The Banquet Host and the Benevolent Dictator: Henry Fielding’s Authorial Metaphors in Tom Jones

“The Roses of Heliogabalus” (1888) by Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the first chapter of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding self-consciously sets out the rules for himself as author: he constructs himself as the host of a banquet at a “public Ordinary,” presenting a series of courses for the readers’ consumption. Each volume is a course, and each introductory chapter is a bill of fare, the description of what will be served in this course and (ostensibly) what the reader will be charged.

However, as the novel continues, this metaphor grows more and more problematic. First, though Fielding asserts that he is setting out a clear bill of fare for readers, he doesn’t always effectively address the cost of said course. What does the reader give in exchange for this feast? Perhaps Fielding is assuming the guest has a wealth of reason and imagination to contribute. For example, in the preface to the third volume, he gives the reader some leeway to imagine what occurs during the twelve years that our hero grows up. He expects the reader to contribute his or her “true Sagacity,” for, “As we are sensible that much the greatest Part of our Readers are very eminently possessed of this Quality, we have left them a Space of twelve years to exert it in” (108). Could it perhaps be that the reader is donating his or her time to the author as well? I’m not sure that Fielding sufficiently explains this metaphor.

Additionally, is it really possible or desirable for the reader to know what to expect before entering a novel of this size? Most innkeepers throughout the book don’t publish a bill of fare; rather, they adjust their prices based on their estimation of the wealth of the guest– is Fielding doing the same thing?

Perhaps the most striking/unsettling comparison at the end of the introductory chapter occurs when the author compares himself to Heliogabalus, a Roman emperor renowned for his lavish banquets and cruel sense of humor. Legend recounts that Heliogabalus put gold and jewels in his guests’ boiled peas, suffocated guests with showers of rose petals (see 1888 painting by Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema), and perhaps even caused people to die of over-eating. The notes in the Penguin edition of Tom Jones also indicate that Fielding elsewhere used the pseudonym Heliogabalus for a gluttonous correspondent in his political journal the True Patriot (884). And he does not initially qualify this comparison: “By these Means, we doubt not but our Reader may be rendered desirous to read on for ever, as the great Person, just above-mentioned, is supposed to have made some Persons eat” (37). How does this fit into our ideas about the ethics of reading? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and in a Platonic framework, results from the ungoverned free reign of one’s appetites, which destroys the soul. It seems this isn’t the best way to start a novel when one has to defend the virtue of the novel genre itself.

Fielding in the next introductory chapter tries to reassure us by framing himself as the benevolent dictator/philosopher-king; he states that though he makes all the laws, “I do hereby assure them, that I shall principally regard their [readers’] Ease and Advantage… I am, indeed, set over them for their own Good only, and was created for their Use” (74-75). However, based on the first introduction, I’m not sure I quite trust this narrator to decide what will be to my “Ease and Advantage,” and I’ll be sifting through my peas and watching out for flecks of gold that just might crack my teeth. But perhaps this discernment is Fielding’s goal for his readers all along.

Balancing Multiple Personalities

As a 21st century reader, it is fairly impossible gain the same impression of Victorian women authors as their contemporary readers held of them.  For all the research and analysis put into Victorian novels and journalism,  for all the insights that we gain into the relationship between the writers and readers in these genres,  we in the 21st century nevertheless know that Marian Evans’ and George Eliot’s works were penned by the same hand, or some of Harriet Martineau’s articles are written anonymously and that Elizabeth Gaskell likewise utilized a male persona for journalism.

We must certainly admire each of these women for persevering through whatever means available to enter the Victorian literary world.  While Harriet Martineau, “the first and greatest of women journalists”, began her career writing anonymously for a Unitarian periodical, her career grew and her name became associated with championing the issues we now know her for: abolitionism, women’s rights, and sociology.  Such a path would not be easy, and she was often criticized as being “too masculine.” In her autobiography she writes that “what I dread is being silenced, and the mortification and loss of the manner of it” and in her journalism and other writings we certainly see a woman resisting being silenced, making a clear connection between her own name and her own principles (Crawford).  In Crawford’s examination of the Dickens- Martineau debate, he observes that, while also exposing herself to being interpreted as vituperative, Martineau “demonstrated her willingness to engage fully in the rough-and-tumble of Victorian journalism” (Crawford).  While perhaps taken aback by some of Martineau’s bluntness, we must certainly also admire her insistence on forging a career as a female journalist and writer without shirking at the criticism she received because she was a woman.

