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Sucking Eggs

Okay, this week let’s talk about a novel that I’m not entirely sure that I like – The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding. It was written in the mid eighteen century and I have heard arguments that Fielding was just reflecting and satirising the attitudes of the time; I’m not going to turn this in to a serious essay on Fielding’s approach to gender in the novel, but the ‘comedy’ rape plot actually makes my skin crawl.

As an early novel, it is worth reading and mostly it’s quite good fun. But yeah, be warned.

It’s also pretty long and Fielding really, really wants you to know how clever he is, so there are absolutely loads of literary, cultural and historic references. In particular, Tom’s sidekick Benjamin Partridge is an ex-school master and tends to humorously misquote Latin and Greek. For example:

I remember my old schoolmaster, who was a prodigious great scholar, used often to say, Polly matete cry town is my daskalon. The English of which, he told us, was, that a child may sometimes teach his grandmother to suck eggs.

‘Polly matete cry town is my daskalon’ is an intentionally (presumably) so-rubbish-it’s-funny transcription of πολλοὶ μαθηταὶ κρείσσονες διδασκάλων. My Greek is pretty rubbish too, in fairness to Ben, but I believe it means something like ‘many pupils are cleverer than their teachers’, from a letter by Cicero quoting a play of Menander, so pretty heavy stuff.

I have no doubt that the people who got it were very smug for getting the reference and found it hilarious, and there’s a lot of that sort of thing throughout the book, but I think it’s a bit too much. I’m pretty sure most of this stuff passed over the heads of the majority of readers, who were just amused by the attractive young man running around after his love and ‘accidentally’ having sex with lots of other women along the way. You don’t have to understand the Greek, you can just snigger at the nob gags.

One thought on “Sucking Eggs

  1. You make me wish that I had done my first degree much later, when my feminist soul had been awakened. I daren’t reread the books introduced to us by learned benevolent oldish men. Pretty sure I would shudder.

    Liked by 1 person

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