[Note: This is taken From Andrew Lang's Adventures Among Books.]
The great English novelists of the eighteenth century turned the course of English Literature out of its older channel. Her streams had descended from the double peaks of Parnassus to irrigate the enamelled fields and elegant parterres of poetry and the drama, as the critics of the period might have said. But Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, diverted the waters, from poetry and plays, into the region of the novel, whither they have brought down a copious alluvial deposit. Modern authors do little but till this fertile Delta: the drama is now in the desert, poetry is a drug, and fiction is literature. Among the writers who made this revolution, Smollett is, personally, the least well known to the world, despite the great part which autobiography and confessions play in his work. He is always talking about himself, and introducing his own experiences. But there is little evidence from without; his extant correspondence is scanty; he was not in Dr. Johnson’s circle, much less was he in that of Horace Walpole. He was not a popular man, and probably he has long ceased to be a popular author. About 1780 the vendors of children’s books issued abridgments of “Tom Jones” and “Pamela,” “Clarissa” and “Joseph Andrews,” adapted to the needs of infant minds. It was a curious enterprise, certainly, but the booksellers do not seem to have produced “Every Boy’s Roderick Random,” or “Peregrine Pickle for the Young.” Smollett, in short, is less known than Fielding and Sterne, even Thackeray says but a word about him, in the “English Humorists,” and he has no place in the series of “English Men of Letters.”
What we know of Smollett reveals a thoroughly typical Scot of his period; a Scot of the species absolutely opposed to Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, and rather akin to the species of Robert Burns. “Rather akin,” we may say, for Smollett, like Burns, was a humorist, and in his humour far from dainty; he was a personal satirist, and a satirist far from chivalrous. Like Burns, too, he was a poet of independence; like Burns, and even more than Burns, in a time of patronage he was recalcitrant against patrons. But, unlike Burns, he was farouche to an extreme degree; and, unlike Burns, he carried very far his prejudices about his “gentrice,” his gentle birth. Herein he is at the opposite pole from the great peasant poet.
Two potent characteristics of his country were at war within him. There was, first, the belief in “gentrice,” in a natural difference of kind between men of coat armour and men without it. Thus Roderick Random, the starving cadet of a line of small lairds, accepts the almost incredible self-denial and devotion of Strap as merely his due. Prince Charles could not have taken the devotion of Henry Goring, or of Neil MacEachain, more entirely as a matter of course, involving no consideration in return, than Roderick took the unparalleled self-sacrifice of his barber friend and school-mate. Scott has remarked on this contemptuous and ungrateful selfishness, and has contrasted it with the relations of Tom Jones and Partridge. Of course, it is not to be assumed that Smollett would have behaved like Roderick, when, “finding the fire in my apartment almost extinguished, I vented my fury upon poor Strap, whose ear I pinched with such violence that he roared hideously with pain . . . ” To be sure Roderick presently “felt unspeakable remorse . . . foamed at the mouth, and kicked the chairs about the room.” Now Strap had rescued Roderick from starvation, had bestowed on him hundreds of pounds, and had carried his baggage, and dined on his leavings. But Strap was not gently born! Smollett would not, probably, have acted thus, but he did not consider such conduct a thing out of nature.
On the other side was Smollett’s Scottish spirit of independence. As early as 1515, James Ingles, chaplain of Margaret Tudor, wrote to Adam Williamson, “You know the use of this country. . . . The man hath more words than the master, and will not be content except he know the master’s counsel. There is no order among us.” Strap had the instinct of feudal loyalty to a descendant of a laird. But Smollett boasts that, being at the time about twenty, and having burdened a nobleman with his impossible play, “The Regicide,” “resolved to punish his barbarous indifference, and actually discarded my Patron.” He was not given to “booing” (in the sense of bowing), but had, of all known Scots, the most “canty conceit o’ himsel’.” These qualities, with a violence of temper which took the form of beating people when on his travels, cannot have made Smollett a popular character. He knew his faults, as he shows in the dedication of “Ferdinand, Count Fathom,” to himself. “I have known you trifling, superficial, and obstinate in dispute; meanly jealous and awkwardly reserved; rash and haughty in your resentment; and coarse and lowly in your connections.”
He could, it is true, on occasion, forgive (even where he had not been wronged), and could compensate, in milder moods, for the fierce attacks made in hours when he was “meanly jealous.” Yet, in early life at least, he regarded his own Roderick Random as “modest and meritorious,” struggling nobly with the difficulties which beset a “friendless orphan,” especially from the “selfishness, envy, malice, and base indifference of mankind.” Roderick himself is, in fact, the incarnation of the basest selfishness. In one of his adventures he is guilty of that extreme infamy which the d’Artagnan of “The Three Musketeers” and of the “Memoirs” committed, and for which the d’Artagnan of Le Vicomte de Bragelonne took shame to himself. While engaged in a virtuous passion, Roderick not only behaves like a vulgar debauchee, but pursues the meanest arts of the fortune-hunter who is ready to marry any woman for her money. Such is the modest and meritorious orphan, and mankind now carries its “base indifference” so far, that Smollett’s biographer, Mr. Hannay, says, “if Roderick had been hanged, I, for my part, should have heard the tidings unmoved . . . Smollett obviously died without realising how nearly the hero, who was in some sort a portrait of himself, came to being a ruffian.”
Dr. Carlyle, in 1758, being in London, found Smollett “much of a humorist, and not to be put out of his way.” A “humorist,” here, means an overbearingly eccentric person, such as Smollett, who lived much in a society of literary dependants, was apt to become. But Dr. Carlyle also found that, though Smollett “described so well the characters of ruffians and profligates,” he did not resemble them. Dr. Robertson, the historian, “expressed great surprise at his polished and agreeable manners, and the great urbanity of his conversation.” He was handsome in person, as his portrait shows, but his “nervous system was exceedingly irritable and subject to passion,” as he says in the Latin account of his health which, in 1763, he drew up for the physician at Montpellier. Though, when he chose, he could behave like a man of breeding, and though he undeniably had a warm heart for his wife and daughter, he did not always choose to behave well. Except Dr. Moore, his biographer, he seems to have had few real friends during most of his career.
