This week I finished teaching Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, which I had never taught before. In fact, I’d never finished reading it before, which is one of the reasons I decided to teach it this term — what better way to force myself to read it!?

Because the novel is so long, some 800 pages, we spent three weeks (fully a third of our class) on it. Now that I’ve finished it, I have to say I see why this book is reputed to be one of the great novels of English literature. It’s a hoot! Parts of his are hilariously funny, and (maybe because it is so long) it encapsulates just about every major issue that a teacher would want to bring up about mid-eighteenth-century literature and culture. I also think a good number of my students enjoyed reading it. Not all of them, of course, but the ones who clearly read all (or most of it) seemed to enjoy it and have interesting things to say about it.

Tom Jones DVDWhen I decided to teach it, I also decided to show my class a miniseries version of the novel as we read. The dvd is distributed by A&E and was originally a BBC production. This production stars Max Beesley as Tom and Samantha Morton as Sophia. They both do an excellent job in the roles. Beesley is very good at playing the manslut with the heart of gold, and Morton is great as the ever put-upon Sophia (but she’s always great in everything she does!).

One of my students commented on the production’s costumes when we finished it on Wednesday; she really liked them. I totally agreed. This miniseries gives its audience a great feel for eighteenth-century clothing, manners, houses, etc.

To finish my mini-review, everything about this production is top-notch. I also really liked James D’Arcy as Blifil, Lindsay Duncan as Lady Bellaston, and Brian Blessed as Squire Western. All of the casting was perfect, but these three actors were especially great in their roles. So, I’m glad we watched it.

However, the problem with watching a miniseries of five 95 minute episodes is that it took up so much class time. I think my students got something out of watching the series, but they probably could have gotten a lot more out of talking about and analyzing the novel more specifically. I regret that we didn’t spend a lot of time doing some close reading and analyzing as many specific passages as we otherwise would have. So, next time I teach the novel, I’ll probably only show excerpts from the miniseries.

The other cool thing we did was pay a visit to our library’s special collections to see some eighteenth-century editions of the books we are studying this term. I asked the librarian, Judy, to also show us several later editions of Tom Jones, i.e., ones from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even I was kind of impressed with our visit. Judy showed us the oldest book in the collection — a Medieval Bible — along with several other pre-eighteenth-century books before showing us editions of Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift (we have a 1726 Gulliver’s Travels), and Fielding. One of the editions of Tom Jones was composed to two tiny little volumes — you almost needed a magnifying glass to read it! It was really cool to see. I will definitely take my students back in the future.

We’re also continuing our commonplace books, and Tom Jones is a great source for commonplaces! I try to start most classes with my students reading from their books. So far, I’ve really enjoyed hearing what they have selected to enter into their books. It’s a fun exercise but also one that really captures the eighteenth-century emphasis on reading for self-improvement.

So, one the whole I’m definitely glad I taught Tom Jones. I intend to teach it again, perhaps in my honors class this spring. It’s a great read and a great text to teach. And next time, I’ll be even better at teaching it!

P.S. I found this clip on YouTube — maybe I should have my students do this next time too!

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