From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble:
The History of Tom Jones, a novel by Henry Fielding, published 1749.
Although very long, the novel is highly organized, and was thought by *Coleridge to have one of the three great plots of all literature. The kindly, prosperous Mr Allworthy, a widower, lives in Somerset with his ill-humoured unmarried sister Bridget. Late one evening Allworthy finds a baby boy lying on his bed. He is charmed with the mysterious baby, names it Tom, and adopts it, adding the surname Jones on the assumption that the mother is Jenny Jones, a maidservant to the wife of the schoolmaster Partridge, who is eventually accused of being the father and dismissed his post. Both Jenny and Patridge vanish from the neighbourhood. Meanwhile Bridget marries the obnoxious Captain Blifil and they have a son, Master Blifil, who is brought up with Tom. They are taught by the brutish chaplain Thwackum, and the philosopher Square, and have as family neighbours the bluff fox-hunting Squire Western, his sister, and his daughter Sophia, as well as Allworthy's gamekeeper Black Geroge Seagrim and his wife and daughters.
The story moves on to the point when Tom is 19, and begins to find that his childhood affection for the beautiful and sweet-natured Sophia (whose portrait Fielding founded upon his own wife) has grown into adult love. However, Sophia is destined by her father for Master Blifil, and Tom allows himself to be distracted by the charms of Molly Seagrim. By clever misrepresentation the scheming young Blifil converts Allworthy's affection for Tom into anger, and with the help of Thwackum and Square he succeeds in having the harum-scarum Tom expelled from the house. Filled with despair that he has alienated his beloved foster father and is leaving all he loves, Tom sets off for Bristol, intending to go to sea. Meanwhile Sophia, disgusted by Blifil's courtship, runs away with her maid Honour, hoping to find her kinswoman lady Bellaston in London. Amid numerous adventures on the road, during which he falls in with redcoats and is deflected from his plan of going to sea, Tom encounters Partridge, once supposed to be his father, andwho is now travelling the country as a berber-surgeon. Unknown to Tom, he and Sophia both find themselves in an inn at Upton, but because of Partridge's malicious stupidity Sophia believes that Tom (now in bed with Mrs Waters, of whom we are to hear more) no longer loves her, and flees on towards London. Tom follows, and in London is ensnared by the rich and amorous Lady Bellaston. She and her friend Lord Fellamar, who is in pursuit of Sophia, contrive together to keep Tom away from his love, but the abrupt eruption of Squire Western saves Sophia from Fellamar's snare. Partridge now reveals that Mrs Waters is no other than Jenny Nones, supposed to be Tom's mother, and for a brief period Tom believes he has committed incest. But Jenny reveals that Tom's mother was really Bridget Allworthy (later Blifil) who has confessed all to her brother on her deathbed, and that his father was a young man long since dead. Lady Bellaston and Lord Fellamar attempt to have Tom press-ganged, but instead he is arrested and imprisoned after a fight in which he appears to have killed his assailant. Sophia cannot forgive his entanglement with Lady Bellaston and Tom's fortunes are at their lowest ebb. Blifil arranges that the gang shall give evidence against Tom, but, with the help of a long letter from Square to Allworthy, Blifil's envious machinations, dating from their earliest boyhood, are finally revealed, and Tom is reinstated in his repentant uncle's affection. He meets Sophia again at last, learns that she loves him, and receives the hearty blessing of her father. In the generosity of his heart, Tom forgives all who have wronged him, even including the destetable Blifil.
In chapter 1, 'Bill of Fare', Fielding informs the reader that 'The provision . . . have here made is no other than Human Nature' and in his Dedication to *Lyttelton declares, 'that to recommend goodness and innocence hath been my sincere endeavour in this history'. The book was enthusiastically received by the general public of the day, although Fielding's robust distinctions between right and wrong (which, for instance, permit his high-spirited hero various sexual escapades before his final blissful marriage) were a severe irritant to many, including Dr *Johnson. The book is generally regarded as Fielding's greatest, and as one of the first and most influential of English novels.