As to persons whom he chose to regard as his enemies, he was beyond measure rancorous and dangerous. From his first patron, Lord Lyttelton, to his last, he pursued them with unscrupulous animosity. If he did not mean actually to draw portraits of his grandfather, his cousins, his school-master, and the apothecary whose gallipots he attended—in “Roderick Random,”—yet he left the originals who suggested his characters in a very awkward situation. For assuredly he did entertain a spite against his grandfather: and as many of the incidents in “Roderick Random” were autobiographical, the public readily inferred that others were founded on fact.
The outlines of Smollett’s career are familiar, though gaps in our knowledge occur. Perhaps they may partly be filled up by the aid of passages in his novels, plays, and poems: in these, at all events, he describes conditions and situations through which he himself may, or must, have passed.
Born in 1721, he was a younger son of Archibald, a younger son of Sir James Smollett of Bonhill, a house on the now polluted Leven, between Loch Lomond and the estuary of the Clyde. Smollett’s father made an imprudent marriage: the grandfather provided a small, but competent provision for him and his family, during his own life. The father, Archibald, died; the grandfather left nothing to the mother of Tobias and her children, but they were assisted with scrimp decency by the heirs. Hence the attacks on the grandfather and cousins of Roderick Random: but, later, Smollett returned to kinder feelings.
In some ways Tobias resembled his old grandsire. About 1710 that gentleman wrote a Memoir of his own life. Hence we learn that he, in childhood, like Roderick Random, was regarded as “a clog and burden,” and was neglected by his father, ill-used by his step-mother. Thus Tobias had not only his own early poverty to resent, but had a hereditary grudge against fortune, and “the base indifference of mankind.” The old gentleman was lodged “with very hard and penurious people,” at Glasgow University. He rose in the world, and was a good Presbyterian Whig, but “had no liberty” to help to forfeit James II. “The puir child, his son” (James III. and VIII.), “if he was really such, was innocent, and it were hard to do anything that would touch the son for the father’s fault.” The old gentleman, therefore, though a Member of Parliament, evaded attending the first Parliament after the Union: “I had no freedom to do it, because I understood that the great business to be agitated therein was to make laws for abjuring the Pretender . . . which I could not go in with, being always of opinion that it was hard to impose oaths on people who had not freedom to take them.”
This was uncommonly liberal conduct, in a Whig, and our Smollett, though no Jacobite, was in distinct and courageous sympathy with Jacobite Scotland. Indeed, he was as patriotic as Burns, or as his own Lismahago. These were times, we must remember, in which Scottish patriotism was more than a mere historical sentiment. Scotland was inconceivably poor, and Scots, in England, were therefore ridiculous. The country had, so far, gained very little by the Union, and the Union was detested even by Scottish Whig Earls. It is recorded by Moore that, while at the Dumbarton Grammar School, Smollett wrote “verses to the memory of Wallace, of whom he became an early admirer,” having read “Blind Harry’s translation of the Latin poems of John Blair,” chaplain to that hero. There probably never were any such Latin poems, but Smollett began with the same hero-worship as Burns. He had the attachment of a Scot to his native stream, the Leven, which later he was to celebrate. Now if Smollett had credited Roderick Random with these rural, poetical, and patriotic tastes, his hero would have been much more human and amiable. There was much good in Smollett which is absent in Random. But for some reason, probably because Scotland was unpopular after the Forty-Five, Smollett merely describes the woes, ill usage, and retaliations of Roderick. That he suffered as Random did is to the last degree improbable. He had a fair knowledge of Latin, and was not destitute of Greek, while his master, a Mr. Love, bore a good character both for humanity and scholarship. He must have studied the classics at Glasgow University, where he was apprenticed to Mr. Gordon, a surgeon. Gordon, again, was an excellent man, appreciated by Smollett himself in after days, and the odious Potion of “Roderick Random” must, like his rival, Crab, have been merely a fancy sketch of meanness, hypocrisy, and profligacy. Perhaps the good surgeon became the victim of that “one continued string of epigrammatic sarcasms,” such as Mr. Colquhoun told Ramsay of Ochtertyre, Smollett used to play off on his companions, “for which no talents could compensate.” Judging by Dr. Carlyle’s Memoirs this intolerable kind of display was not unusual in Caledonian conversation: but it was not likely to make Tobias popular in England.
Thither he went in 1739, with very little money, “and a very large assortment of letters of recommendation: whether his relatives intended to compensate for the scantiness of the one by their profusion in the other is uncertain; but he has often been heard to declare that their liberality in the last article was prodigious.” The Smolletts were not “kinless loons”; they had connections: but who, in Scotland, had money? Tobias had passed his medical examinations, but he rather trusted in his MS. tragedy, “The Regicide.” Tragical were its results for the author. Inspired by George Buchanan’s Latin history of Scotland, Smollett had produced a play, in blank verse, on the murder of James I. That a boy, even a Scottish boy, should have an overweening passion for this unlucky piece, that he should expect by such a work to climb a step on fortune’s ladder, is nowadays amazing. For ten years he clung to it, modified it, polished, improved it, and then published it in 1749, after the success of “Roderick Random.” Twice he told the story of his theatrical mishaps and disappointments, which were such as occur to every writer for the stage. He wailed over them in “Roderick Random,” in the story of Mr. Melopoyn; he prolonged his cry, in the preface to “The Regicide,” and probably the noble whom he “lashed” (very indecently) in his two satires (“Advice,” 1746, “Reproof,” 1747, and in “Roderick Random”) was the patron who could not get the tragedy acted. First, in 1739, he had a patron whom he “discarded.” Then he went to the West Indies, and, returning in 1744, he lugged out his tragedy again, and fell foul again of patrons, actors, and managers. What befell him was the common fate. People did not, probably, hasten to read his play: managers and “supercilious peers” postponed that entertainment, or, at least, the noblemen could not make the managers accept it if they did not want it. Our taste differs so much from that of the time which admired Home’s “Douglas,” and “The Regicide” was so often altered to meet objections, that we can scarcely criticise it. Of course it is absolutely unhistorical; of course it is empty of character, and replete with fustian, and ineffably tedious; but perhaps it is not much worse than other luckier tragedies of the age. Naturally a lover calls his wounded lady “the bleeding fair.” Naturally she exclaims—
Protect my father, shower upon his—oh!” (Dies).