For Elizabeth Gaskell, while she certainly faced challenges and mixed criticism of her novels because she is a woman, she also found space for her voice early on in the reformist periodicals of the 1840s.  As Alexis Easley explains, these periodicals “explicitly identified women writers as key players in the dissemination of diverse forms of knowledge that spanned both public and private spheres” (Easley).  Though while writing for these periodicals, “Gaskell was unwilling…to identify herself as a woman writer”, the reform press displays the value of women’s voices on major issues, perhaps emboldening her to (eventually) write her social problem novels under her own name.

Meanwhile, the George Eliot remains the least publicly known author, because there is nothing to know about George Eliot beside the works accredited to her name.  As Dillane observes, “public appreciate of George Eliot was in many ways determined by a distinct lack of biographical detail and visual audience of the writer” (Dillane).  Even today, while Martineau’s, Gaskell’s, and the Bronte sisters’ works are credited to their own names, Marian Evans’ novels remain published as the mythical Eliot’s works, and general readers do not realize (without research) that in reading an Eliot novel they are also reading the work of Marian Evans,  highly regarded in Victorian journalism.

Each of these women writers had to balance multiple personalities throughout their careers – sometimes for desire to escape public attention, sometimes in an effort to avoid the criticism typically thrown at Victorian female authors.  On one hand I must admire the skill and effort it took to uphold such personas – to write with a more “masculine voice”,  to not receive due credit for your works,  to then plunge bravely into daring to say the things you want to say under your own, female name.  On the other hand, I am saddened that their contemporary audiences were never able to know these authors as unified beings, to see their works as belong to their whole, unique selves.  While understanding these authors in their original context is important to understanding their works, we also hold the distinct pleasure of fulfilling these women’s ideal,  or reading their works as their  works, freed from their contemporary social stigmas.




Crawford, Iain.  “Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and the Rise of the Victorian Woman of Letters.” 2014

Dillane, Fionnula. “After Marian Evans: The importance of being ‘George Eliot’. Before George Eliot: Marian Evans and the Periodical Press. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Easley, Alexis. “Elizabeth Gaskell, Urban Investigation and the ‘Abused Woman Writer'”. 2004


Generality in Theory and Specificity in Fiction

In her chapter “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists,” Rae Greiner explores the idea of realism in fiction as an effect that the novel has upon the reader. She argues that “realism in the nineteenth-century British novel … is best understood as ‘sympathetic realism,’ not simply because the novels promote or are about sympathy … but because they employ forms designed to enact sympathetic habits of mind in readers” (15). She understands sympathy to be not purely emotive, but cognitive, with emotional response brought about by cognitive assent to and entrance into the mental state of another. She suggests that realist fiction is the best platform for sympathy, for “fiction alone grants ‘nobodies’ … specificity that distinguishes them from the (fictional) generality out of which they emerge” (47). That is, only in the context of fiction is the other able to gain selfhood in the mind of the reader, for in fiction alone does the individual other become distinct from the general, typical other.

It is interesting to consider Greiner’s theory of sympathetic realism in relation to Harriet Martineau’s sociological observations in How to Observe Morals and Manners in comparison with her novel Deerbrook. Does this idea of a notion of the selfhood of the other as gained only through fiction hold true in Martineau’s works?

My first response, based upon my own reaction to the works and upon the conversation that we had in class way-back-when we were reading Martineau at the beginning of the semester is an emphatic yes. Martineau’s sociological treatise is interesting and provides the reader with valid points as to how to charitably observe and judge the actions of others. However, this treatise neither presents us with others to view as selfs, nor encourages us to view others in that way. Instead, it assists us in the task of scientifically categorizing and labeling others in order to further our own agenda—even if we are to do so in the most charitable way possible.

