Thursday, June 12, 2008

What I'm Re-Reading Today

Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. It takes some time to get into the language and spelling used in the book and to appreciate how recent the idea of novels was during the eighteenth century (though of course the genre of the novel is very old, starting from at least Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji). I enjoy parts of Tom Jones very much, while tend to race through others as if I was cramming for a college examination.

Is the book safe reading for a feminist, you might ask. Well, nothing is and everything is. But there are small glimpses of a pre-feminist awakenings in the book, if you dig hard enough. Absolutely no awakening about class and class privilege, though. Fielding expects his readers to agree that the upper classes indeed deserve better treatment because they are better people. He also takes it for granted that it's up to the poor lower class women to preserve their virtue against the unceasing attacks by the upper class twits, and should they fail in that they are Whores, to be sent to the workhouse, while nothing much happens to the squire who we might regard as guilty of rape.

Parts of the book are most excellently funny, though. For example, after Tom Jones has been injured:

She was proceeding in this manner, when the Surgeon entered the Room. The Lieutenant immediately asked how his patient did? But he resolved him only by saying, 'Better, I believe, than he would have been by this Time, if I had not been called; and even as it is, perhaps it would have been lucky if I could have been called sooner.' 'I hope, Sir,' said the Lieutenant, 'the Skull is not fractured.' 'Hum,' cries the Surgeon, 'Fractures are not always the most dangerous Symptoms. Contusions and Lacerations are often attended with worse Phaenomena, and with more fatal consequences than Fractures. People who know nothing of the Matter conclude, if the Skull is not fractured, all is well; whereas, I had rather see a Man's Skull broke all to pieces, than some Contusions I have met with.' 'I hope,' says the Lieutenant, 'there are no such symptoms here.' 'Symptoms,' answered the Surgeon, 'are not always regular or constant. I have known very unfavourable Symptoms in the Morning change to favourable ones at Noon, and return to unfavourable again at Night.

It goes on like that for a while, and I recognize the slippery eeliness of many experts in that speech. The Surgeon finally deserts the patient when he finds out that Tom Jones doesn't have much money. It's wonderful to contemplate which facts are clear-cut and which facts require a lot of hedging.