Naturally her adorer answers with—
“So may our mingling souls
To bliss supernal wing our happy—oh!” (Dies).
We are reminded of—
“Alas, my Bom!” (Dies).
“‘Bastes’ he would have said!”
The piece, if presented, must have been damned. But Smollett was so angry with one patron, Lord Lyttelton, that he burlesqued the poor man’s dirge on the death of his wife. He was so angry with Garrick that he dragged him into “Roderick Random” as Marmozet. Later, obliged by Garrick, and forgiving Lyttelton, he wrote respectfully about both. But, in 1746 (in “Advice”), he had assailed the “proud lord, who smiles a gracious lie,” and “the varnished ruffians of the State.” Because Tobias’s play was unacted, people who tried to aid him were liars and ruffians, and a great deal worse, for in his satire, as in his first novel, Smollett charges men of high rank with the worst of unnamable crimes. Pollio and Lord Strutwell, whoever they may have been, were probably recognisable then, and were undeniably libelled, though they did not appeal to a jury. It is improbable that Sir John Cope had ever tried to oblige Smollett. His ignoble attack on Cope, after that unfortunate General had been fairly and honourably acquitted of incompetence and cowardice, was, then, wholly disinterested. Cope is “a courtier Ape, appointed General.”
“Then Pug, aghast, fled faster than the wind,
Nor deign’d, in three-score miles, to look behind;
While every band for orders bleat in vain,
And fall in slaughtered heaps upon the plain,”—
of Preston Pans.
Nothing could be more remote from the truth, or more unjustly cruel. Smollett had not here even the excuse of patriotism. Sir John Cope was no Butcher Cumberland. In fact the poet’s friend is not wrong, when, in “Reproof,” he calls Smollett “a flagrant misanthrope.” The world was out of joint for the cadet of Bonhill: both before and after his very trying experiences as a ship surgeon the managers would not accept “The Regicide.” This was reason good why Smollett should try to make a little money and notoriety by penning satires. They are fierce, foul-mouthed, and pointless. But Smollett was poor, and he was angry; he had the examples of Pope and Swift before him; which, as far as truculence went, he could imitate. Above all, it was then the fixed belief of men of letters that some peer or other ought to aid and support them; and, as no peer did support Smollett, obviously they were “varnished ruffians.” He erred as he would not err now, for times, and ways of going wrong, are changed. But, at best, how different are his angry couplets from the lofty melancholy of Johnson’s satires!
Smollett’s “small sum of money” did not permit him long to push the fortunes of his tragedy, in 1739; and as for his “very large assortment of letters of recommendation,” they only procured for him the post of surgeon’s mate in the Cumberland of the line. Here he saw enough of the horrors of naval life, enough of misery, brutality, and mismanagement, at Carthagena (1741), to supply materials for the salutary and sickening pages on that theme in “Roderick Random.” He also saw and appreciated the sterling qualities of courage, simplicity, and generosity, which he has made immortal in his Bowlings and Trunnions.
It is part of a novelist’s business to make one half of the world know how the other half lives; and in this province Smollett anticipated Dickens. He left the service as soon as he could, when the beaten fleet was refitting at Jamaica. In that isle he seems to have practised as a doctor; and he married, or was betrothed to, a Miss Lascelles, who had a small and far from valuable property. The real date of his marriage is obscure: more obscure are Smollett’s resources on his return to London, in 1744. Houses in Downing Street can never have been cheap, but we find “Mr. Smollett, surgeon in Downing Street, Westminster,” and, in 1746, he was living in May Fair, not a region for slender purses. His tragedy was now bringing in nothing but trouble, to himself and others. His satires cannot have been lucrative. As a dweller in May Fair he could not support himself, like his Mr. Melopoyn, by writing ballads for street singers. Probably he practised in his profession. In “Count Fathom” he makes his adventurer “purchase an old chariot, which was new painted for the occasion, and likewise hire a footman . . . This equipage, though much more expensive than his finances could bear, he found absolutely necessary to give him a chance of employment . . . A walking physician was considered as an obscure pedlar.” A chariot, Smollett insists, was necessary to “every raw surgeon”; while Bob Sawyer’s expedient of “being called from church” was already vieux jeu, in the way of advertisement. Such things had been “injudiciously hackneyed.” In this passage of Fathom’s adventures, Smollett proclaims his insight into methods of getting practice. A physician must ingratiate himself with apothecaries and ladies’ maids, or “acquire interest enough” to have an infirmary erected “by the voluntary subscriptions of his friends.” Here Smollett denounces hospitals, which “encourage the vulgar to be idle and dissolute, by opening an asylum to them and their families, from the diseases of poverty and intemperance.” This is odd morality for one who suffered from “the base indifference of mankind.” He ought to have known that poverty is not a vice for which the poor are to be blamed; and that intemperance is not the only other cause of their diseases. Perhaps the unfeeling passage is a mere paradox in the style of his own Lismahago.
With or without a chariot, it is probable that Tobias had not an insinuating style, or “a good bedside manner”; friends to support a hospital for his renown he had none; but, somehow, he could live in May Fair, and, in 1746, could meet Dr. Carlyle and Stewart, son of the Provost of Edinburgh, and other Scots, at the Golden Ball in Cockspur Street. There they were enjoying “a frugal supper and a little punch,” when the news of Culloden arrived. Carlyle had been a Whig volunteer: he, probably, was happy enough; but Stewart, whose father was in prison, grew pale, and left the room. Smollett and Carlyle then walked home through secluded streets, and were silent, lest their speech should bewray them for Scots. “John Bull,” quoth Smollett, “is as haughty and valiant to-day, as he was abject and cowardly on the Black Wednesday when the Highlanders were at Derby.”
“Weep, Caledonia, weep!” he had written in his tragedy. Now he wrote “Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn.” Scott has quoted, from Graham of Gartmore, the story of Smollett’s writing verses, while Gartmore and others were playing cards. He read them what he had written, “The Tears of Scotland,” and added the last verse on the spot, when warned that his opinions might give offence.
