With all this reading of classic novels and short stories I’ve been doing lately, I can’t help but be reminded how important literature is as source of social history. I’m not just talking distant history, either. It’s one thing to set out to write about the past, and consciously recreate a historical period, but I’ve been thinking about how sense of place works when we’re reading it in the future.
For instance, Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones, with the intention of making his contemporaries think…really think, about how their world worked, and how novels could be written. How do I know this? Each of the eighteen books begins with a chapter where Fielding sets us up for the coming events.
You could see these as being the equivalent of tv adverts: those fragments of scandal and adventure that tease us into tuning in for the next episode, or the new drama. There is something of that happening in most of them. However, their real purpose is to educate, to teach readers not to be passive consumers, but to think about the characters and their actions, to be judicious readers who will exercise judgement, for ,
…I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.
Here is a novel that broke established rules. It skips over time, it reminds us continually that it is a work of fiction. So many things we take for granted were fresh with this novel.
You can skip those first chapters. Our narrator gives his permission at the end of his book-five essay. He has, of course, first gone to a great deal of trouble to explain how drama and comedy need to be contrasted with their opposites, in order to gain their full comic or exciting aspect. In fact if you’ve read to that point of the chapter, it’s to be hoped that you would disagree that these are ‘laboriously dull’, and ask yourself what Fielding is really suggesting when he says;
‘…I would have the reader to consider these initial essays. And after this warning, if he shall be of opinion that he can find enough of serious in other parts of this history, he may pass over these…and begin the following books at the second chapter.’
Some do take his words at face value. I have a rather attractive paperback on my shelf that came out with the 1963 Tony Richardson directed film starring Albert Finney and Susannah York in the lead roles, that has none of the essays, despite Fielding’s warning.
As someone who aspires to the good esteem of the narrator, I opt for the essays. Besides, for a true sense of place and time, I want the whole time-travel experience. The language used, the rhythms and shapes of the speeches are as valuable to me as the insights into the way the characters interact, and the lives they are living. To get that I need all of the voices, and our narrator is the best guide I could ask for, tricky, wise, wry and observant, he keeps me up on all the latest ideas. I’m not just learning about the past, I’m thinking that some of the political preoccupations speak to the twenty-first century too.