For example, Martineau writes of how “popular songs are both the cause and effect of general morals” (83). She goes on to explain how this is the case, and why it is therefore important for the observer to pay careful attention to these songs “as an index of popular morals” (83). While these instructions are good in their way, and while they do to a certain extent encourage an impartial view of the situation, they do not help the reader to see the other as a specific self. Instead, they encourage the reader to read other human beings as they would scientific data, categorizing them under a set of undefined criteria based upon the reader’s personal experience of the world. Thus, in Martineau’s nonfiction, we see not people, but data; individual others become nobodies and are consumed into the generality.

In contrast, in Deerbrook Martineau aims to help the reader to enter into the experience of the other, thereby encouraging the recognition of the specificity and selfhood of the other that Grainer suggests is attained only in fiction.

One of the most striking examples of this is in Maria Young, the invalid governess who doesn’t on the surface appear to get the happy ending that her merits warrant. Though we may be tempted to classify her under the general, stereotypical category of “unlucky single woman who is destined to become bitter and unhappy after her former lover marries her best friend,” Maria’s final conversation with Margaret suggests otherwise. Maria explains to Margaret, “you are no fair judge of my lot. … If you could, for one day and night, feel with my feelings, and see through my eyes … you would know, from henceforth, that there are glimpses of heaven for me in solitude, as for you in love” (599). In this passage, supported by the several instances of Maria’s heavenly solitude that are provided throughout the book, the reader is encouraged to see Maria as removed from the generality in her actual peace with the lot that she has been granted. Though throughout the book these instances may seem unrealistic and idealized, in this final passage the reader is given one last encouragement to read Maria as actually unique within the category of invalid single women. Maria becomes through this work of fiction a nobody who ahs been granted “specificity that distinguishes [her] from the (fictional) generality out of which [she has] emerge[d]” (Greiner 47).

Thus, Martineau’s works support Greiner’s theory of sympathetic realism as ultimately aimed at arousing in the reader an emotional sympathy with the reader through cognitive entrance into their experience of the world; it is indeed through fiction that one is best able to cognitively enter into the emotional state of another and thereby to view that other as another specific self.


Works Cited

Greiner, Rae. “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists.” Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. 15-49. Blackboard. Web. 2 April 2015.

Martineau, Harriet. Deerbrook. 1839. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

—. How to Observe Morals and Manners. 1838. N.p.:, 2010

A Tale of Two Authoresses

Once upon a time in a land far, far away lived two women named Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell. Though these women were not intimate friends, they each decided to take upon themselves the similar task of recording the events of the past: Martineau, the events of her own life, and Gaskell, those of the life of her recently deceased friend Charlotte Brontë. After months of hard labor and gallons of ink, these women succeeded in their attempt and published their works.

For years their histories were viewed as an accurate account of the events that they recorded. However, one day some literary critics, who had been influenced by the postmodern understanding of the inaccessibility of the past, took it upon themselves to show that the narratives that the authors provided were perhaps not as factual as the readers had supposed. Instead, they argued that the narratives that Martineau and Gaskell presented were respectively “factually inaccurate” (Liddle 57) and supportive of the “[r]eaders’ construction of the Brontës as authors” that is “an important part of the Brontë myth” (Stoneman 216). That is, these critics recognized Martineau’s Autobiography and Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë as mythologized biographical pictures of ideal writers and women, rather than as factually accurate historical accounts of the authors’ lives.

The rather anticlimactic ending of this tale opens up an interesting question. Granted that Martineau and Gaskell were biased and at times factually inaccurate in their presentations of the past, is it possible to look beyond that inaccuracy and perhaps gain an understanding of Martineau’s and Brontë’s experience of the recorded events as they occurred?

Though it may seem that the one who actually experienced the events would be the best authority on that experience, it seems that between the two accounts Martineau’s Autobiography provides the reader with the least accurate recording of her experience of the events. As Liddle points out in her chapter “The Authoress’s Tale,” Martineau carefully crafted her account of her life to show herself to be the natural journalist that she wished to be remembered. As a result, we loose a good deal of how Martineau experienced the events at the time they occurred. Though we are given a glimpse into how Martineau viewed her life in 1855, we do not see what she actually experienced at the time of, for instance, the publication of her first essay in 1822.