“Yes, spite of thine insulting foe,
My sympathising verse shall flow.”
The “Tears” are better than the “Ode to Blue-Eyed Ann,” probably Mrs. Smollett. But the courageous author of “The Tears of Scotland,” had manifestly broken with patrons. He also broke with Rich, the manager at Covent Garden, for whom he had written an opera libretto. He had failed as doctor, and as dramatist; nor, as satirist, had he succeeded. Yet he managed to wear wig and sword, and to be seen in good men’s company. Perhaps his wife’s little fortune supported him, till, in 1748, he produced “Roderick Random.” It is certain that we never find Smollett in the deep distresses of Dr. Johnson and Goldsmith. Novels were now in vogue; “Pamela” was recent, “Joseph Andrews” was yet more recent, “Clarissa Harlowe” had just appeared, and Fielding was publishing “Tom Jones.” Smollett, too, tried his hand, and, at last, he succeeded.
His ideas of the novel are offered in his preface. The Novel, for him, is a department of Satire; “the most entertaining and universally improving.” To Smollett, “Roderick Random” seemed an “improving” work! Où le didacticisme va t’il se nicher? Romance, he declares, “arose in ignorance, vanity, and superstition,” and declined into “the ludicrous and unnatural.” Then Cervantes “converted romance to purposes far more useful and entertaining, by making it assume the sock, and point out the follies of ordinary life.” Romance was to revive again some twenty years after its funeral oration was thus delivered. As for Smollett himself, he professedly “follows the plan” of Le Sage, in “Gil Blas” (a plan as old as Petronius Arbiter, and the “Golden Ass” of Apuleius); but he gives more place to “compassion,” so as not to interfere with “generous indignation, which ought to animate the reader against the sordid and vicious disposition of the world.” As a contrast to sordid vice, we are to admire “modest merit” in that exemplary orphan, Mr. Random. This gentleman is a North Briton, because only in North Britain can a poor orphan get such an education as Roderick’s “birth and character require,” and for other reasons. Now, as for Roderick, the schoolmaster “gave himself no concern about the progress I made,” but, “should endeavour, with God’s help, to prevent my future improvement.” It must have been at Glasgow University, then, that Roderick learned “Greek very well, and was pretty far advanced in the mathematics,” and here he must have used his genius for the belles lettres, in the interest of his “amorous complexion,” by “lampooning the rivals” of the young ladies who admired him.
Such are the happy beginnings, accompanied by practical jokes, of this interesting model. Smollett’s heroes, one conceives, were intended to be fine, though not faultless young fellows; men, not plaster images; brave, generous, free-living, but, as Roderick finds once, when examining his conscience, pure from serious stains on that important faculty. To us these heroes often appear no better than ruffians; Peregrine Pickle, for example, rather excels the infamy of Ferdinand, Count Fathom, in certain respects; though Ferdinand is professedly “often the object of our detestation and abhorrence,” and is left in a very bad, but, as “Humphrey Clinker” shows, in by no means a hopeless way. Yet, throughout, Smollett regarded himself as a moralist, a writer of improving tendencies; one who “lashed the vices of the age.” He was by no means wholly mistaken, but we should probably wrong the eighteenth century if we accepted all Smollett’s censures as entirely deserved. The vices which he lashed are those which he detected, or fancied that he detected, in people who regarded a modest and meritorious Scottish orphan with base indifference. Unluckily the greater part of mankind was guilty of this crime, and consequently was capable of everything.
Enough has probably been said about the utterly distasteful figure of Smollett’s hero. In Chapter LX. we find him living on the resources of Strap, then losing all Strap’s money at play, and then “I bilk my taylor.” That is, Roderick orders several suits of new clothes, and sells them for what they will fetch. Meanwhile Strap can live honestly anywhere, while he has his ten fingers. Roderick rescues himself from poverty by engaging, with his uncle, in the slave trade. We are apt to consider this commerce infamous. But, in 1763, the Evangelical director who helped to make Cowper “a castaway,” wrote, as to the slaver’s profession: “It is, indeed, accounted a genteel employment, and is usually very profitable, though to me it did not prove so, the Lord seeing that a large increase of wealth could not be good for me.” The reverend gentleman had, doubtless, often sung—
“Time for us to go,
Time for us to go,
And when we’d got the hatches down,
’Twas time for us to go!”
Roderick, apart from “black ivory,” is aided by his uncle and his long lost father. The base world, in the persons of Strap, Thompson, the uncle, Mr. Sagely, and other people, treats him infinitely better than he deserves. His very love (as always in Smollett) is only an animal appetite, vigorously insisted upon by the author. By a natural reaction, Scott, much as he admired Smollett, introduced his own blameless heroes, and even Thackeray could only hint at the defects of youth, in “Esmond.” Thackeray is accused of making his good people stupid, or too simple, or eccentric, and otherwise contemptible. Smollett went further: Strap, a model of benevolence, is ludicrous and a coward; even Bowling has the stage eccentricities of the sailor. Mankind was certain, in the long run, to demand heroes more amiable and worthy of respect. Our inclinations, as Scott says, are with “the open-hearted, good-humoured, and noble-minded Tom Jones, whose libertinism (one particular omitted) is perhaps rendered but too amiable by his good qualities.” To be sure Roderick does befriend “a reclaimed street-walker” in her worst need, but why make her the confidante of the virginal Narcissa? Why reward Strap with her hand? Fielding decidedly, as Scott insists, “places before us heroes, and especially heroines, of a much higher as well as more pleasing character, than Smollett was able to present.”
