How Fielding disrupted my reading plans

You know how it is – you plan to read certain books, but then you notice others that take your fancy, and all of a sudden those unread books pile up. One needs, I know, to be more single-minded about these things. When one’s attention is caught by something in a bookshop, one should say to oneself: “No, I have such-and-such a book already on my to-be-read pile, and I must read through them before tackling something new”. One should be principled on these matters.

But then, only a few days ago, I was at that lovely second-hand bookshop that’s situated just opposite the South transept of York Minster, and I noticed a set of Folio Books – all four novels of Henry Fielding, in beautiful editions and at a tempting price, just waiting to be picked up and taken to the counter.

Tom Jones I read many years ago, and enjoyed thoroughly: a re-read beckons, I think, especially given how much I enjoyed Jonathan Wild earlier this year. The other two novels in the set are Joseph Andrews and Amelia. Joseph Andrews is, of course, a parody of Richardson’s Pamela, and I had been meaning to save Fielding’s novel until after I had read Richardson’s, so I can tell what it is Fielding is taking the piss out of. But from all accounts, Fielding’s novel, like that of Cervantes, transcends that which it is parodying; and, furthermore, Fielding’s novel is reputed to be side-splittingly funny whereas Richardson’s is, from all accounts, staid and dull. I will read Pamela some day, I’m sure: quite apart from anything else, I cannot believe that the author of so astounding a masterpiece as Clarissa could write anything not worth reading. But for the moment, I think it is Fielding’s novel that comes first in the list of priorities.

(To be frank, I think I have been slightly put off Fielding in the past because of his antagonism to Richardson, but I was browsing through the article on Fielding recently in the 1970s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica – which my parents had bought for me when I was a child, and which, though very well-thumbed, still resides at my parents’ house in excellent condition – and there I found that Fielding’s antagonism related to Pamela only, and not to Clarissa: indeed, while Clarissa was appearing in instalments, Fielding wrote a letter of congratulations to Richardson, telling him that what he had read had made his heart “brim-full”. There are some writers who, in real life, do not live up to the image they present of themselves in their works, but it really did make me feel good to see that Fielding, as a man, seems to have been as open-hearted, as generous, and as free from malice as his authorial persona would suggest.)

Fielding’s last novel, Amelia has been on my to-be-read list for some time now. It is, reputedly, a rather dark and sombre work by Fielding’s standards, and I am curious to see how the author of so sunny and so riotous a novel as Tom Jones will deal with more grave material.

Among the many things I find myself enjoying about Fielding is his personality. One of the reasons for reading is, I think, the companionship of the author, and I can’t think of any author who is better company than Fielding. The picture I get of Fielding from his novels is that of a man of immense good humour, humane, and of an open-hearted and tolerant generosity; of a man who values morality but is understanding of human weaknesses and failures; of someone who, despite refusing to sentimentalise or to soften out the rough edges, actually likes people in all their variety. Yes, he could be angry at times, but, as Orwell said of Dickens, his anger is always a generous anger. What better company could one ask for?

So Fielding it is. But I must fit in all the other books I have been meaning to read. After my recent disappointing foray into science fiction, I bought myself A Perfect Spy by John le Carré: I like an intelligent thriller, and have, somehow, missed out on le Carré till now, so I thought I’d give this – widely reckoned to be amongst his finest works – a try. However, it’s nearly 700 pages long, so I don’t think I’ll be able to polish it of in just a few days. And nor would I want to: the 100 or so pages I have read so far is superb stuff, and if the rest is as good, this is a book I’d want to savour rather than rush through.

And then, I have a four-volume Folio Society set of Chekhov’s short stories I’ve been meaning to read through. I have read most of them before – though not in these translations by Ronald Hingley – but Chekhov is one of those writers I keep returning to, and I think I’d get a better grasp of his works were I to read through these stories in chronological order.

On top of this, I have lined up the works of Chaucer in the original medieval English – not merely The Canterbury Tales, but also Troilus and Criseyde, which, someone once told me, was the only one of Shakespeare’s sources that Shakespeare did not improve upon. I have read The Canterbury Tales in Neville Coghill’s translation into modern English, but really! – how can I claim to be at all knowledgeable about English literature if I have not even made at least an attempt at reading Chaucer in the original? Ezra Pound once said: “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.” Well, that’s me told!

And there’s still Dante. I read a translation of Inferno earlier this year, and I certainly don’t mean to stop there. On top of all this, I am still reading through – slowly but surely – the King James Bible, universally acclaimed as ranking with Shakespeare’s Complete Works as the most important book in the English language, but which, it seems, hardly anyone bothers to read.

As for re-reads, I must keep re-reading Shakespeare, because I don’t want to lose touch with that body of work; I must keep re-reading Sherlock Holmes, as it’s a pleasure I feel I owe myself at the end of a hard day; and it hasn’t escaped my notice that it’s been a long time since I read anything by my two favourite novelists – Dickens and Tolstoy.

Who knows when I’ll get through it all! And who knows when yet another item in a bookshop I’ll find irresistible!

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carolyn Deverson on September 1, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    Tom Jones is a book I have been meaning to re-read. It is in my memory a joyous sort of thing and as you say Fielding seems a delightful companion, in literature and probably in reality.

    I have been choosing books for my week long holiday and (along with Anna K which I still haven’t quite finished) have struggled to decide on them. I know I won’t want just classic books, so along with the Father Brown stories of Chesterton, and Ian McEwen’s Amsterdam, and Paul Auster’s New York Trlogy and John Updike’s Couples I have popped in an Alex McCall Smith and a Ngaio Marsh, which I don’t doubt will tempt me early on. Even so, this still means leaving behind all those others I am meaning to read, like Tom Jones and Middlemarch and the Forsyte Saga (perhaps I should pop that in!) and Season of the Jew by NZer Maurice Shadbolt. Oh dear – and when I get home the library books will divert me from these books sitting in my shed waiting their turn. And there will be the book club book needing immediate attention.

    Should be reading instead of typing. (Good book at the moment – about settlers to NZ from Britain, non-fiction, rather academic but for a public audience so not unreadable, and full of stats and graphs and interesting information. There is all the non-fiction to read too!)

    Cheers, Caro.

    (Quite a lot of people read the Bible, Himadri, though not necessarily as literature. I pulled mine out the other day to check the story of St Paul being ship-wrecked on Malta, us having been to Malta this year.)


    • Hello Caro, good to see you here again.

      Devout Christians do, obviously, read the Bible, but from my personal observation (which isn’t, i realise, a scientific measure), they rarely read the King James Version. And those who aren’t religious, despite often declaring the King James Bible to be a great work of literature, rarely, as you say, seem to read it for its literary qualities. I have been much the same: “King james Bible? oh yes – a pillar of English literature… blah blah blah …” And yet, there it was on myshelf, unread. I am putting that right now.

      When it comes to reading, I tend to be a serial monogamist, as it were. One book at a time. And I don’t like leaving long gaps – i.e. putting a book to one side and coming back to it later, as i find I have lost the threads.

      I have very happy memories of reading Tom Jones. It was the idyllic summer of ’83, and I was a young man in my early 20s (I was young once – honest! 🙂 ), and a postgraduate student. When my mind would become too befuddled with mathematical proofs and formulae, I would enter the marvellous world of Tom Jones, and enjoy Fielding’s company. It seems like centuries ago now!


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