PONDERING: Tom Jones with Extras!Saturday, January 12, 2013 13:00
When I saw that Clandestine Classics was issuing rewritten classic novels, with added sexy bits, I was less than whelmed. Indeed, I was pretty underwhelmed. However, when I realised that the “new” authors were requested to retain all the original text and write sex scenes in the style of the original author, my interest was repiqued.
Which book would I do, I wondered? And when I was asked if I wanted to contribute, I said oh, yes. I wouldn’t get rich from this project, because the new authors are only being paid for their words. It doesn’t seem fair to pay them for the author’s words, too. I ended up with a shortlist and eventually picked the book which, to me, was the no-brainer from the start. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.
It’s right in “my” period, the mid-eighteenth century. It’s a book I’ve known and loved for a very long time. And there are suspicions that the book once had more bawdy scenes that it now does. Allow me to talk about a book that’s on my permanent number-one keeper shelf.
Above all, Tom Jones is full of life. Or maybe LIFE! Yes, that’s more like it. People who aren’t ashamed to take everything in both hands and explore it all, bad and good. People without the snobbery and stifling restrictions that characterised the Victorian age. Once read, never forgotten. The old film with a young Albert Finney describes this aspect beautifully, and has its own memorable scenes, also not described in detail in the novel! This is a joyous novel and, like today’s romances, with an unabashedly happy ending.
While there is “preaching,” it’s not of the moralistic, hypocritical kind. Fielding, the author, was a remarkable man. He had a failed registry office, a place where servants would register for work. This in the middle of London, a place teeming with places requiring servants. “The Universal Register” was the inspiration for my “Thompsons.” The office in the Richard and Rose books, that makes Richard’s personal fortune and is far from unsuccessful. However, he moved on to take the position of magistrate at Bow Street, where he administered justice on some of the roughest areas of London and some of the wealthiest. London’s like that. Good and bad, all jostled together. He worked with his blind brother, John, who took over the post after his brother’s death.
1749 was a remarkable year. The end of war in Europe, or at least the half-time whistle, while the various alliances had a breather before the Seven Years’ War. The Jacobites were finally no longer a threat. Fielding of Bow Street set up a force of twelve (or twelve pair, nobody’s quite sure) men to examine the three worst crimes in the country. They probably weren’t what you imagine. They were counterfeiting, smuggling, and poaching. They cost the country more than anything else, and the Bow Street Runners were set up to cope with those. Twenty-four of them. Some were ex-thieves themselves, others were ex-military. That was where the idea of a modern police force started, but the first true civilian police force wasn’t set up until the 1790s—the London river police.
1749 was also when another famous, or notorious, book was published. There was such an uproar over the explicit “Fanny Hill,” that Fielding may have considered cutting scenes from his own book, or not writing them so explicitly. “Fanny Hill” was written by an adventurer, but there is still a mystery around its origins, and the putative author, John Cleland, brought out a heavily censored version later that same year.
There are places in Tom Jones where it seems that Fielding skipped a bit—the sex scenes. It’s obvious that sex is enjoyed by most of the characters in the book, even the less admirable ones, and Fielding describes them all. I just wrote them back in. It was a real challenge to write in Fielding’s style, too. It’s not at all the way we write today. Fielding never hesitates to step outside a scene to comment on it, as if he was an interested, invisible observer. His opinion permeates the novel and makes me long to go back in time to meet him, except I feel I know him already!
In effect, Fielding tells the story, and so I had to know him really well in order to step into his shoes. Luckily, he has fascinated me for most of my life, and I have read all his books, even the White Papers he regularly presented to Parliament in the hope that they would eventually find their way into law. They did, but only after his death. Long after. He was a man of painful honesty and integrity, but he wasn’t without his faults. He married his second wife, his servant, after he got her pregnant, and they weren’t particularly close, by all accounts.
The greatest shock to me was to realise that the original book is over 800 pages long! It never felt that way when I was reading it. Because of that, and because I’m adding around 200 pages to it, we decided to bring the book out in four parts. The original was a three-volume novel, so even that is similar.
It was a privilege and a delight to revisit this book and to try my hand at matching the fun and sheer exuberance in it.