Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Tobias Smollett (17211771)
[Tobias George Smollett was born (1721) at Dalquhurn, in Dumbartonshire. His family (Smollett of Bonhill) was a good one, and his grandfather, Sir James, was a judge and a member of Parliament: but the novelists father was a younger son who died when the boy was a child; and though Smollett himself would have succeeded to the family estate had he lived a few years longer, he was throughout his life dependent, or mainly so, on his own earnings. Educated at Glasgow, and apprenticed to a surgeon, he took an appointment as surgeons mate on board one of the ships of the Carthagena expedition in 1741. On this voyage he met Anne Lascelles, a supposed heiress of Jamaica, whom he married. He endeavoured to practice both in London and in Bath, but without success. Before entering the navy he had submitted a bad tragedy, The Regicide, to Garrick; and turning later with better success to novel-writing, he produced in 1748 Roderick Random, which was very popular, and fixed him for the rest of his life as an author. Peregrine Pickle followed in 1751; Ferdinand, Count Fathom, in 1753. He afterwards translated or fathered a translation of Don Quixote, and became editor of The Critical Reviewa post which brought him into no little trouble, including in one case imprisonment and fine. His History of Englandvery rapidly written and not of great value, but extremely profitable to the authorappeared in 1758, Sir Launcelot Greaves in 1761. Then Smollett, whose health was extremely bad, journeyed to France and Italy, publishing in 1766, after his return, a very ill-tempered book of Travels. Three years later followed the Adventures of an Atom. Its author once more went abroad, and died at Leghorn on October 21, 1771, very shortly after the publication of his last and best book, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.]
IT is probable that in that vague reflection of critical opinion in general judgment which rarely goes very far wrong, Smollett takes on the whole the lowest place among the four great novelists of the mid-eighteenth century in England. Scott indeed tried to make him out Fieldings equal; but this was the almost solitary example of national prejudice warping that sane and shrewd intellect. Smollett is undoubtedly far more amusing to the general reader than Richardson; and it may be contended that his altogether astonishing foulness (which exceeds as a pervading trait if it does not equal in individual instances the much discussed failing of Swift) is not to a nice morality more offensive than the sniggering indelicacy of Sterne. With very young readers who are not critical from the literary side, Smollett is probably the most popular of the four.
But the reader who begins to pull him to pieces, to ask what is his idiosyncrasy, what his special contribution to letters, cannot very long remain in doubt as to the fact and the reason of his inferiority. Thackeray, with the native shrewdness of a critic and the acquired tact of a brother of the mystery, hit one side of this inferiority in the remark, He did not invent much, I fancy. In truth, observation, and observation of the outside rather than of the inside, is Smolletts characteristic. He had seen much; he had felt much; he had desired, and enjoyed, and failed in, and been indignant at much. And he related these experiences, or something like them, with a fresh and vigorous touch, giving them for the most part true life and nature, but not infusing any great individuality into them either from the artistic or the ethical side. He was a good writer but not one of distinction. He never takes the very slightest trouble about construction: his books are mere lengths cut off from a conceivably infinite bead-roll of adventures. Vivid as are his sketches they all run (except perhaps in his last and best book) to types. His humour though exuberant is for the most part what has been called the humour of the stick. He has no commanding or profound knowledge of human nature below the surface. And this brings us to the one idiosyncrasy or characteristic which Smollett did very unfortunately succeed in impressing on his books, and not least on those of them which have survivedthe novels. He seems himself to have had many good personal qualities, to have been a fervent lover, a staunch friend, a steadfast politician, a generous acquaintance and patron, a man of dauntless courage and (except in the ugly passage of his taking money to foist in the Memoirs of a Lady of Quality into Peregrine Pickle) of incorruptible integrity. But these good things were dashed and brewed not merely with the above-mentioned coarseness but with a savage ferocity of temper, which not only vented itself on the unlucky authors whom he criticised and the unlucky patrons who did not patronise him enough, but took form in his two first heroes, Roderick and Peregrinetwo of the most unmitigated young ruffians who ever escaped condign punishment. The good-natured and often quite valid plea of dramatic presentment will not avail here; for Roderick and Peregrine are not merely presented without the slightest effort on the part of their introducer to apologise for them, but the keynote of both characters corresponds only too exactly to that of the character of the Critical journalist, the traveller in France and Italy, and the chronicler of the Atom. When to this drawback is added the others above referred to, especially the almost total absence of construction, and of what may be called projection of character, in the earlier novels, it becomes tolerably easy to understand why Smollett has not on the whole been a favourite with critics, and why he pleases far more at a first, especially an early and unfastidious reading, than at nicer reperusal in later years.
Yet no estimate which refused him a very high place among those who do not attain the highest would be either critical or generous. The profusion of scene and incident which led Scott into the undoubted blunder of ascribing to Smollett more brilliancy of genius and more inexhaustible fertility of invention than to Fielding, as well as into the particular oddity of preferring Ferdinand, Count Fathom, to Jonathan Wild, is real and wonderful, while the naval personages in both Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, the scenes on shipboard in the former novel, the Roman dinner in the latter, the forest adventures of Fathom, and even not a few passages in that rather unjustly depreciated book Sir Launcelot Greaves, remain as masterpieces of their kind. If Smollett adds nothing to the pillar-to-post manner of the Spaniards and of Le Sage he is a thorough adept in it, and succeeds in holding the readers interest perhaps better than any of them. And if he never communicates to any character, much less to any story, the subtle truth and nature of which Fielding was a master, it can hardly be said that any of his characters are distinctly untrue or lacking in life. Nor did his plans and schemes lack a general verisimilitude save only in the singular crotchet which made him attribute to his Sir Launcelot the actual costume and procedure as well as the crazes and virtues of Don Quixote.
There can, however, be very little doubt that if he had left nothing but Humphry Clinker, though the body and variety of delight which he would have given to readers would have been much less, his literary standing would have been higher. In this charming book his defects appear softened and his merits heightened in a way difficult to parallel elsewhere in any single work of a voluminous and strongly-gifted author. Hardly any novel better carries off the too frequently troublesome and teasing scheme of epistolary narrative; the false spelling of Winifred Jenkins if it is only farce, and rather facile farce, is excellently funny, and has never been so well done by any one except by Thackeray who copied it; the stream of loosely connected adventure never flags or becomes monotonous. while here, and perhaps here only, Smollett has really created characters as well as humours. Bramble and Lismahago by common consent need not fear to hold their heads up (a process to which both were well inclined) in any fictitious company; and the others are not far behind them. Such an increase of mellowness and art with such a maintenance of vigour and resource are indeed rare in the work of a hack of letters who has been writing at full speed and on almost every subject for nearly five and twenty years
It has not seemed necessary in the brief space available here to draw on anything except the novels. The History, still venal at every stall and obvious on many shelves, is but hack-work, and not eminent hack-work of its kind, though it is very fairly written. Indeed Smollett is, as regards the mechanical minutenesses of composition, a very careful and correct craftsman. The criticism has the same drawback, not to mention that Smollett was one of those who mistake criticism for fault-finding, and who confuse the scholarly with the vulgar meaning of censure. The Travels though not contemptible are too ill-tempered, too ambitious, and too much stuffed with guide-book detail; and I am sure that no one who has twice read the ferocious nastiness of the Adventures of an Atom would feel tempted to cull from them. Nature had made Smollett a novelist; only necessity, assisted by ill-health and ill-temper, made him a miscellaneous writer. So let us take the advice of a creation of his greatest follower and make the best of him, not the worst.