offense or fun in the book pointed to the same passages, such as the encounter below between Mrs. Waters and Tom. Mrs. Waters is a woman of many weapons, Tom is defenseless, and we are at the moment when "the former began to play this artillery upon the latter":
"First, having planted her right eye sidewise against Mr. Jones, she shot from its corner a most penetrating glance; which, though great part of its force was spent before it reached our heroe, did not vent itself absolutely without effect ... And now, gently lifting up those two bright orbs which had already begun to make an impression on poor Jones, she discharged a volley of small charms at once from her whole countenance in a smile. Not a smile of mirth, nor of joy; but a smile of affection, which most ladies have always ready at their command, and which serves them to show at once their good-humour, their pretty dimples, and their white teeth.
"This smile our heroe received full in his eyes, and was immediately staggered with its force. He then began to see the designs of the enemy, and indeed to feel their success ... In short, no sooner had the amorous parley ended and the lady had unmasked the royal battery, by carelessly letting her handkerchief drop from her neck, than the heart of Mr. Jones was entirely taken, and the fair conqueror enjoyed the usual fruits of her victory.
"Here the Graces think proper to end their description, and here we think proper to end the chapter."
Fielding had himself enjoyed a run-around, knock-about life. As a writer his specialty was satire, and he had hit many targets -- politics in his earlier plays, the contemporary taste for overdone and over-rewarded virtue in his more recent novels, "Joseph Andrews" and "Shamela." He knew "Tom Jones" would draw fire, and included in the book, shortly after the triumph of Mrs. Waters, his own salvo:
"First, then, we warn thee not too hastily to condemn any of the incidents in this our history as impertinent and foreign to our main design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what manner such incident may conduce to that design. This work may, indeed, be considered as a great creation of our own; and for a little reptile of a critic to presume to find fault with any of its parts, without knowing the manner in which the whole is connected, and before he comes to the final catastrophe, is a most presumptuous absurdity ..."
Many "reptile critics" did tear the author and the book apart, but by year's end it was already out in five different editions.
-- Steve King
To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.