‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ by Henry Fielding was first published on 28th February 1749. It is one of the earliest novels to have been written and was considered scandalous at the time for its depictions of prostitution and sex outside of marriage.
The book begins with the kind and wealthy Squire Allworthy returning to his country estate to discover an unknown baby sleeping in his bed. Jenny Jones, a local servant, confesses to being the baby’s mother but refuses to disclose the identity of the father. Allworthy asks his sister Bridget to raise the child as part of his household, naming him Tom Jones. The story follows Tom through childhood, into adulthood and marriage.
Potential incest is a re-occuring theme within the book. While Tom is unaware of his true parentage, he has relationships with two women with whom he may share a father. He also embarks on a relationship with a character named Mrs Waters, only to discover that she is Jenny Jones. Fortunately for Tom, it is explained that Bridget Allworthy had paid Jenny to lie in order to protect her own identity as Tom’s mother. Incest by foundlings who are unaware of their birth parents’ identities had previously been explored in the 1722 novel ‘Moll Flanders’ by Daniel Defoe. In 1758, possibly because of this literary trope, concerns were raised at the Foundling Hospital regarding the secrecy surrounding the children’s identities. However, it was felt that this was unlikely, and that the organisation needed to protect the parents’ privacy.
While it can be argued that Tom Jones was not ‘in care’, neither he or the other characters were aware that he was being raised by his birth mother so his experiences in the novel reflect children in care were treated by society at that time. The father of Tom’s beloved Sophia does not want her to marry a ‘foundling’, even though he has been well educated and is expecting a significant inheritance from Squire Allworthy.
It is interesting that Fielding chose to write about this topic about given his own time in care. His mother Sarah died shortly before his tenth birthday and his grandmother, Lady Gould, sued his father for custody of Henry and his four sisters. Edmund Fielding was bad with money and Lady Gould may have been attempting to secure some of her daughter’s property for the children.
Lady Gould paid for Fielding to be educated at Eton, but his future financial prospects looked bleak. With four sisters who would need to be provided for and little money available from their father, Fielding was worried about his future. This motivated him at 17 to try and abduct his 15 year-old cousin, heiress Sarah Andrew, in order to marry her and claim her fortune. Fortunately for Sarah, Fielding was unsuccessful – her guardian and his son were there to fight him off. The following year, Fielding’s first play was performed, and he went on to literary success as a dramatist and author.
While never directly linked with the Foundling Hospital, Fielding was a close friend of William Hogarth. Hogarth provided the illustration for the publication of Fieldings 1731 play, ‘Tom Thumb’ and their views on the struggles of the poor and corruption of the rich influenced each other’s work. It is probable that they discussed Hogarth’s support of the Foundling Hospital and it’s work to provide opportunities for its pupils.
In 1748, Fielding was appointed London’s Chief Magistrate and in 1749, the same year he published Tom Jones, he established the Bow Street Runners. Considered London’s first police force, this group of six constables were formally trained and paid to arrest offenders.
By the 1750s, Fielding was suffering from asthma, gout and cirrhosis of the liver. In 1754, he travelled to Portugal in an attempt to improve his health, but he died in Lisbon two months later.