Of course, Gaskell also manipulated her account of Brontë’s life to show her as an idealized woman and author. However, Gaskell’s account comes closer to providing us with an account of Brontë’s experience of her life as it occurred. Given that her Life is based upon Brontë’s letters, and indeed contains many of those letters, we are able to get a more accurate picture of what Brontë thought or felt about the events that she experienced as she experienced them. Though Gaskell herself crafts her account of Brontë’s life in order to support “the Brontë myth,” because she bases that account on letters written by Brontë at the time that the events occurred, the reader is able to understand how those events were experienced by the young Brontë.

Thus, because of her extensive use of letters, Gaskell’s Life is able to convey a better idea of Brontë’s actual experience of the events of her life at the time at which they occurred than Martineau manages in her Autobiography. Though both are mythologized, there is perhaps more factual accuracy available from a distanced perspective than from the one living through the Happily Ever After and into The End.

Battle of the Sympathizers- The Return of the Soldier- Rebecca West

The story in The Return of the Soldier is told from the perspective of Jenny, who is supposed to be an unbiased narrator.  While reading the story we encounter three other characters, each of whom we end of feeling some kind of sympathy towards.  So the main question here is who, if anyone, are we supposed to feel sympathy for?

The first character who we begin to been sorry for is Margaret, who was judged from the beginning by Kitty and Jenny because of her lower class standing.  While trying to do the right thing and tell Kitty about her husband’s memory loss, she was called a liar from the very beginning.  Kitty refused to believe anything that she said, mostly because she was poor and Kitty assumed that she was trying to scam her to get money.  Later in the story we begin to feel sorry for Margaret again because of her unhappy marriage and the fact that the old Chris who she loved has now come back into her life.  This conflict between Margaret’s love for Chris and her conscious telling her that she should not love him makes the reader feel her inner struggle and sympathize with her.

Next, the reader feels sympathy for Kitty, despite her mistreatment of Margaret and annoying, uncompromising nature.  Kitty has been told by a complete stranger that her husband has been in an accident and lost his memory.  Not only does Chris not remember her, but he’s also in love with another woman!  It is, indeed, hard to not feel some kind of sympathy for Kitty.

We often forget to sympathize with Chris, who has lost 15 years worth of memories.  He awakes, thinking he’s 15 years younger than he really is, in love with a married woman, and unaware that he, himself, is married.  He has to accommodate Kitty, who doesn’t even remember, while trying to fight his uncontrollable love for Margaret.  He has been told that his father and butler died, and at the end of the story, that his son has died as well.  Further, as soon as he regains his memory, we know that he will have to eventually go back to the war because he has been “cured.”

So, which character deserves our sympathy? Or are we supposed to sympathize with all of them? Can be truly sympathize for both Margaret and Kitty at the same time, who both want Chris?

Fallen Angel- Professions for Women- Virginia Wolf

For a good amount of time, women were supposed to be seen and not heard, submissive, and the “Angel in the House.”  In Virginia Wolf’s “Professions for Women” she implies that a woman cannot be an Angel in the House as well as be successful (or truthful) in writing.  Are readers to assume that being an Angel in the House and being a good writer are mutually exclusive?

Wolf describes the Angel in the House as a phantom, who creeps over her and tries to influence her writing.  She says that the Angel whispered to her, “Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex.”  In other words, the Angel wants her to be a liar and not write the truth.  Thus, how is it that the Angel in the House, who is supposed to be charming, sympathetic, unselfish, and the perfect women, is also dishonest?  Wolf says that she had no choice but to kill this phantom in order to save the dignity and honesty of her writing.  And according to her, being successful was an easy task: as simple as moving the pen from right to left and dropping her work in the mailbox.  It seems as if this is the type of encouragement that women needed: to know that they could become professional women without having to lie to get there like the so-called “Angel.”