“But the deep and fertile genius of Smollett afforded resources sufficient to make up for these deficiencies . . . If Fielding had superior taste, the palm of more brilliancy of genius, more inexhaustible richness of invention, must in justice be awarded to Smollett. In comparison with his sphere, that in which Fielding walked was limited . . . ” The second part of Scott’s parallel between the men whom he considered the greatest of our novelists, qualifies the first. Smollett’s invention was not richer than Fielding’s, but the sphere in which he walked, the circle of his experience, was much wider. One division of life they knew about equally well, the category of rakes, adventurers, card-sharpers, unhappy authors, people of the stage, and ladies without reputations, in every degree. There were conditions of higher society, of English rural society, and of clerical society, which Fielding, by birth and education, knew much better than Smollett. But Smollett had the advantage of his early years in Scotland, then as little known as Japan; with the “nautical multitude,” from captain to loblolly boy, he was intimately familiar; with the West Indies he was acquainted; and he later resided in Paris, and travelled in Flanders, so that he had more experience, certainly, if not more invention, than Fielding.
In “Roderick Random” he used Scottish “local colour” very little, but his life had furnished him with a surprising wealth of “strange experiences.” Inns were, we must believe, the favourite home of adventures, and Smollett could ring endless changes on mistakes about bedrooms. None of them is so innocently diverting as the affair of Mr. Pickwick and the lady in yellow curl-papers; but the absence of that innocence which heightens Mr. Pickwick’s distresses was welcome to admirers of what Lady Mary Wortley Montagu calls “gay reading.”
She wrote from abroad, in 1752, “There is something humorous in R. Random, that makes me believe that the author is H. Fielding”—her kinsman. Her ladyship did her cousin little justice. She did not complain of the morals of “R. Random,” but thought “Pamela” and “Clarissa” “likely to do more general mischief than the works of Lord Rochester.” Probably “R. Random” did little harm. His career is too obviously ideal. Too many ups and downs occur to him, and few orphans of merit could set before themselves the ideal of bilking their tailors, gambling by way of a profession, dealing in the slave trade, and wheedling heiresses.
The variety of character in the book is vast; in Morgan we have an excellent, fiery, Welshman, of the stage type; the different minor miscreants are all vividly designed; the eccentric lady author may have had a real original; Miss Snapper has much vivacity as a wit; the French adventures in the army are, in their rude barbaric way, a forecast of Barry Lyndon’s; and, generally, both Scott and Thackeray owe a good deal to Smollett in the way of suggestions. Smollett’s extraordinary love of dilating on noisome smells and noisome sights, that intense affection for the physically nauseous, which he shared with Swift, is rather less marked in “Roderick” than in “Humphrey Clinker,” and “The Adventures of an Atom.” The scenes in the Marshalsea must have been familiar to Dickens. The terrible history of Miss Williams is Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress done into unsparing prose. Smollett guides us at a brisk pace through the shady and brutal side of the eighteenth century; his vivacity is as unflagging as that of his disagreeable rattle of a hero. The passion usually understood as love is, to be sure, one of which he seems to have no conception; he regards a woman much as a greedy person might regard a sirloin of beef, or, at least, a plate of ortolans. At her marriage a bride is “dished up;” that is all.
Thus this “gay writing” no longer makes us gay. In reading “Peregrine Pickle” and “Humphrey Clinker,” a man may find himself laughing aloud, but hardly in reading “Roderick Random.” The fun is of the cruel primitive sort, arising merely from the contemplation of somebody’s painful discomfiture. Bowling and Rattlin may be regarded with affectionate respect; but Roderick has only physical courage and vivacity to recommend him. Whether Smollett, in Flaubert’s deliberate way, purposely abstained from moralising on the many scenes of physical distress which he painted; or whether he merely regarded them without emotion, has been debated. It seems more probable that he thought they carried their own moral. It is the most sympathetic touch in Roderick’s character, that he writes thus of his miserable crew of slaves: “Our ship being freed from the disagreeable lading of negroes, to whom indeed I had been a miserable slave since our leaving the coast of Guinea, I began to enjoy myself.” Smollett was a physician, and had the pitifulness of his profession; though we see how casually he makes Random touch on his own unwonted benevolence.
People had not begun to know the extent of their own brutality in the slave trade, but Smollett probably did know it. If a curious prophetic letter attributed to him, and published more than twenty years after his death, be genuine; he had the strongest opinions about this form of commercial enterprise. But he did not wear his heart on his sleeve, where he wore his irritable nervous system. It is probable enough that he felt for the victims of poverty, neglect, and oppression (despite his remarks on hospitals) as keenly as Dickens. We might regard his offensively ungrateful Roderick as a purely dramatic exhibition of a young man, if his other heroes were not as bad, or worse; if their few redeeming qualities were not stuck on in patches; and if he had omitted his remark about Roderick’s “modest merit.” On the other hand, the good side of Matthew Bramble seems to be drawn from Smollett’s own character, and, if that be the case, he can have had little sympathy with his own humorous Barry Lyndons. Scott and Thackeray leaned to the favourable view: Smollett, his nervous system apart, was manly and kindly.
As regards plot, “Roderick Random” is a mere string of picturesque adventures. It is at the opposite pole from “Tom Jones” in the matter of construction. There is no reason why it should ever stop except the convenience of printers and binders. Perhaps we lay too much stress on the somewhat mechanical art of plot-building. Fielding was then setting the first and best English example of a craft in which the very greatest authors have been weak, or of which they were careless. Smollett was always rather more incapable, or rather more indifferent, in plot-weaving, than greater men.
In our day of royalties, and gossip about the gains of authors, it would be interesting to know what manner and size of a cheque Smollett received from his publisher, the celebrated Mr. Osborne. We do not know, but Smollett published his next novel “on commission,” “printed for the Author”; so probably he was not well satisfied with the pecuniary result of “Roderick Random.” Thereby, says Dr. Moore, he “acquired much more reputation than money.” So he now published “The Regicide” “by subscription, that method of publication being then more reputable than it has been thought since” (1797). Of “The Regicide,” and its unlucky preface, enough, or more, has been said. The public sided with the managers, not with the meritorious orphan.
