Page:EB1911 - Volume 25.djvu/295

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279
SMOLLETT


his adventures on the English highway and in the cockpit of a king's ship. Virtually he revealed the seaman to the reading world—divined his character, sketched his outlines, formulated his lingo, discovered his possibilities to such purpose that, as Scott says, every one who has written about the navy since seems to have copied more from Smollett than from nature. Pungent observation allied to a vigorous prose, emancipated to a rare degree from provincialism or archaism, were perhaps the first of Smollett's qualifications as a novelist. Such coherence as his novels have owes more to accidental accumulation than to constructive design. The wealth of amusing incident, the rapidly moving crowd of amusing and eccentric figures, atones for a good many defects. Smollett's peculiar coarseness and ferocity were gradually eliminated from English fiction, but from Tom Jones right down to Great Expectations his work was regularly ransacked for humour. There was no author's name on the title of the two small volumes of Random; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu thought a work so delightful could only be by Fielding, in whose name it was actually translated into French. But Smollett made no secret of the authorship, went to Paris to ratify his fame, and published his derelict play as " by the author of Roderick Random," hoping thus, as he said, to intimidate his discarded patrons. The incident well reveals the novelist's " systema nervosum maxime irritabile," of which his medical advisers spoke.

Smollett now became a central figure among the group of able doctors who hailed from north of the Tweed, such as Clephane, Macaulay, Hunter, Armstrong, Pitcairne and William Smellie, in the revision of whose system of Midwifery the novelist bore a part. He must have still designed to combine medicine with authorship, for in June 1750 he obtained the degree of M.D. from Marischal College, Aberdeen. But in the autumn of this year he already had another novel in prospect, and went over to Paris with a new acquaintance, Dr Moore (author of Zeluco), who soon became his intimate and was destined to become his biographer. The influence of this visit is marked in Smollett's second novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (4 vols., 1751). Like its predecessor, a loosely constructed string of episodes and adventures in which a still greater scope is afforded to the author for eccentric display, Pickle proved from the first a resounding success, both in England and France. The chief centres of attraction are the grotesque misanthrope of Bath, Cadwallader Crabtree, the burlesque scenes afforded by the physician (a caricature of Akenside) and Pallet the painter in Paris, and the so-called " garrison," with its inhabitants, Hatchway and Pipes and the inimitable Trunnion—whose death-scene fully exhibits Smollett's powers for the first time—the prototype of so many character portraits from Uncle Toby to Cap'n Cuttle. Trunnion's grotesque ride to church reappears in John Gilpin; the misanthrope, practising satire under cover of feigned deafness, reappears in the Mungo Malagrowther of Scott, who frankly admits further debts to Smollett in the preface to the Legend of Montrose. The " garrison " unquestionably suggested the " castle " of Tristram Shandy and the " fortress " of Mr Wemmick. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that the tideway of subsequent fiction is strewn on every hand with the disjecta membra of Smollett's happy phrases and farcical inventions. Pickle himself is if possible a bigger ruffian than Random; in this respect at any rate Smollett clings to the cynical tradition of the old romances of roguery. The novel is marred to an even greater extent by interpolations and personal attacks than its predecessor; the autobiographical element is slighter and the literary quality in some respects inferior.

Smollett's third novel, Ferdinand Count Fathom, appeared in 1753, by which time the author, after a final trial at Bath, had definitively abandoned medicine for letters, and had settled down at Monmouth House, Chelsea, a married man, a father and a professional writer, not for patronage, but for the trade. In this capacity he was among the first to achieve a difficult inde- pendence. In Fathom Smollett endeavours unquestionably to organize a novel upon a plan elevated somewhat above mere agglomeration. It looks as if he had deliberately set himself to show that he too, as well as the author of Tom Jones, could make a plot. The squalor and irony of the piece repel the reader, but it is Smollett's greatest feat of invention, and the descriptive power, especially in the first half, reveals the latent imaginative power of the author. Few novels have been more systematically plundered, for Fathom was the studio model of all the mystery and terror school of fiction commencing with Radcliffe and Lewis. With Fathom the first jet of Smollett's original invention was spent. The novel was not particularly remunerative, and his expenses seem always to have been profuse. He was a great frequenter of taverns, entertained largely, and every Sunday threw open his house and garden to unfortunate " brothers of the quill," whom he regaled with beef, pudding and potatoes, port, punch and " Calvert's entire butt-beer."

To sustain these expenses Smollett consented to become a literary impresario upon a hitherto unparalleled scale. His activity during the next six years was many-sided, chiefly in the direction of organizing big and saleable " standard " works for the booksellers and contracting them out to his " myrmidons." Thus we see him almost simultaneously editing Don Quixote, making a triumphant visit to Scotland, inaugurating a new literary periodical the Critical (Feb. 1756) by way of corrective to Griffith's Monthly Review, organizing a standard library History of England in quarto and octavo, with continuations, and a seven-volume compendium of Voyages, for which he wrote a special narrative of the siege of Cartagena, supplementary to his account in Roderick Random. In 1758 he projected and partly wrote a vast Universal History, and in January 1760 he brought out the first number of a new sixpenny magazine, the British, to which he contributed a serial work of fiction, the mediocre Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. By these Herculean labours as a compiler Smollett must have amassed a considerable sum, to which the £200 received from the now forgiven " Marmozet " (Garrick) for the sixth performance of the patriotic extravaganza, The Reprisal, or the Tars of Old England, must have come as a welcome addition. The Critical Review was already responsible for plenty of thorns in the editorial cushion when in 1762 Smollett undertook the additional task of editing the Briton. He had already been ridiculed, insulted, fined and imprisoned in the Marshalsea (this last for an attack on Admiral Sir Charles Knowles). He was now to support the North British favourite of George III. in the press against all comers, not we may reasonably suppose without substantia) reward. Yet after incurring all this unpopularity, at a time when the London mob was more inflamed against Scotsmen than it has ever been before or since, and having aroused the animosity of such former allies as Wilkes and his friend Churchill, Smollett was to find himself unceremoniously thrown over by his chief, Lord Bute, on the ground that his paper did more to invite attack than to repel it.

The Briton expired or was killed by the North Briton in February 1763, and for the moment Smollett allowed himself to be beckoned back by the booksellers to such tasks as a universal gazetteer and a translation of Voltaire in 38 volumes, and we hear of him prescribing work to his minions or receiving their homage and demanding their copy as of old. In April, however, his only daughter died at the age of fifteen, and, already over-wrought and almost broken down from sedentary strain, the tension proved too much and Smollett was never the same man again. His wife earnestly begged him to " convey her from a country where every object seemed only to nourish grief," and he followed her advice. The result was two years' sojourn abroad, mainly upon the Riviera, which Smollett, who may be termed the literary discoverer of Nice, turned to such excellent purpose in his Travels (2 vols., 1766), remarkable alike for their acidity and for their insight. On his arrival from Italy, where he had provided material for Sterne's portrait of the distressful " Smelfungus," Smollett seemed at first decidedly better and appeared to be getting over some of the symptoms of his pulmonic complaint. But his health was thoroughly undermined by rheumatism, and the pain arising from a neglected ulcer which had developed into a chronic sore helped to sap his strength. As soon, therefore,