For the sake of pleasure, or of new experiences, or of economy, Smollett went to Paris in 1750, where he met Dr. Moore, later his biographer, the poetical Dr. Akenside, and an affected painter. He introduced the poet and painter into “Peregrine Pickle”; and makes slight use of a group of exiled Jacobites, including Mr. Hunter of Burnside. In 1750, there were Jacobites enough in the French capital, all wondering very much where Prince Charles might be, and quite unconscious that he was their neighbour in a convent in the Rue St. Dominique. Though Moore does not say so (he is provokingly economical of detail), we may presume that Smollett went wandering in Flanders, as does Peregrine Pickle. It is curious that he should introduce a Capucin, a Jew, and a black-eyed damsel, all in the Ghent diligence, when we know that Prince Charles did live in Ghent, with the black-eyed Miss Walkenshaw, did go about disguised as a Capucin, and was tracked by a Jewish spy, while the other spy, Young Glengarry, styled himself “Pickle.” But all those events occurred about a year after the novel was published in 1751.
Before that date Smollett had got an M.D. degree from Aberdeen University, and, after returning from France, he practised for a year or two at Bath. But he could not expect to be successful among fashionable invalids, and, in “Humphrey Clinker,” he make Matthew Bramble give such an account of the Bath waters as M. Zola might envy. He was still trying to gain ground in his profession, when, in March 1751, Mr. D. Wilson published the first edition of “Peregrine Pickle” “for the Author,” unnamed. I have never seen this first edition, which was “very curious and disgusting.” Smollett, in his preface to the second edition, talks of “the art and industry that were used to stifle him in the birth, by certain booksellers and others.” He now “reformed the manners, and corrected the expressions,” removed or modified some passages of personal satire, and held himself exempt from “the numerous shafts of envy, rancour, and revenge, that have lately, both in private and public, been levelled at his reputation.” Who were these base and pitiless dastards? Probably every one who did not write favourably about the book. Perhaps Smollett suspected Fielding, whom he attacks in several parts of his works, treating him as a kind of Jonathan Wild, a thief-taker, and an associate with thieves. Why Smollett thus misconducted himself is a problem, unless he was either “meanly jealous,” or had taken offence at some remarks in Fielding’s newspaper. Smollett certainly began the war, in the first edition of “Peregrine Pickle.” He made a kind of palinode to the “trading justice” later, as other people of his kind have done.
A point in “Peregrine Pickle” easily assailed was the long episode about a Lady of Quality: the beautiful Lady Vane, whose memoirs Smollett introduced into his tale. Horace Walpole found that she had omitted the only feature in her career of which she had just reason to be proud: the number of her lovers. Nobody doubted that Smollett was paid for casting his mantle over Lady Vane: moreover, he might expect a success of scandal. The roman à clef is always popular with scandal-mongers, but its authors can hardly hope to escape rebuke.
It was not till 1752 that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in Italy, received “Peregrine,” with other fashionable romances—“Pompey the Little,” “The Parish Girl,” “Eleanora’s Adventures,” “The Life of Mrs. Theresa Constantia Phipps,” “The Adventures of Mrs. Loveil,” and so on. Most of them contained portraits of real people, and, no doubt, most of them were therefore successful. But where are they now? Lady Mary thought Lady Vane’s part of “Peregrine” “more instructive to young women than any sermon that I know.” She regarded Fielding as with Congreve, the only “original” of her age, but Fielding had to write for bread, and that is “the most contemptible way of getting bread.” She did not, at this time, even know Smollett’s name, but she admired him, and, later, calls him “my dear Smollett.” This lady thought that Fielding did not know what sorry fellows his Tom Jones and Captain Booth were. Not near so sorry as Peregine Pickle were they, for this gentleman is a far more atrocious ruffian than Roderick Random.
None the less “Peregrine” is Smollett’s greatest work. Nothing is so rich in variety of character, scene, and adventure. We are carried along by the swift and copious volume of the current, carried into very queer places, and into the oddest miscellaneous company, but we cannot escape from Smollett’s vigorous grasp. Sir Walter thought that “Roderick” excelled its successor in “ease and simplicity,” and that Smollett’s sailors, in “Pickle,” “border on caricature.” No doubt they do: the eccentricities of Hawser Trunnion, Esq., are exaggerated, and Pipes is less subdued than Rattlin, though always delightful. But Trunnion absolutely makes one laugh out aloud: whether he is criticising the sister of Mr. Gamaliel Pickle in that gentleman’s presence, at a pot-house; or riding to the altar with his squadron of sailors, tacking in an unfavourable gale; or being run away into a pack of hounds, and clearing a hollow road over a waggoner, who views him with “unspeakable terror and amazement.” Mr. Winkle as an equestrian is not more entirely acceptable to the mind than Trunnion. We may speak of “caricature,” but if an author can make us sob with laughter, to criticise him solemnly is ungrateful.
Except Fielding occasionally, and Smollett, and Swift, and Sheridan, and the authors of “The Rovers,” one does not remember any writers of the eighteenth century who quite upset the gravity of the reader. The scene of the pedant’s dinner after the manner of the ancients, does not seem to myself so comic as the adventures of Trunnion, while the bride is at the altar, and the bridegroom is tacking and veering with his convoy about the fields. One sees how the dinner is done: with a knowledge of Athenæus, Juvenal, Petronius, and Horace, many men could have written this set piece. But Trunnion is quite inimitable: he is a child of humour and of the highest spirits, like Mr. Weller the elder. Till Scott created Mause Headrig, no Caledonian had ever produced anything except “Tam o’ Shanter,” that could be a pendant to Trunnion. His pathos is possibly just a trifle overdone, though that is not my own opinion. Dear Trunnion! he makes me overlook the gambols of his detestable protégé, the hero.
That scoundrel is not an impossible caricature of an obstinate, vain, cruel libertine. Peregrine was precisely the man to fall in love with Emilia pour le bon motif, and then attempt to ruin her, though she was the sister of his friend, by devices worthy of Lovelace at his last and lowest stage. Peregrine’s overwhelming vanity, swollen by facile conquests, would inevitably have degraded him to this abyss. The intrigue was only the worst of those infamous practical jokes of his, in which Smollett takes a cruel and unholy delight. Peregrine, in fact, is a hero of naturalisme, except that his fits of generosity are mere patches daubed on, and that his reformation is a farce, in which a modern naturaliste would have disdained to indulge. Emilia, in her scene with Peregrine in the bouge to which he has carried her, rises much above Smollett’s heroines, and we could like her, if she had never forgiven behaviour which was beneath pardon.
Peregrine’s education at Winchester bears out Lord Elcho’s description of that academy in his lately published Memoirs. It was apt to develop Peregrines; and Lord Elcho himself might have furnished Smollett with suitable adventures. There can be no doubt that Cadwallader Crabtree suggested Sir Malachi Malagrowther to Scott, and that Hatchway and Pipes, taking up their abode with Peregrine in the Fleet, gave a hint to Dickens for Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick in the same abode. That “Peregrine” “does far excel ‘Joseph Andrews’ and ‘Amelia’,” as Scott declares, few modern readers will admit. The world could do much better without “Peregrine” than without “Joseph”; while Amelia herself alone is a study greatly preferable to the whole works of Smollett: such, at least, is the opinion of a declared worshipper of that peerless lady. Yet “Peregrine” is a kind of Odyssey of the eighteenth century: an epic of humour and of adventure.
In February 1753, Smollett “obliged the town” with his “Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom,” a cosmopolitan swindler and adventurer. The book is Smollett’s “Barry Lyndon,” yet as his hero does not tell his own story, but is perpetually held up as a “dreadful example,” there is none of Thackeray’s irony, none of his subtlety. “Here is a really bad man, a foreigner too,” Smollett seems to say, “do not be misled, oh maidens, by the wiles of such a Count! Impetuous youth, play not with him at billiards, basset, or gleek. Fathers, on such a rogue shut your doors: collectors, handle not his nefarious antiques. Let all avoid the path and shun the example of Ferdinand, Count Fathom!”
Such is Smollett’s sermon, but, after all, Ferdinand is hardly worse than Roderick or Peregrine. The son of a terrible old sutler and camp-follower, a robber and slayer of wounded men, Ferdinand had to live by his wits, and he was hardly less scrupulous, after all, than Peregrine and Roderick. The daubs of casual generosity were not laid on, and that is all the difference. As Sophia Western was mistaken for Miss Jenny Cameron, so Ferdinand was arrested as Prince Charles, who, in fact, caused much inconvenience to harmless travellers. People were often arrested as “The Pretender’s son” abroad as well as in England.
The life and death of Ferdinand’s mother, shot by a wounded hussar in her moment of victory, make perhaps the most original and interesting part of this hero’s adventures. The rest is much akin to his earlier novels, but the history of Rinaldo and Monimia has a passage not quite alien to the vein of Mrs. Radcliffe. Some remarks in the first chapter show that Smollett felt the censures on his brutality and “lowness,” and he promises to seek “that goal of perfection where nature is castigated almost even to still life . . . where decency, divested of all substance, hovers about like a fantastic shadow.”
Smollett never reached that goal, and even the shadow of decency never haunted him so as to make him afraid with any amazement. Smollett avers that he “has had the courage to call in question the talents of a pseudo-patron,” and so is charged with “insolence, rancour, and scurrility.” Of all these things, and of worse, he had been guilty; his offence had never been limited to “calling in question the talents” of persons who had been unsuccessful in getting his play represented. Remonstrance merely irritated Tobias. His new novel was but a fainter echo of his old novels, a panorama of scoundrelism, with the melodramatic fortunes of the virtuous Monimia for a foil. If read to-day, it is read as a sketch of manners, or want of manners. The scene in which the bumpkin squire rooks the accomplished Fathom at hazard, in Paris, is prettily conceived, and Smollett’s indignation at the British system of pews in church is edifying. But when Monimia appears to her lover as he weeps at her tomb, and proves to be no phantom, but a “warm and substantial” Monimia, capable of being “dished up,” like any other Smollettian heroine, the reader is sensibly annoyed. Tobias as un romantique is absolutely too absurd; “not here, oh Tobias, are haunts meet for thee.”
Smollett’s next novel, “Sir Launcelot Greaves,” was not published till 1761, after it had appeared in numbers, in The British Magazine. This was a sixpenny serial, published by Newbery. The years between 1753 and 1760 had been occupied by Smollett in quarrelling, getting imprisoned for libel, editing the Critical Review, writing his “History of England,” translating (or adapting old translations of) “Don Quixote,” and driving a team of literary hacks, whose labours he superintended, and to whom he gave a weekly dinner. These exploits are described by Dr. Carlyle, and by Smollett himself, in “Humphrey Clinker.” He did not treat his vassals with much courtesy or consideration; but then they expected no such treatment. We have no right to talk of his doings as “a blood-sucking method, literary sweating,” like a recent biographer of Smollett. Not to speak of the oddly mixed metaphor, we do not know what Smollett’s relations to his retainers really were. As an editor he had to see his contributors. The work of others he may have recommended, as “reader” to publishers. Others may have made transcripts for him, or translations. That Smollett “sweated” men, or sucked their blood, or both, seems a crude way of saying that he found them employment. Nobody says that Johnson “sweated” the persons who helped him in compiling his Dictionary; or that Mr. Jowett “sweated” the friends and pupils who aided him in his translation of Plato. Authors have a perfect right to procure literary assistance, especially in learned books, if they pay for it, and acknowledge their debt to their allies. On the second point, Smollett was probably not in advance of his age.
“Sir Launcelot Greaves” is, according to Chambers, “a sorry specimen of the genius of the author,” and Mr. Oliphant Smeaton calls it “decidedly the least popular” of his novels, while Scott astonishes us by preferring it to “Jonathan Wild.” Certainly it is inferior to “Roderick Random” and to “Peregrine Pickle,” but it cannot be so utterly unreal as “The Adventures of an Atom.” I, for one, venture to prefer “Sir Launcelot” to “Ferdinand, Count Fathom.” Smollett was really trying an experiment in the fantastic. Just as Mr. Anstey Guthrie transfers the mediæval myth of Venus and the Ring, or the Arabian tale of the bottled-up geni (or djinn) into modern life, so Smollett transferred Don Quixote. His hero, a young baronet of wealth, and of a benevolent and generous temper, is crossed in love. Though not mad, he is eccentric, and commences knight-errant. Scott, and others, object to his armour, and say that, in his ordinary clothes, and with his well-filled purse, he would have been more successful in righting wrongs. Certainly, but then the comic fantasy of the armed knight arriving at the ale-house, and jangling about the rose-hung lanes among the astonished folk of town and country, would have been lost. Smollett is certainly less unsuccessful in wild fantasy, than in the ridiculous romantic scenes where the substantial phantom of Monimia disports itself. The imitation of the knight by the nautical Captain Crowe (an excellent Smollettian mariner) is entertaining, and Sir Launcelot’s crusty Sancho is a pleasant variety in squires. The various forms of oppression which the knight resists are of historical interest, as also is the contested election between a rustic Tory and a smooth Ministerialist: “sincerely attached to the Protestant succession, in detestation of a popish, an abjured, and an outlawed Pretender.” The heroine, Aurelia Darrel, is more of a lady, and less of a luxury, than perhaps any other of Smollett’s women. But how Smollett makes love! “Tea was called. The lovers were seated; he looked and languished; she flushed and faltered; all was doubt and delirium, fondness and flutter.”
“All was gas and gaiters,” said the insane lover of Mrs. Nickleby, with equal delicacy and point.
Scott says that Smollett, when on a visit to Scotland, used to write his chapter of “copy” in the half-hour before the post went out. Scott was very capable of having the same thing happen to himself. “Sir Launcelot” is hurriedly, but vigorously written: the fantasy was not understood as Smollett intended it to be, and the book is blotted, as usual, with loathsome medical details. But people in Madame du Deffand’s circle used openly to discuss the same topics, to the confusion of Horace Walpole. As the hero of this book is a generous gentleman, as the most of it is kind and manly, and the humour provocative of an honest laugh, it is by no means to be despised, while the manners, if caricatured, are based on fact.
It is curious to note that in “Sir Launcelot Greaves,” we find a character, Ferret, who frankly poses as a strugforlifeur. M. Daudet’s strugforlifeur had heard of Darwin. Mr. Ferret had read Hobbes, learned that man was in a state of nature, and inferred that we ought to prey upon each other, as a pike eats trout. Miss Burney, too, at Bath, about 1780, met a perfectly emancipated young “New Woman.” She had read Bolingbroke and Hume, believed in nothing, and was ready to be a “Woman who Did.” Our ancestors could be just as advanced as we are.
Smollett went on compiling, and supporting himself by his compilations, and those of his vassals. In 1762 he unluckily edited a paper called The Briton in the interests of Lord Bute. The Briton was silenced by Wilkes’s North Briton. Smollett lost his last patron; he fell ill; his daughter died; he travelled angrily in France and Italy. His “Travels” show the choleric nature of the man, and he was especially blamed for not admiring the Venus de Medici. Modern taste, enlightened by the works of a better period of Greek art, has come round to Smollett’s opinions. But, in his own day, he was regarded as a Vandal and a heretic.
In 1764, he visited Scotland, and was warmly welcomed by his kinsman, the laird of Bonhill. In 1769, he published “The Adventures of an Atom,” a stupid, foul, and scurrilous political satire, in which Lord Bute, having been his patron, was “lashed” in Smollett’s usual style. In 1768, Smollett left England for ever. He desired a consulship, but no consulship was found for him, which is not surprising. He died at Monte Nova, near Leghorn, in September (others say October) 1771. He had finished “Humphrey Clinker,” which appeared a day or two before his death.
Thackeray thought “Humphrey Clinker” the most laughable book that ever was written. Certainly nobody is to be envied who does not laugh over the epistles of Winifred Jenkins. The book is too well known for analysis. The family of Matthew Bramble, Esq., are on their travels, with his nephew and niece, young Melford and Lydia Melford, with Miss Jenkins, and the squire’s tart, greedy, and amorous old maid of a sister, Tabitha Bramble. This lady’s persistent amours and mean avarice scarcely strike modern readers as amusing. Smollett gave aspects of his own character in the choleric, kind, benevolent Matthew Bramble, and in the patriotic and paradoxical Lieutenant Lismahago. Bramble, a gouty invalid, is as full of medical abominations as Smollett himself, as ready to fight, and as generous and open-handed. Probably the author shared Lismahago’s contempt of trade, his dislike of the Union (1707), his fiery independence (yet he does marry Tabitha!), and those opinions in which Lismahago heralds some of the social notions of Mr. Ruskin.
Melford is an honourable kind of “walking gentleman”; Lydia, though enamoured, is modest and dignified; Clinker is a worthy son of Bramble, with abundant good humour, and a pleasing vein of Wesleyan Methodism. But the grotesque spelling, rural vanity, and naïveté of Winifred Jenkins, with her affection for her kitten, make her the most delightful of this wandering company. After beholding the humours and partaking of the waters of Bath, they follow Smollett’s own Scottish tour, and each character gives his picture of the country which Smollett had left at its lowest ebb of industry and comfort, and found so much more prosperous. The book is a mine for the historian of manners and customs: the novel-reader finds Count Fathom metamorphosed into Mr. Grieve, an exemplary apothecary, “a sincere convert to virtue,” and “unaffectedly pious.”
Apparently a wave of good-nature came over Smollett: he forgave everybody, his own relations even, and he reclaimed his villain. A patron might have played with him. He mellowed in Scotland: Matthew there became less tart, and more tolerant; an actual English Matthew would have behaved quite otherwise. “Humphrey Clinker” is an astonishing book, as the work of an exiled, poor, and dying man. None of his works leaves so admirable an impression of Smollett’s virtues: none has so few of his less amiable qualities.
With the cadet of Bonhill, outworn with living, and with labour, died the burly, brawling, picturesque old English novel of humour and of the road. We have nothing notable in this manner, before the arrival of Mr. Pickwick. An exception will scarcely be made in the interest of Richard Cumberland, who, as Scott says, “has occasionally . . . become disgusting, when he meant to be humorous.” Already Walpole had begun the new “Gothic romance,” and the “Castle of Otranto,” with Miss Burney’s novels, was to lead up to Mrs. Radcliffe and Scott, to Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen.
Disclosure: We are independently owned and the opinions expressed here are our own. We do have advertisements with links to other sites on our pages, and may receive compensation when you click on one of those links and/or purchase something from one of those sites.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved